Tag Archives: Observations

People who can’t form images in their mind have a surprising trait — they’re harder to spook with words

Are you easily spooked? Then you probably don’t have aphantasia, the inability to picture images into one’s mind. New research suggests that people who suffer from aphantasia show a reduced response to scary stories, suggesting that there’s a much stronger link between emotions and imagery than we assumed.

Image credits Shah Zaman Khan via Pixabay.

A study that pitted people against (made-up) distressing scenarios found that participants with aphantasia didn’t have much of a physical fear response to these situations, whereas the other participants did. The team says this is “the biggest difference” we’ve yet found between people with aphantasia and those without.

Fantasy no-fly zone

“These two sets of results suggest that aphantasia isn’t linked to reduced emotion in general, but is specific to participants reading scary stories,” says Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper and Director of UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab. “The emotional fear response was present when participants actually saw the scary material play out in front of them.”

“[This] suggests that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think all kinds of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren’t going to have that emotional ‘boom’.”

“Aphantasia is neural diversity,” he adds. “It’s an amazing example of how different our brain and minds can be.”

The team measured each participant’s fear response through the changes in conductivity levels of their skin. This is influenced by how much a person sweats, and sweating is a physical reaction to states of fear or stress. It’s a commonly-used method of gauging an individual’s emotional state in psychology.

The study involved 46 participants, 22 of whom had aphantasia. Each participant was led to a darkened room, where they were seated and electrodes applied to their skin. That’s already kind of spooky, but then the participants were left alone, the lights were completely turned off, and a story was played in text form out on a screen for them.

In the beginning these were quite mundane, starting with scenarios such as “you are at the beach, in the water” or “you’re on a plane, by the window”. As they progressed, however, suspense was slowly mixed in. The participants were told of “dark flashes in the distant waves”, of “people on the beach pointing”, or the aircraft’s “cabin lights dimming” as the vehicle started to shake.

“Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualize the stories,” says Prof Pearson. “The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted.”

“But for people with aphantasia, the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined.”

Later on, the team also performed a control round in which the text stories were replaced with a series of scary or disturbing images, like a photo of a cadaver or a snake baring its fangs. This was meant to check whether the differences in response seen in the study were caused by aphanthasia, not by each participant’s threshold for response to fear. This time, the authors note, all participants showed a roughly equal physical response to the images.

According to Prof. Pearson, this is “the strongest evidence yet that mental imagery plays a key role in linking thoughts and emotions”, and “by far the biggest difference we’ve found between people with aphantasia and the general population” to date.

Aphanthasia affects an estimated 2-5% of the population, but it’s still very poorly understood. It seems to be associated with wide-ranging changes in other cognitive processes as well, most notably remembering, dreaming, and imagining. Not surprising, given that these activities often involve picturing events in your mind.

“This work may provide a potential new objective tool which could be used to help to confirm and diagnose aphantasia in the future,” says study co-author Dr Rebecca Keogh, a postdoctoral fellow formerly of UNSW and now based at Macquarie University, and it “supports aphantasia as a unique, verifiable phenomenon”. The authors say they got the idea for this study after noticing many members on aphantasia discussion boards mentioning that they don’t enjoy reading fiction.

Still, the team underscores that their results are based on averages, and that not every individual with aphantasia will experience it the same.

“Aphantasia comes in different shapes and sizes,” says Prof. Pearson. “Some people have no visual imagery, while other people have no imagery in one or all of their other senses. Some people dream while others don’t. “

“So don’t be concerned if you have aphantasia and don’t fit this mould. There are all kinds of variations to aphantasia that we’re only just discovering.”

The paper “The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The Kepler mission: searching for planets in the Goldilocks area

The Goldilocks area is one of the most interesting for astronomers throughout the known Universe, as it has great hope for finding planets similar to our Earth. The Kepler 10b planet is not the most hospitable one you could think of: located some 560 million light years away from our planet, and with a surface temperature hot enough to melt steel, it is however the first one located with the Kepler space telescope, which was launched by NASA with the role of finding habitable planets in the Goldilocks area, not too cold and not too hot; many have nicknamed it Hubble’s smaller brother.

Since the first planet beyond our solar system has been found in 1992, it’s been pretty much of a roll, with the count now being over 500, and the finds will grow a whole lot in the near future, partially thanks to the Kepler telescope; one of the leading astronomers of the project is Geoff Marcy, who helped spot 70 planets out of the first 100 ever to be found.

What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when a nice result shows up on all of the Web pages and the newspapers around the world — what you don’t realize is to get that result meant that five or 10 people were burning that midnight oil, trimming the errors down to the point that the Earth-size planets are detectable. It’s easy to dismiss the discoveries as, Oh, it’s new computers, or it’s new optics. These things happen because amazing people dream and then put their dreams into perspiration-dripping action.

He also seems very optimistic about the future of Kepler, and for good reason: just this week he managed to find nine planets, and this is just the beginning.

“Honestly, Kepler’s so good that it’s hard to beat it. It gets the numbers. Kepler’s going to find thousands. There’s going to be another follow-up to Kepler, either from Europe or the U.S. or both. They’ll find thousands. I bet by 2020, there’ll be 10,000 planets, and by 2030 there might be another 20,000 or 30,000 more planets.”

The bad news is that the number of the planets will find will plateau, and not grow exponentially; the good news is that it’s not the numbers we should be looking at increasing, it’s the quality of the findings. We should be looking at planets with an atmosphere, and with a temperature between the freezing and boiling point. The odds of life on Earth may be one in a billion, but there are a lot more than 1 billion planets out there, so if we keep looking, we’re bound to find something.

Strange sky spiral freaks out Norway

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It was Thursday night when locals from Norway started to notice a strange, rotating light that just baffled them. It was visible long enough to be seen, photographed and recorded by half of country. The blue light seemed to appear from behind the top of a mountain; it rose, began to spin, then began to circulate.

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Naturally, as it became more and more visible, the questions became more and more pressing. Witnesses recorded it seemed to be computer generated, and nothing like auroras or some other natural phenomenon.

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“We are used to seeing lots of auroras here in Arctic Norway, but on my way to work this morning I saw something completely unexpected. Between 7:50 and 8:00 a.m. local time, there was a strange light in the sky. It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in color to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end. This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to the earth.”, said a witness.

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Because it was visible to so many, it’s obvious that it took place at a really high altitude, which was confirmed by astronauts from all over the world. However… they weren’t able to explain what it is.

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“My first thought was that it was a fireball meteor, but it has lasted far too long. It may have been a missile in Russia, but I can not guarantee that it is the answer.”, astronomer Knut Jorgen Roed Odegaard

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However, the Russian government strongly denied this possibility (big surprise, huh?), and no firm evidence was found to support this theory. Of course there were claims that it was an UFO (I can only imagine what people would have said if this happened in the US). So, until this is sorted out, I hope they come in peace (whether it’s the aliens or the Russians).

The rebirth of Hubble – Hubble’s first pics since Servicing Mission 4

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Hubble has had a lot of problems in recent days, but now the telescope we love the most is up an running, and in a great shape too.

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“This marks a new beginning for Hubble,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “The telescope was given an extreme makeover and is now significantly more powerful than ever — well equipped to last well into the next decade.”

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Hey, and what a new beginning it is! The new improvements are more sensitive to light and Hubble can now also make the same pictures in just a fraction of the time needed before, without lowering the quality one bit.

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“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the quality of the images from the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and the spectra from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). The targets we’ve selected to showcase Hubble’s capabilities reveal the great range of capabilities in our newly upgraded Hubble,” said Keith Noll, leader of the team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, USA, that planned the early release observations.

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Here’s the link to the original pictures, and you can also download them at a really large size. Absolutely amazing pics, a true wonder of modern times – they make great backgrounds too.

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