About the study

‘The Eye’s Mind – a study of the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture’ is a research project, which launched in January 2015, funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Innovation Award. ‘Follow-on Funding’ was awarded for dissemination in 2017.

It is led by the neurologist Adam Zeman, who has a wide interest in the neural basis of experience, in collaboration with the art historian John Onians, who is a pioneer in the use of neuroscience in the humanities. The project unites researchers and disciplines normally isolated from one another in order to study our distinctively human ability to imagine, highlight links between our experience, brain science and art, and throw light on the wide variation in our capacity to ‘visualise’.

Imagination is surely one of the things that makes us human. It allows us to escape from the here and now, and to travel into the past and the future, the minds of others, the centre of the atom and the outer reaches of space. It allows us to envisage unrealised possibilities, and, sometimes, to bring them about. Our ability to ‘visualise’, to see things ‘in the mind’s eye’ is a key part of our ability to imagine. This project investigates the ability from both scientific and artistic perspectives, pursuing three related strands of enquiry:

Strand 1:

A systematic meta-analysis of the large body of research that has examined what happens in the brain when we imagine – and specifically ‘visualise’ –  searching for consistent patterns in the varied and sometimes conflicting results of previous studies. View Winlove et al – The neural correlates

Strand 2:

A review of the insights into and theories of visual imagination which artists, students of art, philosophers and others have proposed over the two and half thousand years since such thinking began. We ask what questions are raised, by these insights and theories, for the science of imagination. View Frontiers in Psychology

Strand 3:

A study of individuals whose visual imagery lies at the extremes of the vividness spectrum. A small proportion of healthy individuals, perhaps two or three in a hundred, lack visual imagination completely,  a phenomenon we have termed aphantasia, while others have imagery as vivid as ‘real seeing’ – hyperphantasia. We are using interviews, brain imaging techniques, and psychological tests to learn more about these ‘imagery extremes’.

The ‘Eye’s Mind’ researchers are keen to hear from those whose visual imagery lies at the extremes of the vividness spectrum. If you would be interested in taking part in research, please get in touch.

Image: Heartbeat 1′, Susan Aldworth 2010