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The Ability to Visualize: Exploring Aphantasia and Mental Imagery
The mind’s eye is a term used to refer to the ability to visualize. The ability to picture an object or scene in one’s mind is often regarded as a natural human ability. However, research has shown that this ability is not universal. About 1% of the population lives with an extreme form of a condition known as aphantasia, where they cannot visualize anything in their mind. In this episode of the Science Quickly podcast from Scientific American, Professor Joel Pearson, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Future Minds Lab at the University of New South Wales in Australia, discussed his work studying mental imagery, including in the context of aphantasia and cognition.
One of the main challenges in studying mental imagery has been finding a reliable way to measure it. Questionnaires have been used in the past, but they have limitations because different individuals might experience similar imagery but rate it differently. Future Minds Lab is developing new ways to measure the mind, like a microscope for the mind or a blood test to measure the mind. One experiment conducted by the lab explored how a lack of mental imagery affects the way people with aphantasia respond in a hypothetical stressful situation. Participants were asked to come into a dark room and read scary stories on a screen. Those with imagery experienced an escalating response during the story, while those with aphantasia showed a flatlining, bumpy response. When both groups were shown scary images on the screen, both groups had an elevated response, suggesting that mental imagery plays a role when processing words on a screen.
In another experiment, participants with aphantasia were asked to imagine a dark object and then a light one. Their pupils contracted when they imagined the bright object, just like they would if they looked up at the light. With imagery, the pupil’s response was different in the light condition, but with aphantasia, there was no real difference.
The epiphany of realizing they have aphantasia often takes place in a meditation class when the teacher instructs them to visualize something, and they can’t seem to do it. This realization is similar to the discovery of color blindness; people do not know what they are missing until they learn about the vivid experience of color.
Despite the assumption that people with aphantasia might lack creativity, Professor Pearson and his team’s data do not support this. In fact, many successful, creative people live with the condition, like Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and character animator Glen Keane.
In conclusion, while the mind’s eye is a natural ability for most individuals, aphantasia shows that not everyone can visualize objects in their mind. Professor Pearson and his team’s research has opened up new avenues to study the mind and how it processes information. Their work also highlights the benefits of aphantasia, suggesting that it is not necessarily a disadvantage and does not affect creativity.