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There’s a Reason Some People Can Visualize Better Than Others, Study Reveals

two people try to picture an apple in their mind's eye

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • About 1–3% of people lack the ability to visualize.
  • Study finds neurological reasons for why some people visualize better than others.
  • No matter how your brain is wired, there are ways to strengthen your ability to visualize.

Close your eyes and think of an apple. Imagine its round shape, the red color, the smooth shiny skin. Can you see it? Or does that type of visualization feel impossible? Some people can picture things more vividly than others, and new research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex Communications might explain why.

“There are big invisible differences between us in the ability to visualise, and these are linked to differences in the ways our brain work,” Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health, tells Verywell. 

Zeman led a team of researchers at the University of Exeter in England who investigated why an estimated 1–3% of people lack the ability to visualize. Zeman termed this inability “aphantasia” in 2015. 

He also refers to people who have highly developed visual imagery skills as “hyperphantasics.” 

To understand the differences between the two groups, Zeman and team conducted the first systematic neuropsychological and brain imaging study of people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia. 

They performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on 24 participants with aphantasia, 25 with hyperphantasia, and 20 people with mid-range imagery vividness who were part of a control group.  

In addition to the imaging data, the researchers also evaluated detailed cognitive and personality tests.

Understanding Aphantasia and Hyperphantasia

Based on scans performed while participants were resting, relaxing, and not focusing on anything in particular, researchers observed that hyperphantasics had a stronger connection between the parts of the brain related to vision and frontal regions connected to decision-making and attention.

While all groups displayed similar scores on standard memory tests, people with hyperphantasia gave richer descriptions of imagined scenarios than the control group and had a stronger ability to remember events that took place in their life. Additionally, aphantasics were not able to recognize faces as well as hyperphantasics. 

Adam Zeman

There are big invisible differences between us in the ability to visualise, and these are linked to differences in the ways our brain work.

— Adam Zeman

According to personality tests the participants took, aphantasics tended to be more introverted while hyperphantasics were more open. 

Zeman believes his findings help in “understanding that the ways our minds and brains work differ in deep and interesting ways.”

He also says these findings help to “to ‘validate’ differences in experience that people often find hard to convey to others.”

Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, agrees. 

“The more science studies how our mind works, what each structure of the brain does, and how certain neural pathways can be activated or rewired, it offers great hope,” she says. 

Benefits of Strong Visualization

Serani says Zeman’s research helps point out the importance of visual imagery. 

“And the added benefits that mindfulness, or the deepening your mind's eye, can help with many aspects in life,” Serani says. 

She points out that people who have keen visualization participate well in psychotherapy

Deborah Serani, PsyD

The more science studies how our mind works, what each structure of the brain does, and how certain neural pathways can be activated or rewired, it offers great hope

— Deborah Serani, PsyD

“The ability to recall, summon or remember certain moments, memories or traumas aids in recovery. They tend to do better with the expression of their thoughts and feelings too,” says Serani. 

While hyperphantasics might be better at recollecting their personal past and envisaging future scenarios, as well more prone to work in “creative” industries, Zeman stresses, “There are probably costs too, perhaps being more liable to adverse emotions fuelled by imagery like craving.” 

Serani agrees, noting that certain people with hyperphantasia may be overwhelmed with thoughts, emotions, and urges. 

“I haven't come across that in my work, per se, but I suspect the subspecialty of addiction and impulse disorders may illustrate this,” she says.

Anyone Can Strengthen Their Visualization Skills

Zeman says aphantasics can have an imagination, too. 

“We have many ways to think about things in their absence, of which visual imagery is just one, and lacking the ability to visualise does not imply a lack of imagination,” says Zeman. 

Adam Zeman

We have many ways to think about things in their absence, of which visual imagery is just one, and lacking the ability to visualise does not imply a lack of imagination.

— Adam Zeman

Visualization skills vary from person to person, adds Serani.

“While this research looks at individuals with visualization superpowers, many can try to gradually enhance their own visualization skills with tips and techniques found online, in books and in community yoga, mindfulness, and meditation classes, for example,” she says.

What This Means For You

While there is a neurological reason that some people visualize better than others, if visualization is not your strength, don't despair! There are ways anyone can enhance their ability to visualize.

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  1. Milton F, Fulford J, Dance C, et al. Behavioral and neural signatures of visual imagery vividness extremes: aphantasia versus hyperphantasia. Cereb Cortex Commun. 2021;2(2). doi:10.1093/texcom/tgab035