Next time you listen to scary campfire stories, sit with a friend who has aphantasia.
A strong imagination is generally viewed as being a good thing, even if at times an over-active one can result in self-induced terror as you repeat to yourself, "Just because I can vividly picture something terrible happening doesn't mean it will."
A study from researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia suggests that a visual imagination may actually be a requirement for experiencing fear. It suggests some people are less likely to be frightened simply because they lack the imagination it requires. This also means visual stimuli have a special connection to fear and perhaps other emotional experiences.
The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Credit: Martin Villadsen/Adobe Stock/Big Think
It's known that some people have trouble picturing things in their minds. This is called "mind-blindness," or more clinically, "aphantasia." The UNSW Sydney researchers conducted experiments to see if people with aphantasia were harder to scare.
It's believed that aphantasia affects between two and five percent of people, and science is just beginning to understand it. Says the study's senior author Joel Peterson of UNSW Science's Future Minds Lab, "Aphantasia is neural diversity. It's an amazing example of how different our brain and minds can be."
Previous research on aphantasia at UNSW found that it's associated with a general widespread pattern of altered cognitive process, including memory, imagination, and dreams.
Pearson says, "Aphantasia comes in different shapes and sizes. Some people have no visual imagery, while other people have no imagery in one or all of their other senses. Some people dream while others don't."
The new research connects aphantasia for the first time to skin conductivity, a worthy finding all by itself. "This evidence further supports aphantasia as a unique, verifiable phenomenon," says co-author Rebecca Keogh. "This work may provide a potential new objective tool which could be used to help to confirm and diagnose aphantasia in the future."
The current study was prompted by comments made on an aphantasia message boards expressing a disinterest in fiction for people with the condition.
Imagining disturbing imagery when you read scary stories
Credit: pure julia/Unsplash/Big Think
The experiments involved 22 people with aphantasia and 24 people with normal visual imaginations. Individuals were seated alone in a darkened room with electrodes attached to their skin to measure electrical conductivity. Conductivity increases when a person experiences strong emotions. Subjects were shown a succession of 3- to 7-word phrases immediately following one another, with each displayed for two seconds as they developed a frightening narrative.
The stories started innocently enough: "You are at the beach, in the water" or "You're on a plane, by the window." Little by little, unsettling elements were introduced — a mention of a dark flash among distant waves, or people standing on the beach pointing, or the plane shaking as the cabin lights dim.
Pearson reports, "Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualize the stories. The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted."
Not so for the aphantasic participants, of whom he says: "the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined."
Reacting to scary imagery
Credit: Mark Kostich/Adobe Stock
The researchers confirmed that it was the aphantasia which accounted for the different reactions between the two groups by running the experiment again, but this time with pictures instead of words. Visual imagination wasn't necessary — all the disturbing imagery, which included a dead human body and a snake bearing its fangs in threat, were supplied.
This time, both groups of people became similarly unnerved. "The emotional fear response was present when participants actually saw the scary material play out in front of them," says Pearson.
"The findings suggest," Pearson says, "that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think all kind of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren't going to have that emotional 'boom.'"
It also suggests a couple of things about telling scary stories. First, the importance of visual imagination suggests that providing lots of visual details will give a scary story more oomph. Second, people with aphantasia are probably lousy campfire audiences.
Next, the researchers plan to investigate the ways in which disorders such as PTSD might be different for people with aphantasia.
There is no success without failure, but the fear of the latter is what's really keeping you from achieving your goals.
- What does it mean to be a failure? Failing is typically seen as moving in the opposite direction of a specific goal, when in reality, most achievements in history were made possible by a series of non-successes.
- "The very concepts of success and failure are words that never really meant anything," says astronomer Michelle Thaller. She and others argue that successes and failures are inextricably linked, and that how we define them for ourselves is what matters.
- As Ethan Hawke, multidisciplinary filmmaker Karen Palmer, entrepreneurs Steve Case and Tim Ferriss, executive coach Alisa Cohn, and others explain, finding personal success means taking risks, being willing to fail, and recognizing when—and why—things are not working. "Most things will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure," Steve Case says. "That just means that idea failed. And what can you learn from that idea and then move forward."
For democracy to prosper in the long term, we need more people to reach higher levels of education.
- It's difficult to overstate the impact of technology and artificial intelligence. Smart machines are fundamentally reshaping the economy—indeed, society as a whole.
- Seemingly overnight, they have changed our roles in the workplace, our views of democracy—even our family and personal relationships.
- In my latest book, I argue that we can—and must—rise to this challenge by developing our capacity for "human work," the work that only humans can do: thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy.
Until now, it's fair to say that technology and artificial intelligence have tended to make people more passive participants in society. Too many have lost the ability to play an active role in the economy as AI has disrupted the workplace. Too many have become passive consumers of information and are living in self-imposed bubbles of belief. And too many have withdrawn into passive lives of isolation apart from any meaningful engagement in their communities or, in some cases, even their families.
When considering human work and the future of democracy, it's impossible to avoid the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world.
How does one escape the temptations of an AI-created bubble of information and belief? The answer, obviously, is to burst the bubble—to escape by being exposed to ideas and experiences that are fundamentally different from our own.
This begins by being exposed to people who are different from us—who have different beliefs, values, cultures, and life experiences. Human work offers this chance because it is built on human attributes such as empathy, openness, and flexibility—precisely those needed for strong communities and a strong society. The results we need to assure through human work are not just higher incomes but also openness to different cultures, willingness to engage individuals with different ideologies and perspectives, increased likelihood to vote and volunteer, and recognition of the value of open markets and free, democratic systems of government. The characteristics of human work have much more than economic consequences; they are the lifeblood of free people and societies.
People with higher levels of education are less inclined toward authoritarian political preferences.
Credit: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the World Values Survey (WVS), 1994–2014.
When considering human work and the future of democracy, it's impossible to avoid the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world. According to new research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the alarming increase of authoritarianism on a global scale can't be considered in isolation.
The postwar world order was based on the expectation in the West that democracy was spreading throughout the world, country by country, and would eventually become the preferred form of government everywhere. Foreign relations were based on the broad consensus that established democracies should be vigilant and unwavering in offering military and cultural support to emerging democracies. Democracy spread throughout Latin America and even appeared likely to take root in China. The end of the Cold War seemed to confirm the inevitability of democracy's spread, with only a few old-style authoritarian systems left in Cuba, North Korea, and other poor, isolated countries.
Today, the tide seems to be turning in the opposite direction. Authoritarianism—particularly in the form of populist nationalism—has returned to Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. China appears resolute in maintaining state control over political and cultural expression. And we now understand clearly that not even the United States and Western Europe are immune from authoritarianism's allure.
Today, nearly a third of Americans who haven't gone to college believe that having a "strong leader" is good for the country, compared to only about 13% of those with a bachelor's degree.
Of course, much of that allure is based on fear—fear of change, fear of loss of advantage, fear of the other. Authoritarian leaders and wannabes exploit this fear by appealing to group identity and cohesion and by defining those who appear different as a threat. We should recognize that authoritarianism is not just imposed from above—at least, not at first. It is an individual worldview that everyone to a greater or lesser extent is susceptible to. Research on authoritarianism supports the idea that preferences for conformity and social cohesion are among the psychological tendencies that predispose people toward preferring strong hierarchical leadership styles. In other words, individuals who have a greater preference for group cohesion are more inclined to feel threatened by diversity, be intolerant of outsiders, and react by supporting authoritarian leaders.
With its preference for conformity, authoritarianism is a clear threat to liberal democracy and the diversity of expression, belief, and ways of living that it is designed to protect. But the same education system that prepares people for work can play a role in protecting our democratic way of life. Numerous studies going back decades and conducted throughout the world have shown that higher levels of education are inversely correlated with authoritarianism.
Today, nearly a third of Americans who haven't gone to college believe that having a "strong leader" is good for the country, compared to only about 13% of those with a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, about a quarter of people with a high school diploma or less say "military rule would be a good way to govern our country." Only 7% of college grads support that view.
People with higher levels of education are much less likely to be authoritarian in their child-rearing preferences than others. The shift toward raising children who themselves are more tolerant, independent, and inquisitive may be education's most profound effect on society.
Why does education thwart authoritarian attitudes? At its best, higher education strives to promote independent thought and critical examination of established orthodoxy, not to mention inquisitiveness and curiosity. All this stands in stark contrast to the blind acceptance of information and opinion from authorities. Higher education also exposes people to diverse ideas and cultures, showing that differences are not as bad or as dangerous as people may have been conditioned to believe. Education helps people to better understand abstract principles of democracy and equality and how to deal with complexity and differences in society. Education also helps improve interpersonal communication skills—essential for civic participation in a democracy.
But perhaps the most powerful reason education is an antidote to authoritarianism lies even deeper. People with higher levels of education are much less likely to be authoritarian in their child-rearing preferences than others. The shift toward raising children who themselves are more tolerant, independent, and inquisitive may be education's most profound effect on society.
Of course, formal learning cannot on its own change the equation, but absent well-informed citizens who can critically judge the ideas and perspectives of those who hold office, the consequences will be chilling. When the former president of the United States invents "facts" or tells outright lies, dismisses scientific evidence, and demonstrates a stunning ignorance of history, the consequences are real for those who have not developed their own critical-thinking capacities.
So, the greatest contribution of a better-educated population to shared prosperity is that educated citizens are the best defense against the threats to our democratic way of life. The debate about President Donald Trump's and others' perceived threats to democracy will linger, but for democracy to prosper in the long term, we need more people to reach higher levels of education.
This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 6 of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, by Jamie Merisotis.
Did America's collective mental health get worse (and then better) after the first COVID-19 lockdown?
- According to a new study, there was an influx of internet searches for mental health symptoms during the beginning of the pandemic, and this has slowly trended downwards.
- Researchers looked at whether mitigation policies correlated with Google searches for terms associated with depression and anxiety between January and June of 2020. Additionally, they monitored search terms for in-home activities.
- While searches for antidepressants and suicide did rise when social distancing measures were being implemented, research shows the search terms exercise and cooking also rose.
The beginning of COVID-19 in America:
- On January 21, 2020, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) confirmed the first case of CoV-SARS-2 (COVID-19) in the United States.
- On February 3, 2020 (three days after the World Health Organization declared a Global Health Emergency), a public health emergency was declared in the United States.
- A little over a month later, on March 13, 2020, a national emergency was declared.
- Over the next few months, various parts of the world (including the United States) would implement various levels of precautions: stay-at-home orders and restrictions to try to curb the spread of the virus.
- By the end of May 2020, the United States COVID-19 death toll passed 100,000.
Within four months, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, and our society was faced with unprecedented circumstances. (For a full timeline of COVID-19 in America, click here.) While researchers were hard at work attempting to learn more information about the virus and potentially come up with a vaccine, the mental health toll of the pandemic became noticeable.
According to a new study, there was an influx of internet searches for mental health symptoms during the beginning of the pandemic, and this has slowly trended downwards.
Study co-author Bita Fayaz Farkhad, PhD., explains to Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Learning Network: "We wanted to study how serious the mental health impact of the mitigation phase was during the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring. Did it go beyond people feeling anxious or disheartened? Was it long-lasting, and did it increase suicide ideation and the need for medical treatment for depression?"
Mental health internet searches throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
This is one of many studies that have examined the mental health impact of COVID-19 isolation orders.
Photo by Maridav on Adobe Stock
In this study, researchers looked at whether mitigation policies correlated with Google searches for terms associated with depression and anxiety. Additionally, they monitored search terms for in-home activities. Researchers covered the time span from January 2020 to June 2020.
Two previous studies have examined the mental health effects of stay-at-home orders.
The first study (Hamermesh, 2020) used a simulation where time spent alone from the 2012-2013 American Time Use Survey forecasted negative impacts of the stay-at-home orders on happiness.
The second study (Brodeur et al,. 2020) examined the effects of the stay-at-home orders on mental health symptoms related to searches on Google. In this case, there were reported increases in searches relating to the following terms:
In this study, limited social contact had people searching terms such as "isolation" and "worry."
Findings from this study indicated that social limits (on restaurants and bars, for example) and stay-at-home orders correlated with immediate increases in searches for the terms "isolation" and "worry" - but the effects within a few weeks.
The beginning of the pandemic showed significant spikes in mental health symptom searches.
"At the outset of the pandemic, consistent with prior research, social distancing policies correlated with a spike in searches about how to deal with isolation and worry, which shouldn't be surprising," said co-author Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D. "Generally speaking, if you have a pandemic or an economic shock, that's going to produce its own level of anxiety, depression, and negative feelings, and we had both with COVID-19."
Within two to four weeks of peaking, however, such searches tapered off, the study showed.
Experts weigh in: time spent at home could be beneficial.
Why would mental health-related searches taper off when the pandemic was still raging on? This study found that more time spent with family (or working from home, taking up new hobbies due to isolation) because of the stay-at-home orders could have lead to improvements in health and may counteract any potential negative health effect of the isolation policies.
It's also important to note that not all changes in mental health searches could be in response to the isolation policies being enforced. Historically, infectious diseases have been responsible for the greatest human death tolls and function as a massive stressor on society as a whole.
Both positive and negative Google searches rose during the pandemic.
While searches for "antidepressants" and "suicide" did rise at times when social distancing measures were being implemented, research shows the search terms "exercise" and "cooking" also rose. This suggests that people were actively searching for ways to combat the negative feelings the isolation measures brought out.
Cold hands and feet? Maybe it's your anxiety.
- When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
- According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis.
- Anxiety disorders will impact 31% of Americans at some point in their lives.
Here's what you may not know about anxiety...
There's a fine line between stress and anxiety - and many people don't know what the difference is.
Both stress and anxiety are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger and can be short-term (a looming deadline at work, for example). People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, insomnia, and headache.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined as a persistent, excessive worry. Even in the absence of the thing that triggered it, anxiety lingers. It can lead to a nearly identical set of symptoms, which is why they are often confused. Feelings of anxiety then differ from an anxiety disorder - an anxiety disorder means your anxiety typically persists for months and negatively impacts your daily functioning.
There are five major types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry, and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (or obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
- Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or abdominal distress.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also an anxiety disorder, and it can develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include things like personal assaults, natural and/or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as 'social phobia') is characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations.
Anxiety disorders can impact 31 percent of Americans at some point in their life.
According to the American Psychological Association, 19 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have had an anxiety disorder in the past year and 31 percent of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Anxiety may be genetic.
According to HealthLine, anxiety may be genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors. It's possible to have anxiety without it running in your family, however, there is speculated to be some genetic component that makes anxiety more prevalent in some individuals. Research has indicated some link between genetics and anxiety, though much more research is required in this area.
Anxiety often begins in childhood.
According to the CDC, 7.1 percent of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis. Six in ten children (59.3 percent) between the ages of 3-17 have received anxiety therapy or treatment.
Having an anxiety disorder can increase your risk of other physical health complications.
According to research from Harvard Medical School, anxiety has been indicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal conditions such as IBS, and more.
Cold hands and feet? Anxiety may be the reason.
If you're someone who constantly struggles with having cold hands or feet, it could be a result of your anxiety. When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
Anxiety can be related to anger issues and memory loss.
A lesser-known side effect of anxiety is anger. When you feel powerless over a situation, expressing anger is a natural way to feel as though you have some kind of control. With chronic sufferers of anxiety, depression is the most common issue to develop, but anger is close behind. As Discovery Mood explains, "anxiety is often connected with overstimulation from a stressful environment or threat, combined with the perceived inability to deal with that threat. In contrast, anger is often tied to frustration. When anxiety is left unacknowledged or unexpressed, it can turn into frustration which then easily leads to anger."
Anxiety can also cause memory problems.
According to Mayo Clinic, stress, anxiety, or depression can often cause forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. VeryWellMind explains further, "memories can be affected when you are under periods of stress or experience some sort of disturbance in mood. Having a significant anxiety disorder like GAD can create some of these problems routinely, leaving you operating below your normal level of memory functioning."
Anxiety can even impact your sense of smell.
People who struggle with anxiety may be more likely to label natural smells as bad smells, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. When processing smells, typically it's only the olfactory system that is activated. However, in people with high anxiety levels, the emotional system can become intertwined with the olfactory system, which can slightly alter our perception of smells.