The phenomenology of mental imagery in people with intellectual disabilities

Olivia Mary Hewitt*, Peter E. Langdon, Susie A. Hales, Michael Larkin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECTIVES: Mental imagery is important in the development and maintenance of psychological disorders and well-being but has been neglected in people with intellectual disabilities. A detailed idiographic analysis of the lived experience of mental imagery in this population is presented.

DESIGN: This qualitative study uses interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). It involved inclusive research methods with people with intellectual disabilities and other stakeholders (including family members, advocates, support workers and intellectual disability service managers).

METHODS: Ten individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with people with mild-moderate intellectual disabilities. Participants were opportunistically sampled through organisations providing community services to people with intellectual disabilities in the UK. Two men and eight women (mean age 43 years) participated. Interviews were audio-recorded and analysed using IPA.

RESULTS: People with intellectual disabilities are able to experience a range of rich and detailed mental images across all sensory modalities. Participants reported changes in affect based on mental imagery, and an ability to experience both spontaneous and deliberate mental images. The emotional saliency of the object of mental imagery appeared to influence participants' ability to engage with imagery. A number of adaptations make mental imagery more accessible and easier to report. The ability of people with intellectual disabilities to experience vivid mental imagery has important clinical implications for the use of a range of mental imagery interventions with this population.

CONCLUSIONS: The need to consider mental imagery interventions for this population, and how these can be adapted to ensure accessibility is a priority for people with intellectual disabilities and psychological disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-39
Number of pages15
JournalPsychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice
Issue number1
Early online date26 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 The Authors. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of The British Psychological Society. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License[], which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funding: OH is supported by an NIHR Clinical Doctoral Fellowship (NIHR300501).


  • intellectual disability
  • interpretative phenomenological analysis
  • learning disability
  • mental imagery
  • phenomenology
  • qualitative


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