It’s exciting to find a little-known phenomenon that might give us some insight into the human mind. By studying extreme imagination we might be able to better understand and harness the different ways that we think and visualise.
When you are absorbed in a novel, what does your mind’s eye see? For many of us, it is a foggy, low-contrast approximation of the scenes described, no matter how evocatively they are written. Not so for Clare Dudeney. “When people describe things, especially gory things, I visualise them so vividly it’s like I’m experiencing them first-hand,” she says. “A few years ago, I was on the train reading a passage about someone who got a nail stuck in their foot and I passed out.”
Dudeney is one of an unknown number of people with this ability, known as hyperphantasia. She only realised it a few years ago. Mental imagery is inherently private, after all. It is hard to articulate what you see in your own mind’s eye, never mind get a sense of how it compares with everyone else’s. But we now know it differs wildly between individuals. Some people find it impossible to picture their own bedroom, while others, like Dudeney, can call to mind images as sharp as they appear at the cinema.
These extremes of imagination are intriguing. A better grasp of what is going on in the brains of people who experience them could help tease out the role of mental imagery in emotion and mental health – and may be promising territory in the search for treatments for various psychological disorders. People with extraordinary imaginations might even reveal something about how we all experience the world.