Involuntary Visual Imagery

I’ve become interested in the topic of involuntary visual imagery because of my own recent experiences. After my partner died of cancer, I’ve had periodic episodes of involuntary visual imagery (akin to flashbacks) of traumatic events leading up to her death. I’ve also had images of places appear for no apparent reason. The places themselves are neutral, but in the context of loss they become fraught with distress. {As an aside, I have vivid auditory imagery of popular songs which can play in my head with high fidelity.}

Today I was reviewing a paper, with a song playing in my mind in the background (Save a Prayer by Duran Duran, which I had heard a few days before). It’s a sad song, but I was managing the workload just fine. Then an image of driving onto the on-ramp of the Second Narrows Bridge appeared in my head and totally derailed me1. The view wasn’t from the car, like I was driving, but more from above (a bird’s eye view), like a detached observer fixed in mid-air. It reminded me of all the travel to a city I may not see again (especially of all the trips back and forth during the last months).

Last week, I was writing a report at work, and suddenly a vivid image of standing across the street from the BC Cancer Agency appeared. My partner had 6 weeks of radiation there in 2015. This was even more upsetting, for obvious reasons.2


This isn’t a new phenomenon for me, although the current level of distress is novel. I have very strong memories of significant places, and sometimes an image of a specific location from my past springs to mind for no apparent reason. These visual images can be accompanied by a sense of derealization, a subjective alteration in my perception of the outside world. Revisiting these old places from childhood was disorienting:

I went on this trip once, back to my hometown after a long absence. Have you ever felt that your surroundings seem odd and distant, and that you’re completely detached from them? That the things and places around you aren’t real? This can happen to me, on occasion.

It did on this trip, perhaps because I’ve dreamed about those places so many times that the real places and the dream places are blurred in memory.

Visual imagery can be an elusive phenomenon to study scientifically, but there’s a solid literature that I’ll eventually review. A recent fMRI experiment examined the neural correlates of visual imagery vividnesss, and the authors reviewed 11 previous papers on the topic (Fulford et al., 2018). An early study found that visual imagery ability may be associated with flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder (Bryant & Harvey, 1996). I recently speculated that individuals with both (the inability to form mental images) and PTSD must not have visual flashbacks.

Seven years ago, I wrote a grant that was mercilessly rejected (one of many); the only section of the proposal that the reviewers liked was on imagery. So I’ll retrieve that file, dust off the virtual cobwebs, and perhaps look at the approach with a fresh set of eyes (so to speak). A bleary set of eyes is more a more apt description…


ADDENDUM Jan 17 2019 (2:22AM): I didn’t mention that the image below came to mind while I was writing this post. These sorts of situations, when you’re preoccupied with doing something else like reading and writing, aren’t the most conducive conditions to voluntarily imagining a visual scene or recalling a visual autobiographical memory. And yet there it was, Phibbs Exchange, appearing without warning or conscious thought.

Question for the readers: Do any of you experience involuntary visual imagery, whether confined to visual images alone or incorporating other sensory modalities (e.g., hearing, smell, touch)?



1 We were in a long-distance relationship that involved travel between Vancouver and California. I’ve taken great pains to find images on Google Maps that are the closest to those conjured up by my mind.

2 She was told she was “cured” several months after that, which clearly was not the case. Imaging the liver in all those subsequent CT/MRI screenings was not part of their “protocol” (despite suspicious early results, and despite the fact that the liver is the most likely site of metastasis). So you can see why imagery of staring at that building was quite upsetting.


Bryant RA, Harvey AG. (1996). Visual imagery in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Trauma Stress. 9(3):613-9.

Fulford J, Milton F, Salas D, Smith A, Simler A, Winlove C, Zeman A. (2018). The neural correlates of visual imagery vividness–An fMRI study and literature review. Cortex 105:26-40.