"Brain Connections Mean Some People Lack Visual Imagery"

Summary: People with hyperphantasia, the ability to visualize vividly, have stronger connections between their visual brain network and decision-making networks. By contrast, those with aphantasia, an inability to visualize, have weaker connections between the brain regions.


Although Galton recognized in the 1880s that some individuals lack visual imagery, this phenomenon was mostly neglected over the following century. We recently coined the terms “aphantasia” and “hyperphantasia” to describe visual imagery vividness extremes, unlocking a sustained surge of public interest. Aphantasia is associated with subjective impairment of face recognition and autobiographical memory. Here we report the first systematic, wide-ranging neuropsychological and brain imaging study of people with aphantasia (n = 24), hyperphantasia (n = 25), and midrange imagery vividness (n = 20). Despite equivalent performance on standard memory tests, marked group differences were measured in autobiographical memory and imagination, participants with hyperphantasia outperforming controls who outperformed participants with aphantasia. Face recognition difficulties and autistic spectrum traits were reported more commonly in aphantasia. The Revised NEO Personality Inventory highlighted reduced extraversion in the aphantasia group and increased openness in the hyperphantasia group. Resting state fMRI revealed stronger connectivity between prefrontal cortices and the visual network among hyperphantasic than aphantasic participants. In an active fMRI paradigm, there was greater anterior parietal activation among hyperphantasic and control than aphantasic participants when comparing visualization of famous faces and places with perception. These behavioral and neural signatures of visual imagery vividness extremes validate and illuminate this significant but neglected dimension of individual difference.