A recent post reprinted a brilliant new theory of aphantasia. Here I discuss the method that is being used to evaluate aphantasia in people who think that they may have it. Unfortunately, the news isn’t all that good.
A ‘Rolex watch’ sold in a street market is unlikely to be genuine. To avoid disappointment, it is always best to avoid imitations. That’s why, when you see them for sale in a street market, you’d walk on by.
The VVIQ is a quite well-known instrument for the investigation of visual imagery vividness. The instrument has been used in multiple published investigations and it been translated into multiple different languages and similar questionnaires have been designed for many other sensory modalities.
A few years ago, a variant of the VVIQ appeared on the Aphantasia Network website under the label “Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz“. This variant was unapproved, untested and unvalidated. Recently – I don’t know exactly when – the ‘VVIQuiz’ label got deleted along with the slider for making vividness ratings. Both changes are positive, but other aspects of their variant mean that the lack of known psychometric properties makes its reliability and validity uncertain and this makes its use with a sample of nearly half a million people a little concerning.
Misleading ‘VVIQ’ Variant as a Measure of ‘Aphantasia’
For a small minority of people, so-called ‘congenital aphantasics’, the capacity for voluntary visual imagery is alleged to be unavailable (Zeman, Dewar & Della Sala, 2015). In the absence of any voluntary mental imagery, conscious experience would consist of “unheard” words, “unheard” music, and other kinds of non-imagistic mental experiences. Aphantasics must rely on a more generic, verbal methods to recall episodic memories, to set goals and to plan future activity. These compensatory abilities remain largely un-investigated.
An unfortunate and misleading online variant of what is purported to be the ‘VVIQ’ is being used to screen people who believe they may be ‘aphantasic’, i.e., lacking any consciously experienced voluntary mental imagery. This online variant of the ‘VVIQ’ employs a different rating scale in the initial instructions in which the word ‘realistic’ is used instead of ‘clear’. Then, in the rating scale that participants actually use to rate their image vividness, the word ‘realistic’ is not used but there are six other changes to the original VVIQ.
|Original VVIQ||Online Aphantasia Network Variant VVIQ||Changes|
|Perfectly clear and as vivid as normal vision||Perfectly clear and lively as real seeing||i)‘as vivid’ changed to ‘lively’ ii)‘normal vision’ changed to ‘real seeing’|
|Clear and reasonably vivid||Clear and lively||iii)‘reasonably vivid’ changed to ‘lively’|
|Moderately clear and vivid||Moderately clear and lively||iv)‘vivid’ changed to ‘lively’|
|Vague and dim||Dim and vague; flat||v)‘vague and dim’ changed to ‘dim and vague’
vi) new descriptor ‘flat’ inserted
|No image at all, you only “know” that you are thinking of an object||No image at all, you only “know” that you are thinking of the object||None|
The online variant is not the VVIQ and it has unknown psychometric properties. The effect of the six changes on vividness scores is unknown. To the best of this writer’s knowledge, the variant version of the VVIQ has never been directly compared to the original and it has never been psychometrically validated. There is no way of really knowing what any of the scores really mean. Yet a half a million people have been given imagery vividness scores using the variant measure.
The majority of investigators interested in aphantasia want to compare their findings with others using a common standard. But that isn’t possible using the online version. In addition to changing the VVIQ itself, the aphantasia website misinforms participants about the distribution of visual image vividness. The website states that there are four categories of imagery vividness: “Visual Aphantasia or image-free imagination; Visual Hypophantasia or mostly image-free imagination; Visual Phantasia or vivid visual imagination; Visual Hyperphantasia or extremely vivid visual imagery.”
This four-fold framework ignores the large, central portion of the normal distribution where 90% of people have their vividness scores. This framework is scientifically misleading.
Another unfortunate, but not totally unexpected, feature of the Aphantasia Network is the creeping element of commercial exploitation. The website offers to assess “how vividly you imagine sounds, smells, movement and more, view your full imagination profile” at another website where participants pay $19.99 (see Imagination Spectrum).
Sadly, it was inevitable that somebody would commercially exploit a questionnaire that for 50 years has been a free resource for the use of researchers.
The same site also sells not-too-cheap T-shirts and baseball caps. The aphantasia network’s white T shirt costing $22.95-$31.55 is shown here.
Until the variant VVIQ has been shown to be psychometrically equivalent to the original VVIQ, users are advised to treat the Variant with caution. The online variant is unlikely to yield valid or reliable data. The best policy is to avoid it altogether. It is always best to avoid imitations.
PLEASE NOTE: Researchers are free to use the original VVIQ in their research projects. It is available here online and there is no need to seek permission.