Evaluating the mind’s eye

Can we reliably evaluate the vividness of our mind's eye?

Think of your breakfast table, the one you sat down to this morning. Consider carefully the mental picture that comes to your mind’s eye.

Is the image of the table dim or reasonably vivid? Lifelike? Or did you think we were speaking metaphorically?

Some of us can readily conjure images in our minds, but for ~3-5% of the world population, there are no images at all.

A brief history of visual imagery

Francis Galton was a British psychologist, known for his pioneering studies of human intelligence. In 1880, Galton conducted the ‘Breakfast Study,’ where he asked participants to imagine their breakfast table and rate the illumination, definition, and colouring of the table and the objects on it.

Most individuals in the study reported some capacity to visualize, though their experiences varied widely. In extreme cases, some reported above-average abilities for visualization:

Thinking of the breakfast table this morning, all the objects in my mental picture are as bright as the actual scene. – Hyperphantsic Participant

To Galton’s surprise, some described a strikingly different capacity:

It is only by a figure of speech that I can describe my recollection of a scene as a ‘mental image’ which I can ‘see’ with my ‘mind’s eye’. – Aphantasic Participant

As the Breakfast Study demonstrates, there exists remarkable – often unsuspected – invisible differences in our imaginative experience. A fact that has surprised those who’ve encountered it for more than a century.

This phenomenon remained largely unexamined until British scientist, David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz (VVIQ) in 1973 during their research on human consciousness.

The vividness of visual imagery quiz (VVIQ)

VVIQ is a proven psychometric for measuring individual differences in visual imagination. The quiz consists of four scenarios and asks you to rank how vividly you can visualize them in your mind on a scale of one to five. There are four groups of four questions. Each group asks you to picture a particular scenario like the face of a loved one, your favourite shop, or a beautiful landscape and asks you to rate the vividness of the details within each scene.

Since VVIQ was first published, it has been referenced in over 1200 studies on mental imagery and been given considerable attention in the domains of psychology, philosophy, and, more recently, cognitive neuroscience.

In 1995, psychologist Stuart Mckelvie published a second version, VVIQ2. Both instruments are considered reliable measures for identifying individual differences in visual imagery and are proven to be accurate measures of the intensity with which individuals can visualize settings, people, and objects in the mind.

But what if you can’t visualize at all?

VVIQ and aphantasia

When it came to “visualizing things in the mind’s eye,” people were either classified as ‘good visual imagers’ or ‘poor visual imagers.’

That changed in 2015 when professor Adam Zeman received a patient, known as patient MX, who reported losing his ability to visualize after undergoing surgery and suffering a minor stroke. Zeman later named the phenomenon aphantasia, and a new classification emerged: ‘non-visualizers.’

Visual imagery tests like VVIQ are now often used as an initial assessment to identify aphantasia. A low score on VVIQ or a high score on the VVIQ2 (since the scale’s flipped) may be characteristic of ‘poor visual imager,’ and in extreme cases, ‘non-visualizer.’

Reliability of VVIQ results

It’s no secret that our conscious thoughts are private and that evaluating the vividness of our own internally generated experiences – such as those assessed in VVIQ – can understandably raise some questions about the reliability and accuracy of results.

On the one hand, it can be challenging to determine the precise details of the mental images in our mind’s eye and even tell sometimes whether we have formed a mental picture at all.

Some people will find it hard to classify the vividness of their mental pictures when there’s nothing to use as a reference point. How can we possibly know to what extent our mental pictures are accurate, detailed, vivid if we cannot compare it to someone else’s experience?

VVIQ asks you to compare the image in your head with how you know it looks in real life to reconcile this somewhat. Is the scenario you’re visualizing equally vivid to its real-world counterpart, a little less vivid, not vivid at all, or completely non-existent?

Still, comparing the real world with the subjective one inside our head, how can this be reliable? The problem comes down to: how well do you know your own thoughts?

Metacognition and the mind’s eye 

As it turns out, you may know your thoughts a whole lot better than you think you do!

Research has provided a growing body of behavioural and neuroimaging evidence that would suggest we have a pretty good understanding of our thoughts when it comes to mental imagery.

A study led by cognitive scientist and mental imagery expert, Dr. Joel Pearson found that subjective reporting of imagery vividness was highly predictive of the efficacy of the individual’s imagery experience when compared with results from more objective measures.

Participants in the study completed VVIQ2 and subsequently tested using a behavioural experiment called binocular-rivalry, known to provide a more objective evaluation of mental imagery.

Their results indicated that participants not only had good metacognitive knowledge of their overall imagery ability but that they could also evaluate the vividness of individual episodes of imagery, such as those present in VVIQ2 (Pearson et al., 2019).

So despite the highly subjective nature of visual imagery tests like VVIQ, these findings conclude that we can – to a reasonable extent – rely on our self-reported evaluation of the vividness of our mind’s eye, or lack thereof.

Accounting for biased brains

It’s worth noting that any self-reporting test will always be subject to human bias. We all have biased brains.

One bias that could impact the results of your VVIQ test is that you might be more likely to subconsciously (or consciously) choose answers that will give you the result that you want.

For example, if you already believe you have aphantasia after taking the apple test on social media, you might be more inclined to answer 0 for every scenario on VVIQ. What is more, the results could be impacted by how you are feeling at the time you completed the test.

To reduce bias in self-reporting, make sure to approach the process in a clear-headed, rational way. Eliminate any distractions that might prevent you from thinking clearly. If you think your emotion might be getting in the way, try re-taking the test at a later time and compare results.

You may find after taking the quiz that you are more biased about your visualization skills based on the results you get. For these reasons and more, VVIQ is only recommended as an initial evaluation of aphantasia. It is not a conclusive diagnosis of whether you have aphantasia or not.

Spectrum of human imagination

Finally, it’s important to note that VVIQ only measures the vividness of your visual imagination. There are other sensory experiences to consider when evaluating the vividness of your imagination, more broadly.

Can you smell or taste your favourite dish in your mind? These sensory experiences are called olfactory and gustatory imagery. And yes, some people can actually ‘smell’ warm apple pie in their mind. How wild is that!

The important thing to understand is: We all experience imagination differently.

Imagination is a spectrum that ranges from aphantasia (absence) to hyperphantasia (abundance) of sensory experience. Our dedicated team at the Aphantasia Network is currently collaborating with world-leading scientists and experts in mental imagery to develop new digital tools for quantifying human imagination. We’re calling it the Imagination Spectrum.

Want to be among the first to test the Imagination Spectrum when it launches? Sign up for our newsletter.

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