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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


I have learned a new word: hyperphantasia. A recent article in the New York Times ("All in the Mind's Eye": June 8, 2021) discusses research into aphantasia, a condition which involves an inability to conjure mental images, and its opposite, hyperphantasia, a condition involving extreme visualization. People with hyperphantasia see highly graphic and realistic images in their minds. A memory of an object, for example, can be so real and vivid that the person is able to see every detail as well as smell and taste and feel it long after contact with it.

How I wish this research had been available years ago, so that I would have been able to put a name to what I now believe I have! I created my protagonist, Marcia Gold, as an extreme version of my own mental goings-on. And guess what?! I now know, after reading up on hyperphantasia, that I unwittingly made her mind a very definite example of this condition.

Not surprisingly, hyperphantasia is apparently related to creativity, daydreaming, and memory. Check, check, and check - for me. People with this condition experience everything in a visceral, ultra-realistic manner, and are often described as having "overactive" imaginations. Reading a book can transport the individual with hyperphantasia into the world of a character in the book, for example, to such a degree that the character's experiences are actually felt by the reader. Even recalling them at a later date can instantly conjure the feelings those images provoked. Fear and delusions, as we see in Marcia's case, can be a big part of this mind-set.

People with this condition seem to be highly sensitive and often feel they are living in their minds more than in the real world. In both of my books, Marcia actually feels disturbing events that have happened or are happening to other people as if they are happening to her. Her reactions may seem extreme, but they are consistent with hyperphantasia. A gory scene in a movie, for example, can upset such a person to the degree that this person feels horrified and sick, and this reaction can continue long after the movie is over. In Escaping the Whale, Marcia is personally affected by events on television or in a movie and in history. She feels everyone's pain. This leads to compassion for others but also breaks down her mental defenses and leaves her feelings raw.

My own experiences bear this out. When I dream, the dreams are so vivid and real that when I awaken, I often believe that what I have dreamed has actually happened. It can take me a while to re-adjust to reality. Even later in the day, a dream might come back to me and once again, I will briefly believe it has happened. I am certain this is an example of hyperphantasia. Writing allows me to live in my mind when creating a character and a story. This is a pleasure and a relief. The flip side of it, though, is crashing back to the real world when not working on something. My mind cannot always let go of the imaginary world, and I sometimes become confused trying to separate what really is happening with what I made up in my writing or what I dreamed at night.

In one study, a person with aphantasia was asked by researchers if he would opt to experience hyperphantasia if there were a way to achieve that. The subject of this particular study refused, fearing that the hyperphantasia might not be reversible and he would be plagued by unwanted visions for the rest of his life. This person obviously understands that he is missing something that could be amazing but is afraid of the disadvantages of hyperphantasia, particularly the possibility of being haunted by disturbing, unwanted images and memories.

It's actually a fascinating phenomenon. Having vivid mental pictures can be wonderful, allowing the individual to appreciate beauty and feel deep awe for the wonders of the universe in a vivid, tangible manner. Memories are not fuzzy and vague but clear and real. On the other hand, the condition can play havoc with one's mental health and cause constant pain as traumas are re-imagined and re-lived. This burden can prevent a person from escaping bad memories, which re-play visually in the mind.

. People with hyperphantasia are often involved in creative fields, which is not surprising. Yet those with aphantasia can be creative as well and often have the advantage of not being easily distracted. Research has found that people with aphantasia, however, are more likely to work in math and science fields.

Through use of brain scans, researchers have discovered that circuitry in the brain accounts for the existence of both aphantasia and hyperphantasia. Signals traveling between different regions of the brain use information from the eyes. People with hyperphantasia were found to have stronger signals being sent from the front regions of the brain, which are decision-making regions, to the back of the brain, where visual centers reside. There are, of course, people who fall into neither category. Perhaps those are the well-adjusted among us who are untroubled by disturbing images yet visualize just enough to enjoy their lives!! Good for you, well-adjusted ones!

Now that the existence of aphantasia and hyperphantasia is becoming known, there are websites and blogs where people can connect with others who have the same condition. One person writing on a hyperphantasia blog shared an experience of reading a novel on a train. When a character in the book she was reading was physically injured, this person actually fainted. Feeling the pain as if it was piercing her own body -- I know I can relate to that.

In The Whale Surfaces, which covers the period of Marcia's childhood and adolescence, we see Marcia being tormented by her imagination even as a child. Difficulty in separating her mental images from reality is a part of her life, and she feels that she is not normal. Becoming nauseous and frightened in reaction to stories and events to which she is exposed is not uncommon for her. As an adult in Escaping the Whale, a suffering Marcia laments at one point that there should be a vise allowing her to squeeze unwanted thoughts out of her head. An image to erase images??

What is the answer, then, for people like Marcia? There are times in our lives when we see aphantasia as a desirable state, a state with less intense feeling, the ability to get over bad situations and move on. I know I have often been envious of people who don't feel too deeply or empathize with others too strongly. Their detachment seems to provide protection from mental pain. On the other hand, someone with hyperphantasia might be reluctant to forfeit his or her creative imagination, despite the fact that it may cause a great deal of misery in life.

In my books, Marcia tries everything she can think of to conquer her demons, as she sees it. Denial, distraction, anger, self-talk, mental games, change of locale -- she tries them all, in both books. Ultimately, she realizes that they don't work. The difficult path of understanding herself in order to change and heal lies ahead for her. She, like other hyperphantasiacs (is that a word?) may never be able to stop those vivid imaginings in her mind. But there just might be a way to recognize and handle them so that they do not take over her life.

For Marcia's sake, and for the sake of all the others with the same condition, I certainly hope there is a way.


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