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‘I have no mind’s eye’: what is it like being an author with aphantasia?

Mark Lawrence, The Guardian

Fantasy novelist Mark Lawrence has no problem with imagination, so it was a shock to realize he couldn’t picture anything in his mind. Mark Lawrence is the author of The Broken Empire series. In this article, he shares what it’s like being an author with aphantasia.

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Phantasia – the psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes

Zeman et al, PsyArXiv

Visual imagery plays a role in modulating emotion, fueling cravings, aiding treatment, and is harnessed by teachers and trainers in mental practise. It also plays a role in creativity in both the science and the arts. For most of us, visual imagery is a ubiquitous element of our human experience, evoked by vivid memories, compelling descriptions, dreams and daydreams. Yet for some, the power of visualization is zero. There exists remarkable, often unsuspected, varieties in imaginative experience: aphantasia (absence) to hyperphantasia (abundance) of visual and sensory experiences in the mind. The ‘extremes’ clarify a vital distinction between imagery and imagination: People with aphantasia – geneticist Craig Venter, neurologist Oliver Sacks, Firefox creator, Blake Ross – can be richly imaginative as visualization is only one element of a more complex capacity.

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The architect who lost the ability to imagine: The cerebral basis of visual imagery


While the loss of mental imagery following brain lesions was first described more than a century ago, the key cerebral areas involved remain elusive. In this study a team of scientists from the Icelandic Vision Lab, Department of Psychology at University of Iceland, report on the neuropsychological data from an architect (PL518) who lost his ability for visual imagery following a bilateral posterior cerebral artery (PCA) stroke. His profile is compared to three other patients with bilateral PCA stroke including another architect. When comparing the neuropsychological profile and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for the aphantasic architect PL518 to patients with either a comparable background (an architect) or bilateral PCA lesions, they found: (1) there is a large overlap of cognitive deficits between patients, with the very notable exception of aphantasia which only occurs in PL518, and (2) there is large overlap of the patients’ lesions. The only areas of selective lesion in PL518 is a small patch in the left fusiform gyrus as well as part of the right lingual gyrus. The findings suggest that these areas may play an important role in the cerebral network involved in visual mental imagery.

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Quantifying Aphantasia through drawing


In this study researchers from the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition: National Institute of Mental Health in USA and School of Social Sciences; University of Westminster in UK teamed up to conduct large-scale online study of aphantasics (N=63) and controls which required participants to draw real-world scenes from memory, and copy them during a matched perceptual condition. The drawings were objectively quantified by 2,700 online scorers for object and spatial details. The study found that aphantasics recalled significantly fewer object details than controls, and showed a reliance on verbal strategies. However, aphantasics showed equally high spatial accuracy as controls, and made significantly fewer memory errors, with no differences between groups in the perceptual condition. In other words, those without visual imagery show deficits in object but not spatial memory.

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Authors need to know about aphantasia: Here’s why


Writer and editor Robert Wood makes a compelling case for why authors need to know about aphantasia, explaining how the best writing advice deals with perception-– the ability to understand how someone else will process your art. In the article Authors Need To Know About Aphantasia: Here’s Why published by Standout Books Publishing Services, Wood explains to authors: “Even if only a few people with aphantasia read your book, it’s still worth knowing that their experience exists. Art is an act of communication, and we create it more successfully when we know about the hurdles between writer and reader.”

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Can you picture things in your head? Well, this guy can’t


Founder of The Aphantasia Network, Tom Ebeyer shares his story of discovery with aphantasia and how he sees his differentness as a source of strength in this CBC Radio podcast produced by Paul Aflalo. Ebeyer shares how it can be a difficult realization, knowing people can do something you can’t. But once he learned there is a name for the way his brain worked — aphantasia — he started to see the strengths. Dr. Adam Zeman, who gave the condition a name back in 2015, makes a guest appearance in an exclusive radio interview. Aphantasic Amanda Jacobs also joins in on the discussion.

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The human imagination: the cognitive neuroscience of visual mental imagery


Mental imagery can be advantageous, unnecessary and even clinically disruptive; claims cognitive neuroscientist Joel Pearson of the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia. Research has shown that mental imagery involves a network of brain areas from the frontal cortex to sensory areas, overlapping with the default mode network. Imagery vividness and strength range from completely absent (aphantasia) to photo-like (hyperphantasia). In this review, Joel Pearson discusses recent insights into the neural mechanisms that underlie visual imagery, how imagery can be objectively and reliably measured, and how it affects general cognition.

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The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from Aphantasia


One proposed function of imagery is to make thoughts more emotionally evocative through sensory simulations, but what if you cannot visualize in the mind? Cognitive neuroscientist, Joel Pearson and team from the University of New South Wales in Australia conducted a study involving 22 participants with aphantasia. These participants were identified using VVIQ self-report instrument and binocular rivalry (BR). The study was designed to test how image-based thoughts might amplify emotions by having participants read a series of fictitious fearful scenarios, while their skin conductance level (SCL) was continuously recorded. The results of the study showed that people with aphantasia show a reduced fear response to frightening scenarios when compared to controls (normal imagery). Therefore, supporting consistent evidence for imagery’s theorized role as an emotional amplifier.

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