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.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.