There’s what we see with our eyes, and then there’s what we see with our mind’s eye—the visual imagery of daydreaming, dreaming, thinking about the future, or remembering the past. There’s a wide spectrum of how vivid visual imagery can be. At one end of the spectrum are people with aphantasia, who lack the ability to create visual imagery, and at the other end are people with hyperphantasia, who have visual imagery that’s as vivid as real seeing. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
A team of researchers wanted to dig deeper into these differences, so they did fMRI scans on 24 people with aphantasia, 25 with hyperphantasia, and 20 with mid-range imagery. They also conducted neuropsychological, cognitive, and personality tests on the participants.
The fMRI scans revealed that, compared to the aphantasic group, people with hyperphantasia had stronger connections between the parts of the brain responsible for vision, which becomes active in visual imagery, and the prefrontal cortices, which are broadly linked to attention and decision-making. People with hyperphantasia also produced richer descriptions of memories and imagined scenarios, and reported more extraversion and openness to experiences on personality tests, compared to participants in the other two groups.The research suggests that imagery vividness may be linked to differences in cognitive and personality profiles. It also implies that a weak connection between the parts of the brain responsible for vision and the parts involved in allocating attention and decision-making may be a possible neural mechanism underpinning aphantasia. But scientists note that this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage—just a different way of experiencing the world. We don’t all need to imagine everything in Technicolor.