When you think about your grandmother’s soup, can you almost smell or taste it? Do you “hear” her clattering in the kitchen? Just how vivid is your mind’s nose, tongue, or ear?
When we think about events from our past, most of us remember in images, and some of us in sounds, smells, or even tastes. For the majority, our sensory imagery abilities approximate a weak form of perception, allowing us to recall and relive details of our past experiences. For some, these memories are as vivid as actually tasting grandma’s soup, whereas for others, there are no sensory experiences that accompany these memories.
The spectrum of mental imagery abilities ranges from absent (aphantasia)¹ to extremely vivid sensory imagination (hyperphantasia)². To date, over 180,000 people from around the world have completed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) on aphantasia.com, in search of a clearer understanding of their imagery experiences. Despite early evidence that these individual differences can impact other aspects of cognition (including autobiographical memory² and face recognition³), we have a very limited understanding of the mental imagery spectrum.
Aphantasia and hyperphantasia rates are broadly estimated to fall between 2-5%³ and 10-15%⁴ of the population, respectively. However, since these estimates are based solely on measures of visual imagery, and have not accounted for imagery abilities across other sensory domains, the actual prevalence and consistency of these imagery extremes across sensory domains remain entirely unknown. Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that many individuals use visual imagery to support autobiographical memory⁵ᐧ⁶, suggesting a strong association between these cognitive abilities. Early evidence also points to a connection between mental imagery extremes and various aspects of individual experiences, spanning from education and career choices, to PTSD sensitivity and eye-witness testimony reliability.
Our global community at the Aphantasia Network currently sees over 50,000 unique visitors each month and reaches over 40,000 active members with aphantasia or hyperphantasia. Since our visitors’ imagery scores fall primarily at the extremes of the spectrum, this limits our ability to precisely estimate the prevalence of imagery extremes within the general population. By using Prolific to test a broader, international, and more representative sample of the population, we can run the first ever prevalence study on multisensory aphantasia and hyperphantasia. We will also establish connections between the spectrum of imagery experiences and memory retrieval abilities. This will allow us to support researchers and the general public in identifying and quantifying imagery extremes, and accelerate our understanding of imagery’s impact on peoples’ experiences, work and well-being.
To conduct this prevalence study we will use the Imagination Spectrum Questionnaire (ISQ), a new multisensory assessment that measures imagery vividness across the senses. This questionnaire was piloted extensively with more than 300 participants and validated against existing measures of imagery vividness. We will also use the Survey of Autobiographical Memory⁷ (SAM) to measure distinct aspects of episodic autobiographical memory and identify associations between memory and multisensory imagery abilities.
To estimate the prevalence of multisensory aphantasia and hyperphantasia and connections to memory retrieval, we are aiming to collect data from approximately 3000 participants. This will enable us to identify population estimates across sensory domains and approximate the spectrum and distribution of mental imagery abilities. This large sample will also contain sufficient variance to model the link between imagery and autobiographical memory to define a clearer relation between these cognitive abilities.
Our study will take approximately 20 minutes for each participant to complete. We wish to compensate our participants £2.40 (or £3.19 including the 33% service charge) for a total budget of £9,570.
Our team includes professionals with expertise in both Research and Human-Centered Design and we are committed to sharing and disseminating our findings to participants and our growing community. In addition to monetary compensation, we offer our community insights into their own cognitive abilities, and tools to support their understanding of imagery and its impact on their daily experiences.
In addition to publishing our results in a peer-reviewed open-access journal, we will publish our findings, data, and an accessible summary of our findings on our website aphantasia.com for other researchers and the community at large. These population estimates will form the basis of percentile estimates of imagery extreme prevalence, and used on our new, interactive Imagination Spectrum (imaginationspectrum.com) platform for measuring and learning about cognitive differences.
Please see details of our pre-registered study here: https://aspredicted.org/jy2er.pdf
- Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery – congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378-380. doi:10.1016/ j.cortex.2015.05.019
- Greenberg, D. L. & Knowlton, B. J. (2014). The role of visual imagery in autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 42, 922-934. doi:10.3758/s13421-014-0402-5
- Zeman, A., Milton, F., Della Sala, S., Dewar, M., Frayling, T., Gaddum, J., … & Winlove, C. (2020). Phantasia – the psychological significance of lifelong imagery vividness extremes. Cortex, 130, 426-440. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.003
- Gray, C. R. & Gummerman, K. (1975). The enigmatic eidetic image: A critical examination of methods, data, and theories. Psychological Bulletin, 82, 383-407. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.82.3.383
- Aydin, C. (2018). The differential contributions of visual imagery constructs on autobiographical thinking. Memory, 26, 189-200. doi:10.1080/09658211.2017.1340483
- Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., Hassabis, D., Martin, V. C., Spreng, R. N., & Szpunar, K. K. (2012). The future of memory: Remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron, 76, 677-694. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.11.001
- Palombo, D. J., Williams, L. J., Abdi, H., & Levine, B. (2013). The survey of autobiographical memory (SAM): A novel measure of trait mnemonics in everyday life. Cortex, 49, 1526-1540. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2012.08.023