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‘It was just black’: The condition that makes you unable to imagine things

SARAH GRAHAM, VICE

I cannot see the blue sea or picture the yellow sand; It was just black […]

When Sam’s brother asked her if she could imagine a beach in her mind, she thought it was a ridiculous question, until she realized that most people can form some sort of image in their head.

Sam spent her life assuming that what went on in her own head was the same as everyone else’s.

“I felt a bit gutted, like I just found out everyone has this amazing super power they’ve been keeping secret from me,” she recalls.

But it’s not just visual images Sam has trouble conjuring up in her mind, it’s all senses.

Sam cannot feel the sand between her toes nor the warmth of the late afternoon sun; she cannot hear the gentle, rhythmic rush of waves, nor smell the salty air.

“It seems like magic that people can close their eyes and imagine a beach – I’d do it all the time if I could.”

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If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?

MO COSTANDI, THE GUARDIAN

Visualization is a powerful tool that can accelerate learning and improve performance but what If you can’t imagine things […]?

Most of us rely on mental imagery for memory, daydreaming and #imagination. But some of us don’t conjure up visual images at all.

How might being #aphantasic impact learning?

What we know:

  • While the use of mental imagery is not directly related to measures of intelligence, vocabulary, and reading comprehension; it does play a role in how some schoolchildren acquire literacy skills from helping them remember what they read, to improving their performance on memory tasks.
  • By encouraging students to use mental imagery, we can help some students improve their understanding of prose and other abstract concepts.
  • The use of mental imagery can be helpful to understanding new scientific words and texts.
  • Mental imagery can be used in the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating visual representations of the spatial relationships between them.

What we know we don’t know:

Although #aphantasia was first recognized more than one hundred years ago, there has been very little systematic research on the phenomenon, and so it’s important to note that we don’t know exactly how it impacts #learning…yet.

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My mind’s eye is blind – so what’s going on in my brain?

DUSTIN GRINNELL, NEW SCIENTIST

My mind’ eye is blind […] I couldn’t picture her face.

When Dustin Grinnell and his girlfriend move to opposite sides of the US for work, Grinnell discovers he is unable to conjure up a mental image of her face.

“I couldn’t picture her face;”

“And it’s the same for landscapes, sunsets, parks and rivers,” Grinnell explains.

“When it comes to mental imagery, I am blind.”

At the time, he never thought anything of it.

“I didn’t know what I was missing,” Grinnell elaborates.

Why would he? It wasn’t like he had trouble with tasks you might imagine require mental images, like navigating around town or recognizing a friend’s face.

Grinnell first discovered he was #aphantasic after watching a 60 minute interview with biologist Craig Venter, creator of the first synthetic organism.

In the interview, Benter attributes his academic success to an unusual way of thinking, using purely concepts with no mental imagery whatsoever.

“It’s like having a computer to store information, but without the screen,” Benter describes.

Grinnell decides to collaborate with different researchers to try and answer some of his most burning questions: Why couldn’t he picture his girlfriend’s face? How do I navigate life without a mind’s eye? Could I ever train my mind to see… and would I want to?

Grinnell begins investigating and discovers that #science is starting to find answers.

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Picture this? Some just can’t.

CARL ZIMMER, NEW YORK TIMESPicture this? […] A retired surveyor who can no longer imagine.

The article describes the #experience of a 65-year-old man from the UK, who reported losing his mind’s eye after heart surgery.

Assigned to the case is UK neurologist Adam Zeman, tasked with figuring out what’s going on in MX’s head.

Zeman conducts an MRI exam on MX. He uses an MRI scanner to monitor his brain activity when asked to name famous people:

Jennifer Aniston, Eminem, Dr Dre, Tiger Woods, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Lopez, Paul McCartney, Ben Afleck, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, The Rolling Stones.

The scan reveals that different regions of his brain are active or illuminating when MX lists the names one by one.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

But when it comes time to picture their faces, MX draws a total blank. The scan reveals complete inactivity, or total darkness.

Zeman later calls the #discovery, #aphantasia.

Aphantasia comes from the Greek word phantasia, the word Aristotle uses to describe #imagination.

Zeman publishes the first scientific study on #aphantasia in June of 2015, and a few days later, is picked up by New York Times writer Carl Zimmer in Picture This? […].

When the research went public, dozens of people from around the world came forward saying they share a similar #experience; They do not create mental images in their mind.

However, unlike MX, they have it from birth.

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A Dual Coding View of Vocabulary Learning

ALLAN PAIVIO, RESEARCHGATE

Dual coding theory put forward by psychologist Allan Paivio, distinguishes between verbal and non-verbal thought processes, and places mental imagery as the primary function for non-verbal processing.

The theory claims that information is stored in two different ways – verbally and visually – and although these two codes are independent of one another, and can each be used separately, they can also interact to enhance learning.

One of the major limitations of dual coding theory is that it assumes thought processes are based on nothing but words and images.

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Statistics of Mental Imagery

FRANCIS GALTON, MIND

Scientists have known that some people cannot #visualize things in their mind since the 1880s, when controversial psychologist Francis Galton – a pioneer in eugenics – first published Statistics of Mental Imagery.

The paper details an #experiment where Galton asks participants to picture their breakfast table and then describe to him the vividness of their impressions. Galton discovered that this ability varied markedly – some individuals could draw up mental images just as brilliant as the scene itself while others could only conjure up a dim image, or not at all.

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