‘Like a film in my mind’: hyperphantasia and the quest to understand vivid imaginations

 <span>Illustration: Observer Design/Getty Images</span>
Illustration: Observer Design/Getty Images

William Blake’s imagination is thought to have burned with such intensity that, when creating his great artworks, he needed little reference to the physical world. While drawing historical or mythical figures, for instance, he would wait until the “spirit” appeared in his mind’s eye. The visions were apparently so detailed that Blake could sketch as if a real person were sitting before him.

Like human models, these imaginary figures could sometimes act temperamentally. According to Blake biographer John Higgs, the artist could become frustrated when the object of his inner gaze casually changed posture or left the scene entirely. “I can’t go on, it is gone! I must wait till it returns,” Blake would declaim.

Such intense and detailed imaginations are thought to reflect a condition known as hyperphantasia, and it may not be nearly as rare as we once thought, with as many as one in 30 people reporting incredibly vivid mind’s eyes.

Just consider the experiences of Mats Holm, a Norwegian hyperphantasic living in Stockholm. “I can essentially zoom out and see the entire city around me, and I can fly around inside that map of it,” Holm tells me. “I have a second space in my mind where I can create any location.”

This once neglected form of neurodiversity is now a topic of scientific study, which could lead to insights into everything from creative inspiration to mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.

Theirs is a very different experience from most. It’s extremely immersive, and their imagery affects them emotionally

Reshanne Reeder, Liverpool University

Francis Galton – better known as a racist and the “father of eugenics” – was the first scientist to recognise the enormous variation in people’s visual imagery. In 1880, he asked participants to rate the “illumination, definition and colouring of your breakfast table as you sat down to it this morning”. Some people reported being completely unable to produce an image in the mind’s eye, while others – including his cousin Charles Darwin – could picture it extraordinarily clearly.

“Some objects quite defined. A slice of cold beef, some grapes and a pear, the state of my plate when I had finished and a few other objects are as distinct as if I had photos before me,” Darwin wrote to Galton.

Unfortunately, Galton’s findings failed to fire the imagination of scientists at the time. “The psychology of visual imagery was a very big topic, but the existence of people at the extremes somehow disappeared from view,” says Prof Adam Zeman at Exeter University. It would take more than a century for psychologists such as Zeman to take up where Galton left off.

Even then, much of the initial research focused on the poorer end of the spectrum – people with aphantasia, who claim to lack a mind’s eye. Within the past five years, however, interest in hyperphantasia has started to grow, and it is now a thriving area of research.

To identify where people lie on the spectrum, researchers often use the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), which asks participants to visualise a series of 16 scenarios, such as “the sun rising above the horizon into a hazy sky” and then report on the level of detail that they “see” in a five-point scale. You can try it for yourself. When you picture that sunrise, which of the following statements best describes your experience?

1. No image at all, you only “know” that you are thinking of the object
2. Vague and dim
3. Moderately clear and lively
4. Clear and reasonably vivid
5. Perfectly clear and as vivid as real seeing

The final score is the sum of all 16 responses, with a maximum of 80 points. In large surveys, most people score around 55 to 60. Around 1% score just 16; they are considered to have extreme aphantasia; 3%, meanwhile, achieve a perfect score of 80, which is extreme hyperphantasia.

The VVIQ is a relatively blunt tool, but Reshanne Reeder, a lecturer at Liverpool University, has now conducted a series of in-depth interviews with hyperphantasic people – research that helps to delineate the peculiarities of their inner lives. “As you talk to them, you start to realise that this is a very different experience from most people’s experience,” she says. “It’s extremely immersive, and their imagery affects them very emotionally.”

Some people with hyperphantasia are able to merge their mental imagery with their view of the world around them. Reeder asked participants to hold out a hand and then imagine an apple sitting in their palm. Most people feel that the scene in front of their eyes is distinct from that inside their heads. “But a lot of people with hyperphantasia – about 75% – can actually see an apple in the hand in front of them. And they can even feel its weight.”

As you might expect, these visual abilities can influence career choices. “Aphantasia does seem to bias people to work in sciences, maths or IT – those Stem professions – whereas hyperphantasia nudges people to work in what are traditionally called creative professions,” says Zeman. “Though there are many exceptions.”

Reeder recalls one participant who uses her hyperphantasia to fuel her writing. “She said she doesn’t even have to think about the stories that she’s writing, because she can see the characters right in front of her, acting out their parts,” Reeder recalls.

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Hyperphantasia can also affect people’s consumption of art. Novels, for example, become a cinematic experience. “For me, the story is like a film in my mind,” says Geraldine van Heemstra, an artist based in London. Holm offers the same description. “When I listen to an audiobook, I’m running a movie in my head.”

This is not always an advantage. Laura Lewis Alvarado, a union worker who is also based in London, describes her disappointment at watching The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. “I already had such a clear idea of how every character looked and acted,” she says. The director’s choices simply couldn’t match up.

Zeman’s research suggests that people with hyperphantasia enjoy especially rich autobiographical memories. This certainly rings true for Van Heemstra. When thinking of trips in the countryside, she can recall every step of her walks, including seemingly inconsequential details. “I can picture even little things, like if I dropped something and picked it up,” she says.

Exactly where these abilities come from is unknown. Aphantasia is known to run in families, so it’s reasonable to expect that hyperphantasia may be the same. Like many other psychological traits, our imaginative abilities probably come from a combination of nature and nurture, which will together shape the brain’s development from infancy to old age.

Zeman has taken the first steps to investigate the neurological differences that underpin the striking variation in the mind’s eye. Using fMRI to scan the brains of people at rest, he has found that hyperphantasic people have greater connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in “higher-order” thinking such as planning and decision-making, and the areas responsible for visual processing, which lie towards the back of the skull.

“My guess is that if you say ‘apple’ to somebody with hyperphantasia, the linguistic representation of ‘apple’ in the brain immediately transmits the information to the visual system,” says Zeman. “For someone with aphantasia, the word and concept of ‘apple’ operate independently of the visual system, because those connections are weaker.”

Further research will no doubt reveal the nuances in this process. Detailed questionnaires by Prof Liana Palermo at the Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, Italy, for instance, suggest that there may be two subtypes of vivid imagery. The first is object hyperphantasia, which, as the name suggests, involves the capacity to imagine items in extreme detail.

The second is spatial hyperphantasia, which involves an enhanced ability to picture the orientation of different items relative to one another and perform mental rotations. “They also report a heightened sense of direction,” Palermo says. This would seem to match Holm’s descriptions of the detailed 3D cityscape that allows him to find a route between any two locations.

Many mysteries remain. A large survey by Prof Ilona Kovács, at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, suggests that hyperphantasia is far more common among children, and fades across adolescence and into adulthood. She suspects that this may reflect differences in how the brain encodes information. In infancy, our brains store more sensory details, which are slowly replaced by more abstract ideas. “The child’s memories offer a more concrete appreciation of the world,” she says – and it seems that only a small percentage of people can maintain this into later life.

Reeder, meanwhile, is interested in studying the consequences of hyperphantasia for mental health. It is easy to imagine how vivid memories of upsetting events could worsen the symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, for example.

Reeder is also investigating the ways that people’s mental imagery may influence the symptoms of illnesses such as schizophrenia. She suspects that, if someone is already at risk of psychosis, then hyperphantasia may lead them to experience vivid hallucinations, while aphantasia may increase the risk of non-sensory delusions, such as fears of persecution.

For the moment, this remains an intriguing hypothesis, but Reeder has shown that people with more vivid imagery in daily life are also more susceptible to seeing harmless “pseudo-hallucinations” in the laboratory. She asked participants to sit in a darkened room while watching a flickering light on a screen – a set-up that gently stimulates the brain’s visual system. After a few minutes, many people will start to see simple illusions, such as geometric shapes. People with higher VVIQ scores, however, tended to see far more complex scenes – such as a stormy beach, a medieval castle or a volcano. “It was quite psychedelic,” says Lewis Alvarado, who took part in the experiment.

Reeder emphasises that the participants in her study were perfectly able to recognise that these pseudo-hallucinations were figments of their imagination. “If someone never has reality discrimination issues, then I don’t think they’re going to be more prone to psychosis.” For those with mental illness, however, a better understanding of the mind’s eye could offer insights into the patient’s experiences.

For now, Reeder hopes that greater awareness of hyperphantasia will help people to make the most of their abilities. “It’s a skill that could be tapped,” she suggests.

Many of the people I have interviewed are certainly grateful to know a little more about the mind’s eye and the way theirs differs from the average person’s.

Lewis Alvarado, for instance, only came across the term when she was listening to a podcast about William Blake, which eventually led her to contact Reeder. “For the first month or so I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says. “It’s not something I talk about loads, but I think it has helped me to realise why I experience things more intensely, which is comforting.”

  • David Robson is the author of The Laws of Connection: 13 Social Strategies That Will Transform Your Life, published by Canongate on 6 June (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply