The pupillary light response as a physiological index of aphantasia, sensory and phenomenological imagery strength

Elife. 2022 Mar 31;11:e72484. doi: 10.7554/eLife.72484.


The pupillary light response is an important automatic physiological response which optimizes light reaching the retina. Recent work has shown that the pupil also adjusts in response to illusory brightness and a range of cognitive functions, however, it remains unclear what exactly drives these endogenous changes. Here, we show that the imagery pupillary light response correlates with objective measures of sensory imagery strength. Further, the trial-by-trial phenomenological vividness of visual imagery is tracked by the imagery pupillary light response. We also demonstrated that a group of individuals without visual imagery (aphantasia) do not show any significant evidence of an imagery pupillary light response, however they do show perceptual pupil light responses and pupil dilation with larger cognitive load. Our results provide evidence that the pupillary light response indexes the sensory strength of visual imagery. This work also provides the first physiological validation of aphantasia.

Keywords: aphantasia; human; imagery; individual differences; neuroscience; pupillometry; visual imagery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy
  • Imagination* / physiology
  • Pupil*
  • Visual Perception / physiology

Grant support

The funders had no role in study design, data collection, and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.