Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aphantasia: the rare brain condition that darkens the mind’s eye
A new study provides validation for the recently identified phenomenon.
- Aphantasia, a recently identified psychological phenomenon, describes when people can't conjure visualizations in their mind's eye.
- A new study published in Cortex compared the visual memories of aphantasic participants with a group of controls.
- Its results found experimental validation for the condition.
Escapism is one of the imagination's great joys. Through fantastic literature, we can explore the vast stretches Arrakis's deserts or the forests of Middle Earth alongside Gandalf the Grey. We can embark on vacations weeks in advance and enjoy a sunny beach while at our desks. We can relive a cherished memory with a favorite relative in an instant, and, of course, always rely on our flock of trusty sheep to lull us to sleep.
We manage this through what is colloquially called "the mind's eye," our ability to generate psychological images without sensory input. However, such escapism is not possible for people with the rare, and only recently identified, condition aphantasia. People with aphantasia cannot conjure mental images—original or from memory. Instead, their minds' eyes produce dark, blank canvases that cannot be painted in. As Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, told UChicago News:
"Some individuals with aphantasia have reported that they don't understand what it means to 'count sheep' before going to bed. They thought it was merely an expression, and had never realized until adulthood that other people could actually visualize sheep without seeing them."
For such individuals, literature may produce facts but not visual representations. Arrakis isn't a planet of vast deserts but vast emptiness, Gandalf the Grey a colorless, featureless blob. Sunny beaches can't be visited in their imaginations but must remain on the office calendar until summer vacation. And while memories exist, they cannot be visually recalled except between scrapbook cellophane.
Scientists don't yet know what causes aphantasia, whether it's a distinct psychological condition, or, indeed, if we are simply jarring against language's limited ability to accurately describe our internal realities. But a burgeoning body of research—among it a new study led by Bainbridge and published in Cortex last month—suggests the condition is more than misfiring expressions.
Changing our understanding of the mind's eye
Francis Galton was the first to describe a condition that would today be recognized as aphantasia.
Though no long-term studies have focused on aphantasia, its history stretches back more than a century. Francis Galton first described people with "no power of visualising" in 1880, an observation made during his breakfast-table survey. At that time, however, the science of psychology was still in its infancy, and Galton's observation was shelved like so many other early-day curios—brought down and dusted off by the occasional psychologist but given little attention before being shelved again.
That changed in 2003 when neurologist Adam Zeman was contacted by a 65-year-old man who claimed his mind's eye went blind. During a coronary angioplasty, the man suffered a small stroke that damaged his brain. Afterward, he lost his ability to render psychological imagery.
"He had vivid imagery previously," Zeman told Science Focus. "He used to get himself to sleep by imagining friends and family. Following the cardiac procedure, he couldn't visualise anything, his dreams became avisual, [and] he said that reading was different because previously he used to enter a visual world and that no longer happened. We were intrigued."
Zeman and his colleagues began a case study into the man's condition. Tests found he could describe objects and their color but could not visualize them. (He claimed he simply knew the answer.) He could rotate three-dimensional images in his mind, but it took him longer to manage than controls. And brain imaging showed brain regions associated with visualization to be dark when he tried to imagine images.
Zeman published his case study, and it was subsequently featured in Discover magazine. After the story's publication, more people reached out to Zeman. They too claimed their minds' eyes were blind, but unlike Zeman's original subject, many of these people had lived with the condition their entire lives. They only became aware of their condition later in life when, as Bainbridge mentions above, they realized that the mental worlds described by friends and family were based on more than fanciful expressions.
While some managed to live normal, even thriving, lives without visual memory, others found the condition distressing. As one subject told Zeman and his coauthors: "After the passing of my mother, I was extremely distraught in that I could not reminisce on the memories we had together. I can remember factually the things we did together, but never an image. After seven years, I hardly remember her."
Zeman published another case study focusing on 21 of these individuals in 2015. It was here that he coined the phrase* "aphantasia," from the Greek phantasia meaning "imagination." Since then, Zemen has connected with thousands of people claiming to have the condition, and his studies have raised intriguing questions for researchers interested in memory and the mind.
Visualizing the difference
On the left, an aphantastic participant's recreation of a photo from memory. On the right, the participant's recreation when the photo was available for reference.
Bainbridge is one such researcher. Her previous work has focused on perception and memory, both their underlying mechanics and how this content is stored. In her latest study, she and her co-authors aimed to not only tease out the distinctions between object and spatial memory but also deepen our understanding of aphantasia.
To do this, they invited 61 people with aphantasia and a group of controls to participate in their experiment. They showed each participant a photo of a room and then asked them to draw it in as much detail as possible. For one test, the participants were allowed to keep the photo for reference. For the next test, however, they had to draw the room from memory. Bainbridge and her coauthors then put the drawings online to be quantified by nearly 3,000 online assessors, who were asked to score both sets of test images for object and spatial details.
The results showed the aphantastic participants had difficulty with the memory experiment. They produced reproductions with fewer objects, less color, and fewer details than their control peers. Many leaned on verbal scaffolding in lieu of visual details—for example, one participant drew a rudimentary box with the word "window" rather than a window with a frame and panes of glass.
Although the aphantastic patients drew rooms with fewer objects, they were very accurate in their placement of those objects. They also made fewer errors than the controls and avoided incorporating features and furniture absent in the original images. The researchers write that this suggests high spatial accuracy despite a lack of visualization.
"One possible explanation could be that because aphantasics have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies like verbal-coding of the space," Bainbridge told UChicago News. "Their verbal representations and other compensatory strategies might actually make them better at avoiding false memories."
The online assessors found no significant differences between the aphantastic participants and the controls when the original photo was available for reference. In fact, some of the aphantastic participants produced stunningly accurate and artistic recreations during this test.
Bainbridge and her coauthors suggest that these results not only support the idea that object and spatial information is store in separate neural networks. They also provide "experimental validation" for aphantasia as a valid psychological phenomenon.
Discovering a new reality in aphantasia?
And Bainbridge's study has joined an ever-growing panoply. A 2018 study, also published in Cortex, measured the binocular rivalry—the visual phenomenon in which awareness fluctuates when different images are presented to each eye—of participants with and without aphantasia. When primed beforehand, control participants choose the primed stimuli more often than not. Meanwhile, aphantastic participants showed no such favoritism, whether primed or not. Like Bainbridge's study, these results suggest a physiological underpinning for aphantasia.
Another critical factor is growing awareness. As more studies and stories are published, more and more people are realizing they aren't alone. Such a realization can empower others to come forward and share their experiences, which in turn spurs researchers with new questions and experiences to study and hypothesize over.
Yet, there's still much work to be done. Because this psychological phenomenon has only recently been identified—Galton's observation notwithstanding—there has been sparingly little research on the condition and what research has been done has relied on participants who self-report as having aphantasia. While researchers have used the Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz to test for aphantasia, there is currently no universal method for diagnosing the condition. And, of course, there is the ever-vexing question of how one can assess one mind's experiences from another.
"Skeptics could claim that aphantasia is itself a mere fantasy: describing our inner lives is difficult and undoubtedly liable to error," Zeman and his co-authors wrote in their 2015 case study. "We suspect, however, that aphantasia will prove to be a variant of neuropsychological functioning akin to synesthesia [a neurological condition in which one sense is experienced as another] and to congenital prosopagnosia [the inability to recognize faces or learn new ones]."
Time and further research will tell. But scientists need phenomenon to test and questions to experiment on. Thanks to researchers like Zeman and Bainbridge, alongside the many people who came forward to discuss their experiences, they now have both when it comes to aphantasia.
* Zeman also coined the term "hyperphantasia" to describe the condition in which people's psychological imagery is incredibly vivid and well-defined.
- What is the origin of thinking? A new book argues that it's action, not ... ›
- A visual imagination is necessary to get scared - Big Think ›
This is the first successful DNA sequencing on ancient Egyptian mummies, ever.
Egyptologists, writers, scholars, and others, have argued the race of the ancient Egyptians since at least the 1970's. Some today believe they were Sub-Saharan Africans. We can see this interpretation portrayed in Michael Jackson's 1991 music video for “Remember the Time" from his "Dangerous" album. The video, a 10-minute mini-film, includes performances by Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.
Reactionaries, meanwhile, say that there's never been any significant black civilizations—an utter falsehood, of course. There were several in fact, highly advanced African empires and kingdoms throughout history. Curiously, some extreme Right groups have even used blood group data to proclaim a Nordic origin to King Tutankhamun and his brethren.
The problem, it was thought, is that mummy DNA couldn't be sequenced. But a group of international researchers, using unique methods, have overcome the barriers to do just that. They found that the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the peoples of the Near East, particularly from the Levant. This is the Eastern Mediterranean which today includes the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The mummies used were from the New Kingdom and a later period, (a period later than the Middle Kingdom) when Egypt was under Roman rule.
Egyptian mummy. British Museum. Flikr.
Modern Egyptians share 8% of their genome with central Africans, far more than ancient ones, according to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications. The influx of Sub-Saharan genes only occurred within the last 1,500 years. This could be attributed to the trans-Saharan slave trade or just from regular, long distance trade between the two regions. Improved mobility on the Nile during this period increased trade with the interior, researchers claim.
Egypt over the span of antiquity was conquered many times including by Alexander the Great, by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and more. Researchers wanted to know if these constant waves of invaders caused any major genetic changes in the populace over time. Group leader Wolfgang Haak at the Max Planck Institute in Germany said, "The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300 year timespan we studied, suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule."
The study was led by archeogeneticist Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute. Historically, there's been a problem finding intact DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. "The hot Egyptian climate, the high humidity levels in many tombs and some of the chemicals used in mummification techniques, contribute to DNA degradation and are thought to make the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies unlikely," Dr. Krause said.
The mummified remains of Queen Hatshepsut wet-nurse Sitre-In. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 2007. Getty Images.
It was also thought that, even if genetic material were recovered, it may not be reliable. Despite this, Krause and colleagues have been able to introduce robust DNA sequencing and verification techniques, and completed the first successful genomic testing on ancient Egyptian mummies.
Each came from Abusir el-Meleq, an archaeological site situated along the Nile, 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo. This necropolis there houses mummies which display aspects revealing a dedication to the cult of Osiris, the green-skinned god of the afterlife.
First, the mitochondrial genomes from 90 of mummies were taken. From these, Krause and colleagues found that they could get the entire genomes from just three of the mummies in all. For this study, scientists took teeth, bone, and soft tissue samples. The teeth and bones offered the most DNA. They were protected by the soft tissue which has been preserved through the embalming process.
Researchers took these samples back to a lab in Germany. They began by sterilizing the room. Then they put the samples under UV radiation for an hour to sterilize them. From there, they were able to perform DNA sequencing.
An Egyptian necropolis. Getty Images.
Scientists also gathered data on Egyptian history and archaeological data of northern Africa, to give their discoveries some context. They wanted to know what changes had occurred over time. To find out, they compared the mummies' genomes to that of 100 modern Egyptians and 125 Ethiopians. “For 1,300 years, we see complete genetic continuity," Krause said.
The oldest mummy sequenced was from the New Kingdom, 1,388 BCE, when Egypt was at the height of its power and glory. The youngest was from 426 CE, when the country was ruled from Rome. The ability to acquire genomic data on ancient Egyptians is a dramatic achievement, which opens up new avenues of research.
One limitation according to their report, “all our genetic data were obtained from a single site in Middle Egypt and may not be representative for all of ancient Egypt." In southern Egypt they say, the genetic makeup of the people may have been different, being closer to the interior of the continent.
Researchers in future want to determine exactly when Sub-Saharan African genes seeped into the Egyptian genome and why. They'll also want to know where ancient Egyptians themselves came from. To do so, they'll have to identify older DNA from, as Krause said, “Back further in time, in prehistory."
Using high-throughput DNA sequencing and cutting-edge authentication techniques, researchers proved they could retrieve reliable DNA from mummies, despite the unforgiving climate and damaging embalming techniques.
Further testing will likely contribute much knowledge to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians and perhaps even those from other places as well, helping to fill in the gaps in humanity's collective memory.
To learn about the latest Egyptian archaeological find, click here:
A new study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity as inexperienced and experienced soccer players took penalty kicks.
- The new study is the first to use in-the-field imaging technology to measure brain activity as people delivered penalty kicks.
- Participants were asked to kick a total of 15 penalty shots under three different scenarios, each designed to be increasingly stressful.
- Kickers who missed shots showed higher activity in brain areas that were irrelevant to kicking a soccer ball, suggesting they were overthinking.
In a 2019 soccer match, Swansea City was down 1-0 against West Brom late in the first half. A penalty was called against West Brom. Swansea midfielder Bersant Celina was preparing to deliver a penalty kick. He scuttled up to the ball, but his foot only made partial contact, lobbing it weakly to the right.
Was it a simple mistake? Maybe. But there might be deeper explanations for why professional athletes choke under high-pressure situations.
A new study published in Frontiers in Computer Science used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to analyze the brain activity of inexperienced and experienced soccer players as they missed penalty shots. Although past research has explored why soccer players miss penalty shots, the recent study is the first to do so using in-the-field fNIRS measurement.
The results showed that kickers who choked were activating parts of their brain associated with long-term thinking, self-instruction, and self-reflection. The chokers, in other words, were overthinking it.
The psychology of penalty kicks
Penalty shots offer an interesting case study of how mental pressure affects physical performance. After all, there's a lot at stake, not only because the kick can sometimes render a win or loss, but also because there are sometimes millions of people anxiously watching, some of whom might have a financial interest in the outcome.
That pressure is no joke. For example, research on Men's World Cup penalty shoot-outs has shown that when the score is tied and a goal means an immediate win, players score 92 percent of kicks. But when teams are facing elimination in a shootout, and the kick determines an immediate tie or loss, players only score 60 percent of the time.
"How can it be that football players with a near perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 meters) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 meters?" study co-author Max Slutter, of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said in a press release.
"Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick."
In the new study, the researchers aimed to answer two key questions about choking under pressure among both experienced and inexperienced players: (1) What is the difference in brain activity between success (scoring) and failure (missing) when taking a penalty kick? (2) What brain activity is associated with performing under pressure during a penalty kick situation?
To find out, the researchers asked ten experienced soccer players and twelve inexperienced players to participate in a penalty-kicking task. The task was divided into three rounds, each of which was designed to be increasingly stressful:
- Round 1 had no goalkeeper and was labeled as a practice round.
- Round 2 had a friendly goalkeeper who wasn't allowed to distract the kicker.
- Round 3 had a competitive goalkeeper who was allowed to distract the kicker, and kickers were also competing for a prize.
Participants kicked five shots in each round. They wore a fNIRS-equipped headset during the task that measured activity in various parts of the brain.
All participants performed worse in the second and third rounds and reported experiencing the most pressure in the third round. Inexperienced players performed worse than experienced players, which might suggest that they were less able to deal with the mental stress.
The locations in which experienced and inexperienced players kicked the ball in each round. Red dots represent missed penalties and green dots represent scored penalties.Slutter et al., Frontiers in Computer Science, 2021.
The neuroscience of choke artists
So, what types of brain activity were associated with missed shots?
The most noticeable result was that kickers missed more shots when they showed higher activity in their prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain associated with long-term planning. This was especially true among participants who reported higher levels of anxiety. More specifically, experienced soccer players who missed shots showed high activity in the left temporal cortex, which is related to self-instruction and self-reflection.
"By activating the left temporal cortex more, experienced players neglect their automated skills and start to overthink the situation," the researchers wrote. "This increase can be seen as a distracting factor."
Also, when players of all experience levels felt anxious and missed shots, they showed less activity in the motor cortex, which is the brain area most directly associated with kicking a penalty shot.
Don't overthink it
The results suggest that mental pressure can activate parts of the brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. In general, expert athletes show more efficient brain activity — that is, more activity in relevant areas, and less activity in irrelevant areas — and therefore experience fewer distractions. This is likely one reason why they were more successful at penalties than inexperienced players in high-stress situations.
This principle is described by neural efficiency theory, and it applies not only to athletes but experts in any field. As you gain mastery over something, you can rely more on automatic brain processes rather than deliberate thinking, which can lead to distractions. The authors of the study concluded that their results provide supporting evidence for neural efficiency theory.
Still, as long our experts are human, it seems that high-pressure situations can turn anyone into a choke artist.
What's the difference between brainwashing and rehabilitation?
- The book and movie, A Clockwork Orange, powerfully asks us to consider the murky lines between rehabilitation, brainwashing, and dehumanization.
- There are a variety of ways, from hormonal treatment to surgical lobotomies, to force a person to be more law abiding, calm, or moral.
- Is a world with less free will but also with less suffering one in which we would want to live?
Alex is a criminal. A violent and sadistic criminal. So, we decide to do something about it. We're going to "rehabilitate" him.
Using a new and exciting "Ludovico" technique, we'll change his brain chemistry to make him an upstanding, moral citizen. Alex will be forced to watch violent movies as his body is pumped with nausea-inducing drugs. After a while, he'll come to associate violence with this horrible sickness. And, after a course of Ludovico, Alex can happily return to society, never again doing an immoral or illegal act. He'll no longer be a danger to himself or anyone else.
This is the story of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and it raises important questions about the nature of moral decisions, free will, and the limits of rehabilitation.
Today's Clockwork Orange
This might seem like unbelievable science fiction, but it might be truer — and nearer — than we think. In 2010, Dr. Molly Crockett did a series of experiments on moral decision-making and serotonin levels. Her results showed that people with more serotonin were less aggressive or confrontational and much more easy-going and forgiving. When we're full of serotonin, we let insults pass, are more empathetic, and are less willing to do harm.
As Fydor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket."
The idea that biology affects moral decisions is obvious. Most of us are more likely to be short-tempered and spiteful if we're tired or hungry, for instance. Conversely, we have the patience of a saint if we just have received some good news, had half a bottle of wine, or had sex.
If our decision-making can be manipulated or determined by our biology, should we not try various interventions to prevent the criminally inclined from harming others?
What is the point of prison? This is itself no easy question, and it's one with a rich philosophical debate. Surely one of the biggest reasons is to protect society by preventing criminals from reoffending. This might be achievable by manipulating a felon's serotonin levels, but why not go even further?
Today, we know enough about the brain to have identified a very particular part of the prefrontal cortex responsible for aggressive behavior. We know that certain abnormalities in the amygdala can result in anti-social behavior and rule breaking. If the purpose of the penal system is to rehabilitate, then why not "edit" these parts of the brain in some way? This could be done in a variety of ways.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine via Flickr / Wikipedia
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a surprisingly common practice in much of the developed world. Its supporters say that it can help relieve major mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder as well as alleviate certain types of seizures. Historically, and controversially, it has been used to "treat" homosexuality and was used to threaten those misbehaving in hospitals in the 1950s (as notoriously depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Of course, these early and crude efforts at ECT were damaging, immoral, and often left patients barely able to function as humans. Today, neuroscience and ECT are much more sophisticated. If we could easily "treat" those with aggressive or anti-social behavior, then why not?
Ideally, we might use techniques such as ECT or hormonal supplementation, but failing that, why not go even further? Why not perform a lobotomy? If the purpose of the penal system is to change the felon for the better, we should surely use all the tools at our disposal. With one fairly straightforward surgery to the prefrontal cortex, we could turn a violent, murderous criminal into a docile and law-abiding citizen. Should we do it?
Is free will worth it?
As Burgess, who penned A Clockwork Orange, wrote, "Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?"
Intuitively, many say yes. Moral decisions must, in some way, be our own. Even if we know that our brains determine our actions, it's still me who controls my brain, no one else. Forcing someone to be good, by molding or changing their brain, is not creating a moral citizen. It's creating a law-abiding automaton. And robots are not humans.
And yet, it begs the question: is "free choice" worth all the evil in the world?
If my being brainwashed or "rehabilitated" means children won't die malnourished or the Holocaust would never happen, then so be it. If lobotomizing or neuro-editing a serial killer will prevent them from killing again, is that not a sacrifice worth making? There's no obvious reason why we should value free will above morality or the right to life. A world without murder and evil — even if it meant a world without free choices for some — might not be such a bad place.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket." Free will's not worth it.
Do you think the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange is a great idea? Should we turn people into moral citizens and shape their brains to choose only what is good? Or is free choice more important than all the evil in the world?