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.
Everyone thinks they know how to make their brain more creative and have better ideas.
People think that their brain is like an iPhone — if they can just unlock it and press a few things in a certain order, then something is sure to happen. That's just not the case, as neuroscientist David Eagleman tells us. While some swear a cold shower helps them think better it's simply a matter of personal preference; what works for one might not work for anyone else. David has a great line: "You don’t have squirrels going to the moon or dogs inventing the internet or cows doing theater plays for one another or any of the gazillion things that we do." Quite frankly, what gets creatvity going the best is actually the most boring: a good diet and regular exercise... but where's the fun (and clickable headline) in that? David's new book is The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.
All science begins with a leap of intuition, says Richard Dawkins, but we can only ever find objective truths by knowing when to let evidence take over from emotion.
You can be committed to science, but as soon as you're committed to a hypothesis, you've walked off the trail of objective truth, says Richard Dawkins. For him, that is the mission of science and the purpose of the scientific method: these truths exist—they are the foundations of innovations like vaccinations, antibiotics, and space travel, because they are built on something solid: evidence. Einstein is known for highly valuing the role of imagination in science, and Dawkins agrees: imagination and intuition are the springboards scientific progress depends on—but when evidence refutes a hypothesis or a feeling, that's the end of the line. Dogged persistence doesn't get you any closer to the truth, says Dawkins, only critical thinking can do that. Richard Dawkins' latest book is Science In The Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
“Memory is a poet,” Marie Howe once remarked, “not an historian.” When it comes to fake news, our minds can be easily and permanently misled.
Do you remember where you were on 9/11? While most Americans immediately explain the details of the moment they found out about the attack on the World Trade Center, 40 percent of them are wrong.
Mere days after the attack, over 2,000 Americans were questioned about their experiences. Researchers followed up a year later, three years later, and a decade later. Nearly half of respondents reminisced inaccurately.
Humans have terrible memories. Part of the reason is the way we remember. When an event happens we file it via our brain’s weigh station, the hippocampus. When we recall the event it returns piecemeal, influenced by everything that’s occurred since. The more we retell a story the stronger the recall—and the more likely it will be revised.
“Memory is a poet,” Marie Howe once remarked, “not an historian.”
Like all verse, we can wax poetic over golden ages or reconstruct nightmares. Memory informs our identity. How we move forward in life depends on how we remember our past. Not only do we poorly reconstruct our experiences, we’re also susceptible to false memories. Tell yourself a lie often and it becomes truth.
A recent study published in Memory confirms this. A team of researchers from three separate countries assessed over 400 memory-report transcripts to better understand the mechanisms behind false beliefs. Pulled from eight different reports with no clear set of shared criteria, the researchers settled on seven concepts they felt adequate for describing the characteristics of autobiographical memories. This study reveals startling evidence regarding just how gullible humans are.
Take subjects implanted with false memories. Participants that reject the supposed event outright are unlikely to develop one. Yet others are more suggestible. If there is even an iota of doubt (or belief) regarding the imagined event, a process of questioning the possibility begins. A narrative arc is constructed. Eventually the event is taken as historical fact even though invented.
We think in narrative; we construct our lives as stories. Events barely noticed become foundational creation myths down the road. Worse, false events influence and shape the future.
One of the more disturbing drivers and consequences of the recent election is the proliferation of fake news, such as the absurd notion of a reported pedophilia dungeon turning into real gunfire at a D.C. pizza shop. Fake news is nothing new, though part of what makes it so difficult to discern involves agreeing as to what it is.
Satire? Propaganda? Advertising ploy? A little bit of all, depending on who’s writing it and the willingness of the believer. Gullibility is a neurological quirk: we’re more likely to believe what we are predisposed to, regardless of evidence against it.
Enter vaccines. To better understand the anti-vaccination movement, a research team based at Dartmouth mailed four separate types of pro-vaccination literature to nearly 2,000 parents. One stated there has been no scientific evidence relating vaccines to autism; another highlighted the dangers of the diseases vaccines prevent; the third featured photos of children suffering from said diseases; the final was a story about an infant who almost died from measles.
The team spent three years only to discover it didn’t matter which leaflet each parent received. Those predisposed to believing vaccines are evil did not change their mind. The neural connection, the memory they bought into—vaccines are bad—was so wired that no amount of contradictory evidence sufficed. Opposing literature sometimes fueled resistance in what is known as the backfire effect: you say do this, I do that instead.
How we’ve wired dictates what we believe, altering our memories to sync with the narrative inside of our heads. The researchers from Memory found that imagery and emotion are especially important markers for false memories. Returning to Pizzagate, there was a physical image—Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria—and an emotion to attach: namely, distrust and hatred of Hillary Clinton.
This leads to the second aspect of implanting false memories. Remember, only those at least somewhat willing to accept the possibility of the fake event will eventually formulate a false memory. The next cognitive leap occurs when they “remember” it. The imagination takes hold. Stories grow elaborate as the participant embellishes details that never occurred about an experience that never happened.
Researchers discovered that sprinkling in actual names and places makes the participant more susceptible. Doctored photographs are useful tools. Still, imagination reigns supreme. When false imagery was present the false memory rate was 37.3 percent, compared to 19 percent when it was not.
That only gets the ball rolling. Once the memory is implanted recollection is no longer as important. As the authors state:
Belief in the occurrence of an event may be sufficient to influence behaviour, whether or not there is also an accompanying episodic recollection.
Of the over 400 reports studied, 30.4 percent of participants had false memories, while 53.3 percent accepted the fake event to some degree. When factoring in previously stated conditions—doctored photographs, idiosyncratic information, and imagination procedures—rates were even higher: 46.1 percent had a false memory; 69.7 percent displayed at least some acceptance. The researchers state:
One conclusion that can be made based on this study and on similar work is that it can be difficult to objectively determine when someone is recollecting the past, versus reporting other forms of knowledge or belief or describing mental representations that have originated in other sources of experience.
There is a lot of discussion about how to combat fake news and debate over how much influence invented stories have on our political and social landscapes. The ease of sharing news has merely exploited a longstanding neurological feature: memories are highly susceptible to alterations. As this electoral season has shown, those who understand how to manipulate facts are experiencing unprecedented power at the expense of our faulty memory machines. We might not remember, but they do.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.