Home | Industry & Research | The blind mind’s eye: scientists crowdfund to study aphantasia

The blind mind’s eye: scientists crowdfund to study aphantasia

Picture a cube.

People will likely have varying responses to this command. For some, the cube will be large. They might imagine that it’s floating. Others will use their answer to infer something about their personality through an online quiz. But for some, there is no box at all.

Those with congenital aphantasia cannot create visual images of people, places or things in their mind’s eye.

Living with the condition was popularly explained through a marathon Facebook note by cofounder of Firefox and former director of product at Facebook, Blake Ross.

“I have never visualized anything in my entire life,” Ross wrote. “I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago.

“I thought ‘counting sheep’ was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this.”

The condition was only recently given a name and little is known about the number of people with it or how it affects their lives.

Now, UNSW scientists have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to carry out functional magnetic resonance imaging studies to try to understand the neurological basis of mental imagery.

UNSW’s Dr Rebecca Keogh said: “Current theories propose that when we imagine something, we try to reactivate the same pattern of activity in our brain as when we saw the image before.

“The better we are at this, the better our visual imagery is. It may be that people with aphantasia are not able to activate these patterns enough to see mental images, or they may use a completely different network of brain activity to imagine.”

The team said the study could help enrich the inner lives of people with aphantasia, enhance the visual imagery of other people, and might also have implications for people with mental disorders like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

“This is the first step towards the possibility of giving aphantasics the experience of imagery,” Keogh said.

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