This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online
Do you have a good imagination? When you picture something with your “mind’s eye”, is it as clear as day, or do you have to squint? To give yourself a mental sight-test, take the version of the vividness of visual imagery questionnaire below, using the following scale: (1) You can’t see an image at all, (2) The image is very vague… (3)…moderately clear and vivid, (4)…clear and vivid, (5)… as clear and vivid as real life.
Think of a friend or relative who you see often (but is not there now). How clearly can you picture (a) his/her face and body, (b) the way usually s/he holds her head and body, (c) the way s/he walks, (d) Colours in particular clothes s/he often wears?
Now think of a shop that you often go to. How clearly can you picture (a) the shop from across the road (b) the window display, (c) the entrance and door, (d) buying something, paying in cash?
Take your average to find your overall score: 1-2 = poor; 3 = average; 4-5 = very good. Now, you might think that, in reality, we are all pretty much alike in terms of our mind’s eye, and that the different scores just reflect differences in the way that we describe our imaginations. But if so, you’d be mistaken: A famous study conducted in the 1970s by psychologist David Marks demonstrated that “very-good” visualizers, as mentioned by this questionnaire, were indeed able to correctly recall significantly more details of a display that they had just been shown than were “poor visualizers” (also, at least in some parts of the study, women outperformed men). Indeed, extreme “aphantasia” – the complete lack of any mental images – can have profound effects, as it effectively renders people unable to recall past events in the “first person” or to imagine themselves in different possible futures.
Marks, D. F. (1973). Visual imagery differences in the recall of pictures. British journal of Psychology, 64(1), 17-24.
A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Are You Smarter Than A Chimpanzee? by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £12.99) for £11.04 at bookshop.theguardian.com