#219: Aphantasia with Dr. Joel Pearson

February 16, 2018

Picture this…

Not being able to picture anything.

And not being able to quite understand what everyone is talking about who says they can do so.  Having an intellectual understanding of what a “mind’s eye” means — or at least, what it is supposed to be able to do, but not being able to do it yourself.

When it comes to mental pictures, all your mind can draw…is a blank.

This is the situation that is now called aphantasia, a relatively newly identified status for a subset of people who lack a visual imagination.

The Man Whose Imagination Vanished.

In 2005, a retired building inspector visited neurologist Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter Medical School.  After having had a minor surgery, the man — now referred to in the medical literature as “MX” — suddenly realized that he could no longer call up images in his mind’s eye.  It was like his imagination had gone blind, although everything else seemed normal.  (MX performed well on a series of cognitive tests including memory, problem-solving, etc.)

Quantifying the Imagination

Dr. Joel Pearson is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and director of its Science of Innovation Lab.  Among his interests are the study of hallucinations and metacognition – two topics that dovetail nicely with the study of aphantasia.

Among other studies, Dr. Pearson and his colleagues have developed quantitative means to determine a person’s ability (or lack of ability) to call visual images to mind without merely taking the subjects’ word for it.  It’s a clever study design that helps to shed light on the normally invisible contours of our imaginations.

In Episode #219, listen to Dr. Pearson explain what we now know about aphantasia, why he considers it an attribute rather than a disability, and which of the many directions of follow-on research might be pursued next.

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Show Notes
  • 00:00:23

    Episode introduction: Aphantasia with Dr. Joel Pearson.

  • 00:01:29

    This Week In Neuroscience: Figure skating and suppressing reflexes.

  • 00:05:06

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:05:43

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:07:00

    Guest introduction: Dr. Joel Pearson.

  • 00:09:00

    Interview begins: Introduction to aphantasia.

  • 00:09:57

    Congenital and acquired aphantasia.

  • 00:10:55

    How did we first learn about aphantasia?

  • 00:12:27

    Visual task performance and how such tasks are accomplished by individuals with aphantasia.

  • 00:14:11

    Any aphantasia correlates?

  • 00:15:15

    Dreams and aphantasia.

  • 00:16:18

    Prevalence and variance of aphantasia.

  • 00:18:03

    Recent and upcoming studies by Dr. Pearson and his colleagues.

  • 00:22:03

    Can you train visual imagery?

  • 00:23:05

    Any real-world consequences of aphantasia?

  • 00:25:34

    Where did the term aphantasia come from?

  • 00:28:00

    Possible therapeutic applications.

  • 00:29:00

    Brain activity in aphantasia.

  • 00:30:54

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:32:46

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: A promising (and affordable), new test for detecting Alzheimer's as early as 20 to 30 years before the disease onset.

  • 00:34:56

    Episode wrap-up.

One comment

  1. Curious Charles says:

    I have been brainstorming about this and possible ways to move from being fully Aphantasic in all senses towards having some visual/auditory ability in the mind’s eye. One thought from this episode is tDCS application when dreaming is detected in sleeping Aphantasics in order to strengthen visual ability.

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