Background: We have been using a medical artist to record and paint the images patients have of their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and have hypothesized that the reaction to such images might differ in health and IBS, which could have practical implications for future research. Aim To examine reactivity to images in health and IBS. Methods Twelve paintings of IBS were shown to 70 patients to determine the four most evocative images. The spontaneous response to these images and four 'non-IBS painful' and four neutral paintings was assessed in another 100 IBS patients and 100 controls. The prompted reaction in terms of whether an image evoked the notion of pain, bloating or discomfort and to what degree was also recorded. Results Four images depicting bloating and pain scored the highest. These IBS images triggered significantly different reactivity between patients and controls in terms of their spontaneous and prompted responses. Even 'non-IBS painful' and neutral images resulted in exaggerated and frequently significantly different responses in patients than in controls. Conclusions Visual hypersensitivity appears to be another manifestation of the tendency of IBS patients to react adversely to a variety of endogenous and exogenous stimuli. Identifying how individuals relate to different images might also give useful insights into understanding gastrointestinal symptoms. © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.