The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia

Marcus Wicken, Rebecca Keogh*, Joel Pearson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


One proposed function of imagery is to make thoughts more emotionally evocative through sensory simulation, which can be helpful both in planning for future events and in remembering the past, but also a hindrance when thoughts become overwhelming and maladaptive, such as in anxiety disorders. Here, we report a novel test of this theory using a special population with no visual imagery: aphantasia. After using multi-method verification of aphantasia, we show that this condition, but not the general population, is associated with a flat-line physiological response (skin conductance levels) to reading and imagining frightening stories. Importantly, we show in a second experiment that this difference in physiological responses to fear-inducing stimuli is not found when perceptually viewing fearful images. These data demonstrate that the aphantasic individuals' lack of a physiological response when imaging scenarios is likely to be driven by their inability to visualize and is not due to a general emotional or physiological dampening. This work provides evidence that a lack of visual imagery results in a dampened emotional response when reading fearful scenarios, providing evidence for the emotional amplification theory of visual imagery.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210267
Pages (from-to)1-6
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1946
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • visual imagery
  • fear
  • SCL
  • aphantasia
  • emotion
  • skin conductance


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