Aphantasia, hyperphantasia and daydreaming

Aphantasia is one of those concepts that, like maladaptive daydreaming, gets mentioned in popular psychology articles occasionally. It generates a little flurry of attention and then disappears again.

What are aphantasia and hyperphantasia?

Aphantasia is the inability to visualise things in your mind’s eye. If you have aphantasia, you can’t form mental images of people you know, situations you’ve experienced or scenarios you imagine. You don’t “see” in your imagination. And it’s not just seeing. Aphantasia can also mean that you don’t mentally “hear” a recalled conversation or “feel” the sand beneath your feet when you imagine walking on a beach.

At the other end of the imagination spectrum is hyperphantasia. People with hyperphantasia imagine things so vividly that it’s almost as if they’re really seeing, hearing and feeling them. Most people fall somewhere between the extremes of aphantasia and hyperphantasia. When we imagine something, we get some or all of the details, but it’s not as clear as seeing it physically there in front of us.

I fall in the not-quite-hyperphantasic part of the spectrum. When I imagine something, it’s very vivid and detailed, but it’s not the same as seeing it in reality. I’ve sometimes described it as like experiencing a memory in present tense.

Can people with aphantasia immersively daydream?

When I first learned about immersive and maladaptive daydreaming, I assumed that all daydreamers must be hyperphantasic or nearly so. After all, that’s what makes daydreaming so compelling. My characters are real to me, in part, because I can see their faces as clearly as if they were real people. When a character gives me a hug, I feel their arms around me. If a daydream scene is set outdoors at night, I can see the stars and feel the breeze on my face. If I imagine being in a fight, I feel the adrenaline rush. It may not be real, but it feels real, and that’s why I go back to it again and again.

So I was intrigued to learn that not all maladaptive daydreamers can generate vivid mental images. In fact, it’s possible to be an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer and have aphantasia. Because, it turns out, there is far more to imagination than just the ability to visualise. And there is far more to daydreaming than being able to “see” our settings and characters.

Some daydreamers don’t visualise their scenes and characters; they hear the daydream instead. The experience is similar to reading a book. You hear the words in your mind but don’t necessarily form a mental image. And if your daydreams mostly involve conversations between your characters, the dialogue is probably the most compelling part of the experience anyway. So I can see how someone who doesn’t form mental images could still have very rich and complex auditory daydreams.

But what about people with multisensory aphantasia, who don’t mentally see, hear or feel? Is it still possible for them to daydream? Apparently, the answer is yes. They daydream conceptually. Not being able to see or hear your characters doesn’t mean you don’t know what they’re like or what they’re doing. You don’t need to visualise a scene to know what’s happening in it. And you don’t need to visualise a character to be emotionally connected to them. Aphantasia isn’t a lack of imagination. It’s just a different way of experiencing imagination.

Is your daydreaming more likely to be maladaptive if you’re hyperphantasic?

I do wonder whether daydreaming is as compelling when you can’t experience the rich detail that comes with being able to form visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (feeling) mental images. So, although people with aphantasia can daydream, I suspect the threshold for them to develop maladaptive daydreaming may be higher than for hyperphantasics.

Maladaptive daydreaming is a coping mechanism. It’s how we run away from our problems. If you’re hyperphantasic, your imagination is a great place to run to, because you can create an imaginary life that’s almost as real as your real one. But if you’re aphantasic, I think your coping mechanism of choice might be mindlessly scrolling social media, or binge-watching TV, or some other addictive behaviour that isn’t so dependent on the vividness of your mental imagery.

So although people with aphantasia can develop maladaptive daydreaming, I suspect it’s more common among people with hyperphantasia. But regardless of where you fall on the aphantasia-hyperphantasia scale, your imagination is what it is. And when that’s the only thinking style you’ve ever known, it’s very hard to wrap your head around the idea that not everyone imagines in the same way.

I still find the idea of daydreaming without mental images hard to grasp. But equally, people with aphantasia find it hard to understand what it’s like to be able to “see” things in your mind’s eye. It’s all part of the fascinating diversity of the human experience. So whether you’re aphantasic, hyperphantasic or somewhere in between, there is nothing wrong with you. And your ability to visualise has no bearing on how imaginative or creative you are.

[Photo by Nathan Timblin]