The Eye's Mind- a study of the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture

Innovation Award

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Adam Zeman, University of Exeter


Susan Aldworth, Visual Artist

Professor Fiona Macpherson, University of Glasgow

Professor John Onians, University of East Anglia

Dr Crawford Winlove, University of Exeter

Award Information:

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’, the see things ‘in the mind’s eye’ is a key part of our ability to imagine. This project will bring together researchers from the sciences and the arts to increase our knowledge of visual imagination.

We will focus on three related areas of research. First, we will look systematically at the large body of research that has examined what happens in the brain when we imagine, searching for consistent patterns in the varied and sometimes conflicting results of previous studies. We will be alert to what these patterns may imply for the uses of visual imagination, from daydreaming to artistic creation.  Second, we will review the insights and theories which artists, students of art, philosophers and others have proposed over the two and half thousand years since such thinking began. We will ask what questions are raised, by these insights and theories, for the science of imagination. Finally, we will study 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. This occurrence has been recognised repeatedly but never studied carefully. We will recruit a group of thirty such people and compare them with thirty people who use imagery constantly in their work as visual artists. We will interview the members of both groups to find out how the absence or abundance of visual imagery affects their experience and everyday lives; we will use brain imaging techniques, and psychological tests, to learn more about the causes and consequences of these normal variations in the ability to imagine.  Pursuing these questions will require a team including an art historian, a psychologist, a neurologist, a philosopher and an artist to meet regularly to exchange ideas and plan the work. We will recruit a young researcher to be the project’s research fellow. We expect that he or she will have a background in the arts and an interest in the sciences. We will hold three workshops over the life of the project, which will allow all the researchers involved, and a growing group of collaborators to contribute to the work. The final workshop will be a larger conference at which we will report the findings of the project to experts in the area and interested members of the public. We will give two public lectures, designed to be widely accessible, alongside the conference. We will create a website at the start of the project, updating it as we proceed, providing easily understood information about the project and its findings, and offering opportunities for members of the public to become involved.

In summary, the project will unite researchers who normally work in isolation from one another in a study of our distinctively human ability to imagine. It will highlight links between our experience, brain science and art. It will throw light on the wide variation in our capacity to ‘visualise’. It will pave the way for further work, for example on imagery in other senses, in collaboration with another AHRC project, Rethinking the senses; on neurological and psychiatric disorders, like depression, which can reduce imagination; on how this might be remedied and the use of visual imagination by normal subjects enhanced.

Project Website:

Further information:

Zeman, A, Dewar, MT, Della Sala, S. ‘Lives without imagery- congenital aphantasia’, Cortex, Science Direct,  or read online

Project dates: January 2015- January 2016