Probing the unimaginable: The impact of aphantasia on distinct domains of visual mental imagery and visual perception

Cortex. 2023 Sep:166:338-347. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2023.06.003. Epub 2023 Jul 5.


Different individuals experience varying degrees of vividness in their visual mental images. The distribution of these variations across different imagery domains, such as object shape, color, written words, faces, and spatial relationships, remains unknown. To address this issue, we conducted a study with 117 healthy participants who reported different levels of imagery vividness. Of these participants, 44 reported experiencing absent or nearly absent visual imagery, a condition known as "aphantasia". These individuals were compared to those with typical (N = 42) or unusually vivid (N = 31) imagery ability. We used an online version of the French-language Battérie Imagination-Perception (eBIP), which consists of tasks tapping each of the above-mentioned domains, both in visual imagery and in visual perception. We recorded the accuracy and response times (RTs) of participants' responses. Aphantasic participants reached similar levels of accuracy on all tasks compared to the other groups (Bayesian repeated measures ANOVA, BF = .02). However, their RTs were slower in both imagery and perceptual tasks (BF = 266), and they had lower confidence in their responses on perceptual tasks (BF = 7.78e5). A Bayesian regression analysis revealed that there was an inverse correlation between subjective vividness and RTs for the entire participant group: higher levels of vividness were associated with faster RTs. The pattern was similar in all the explored domains. The findings suggest that individuals with congenital aphantasia experience a slowing in processing visual information in both imagery and perception, but the precision of their processing remains unaffected. The observed performance pattern lends support to the hypotheses that congenital aphantasia is primarily a deficit of phenomenal consciousness, or that it employs alternative strategies other than visualization to access preserved visual information.

Keywords: Aphantasia; Phenomenal consciousness; Visual mental imagery; Visual perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Consciousness
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy / methods
  • Imagination* / physiology
  • Visual Perception* / physiology