Imagine your breakfast table, the one you sat down to this morning. Now consider carefully the mental picture that comes to the mind’s eye.
Is the image of the table dim or fairly clear? Can the food on the plate be clearly defined? Is the brightness and colour comparable to that of the real scene?
Or did you just assume the mind’s eye was a metaphor?
As it turns out, some of us can readily conjure images inside our head, while others only ‘see’ dim or vague images in their mind’s eye, and about 2-3% of the population are unable to visualize 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 visualize, some even reported above-average abilities for visualization:
To Galton’s surprise, others described a strikingly different capacity:
As the Breakfast Study demonstrates, there exists large individual differences in visual imagery vividness, a fact that has surprised those who’ve encountered it for more than a century.
This phenomenon, however, remained largely unexamined until British scientist, David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz (VVIQ) in 1973 during his research on consciousness.
The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire
VVIQ is a proven psychometric instrument for measuring individual differences in visual imagery. The questionnaire provides specific scenarios and asks you to rank how vividly you can visualize them in your mind on a scale of one to five. It presents four groups of four questions. Each group asks you to picture a specific scenario like the face of a loved one, the image of your favourite shop or a beautiful landscape, and to rate the vividness of details within each scene.
Since VVIQ was first published, it has been referenced in over 1200 studies 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 proven to be an accurate measure of the intensity with which individuals can visualize settings, people and objects in the mind’s eye.
But what if you can’t visualize at all?
VVIQ and Aphantasia
When it comes to visualizing things in the mind’s eye for the longest time, people were either classified as ‘good visual imagers’ or ‘poor visual imagers.’
That all changed in 2015 when cognitive scientist Adam Zeman received a patient, known as patient MX, who reported losing his ability to visualize after undergoing heart surgery and suffering a minor stroke. Zeman named the phenomenon aphantasia, and a new classification emerged for ‘non-visualizers.’
Visual imagery tests like VVIQ are now often used as an initial evaluation to identify aphantasia, a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery or other sensory experiences in the mind.
A low score on VVIQ or a high score on the VVIQ2 (since the scale is flipped) may be characteristic of either ‘poor visual imager’, and in some extreme cases, ‘non-visualizer’, or aphantasic.
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