Aphantasia and hyperphantasia: brain with glasses

Hyperphantasia & the Multisensory Imagination Spectrum 🧠

I have aphantasia and my girlfriend has hyperphantasia. It turns out that thought and memory work at least a little differently for everyone. By comparing with the details here, you might just understand your own capabilities better or learn what’s possible.

Five years ago, I learned that you have a superpower I don’t—you can see things in your mind!

The inability to do so, I learned, is called aphantasia. Here’s the fantastic and hilarious article by Blake Ross that led me to this discovery: Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.

You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

Blake Ross

Like Blake, I too made it to 30 with no idea seeing things in your mind’s eye (or the equivalents for other senses) was anything more than colorful language. At the time, learning about this helped explain a lot of things for me, such as why it takes work to remember what I did today (and I’m often stumped by the simple question of what I did over the weekend) even though I can recite extensive details about the arcana of technical systems. Or why I can go somewhere 100 times and still not know how to get there unless I memorize the facts of each turn.

Aphantasia spectrum
Range of visualization ability. I’m on the far right.

It took a few more years and the r/Aphantasia subreddit to learn about something called SDAM, which again deepened my self-understanding. I’ve often reflected on how much and how fast I’ve forgotten the experiences of my own life (even though I don’t think of myself as having bad memory more generally), and SDAM finally explained it. Although SDAM is separate from the image-free thinking of aphantasia, many people with aphantasia seem to have it as well.

So what the hell is SDAM? It stands for Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory—a simultaneously wordy yet not very explanatory term for what the BBC calls “the inability to mentally time travel.” Essentially, I know some facts about things from my past, but I don’t know first-person stories. If that creates more questions than answers, buy me a drink sometime and let’s chat.

Meena’s Mental Superpowers

Hyperphantasia
Image by Emily Chan

So that’s the background. More recently, I was talking with my charming girlfriend Meena about perceptions, memory, and aphantasia. We’d talked about this before, but a new insight was just how strong Meena is in all her crazy mental and memory superpowers that I struggle to even comprehend. Not only does she have a mind’s eye, but her mind’s eye is as good as it fuckin’ gets, and her mind’s ear, nose, tastebuds, fingertips, proprioception, motor simulation, and emotional replay aren’t far behind. Basically, Meena has hyperphantasia for nearly all of her senses. Holy shit.

I had her rank senses she could perceive and control in her mind on a subjective 10 point scale, and here’s what she said as I took notes:

Vision: 10+
She gave an example of something she could visualize on demand that she’d never seen before: A penguin hopping on a pogo stick through the Amazon. She sees full HD video. The penguin had three little tufts of hair, she said, that were wiggling in the wind as it jumped. She could also go back and add any details she wanted, like a scarf.
Penguin on a pogo stick in the Amazon
Penguin pogo © Steven Levithan
Hearing: 9
She’s especially strong at remembering and replaying music (with total control over changing the tempo, pitch, instruments, etc.), but she can also clearly generate and hear distinctive voices, animals, and more. As strong as this sounded, when I questioned her, she said her mental vision was a lot stronger and that it took less effort with vision.
Smell: 4
She said this was her weakest mental sense, though in real life smell was her strongest sense relative to other people. She said she can’t smell new things in her mind or mix smells and pick them apart, but she could smell some distinctive things strongly. Still, I think her mental sense of smell is stronger than for most people since mental smell is less common to have at all.
Taste: 9
She can accurately taste in her mind what a dish will taste like prior to adding a new ingredient, which sounds incredibly useful for cooking. I often ask her whether something needs more salt since she’s better than me at seasoning; apparently, her method is to add a pinch of mental salt and confirm whether that’s better. Even more shocking to me was that, when reading a restaurant menu, she tastes each item before deciding what to order! ? She ranked mental taste a nine only because it takes more effort than vision (the same is true for all the remaining nines below).
Touch: 9
She can feel in her mind the feeling of being punched or touching a hot stove, but it doesn’t hurt. (The lack of mental pain/nociception to go with mental touch seems lucky since some people have that too.) She can also feel soft touches like feathers. She can look at objects and know what they feel like and can replay how objects felt in the past. Hell, she can play with herself in her mind, or skip the mental foreplay and feel an orgasm on-demand.
Proprioception: 9
While closing her mind’s eyes she still feels an awareness of her imagined body’s position in space. This sense continues to work realistically even when imagining having a different body shape. I asked her to imagine herself as a bird with massive wings, and she felt the constraints and position in space of her new room-spanning wings as she moved them. And when she imagined herself as a puppy trying to boop its own nose while closing its eyes, she worried about her dog nails scratching herself as her paws got closer. This awareness of the position of her mental body in mental space felt true to life without having to see herself in her imagination.
Motor Simulation & Balance: 9
She could mentally simulate moving in the ways I asked, including doing a high kick, the splits, and diving (none of which she can actually do). For mental weightlifting, she could even give herself weaker or stronger imaginary muscles and simulate the effect this had on her movements. I asked if she expected that practicing these movements repeatedly in her mind would give her meaningful experience that would help her pick up the corresponding sports more quickly. She said yes—that although she’d still need time to transfer this new understanding into real muscle memory and build the appropriate real-world muscles, the mind-practice nevertheless felt like it would make real-world learning easier. In fact, she said, she’d done this before when learning piano and dance.
Emotional Replay: 6 or 7
Memories of past experiences include re-experiencing the emotions she felt at the time. Notably, emotions from sad memories decay over time for her, whereas emotions from happy memories last much longer. (A nice trait, since the opposite is true for most people.)

Must be cool to be a Meena! I’m a big fat zero on all of these, by the way. If you want to know what the experience of seeing through my mind’s eye is like, imagine you have eyes on the back of your head, and try looking through those. I don’t see black (like when closing your eyes); I see nothing. The same goes for the other mental senses, though I’ve found that the absence of mental smell, taste, and touch is often more relatable since they’re less common than mind vision and hearing. I’m not sure how common the other things I’ve listed here (like motor simulation) are, since there’s currently much less related research and discussion of them online.

Research indicates that 2–3% of people have aphantasia, and up to 10% have hyperphantasia. These numbers refer only to the extremes of visual imagination; currently there isn’t much data on other mental senses. However, Nature reports that people with aphantasia on average have reduced ability with other mental senses, and 26% of aphantasiacs have “a total absence of multi-sensory imagery.” This lack of all mental senses is sometimes referred to as “total aphantasia.”

As the conversation continued, Meena and I also discussed synesthesia and hypnagogic states. I found an unscientific hyperphantasia checklist on Reddit, and Meena crushed all or nearly all points for every sense. Here it is if you want to compare to your own abilities or understand what some people can do:


Visual — Picture an apple on a plate.

  1. What color is the apple?
  2. What variety is the apple? (Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Macintosh…)
  3. Which direction is the light coming from?
  4. Is there a specular reflection — i.e., a shiny spot, as if light is being accurately reflected by the skin of the apple?
  5. Are there imperfections in the surface? Roughness, subtle variations in the color of the apple?
  6. Is there reflected illumination from the plate onto the apple?
  7. Can you easily zoom in on the apple, rotate it, etc.? How faithful to an actual 3D physical object is this in your mind’s eye?

Audio — Imagine a song, one with vocals and instruments. Pick one you’re familiar with.

  1. Does it have all the instruments?
  2. Are the vocals changing pitch, tone, etc.?
  3. Are the vocals actual words, or just sort of gibberish fitting the role? (Try singing along to whatever is going through your head out loud if you’re not sure.)
  4. How sharp are the drums?
  5. Can you change the tempo?
  6. Can you make the singer sound like they huffed helium?
  7. Can you swap out instruments? Swap out lyrics wholesale?
  8. Can you change the key or mode of the song?

Touch & Proprioception — Imagine your hand and an object, any object, in front of you.

  1. Can you mentally reach out and touch it?
  2. Does the object feel like it should? Hard/soft, hot/cold, smooth/rough, etc.
  3. Could you feel your own imagined hand and arm? Were you aware of the physical movements in the same way that you know where your physical arm/hand/fingers are without looking?
  4. How heavy is the object you imagined? The right weight?
  5. Can you change that weight?
  6. Close your eyes (mentally or physically, whatever works) and concentrate on that imagined hand. Start with the thumb. Tap it to your palm. Do the same with your index finger, then your middle, ring, little finger. Any problems?
  7. Can you keep going? In other words, can you continue to “tap fingers” with fingers you don’t have — imagine that you had extra fingers — despite not having a real-life analog to compare to?
  8. Can you go a step further, and imagine the feel of wholly alien things (bird wings, say) that will require entirely fictitious input?

Smell — Imagine a flower, preferably one with a strong smell.

  1. Can you smell it at all?
  2. Does it smell strong enough, or just a faint whiff?
  3. Is the smell accurate — a rose smelling like a rose?
  4. Can you make it smell like something else — fresh cookies, say?
  5. Multiple smells at once? Rose, cookies, old stinky socks?

Taste — Seems to be pretty rare, but… imagine a few foods.

  1. Can you taste them?
  2. If you imagine something salty — like a pickle or potato chips — and add imaginary salt to it, does it taste saltier?
  3. Can you distinctly tell apart the taste of distinct items, like, say, two flavors of chips, or two kinds of candy bar, or two different wines?
  4. Kind of the acid test: if you imagine a few foods and what they would taste like together, can you go in your kitchen, get those foods, eat them together, and have them taste the same? That is, are your imagined tastes demonstrably the same as the real thing to a degree that it would be useful when cooking?

That list doesn’t cover what I described earlier as “emotional replay,” so while writing this I went looking and found a blog post at aphantasia.com titled 3 Things I Learned Dating an Aphantasic. In it, the author describes how remembering something happy or sad doesn’t make her boyfriend happy or sad. That’s a concise description of the absence of this ability. I would add to that: My memories may in some cases lead to new feelings similar to what I felt at the time of the event I’m remembering, but the new feelings are not replaying as part of the memory itself. If I happen to remember how I felt at the time, I’ll recall that as a plot point, not as an emotional experience.

By now you can probably tell that I find these topics endlessly fascinating. Although there are numerous related areas I could touch on (like cognitive styles, the presence or absence of inner monologues, and differences in dreaming), I think I’ve been rambling long enough, so I’ll close out with this video of legendary physicist Richard Feynman talking about different ways people’s minds work for something as seemingly simple as counting:

This article previously included a section exploring Happiness as Personality, which I’ve moved to its own page.

9 thoughts on “Hyperphantasia & the Multisensory Imagination Spectrum 🧠”

  1. So this was fascinating! I am totally the same as you. I always found it just a metaphor when books or therapists say “go to your safe place” or for dealing with stress “picture yourself on a beach” I always just thought that meant to think about being there. I never realized that there are people that can actually see or visualize it for real! I see nothing. I feel a bit robbed.

    But it does explain why I have a more difficult time with directions, I too have to clearly memorize every turn and marking whereas I know people who can just go once and know their way back.

    Same with my childhood memories, I’m completely lost on timelines.

    That must be amazing to have those extra memory abilities. To be able to recreate sounds and taste! Wow

    I’m now in my 40s and this is the first I’ve heard of it. I even studied psychology and personality traits and they never once discussed this subject. I will now need to go look into it. Very interesting blog.

  2. Sarafina, welcome to the club! It is a curious fact that many aphants like us seem to be capable of going our whole lives without realizing or having anyone else notice that our minds are working quite differently from the norm.

  3. Hey Steven, this is a wonderful article! I have read close to every article (and research study) on aphantasia and yours is the first I’ve come by to provide a good breakdown of multisensory mental imagery. Many aphantasics don’t even realize mental imagery exists outside the visual domain. By now you can probably tell that I find these topics endlessly fascinating 😉

  4. Thanks, Zach! Yes, the reduced awareness of mental sense domains beyond visualization is something I’ve noticed as well and something I hoped to directly tackle in this article, so I’m glad that came across well.

  5. Aside: Thanks to Zach reaching out above, I ended up writing a separate article for the Aphantasia Network that goes even deeper on multisensory aphantasia: <https://aphantasia.com/multisensory-aphantasia/>. It reuses the section about Meena, but the majority is new.

    Additionally, a reader questioned why I put emotional memory in the same category of things like visualization. It might be helpful to share my response here:

    Since I’m a multisensory aphantasic too, I understand how strange it sounds to lump emotion into this. As a result, in the article, I only touched on “emotional replay” (since the article was long enough), and I didn’t go into emotional imagination more generally. To someone like me, the concept of imaginary emotion is so bizarre that it’s hard to wrap my head around it. Sure, I can conceptualize physical vs mental vision, but… isn’t all emotion mental?

    Let me try to explain why I think emotion is similar to other modalities of thought, memory, and imagination (just like visual or motor).

    For people without aphantasia, memories are often experienced as reliving the event in the first person, using all the modalities of memory available to them (visual, auditory, olfactory, emotional, etc.). They re-see, re-hear, and re-experience the emotions they lived through at the time. This is quite different from remembering the emotion you felt at the time as a plot point (rather than as an emotional experience) like I do. For me, my memories may in some cases lead to new feelings similar to what I felt at the time of the event I’m remembering, but the new feelings are not replaying as part of the memory itself.

    So that’s “emotional replay.” Limiting phantasia to mental reproductions of physical senses doesn’t make much sense to me when you consider that there are no mental sense organs. Each of these things (sight, sound, emotion, balance, etc.) are modalities of thought and memory that may or may not be available for a given person to use.

    Now consider imaginary emotion in the present. Try to follow my prompts below:

    Imagine feeling nostalgic.
    Imagine feeling angry.
    Imagine feeling happy.

    More specifically, I don’t mean to conceptualize these feelings without actually experiencing the emotions in your mind. I also don’t mean to steer yourself into experiencing these emotions directly by e.g. recalling something that will make you actually feel these ways (in a way you then wouldn’t be able to just switch back out of on-demand).

    To me, these prompts are nearly nonsensical. But not so for people with emotional phantasia!

    It also wouldn’t be surprising if these two things (emotional replay and imaginary emotion, for lack of better terms) are separable. E.g., some visual phantasics can only see things from their memories; not new things they’ve never previously seen with their eyes (e.g., they can visualize a beach they’ve visited or seen in photos, but not an entirely new beach). Phantasic capabilities don’t seem to consistently apply to the past, present, and future for everyone equally.

    This is all hard to make sense of for people who, like me, experience emotions as outputs only. But some people access/use emotions as modalities of thought — emotional states on their own that don’t need to be conjured. Some people even describe thinking in emotion, rather than in words or images. This is more common to hear from people who do not have an inner monologue.

    I’m eager to learn more about this myself, and it’s very likely my understanding and descriptions can improve. But keep in mind that different modes of thinking are just extremely non-intuitive in general since we all seem to assume by default that other people’s methods of thought work the same as our own.

  6. Hi Stephen,

    I’m on the full-on hyper side of the phantasia spectrum, constantly bombarded with images, sounds (music), conversations and emotions. I’m 41 and recently diagnosed with ADHD coupled with performance anxiety. I’m interested in how the way in which we imagine the world affects our mood- would you know about any work that delves deeper into this?

  7. Oh my goodness. I stumbled on this 2 days ago and never knew these things had names! So many things in life make sense now!! I am so close to your Meena I guess..and so is my 15 yo daughter. Her anxiety and difficulty falling asleep without white noise and difficulty dealing with silence seem to be from heightened auditory hyperphantasia!!!
    Being an optometrist, I am just learning about the role of visual cortex and slowly establishing aphantasia following vision loss in adults. I have also learnt that visual aphantasia has helped with increased perception through other senses while adapting to vision loss as an adult. Thank you for this article.

  8. I literally learned about this stuff 1hr. Been able to do all the imagery stuff since kindergarten and maybe a little before than. The smell, taste and touch was something I haven’t tried or done before, I tried it now and I can do it all.

    Since I was a kid if I watch a tv show or movie I could reply the entire thing as if I was watching it audio included. Relying it and fast forwarding it. Probably the best ability I can do is like autocad you know the 3d program I can build anything I want in front of me as if it was real. I’ve always thought everybody could do it.

  9. I’m hyper. Just today I began wondering about this when exercising to music. As always this was one of the songs that gave me chills. I over-react to many songs. I can imagine any scene that is even half way described. Is it surprising I read at least 300 sci-fi/ fantasy novels a year? I’ve been putting imaginary details into everything I see in my environment since I was very small.

    Only now, at the age of 78, did I start to wonder about this. My sense of smell and taste are far too sensitive. Even Covid did not affect them. I can visualize anything that is described.

    I should add that I have what is called Autobiographical Episodic Memory. My first memory, not an important one at all, occurred when I was 1.5 yrs. This type of memory means you remember episodes from your past (far too many in my case) just as if they just occurred. Hair dresser take a foot off your hair and ruin it when she was only supposed to cut 4″? (yes, that happened!) And I’m still angry! I can’t help it! It just happened! Yes, about 50 yrs ago! Stupid, I know! I can still see her. I see the entire day. Hyper visualization coupled with this kind of memory? NO FUN! So I strive to always stay calm, no matter what is thrown at me–and I read a lot.

    I never realized that some people could not visualize what they were reading. I get unhappy sometimes when an author fails to give sufficient physical description of a character, leaving me to do so myself, only to have them later do so, thereby contradicting my imagined picture.

    Also I am extremely empathic. I feel others’ emotions all the time which is actually uncomfortable, especially when you’re around dysfunctional people. I develop migraines when pushed too far.

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