Hyperphantasia: The Surprising Truth About Photorealistic Imagination

| Memory Science

hyperphantasia feature imageHyperphantasia.

Sounds like something out of a sorcerer’s spellbook, doesn’t it? 

Well, let me ask you this:

What would it be like if your ability to visualize completely blew you away?

I’m talking about a mental experience like stepping into a movie theatre every time you close your eyes. 

It’s that kind of “cinematic” experience that has led to hyperphantasia being called “extreme visualization.” 

Some don’t go quite that far, however. They prefer to call this kind of imagination by a tamer term, like “photorealistic.”

But if there’s one thing all researchers agree on, it’s that this form of visualization involves an abundance of mental imagery. 

So, how do you know if you have it?

Can you develop it if you want to imagine better? 

Should you? 

We’ll get into all the details and answers to these questions in this in-depth article.

What Is Hyperphantasia?

To really understand the foundations of imagination, we need to step back and think about visual imagery. 

As Adam Zeman and his co-authors put it in Phantasia – The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes:

“Visual imagery typically enables us to see absent items in the mind’s eye. It plays a role in memory, day-dreaming and creativity.”

We should add to this definition how visual imagery also helps us with reading, planning, navigation and many other daily activities. 

Can You Visualize What You Ate For Breakfast?

Interest in visual imagery began when Sir Francis Galton sent out a questionnaire to a wide range of participants. 

breakfast

In it, Galton asked a variety of participants to recall various scenes from memory.

For example, he asked people to remember the appearance of their breakfast table and what was on it. 

In one of Galton’s original studies from 1880,  he asked his test subjects to reflect on their experience of recalling the mental imagery. His main questions boiled down to:

  • Illumination — Is the image dim or fairly clear ? Is itsbrightness comparable to that of the actual scene?
  • Definition — Are all the objects pretty well defined at the same time, or is the place of sharpest definition at any one moment more contracted than it is in a real scene?
  • Colouring — Are the colours of the china, of the toast, breadcrust, mustard, meat, parsley, or whatever may have been on the table, quite distinct and natural?

Although Galton’s conclusions about his questionnaire data have since been invalidated, he laid the groundwork for a process of investigation that has continued ever since. It has led to a scale of terms:

  • Aphantasia, which means a complete lack of mental or imagery or no “mind’s eye”
  • Phantasia, or a “normal” ability to visualize in your imagination
  • Hyperphantasia, mental imagery that is said to be as “real” as seeing with your actual eyes

a woman beside a window

The Problem With Defining “Extreme Imagination”

Does this mean that hyperphantasia is linked to synesthesia, eidetic memory or so-called photographic memory?

It’s possible, but according to Zeman and his co-authors, not enough research has been done. It’s also a problem that the studies have to be based on people who identify themselves as hyperphantasic. There aren’t enough external ways to measure its presence, so we currently have to rely on self-reporting. 

What Zeman and his team did discover is that people with hyperphantasia tend to report better memory abilities than those who don’t. 

Definition By Counter-Example

For now, one of the best ways scientists have to try and understand this phenomenon is by looking at individuals who have lost their ability to visualize. 

For example, in chapter 15 of the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Rebecca Keogh and her co-authors discuss the case of MX. 

A professional who used to visualize well suddenly found himself a-visual. He could no longer “enter” the novels he read, experience dreams visually, or visually recall faces of friends. 

In his brain scans, researchers noted “hypoactivation of his anterior cingulate gyrus,” which means they were underperforming.

brain scan of MX experiencing hypoactivation of anterior cingulate gyrus

Brain scan of a person experiencing the opposite of hyperphantasia.

Note: MX could still experience mental imagery. It just wasn’t experienced visually. These findings led researchers to come up with terms like “blind imagination” and “blindsight.”

The Real Definition

In sum, a definition of hyperphantasia currently relies on people who self-report the ability to imagine in ways that are either “extreme” or photorealistic. 

Hyperphantasia Symptoms: What Do People Report?

If we go back to the original Galton study, people reporting extreme imagination listed experiencing mental imagery that was:

  • Brilliant, distinct, never blotchy
  • Comparable to the real object, as if they were actually seeing it
  • Feel dazzled, like you would when looking into the sun
  • Clearness, brightness
  • High definition
  • “As if the reality is before me”

But again, we need to note the dangers of self reporting.

For example, YouTuber KhabeeraSpeaks claims that her love of reading counts as a hyperphantasia symptom.

Well, I also love to read, as do many people with aphantasia and phantasia. I have read many books where I could say it was as “engaging” as watching a movie precisely because there was no mental imagery distracting me from how I experience reading.

It is the high probability of being distracted by mental imagery that explains why I don’t recommend all people with aphantasia seek an aphantasia cure.

Benefits/Advantages Of Hyperphantasia

The benefits of experiencing elevated imagination could certainly help with planning and many creative tasks. It’s possible that it could make reading books on boring topics more interesting as well.

That’s why I created this multi-sensory hyperphantasia guided meditation you can watch or listen to:

Since this approach is experimental, I’d love to know what you experienced if you go through it. 

For me, the advantages of adding multi sensory levels while using memory techniques like the Memory Palace have been huge.

For example, it helps you place associations in familiar locations in your mind. The more multi-sensory those associations are, the easier and faster your memory returns them to you. 

To learn more about how to use these techniques:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

The Best Hyperphantasia Test

The best way to test hyperphantasia at the present moment is to test yourself. 

If you take the guided meditation I’ve shared above and journal about your experiences.

Here’s another set of questions that are different from the video to consider as well. They are all based on what we in the Magnetic Memory Method community call KAVE COGS:

  • Kinesthetic
  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Emotional
  • Conceptual
  • Olfactory
  • Gustatory
  • Spatial

Kinesthetic Test – Imagine A Kiss

When you imagine a kiss: 

  • Do you feel the pressure of two lips meeting and how hard or soft is it? 
  • Do you feel anything else, such as the other person’s breath or arms?
  • Do you feel the full physical location of your body in space? Or do you just imagine the location of the kiss? 
  • Can you feel how heavy your body is?
  • Can you reach out and touch other parts of your body or the person you’re kissing in the mental image?
  • Can you add wings to both yourself and the person you are kissing and feel them pumping to take you off the ground and up into flight?

Don’t worry if you don’t imagine any physical sensations at all. But if you do, explore the answers very deeply. 

a kiss on a beach

Auditory Test – Imagine A Song

For this test, please pick a song you know well that involves multiple instruments. 

  • Can you hear all of the instruments or just some of them?
  • Can you hear the vocals?
  • Can you hear tonal changes as the melody plays out?
  • Can you hear dynamics in the percussion parts? 
  • Can you change the tempo by speeding it up and slowing it down?
  • Can you imagine switching instruments in and out (for example, can you hear a guitar as a trumpet or a bass as a sitar)? 
  • Can you make the singer sound deeper and higher at will? 
  • Can you imagine the singer singing completely different lyrics to a song they wouldn’t normally sing?
  • Can you imagine the song played in a different genre (a metal song played as bluegrass, etc.)

Visual Test – Imagine An Orange

  • Can you describe or do you experience the exact tone of orange?
  • Are there variations in the color of the orange? Are there any unripe areas or tonal variations? 
  • Do you see any surface imperfections?
  • Do you automatically also see the white wax that sometimes covers oranges?
  • Do you imagine a shiny spot? Is light and its reflection accurately represented? 
  • Can you zoom in on the orange or zoom out? Can you zoom into the orange and travel through its skin?

sliced orange

Emotional Test – Imagine A Win

Think of a time you accomplished something big – like your graduation day or when you got a raise. 

  • Can you recreate that excitement? 
  • Can you mentally share that excitement with someone who shared it with you at the time? 
  • Can you recall and describe any specific emotions? 
  • Can you recall any specific words or phrases you used at the time?

Olfactory Test – Imagine A Fragrant Plant

Pick a plant or tree with a very strong smell.

  • Can you imagine any smell at all? 
  • Do you imagine it strongly, as it is in reality?
  • Or do you just get a vague sense of that smell?
  • Can you imagine the plant visually and change it’s smell to something else, like chocolate or coffee?
  • Can you imagine two different smells at once, such as roses at the same time as baking cookies?

Gustatory Test – Imagine A Coconut

  • Can you imagine cracking open a raw coconut and mentally taste drinking its water? 
  • Can you imagine also getting some of the outside of the coconut in your mouth and taste it? 
  • Can you imagine it exactly like coconut water tastes? 
  • Can you imagine changing its taste by adding salt and pepper? 
  • Can you imagine mixing in a bunch of tastes at the same time, like coconut water plus wine and some chocolate? 

coconut

Spatial Test – Imagine A Room

Bring any room to mind. 

  • Can you imagine all four walls at once? 
  • Can you imagine all four walls and all four corners at once?
  • Can you zoom into a small millimeter of space?
  • Can you zoom outside of the room to imagine the entire exterior of the building? The entire street? The entire neighborhood? The entire city?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, you probably have hyperphantasia. 

Do You Really Need An Ultra-Vivid Imagination?

At the end of the day, the answer is no. We know from aphantasia studies and cases like MX that mental representation is perfectly possible without visual imagery.

If you do self-report as having hyperphantasia, exactly how to confirm your conclusion through testing it is still unclear. As Zeman notes at the end of the most detailed scientific study I’ve seen so far:

“It will be important to investigate the associations we have described using objective measures, including tests of face recognition, autobiographical memory and synaesthesia, in future work. Free text responses, provided alongside the codeable data in our questionnaires, suggest that extreme imagery may have affective as well as cognitive associations.”

At the end of the day, there are many ways to experience the world. Hyperphantasia is just one of them.

10 Responses to " Hyperphantasia: The Surprising Truth About Photorealistic Imagination "

  1. Megan McCarthy says:

    I indeed have hyperphantasia – always, but assumed everybody did. I also have maladaptive daydreaming and used to have panic attack disorder. I also used to make myself do out of body experiences for a few years as a child, but stopped doing that because I thought maybe they brought on the panic attacks later.
    Nothing is better than being alone and imagining all sorts of worlds and narratives inside my head – sometimes with me as the lead character. Takes me forever to read fiction, as I embellish a lot – probably guilty of plagiarism. These paracosms have gotten me through tough times, but have probably also cost me relationships and made me lazy.

    I was wondering about literature out there to read up on.

    • Great post, Megan, and thanks for mentioning the paracosm concept. That’s very interesting.

      I’d be curious to know what you mean by “maladaptive dreaming”. I had many horrible dreams as a kid myself, but haven’t heard that term before. I also went through many years of panic attacks, but thankfully that has all resolved now.

      In terms of further literature, I’d suggest searching for books and articles on the term “mental imagery” as a whole. You’ll find many wonderful things to read and consider.

  2. Fiona says:

    I have a vivid imagination so much so that I can’t watch a lot of movies as I react as if violence or even lower level conflict is actually happening to me and it is horrifically overwhelming and terrifying.

    I thought I had hyperphantasia but on reflection, after going through this page, I actually don’t see that clearly, I just thought I did as the experience of using my imagination is so real to me but it’s really the emotions, olfactory, gustatory and kinesthic bits that are ‘hyper’.

    If I consider what I see, it’s easily distinguishable from this reality as it is dimmer but the bit I look at lights up as if a torch has been shone on it but then dims as I look somewhere else and that bit lights up so I can’t see the whole scene well at one time though I have a very strong overall sense of it through other means.

    It’s also shown in 3rd person so I’m not part of the scene but standing right in the middle of it and watching without ever being involved, like standing just out of the way and experiencing everything but no-one knowing you are there.

    I’ve tried putting myself in front of a person and seeing with my own eyes in the first person but I can’t hold it for long and it slips back quite quickly back to being in the 3rd person. Could be a dissociative factor involved here??? I hear nothing directly either but my own thoughts can imagine sounds and tell me what people are saying so again in the 3rd person.

    What has the strongest, most emotional input to any scene in my imagination though is music. It provides a meaningful overlay to the whole thing and fills in the gaps. It also always creates it’s own images if I relax and the images get more complex so I get more information if I play the music over and over.

    This is useful as I write a lot so it provides answers to me that I am looking for and creates more and more complex scenes in the narrative I am creating. I find this unusual, especially since the only sense which is strong in ‘normal’ reality is my emotions so this alternative imagined reality often seems more real to me, even though I don’t actually see it as clearly.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Fiona.

      I’m not qualified to say whether there are any dissociative factors in what you’re experiencing, but if you ever have a chance to speak with someone who can, it would be great to know.

      Music is indeed powerful. I write a lot with music playing. In fact, nearly every post on this blog is written by listening to the same album. It’s like “entrainment.” I’ve never had writer’s block thanks to this habit. I just put the album on and rarely stop writing until it’s done playing.

      There’s such a wide range of possible mental experiences. It’s wonderful that we can get together to share them, so thanks for being part of this emerging conversation. I hope to hear and read more from you soon.

  3. John Smith says:

    I’ve always had an extremely strong imagination, am a massive daydreamer and used to have extremely vivid nightmares as a child. I started to lucid dream as a way to exit these dreams once they got to scary, bear in mind i was still very young. i used to count to 3 and wake up, like dorothy in the wizard of oz except i didnt tap my shoes together and say “Theres no place like home” :D. I still sometimes lucid dream but at a far lower rate, its like having HD vision in some cases its actually far more detailed than real life, it can be very beautiful. But i still fairly frequently get nightterrors and thats very vivid. Its facinating although i dont know whether i have hyperphantasia, i can do all the tasks pretty easily but not necessarily with perfect HD vision. I probably dont have it, still interesting anyways, i guess to some extent this must exist on a spectrum.

  4. Steven says:

    I like your focus in the article on the multisensory aspects of aphantasia and hyperphantasia. In my experience, most people who learn about aphantasia, etc. don’t often go beyond the mind’s eye into the other sensory domains you described. It’s therefore something I’ve focused on as well in my own exploration. I have aphantasia and my girlfriend has hyperphantasia, which has led to a lot of interesting discussions.

  5. Kathryn says:

    I always wondered why everything I experience…read…eat…remember…read…hear is seen in my mind in acute detail as a film or pictures not thoughts.

    I stumbled upon this article and realized that I have always had this and never thought it was of consequence.

    Is it problematic or a mental disorder? Should I worry? I actually enjoy it.

    • Thanks, Kathryn.

      Obviously, if it concerns you, seek the advice of a medical professional.

      Generally, if if your imagination isn’t preventing you from being a productive member of society, it’s probably not a problem.

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