Close your eyes. Try to remember something significant from your day, like the colours of the food you ate, or the person who sat next to you on the bus.
Are you able to see the images vividly in your mind like you’re reading a book, or do you just see a black screen? If you belong to the first category, it’s quite possible you have hyperphantasia, which is where a person has vivid mental imagery.
However, if you just see blackness when you close your eyes and can’t conjure up mental images, it means you could possibly have aphantasia. That is a condition where mental visual imagery is not present.
Hyperphantasia: Seeing things in high definition
It’s like watching a film in high-definition.
Hyperphantasia is a term derived from ancient Greek, with ‘hyper’ meaning ‘over, above, and beyond’, and ‘phantasia’ meaning ‘perception and image’, explains Uwe Spelmeyer, a Dubai-based neurologist from the German Neuroscience Center. It entails vivid imagery, ranging from heightened and almost lifelike memories with rich and intricate sensory, visual and olfactory experiences, as he says. It’s not just remembering objects in immaculate detail, people with hyperphantasia can reproduce sounds, feelings or even tastes. These kind of people can recreate a city in their minds, and take a mental walk through it.
Hyperphantasia is a term derived from ancient Greek, with ‘hyper’ meaning ‘over, above, and beyond’, and ‘phantasia’ meaning ‘perception and image’. It entails vivid imagery, ranging from heightened and almost lifelike memories with rich and intricate sensory, visual and olfactory experiences...
“People who have hyperphantasia, are said to be able to generate images in their mind that are clear and have high quality,” says Madiha Khan, a Dubai-based neuropsychiatrist. It’s a fascinating phenomenon she says, as it makes people’s lives exciting and interesting, as it plays a strong role in memory and creativity.
“With such an overactive imagination, you have many creative opportunities. They aren’t limited in how they think, and they can take their imagination anywhere,” says Khan. Owing to this power of vivid mental imagery, they can have exemplary powers of writing, art, drawing and photography, in short, they excel in creative pursuits. It also propels them to hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well. These skills of vivid imagery could also unearth new revelations about their surrounding environment that others might not notice. “Neurological research suggests stronger-than-average connections between frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital brain areas in those with hyperphantasia,” adds Spelmeyer.
The downside of hyperphantasia
However, such powerful imagery can be overwhelming, too. When all the imagery seems so clear and amplified, it can also have several negative effects on a person’s ability to focus. “It may also be associated with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions,” says Spelmeyer.
Such an active imagination can feel overwhelming and exhausting. There’s also an association with increased vivid imagery and more severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders...
“Such an active imagination can feel overwhelming and exhausting,” says Khan. One can become distracted as their emotions feel so amplified. There is a correlation between mood disorders and hyperphantasia, she says. “There’s also an association with increased vivid imagery and more severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders,” explains Khan. There is a predisposition to having strong flashbacks in conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hallucinations.
And so, while hyperphantasia might be fascinating and bring about riveting opportunities in a person’s life, there are also several things to be aware of, says Khan. “It can make things harder for people. They experience life in a far more complicated away than others,” she says.
Nevertheless there is still ongoing research done on hyperphantasia, as a the current explanations and research relies on self-reporting from people, who are said to possess “photo-realistic” and hyper imagination.
Mind blindness or aphantasia
While hyperphantasia feels like something out of a wizard’s spell book, aphantasia is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Here, the mind's eye is blank.
However, this deficit in visualisation or ‘mind-blindness’ as it’s called, is not a handicap in any way, as research has proved. As neurologist and researcher Paolo Bartolomeo from the Paris Brain Institute had told Neuroscience News earlier, “We tend to think that access to visual perception, conceptualisation, and memory is the same for everyone. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Aphantasiacs might not be able to mentally picture their loved ones, but they can still describe their physical characteristics, one way or the other. This visual information has been stored, one way or another, he had said.
‘It’s just a different way of thinking’
It’s a way of thinking and usually not a medical condition, mental health or disorder, emphasises Khan. “Most people are not even aware that it is a condition as it is the only way that they’ve known how to think. Only later, have they realised that other people can see visual images,” she says. However, she adds that rather than slotting it as a problem or disability, it could just be seen as a different method of processing information and memories. There are noted advantages for people with aphantasia, as they might not be disturbed by troubling flashbacks or painful recollections.
People with aphantasia can have difficulty with facial recognition, childhood memories, in short, memories that are associated with visual memory, she says. They can remember things that they did or experienced, but they cannot visualise it. For example, they will remember the day they got married, the guests who attended and the weather that day, but they won’t be able to see the images in their memory. Whether this limits memory or not, more research needs to be done to confirm this. There are two types of aphantasia, says Khan, including congenital and acquired. “Congenital is when someone is born with it. Acquired means that you weren’t born with it, but acquired it later in life. This acquisition sometimes could be due to mental health issues or an accident,” she says. Hence, aphantasia normally does not require treatment, unless it is acquired after an injury or stroke.
What research says
Bartolomeo conducted research at the Paris Brain Institute this year, where he attempted to assess the link between perception and mental imagery through the different visual qualities participants could describe, such as shape, colour, position in space, presence of words or faces. The participants had to look at a blank screen. Simultaneously, an off-screen voice announced a visual quality, followed by two words corresponding to concepts they had to imagine as clearly as possible, for example, a beaver or fox.
The results showed that aphantasics could quickly associate concepts with their visual representation. However, they were slower than typical imagers when it came to processing visual information, in particular shapes and colours.
Nevertheless, the research stated that they perceived elements of reality accurately, and there were no problems in their language and memory processing. However, while they have access to information about shapes, colours and spatial relationships, this does not translate into a visual mental image in conscious experience, according to the research. The research added that this defect could compensated by other cognitive strategies, which allow them to remember everything that they had seen.
Another 2020 study published in the American journal Scientific Reports found that people with aphantasia also report decreased imagery in other sensory domains, including less vivid autobiographical memories. They also have less frequent and less visual dreams. However, the study also discovered that these deficits did not impact spatial ability.
The limited research on aphantasia, as it’s still in the nascent stage, also suggests that it is a rather uncommon phenomenon, and exactly how many people have it, is still yet to be determined. It is difficult to ascertain who has it, as people with aphantasia don’t really think that they think differently from other people. While currently scientists have only studied the visual aspects of aphantasia, people have claimed that it can be multisensory, as in, they cannot remember tastes, or feelings of a hug.