People with aphantasia – the inability to visualize mental images – are harder to scare away with scary stories, according to a new study from UNSW in Sydney.
The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tested how aphantasies react to painful scenarios, such as being chased by a shark, falling off a cliff, or being on a plane about to crash.
The researchers were able to physically measure each participant’s fear response by monitoring changes in skin conductivity levels – in other words, how badly the story made a person sweat. This type of test is commonly used in psychology research to measure the physical expression of emotions in the body.
According to the results, the scary stories lost their fear factor when readers couldn’t visually imagine the scene – suggesting that the images may have a closer connection to emotions than scientists previously thought.
“We have found the strongest evidence to date that mental imagery plays a key role in linking thoughts and emotions,” says Professor Joel Pearson, lead author of the paper and director of the Future Minds Lab at the UNSW Science.
“In all of our research to date, this is by far the biggest difference we have found between people with aphantasia and the general population.”
To test the role of visual imagery in fear, the researchers guided 46 study participants (22 with aphantasia and 24 with imaging) into a blackened room before attaching multiple electrodes to their skin. The skin is known to become a better conductor of electricity when a person experiences strong emotions, such as fear.
Scientists then left the room and turned off the light, leaving the participants alone as a story began to appear on the screen in front of them.
At first the stories started out innocently – for example, “You are at the beach, in the water” or “You are on a plane, by the window”. But as the stories continued, the suspense slowly built up, whether it was a dark flash in the distant waves and people on the beach pointing, or the cabin lights dimming. when the plane begins to shake.
“Skin conductivity levels quickly started to rise for people who could visualize the stories,” says Professor Pearson. “The more the stories continued, the more their skin reacted.
“But for people with aphantasia, skin conductivity levels are pretty flat.”
To verify that the differences in fear thresholds were not eliciting the response, the experiment was repeated using a series of spooky images instead of text, such as a photo of a dead body or snake with its fangs on it.
But this time, the images made the skin crawl equally in both groups of people.
“These two sets of results suggest that aphantasy is not related to reduced emotion in general, but is specific to participants. reading scary stories, “says Professor Pearson.” The emotional fear response was present when the participants seen creepy material is playing in front of them.
“The results suggest that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think of all kinds of things, but without imagery thoughts will not have this emotional ‘boom.’
Living with aphantasy
Aphantasia affects 2-5% of the population, but very little is still known about the disease.
A UNSW study published last year found that aphantasy is linked to a generalized pattern of changes in other cognitive processes, such as memory, dreaming, and imagination.
But while most previous research on aphantasia focused on behavioral studies, this study used an objective measure of skin conductance.
“This evidence further supports aphantasy as a unique and verifiable phenomenon,” says study co-author Dr Rebecca Keogh, a postdoctoral fellow formerly of UNSW and now based at Macquarie University.
“This work may provide a potential new objective tool that could be used to help confirm and diagnose aphantasy in the future.”
The idea for this experiment came after the research team noticed a recurring sentiment on the Aphantasia discussion forums that many people with the disease did not like to read fiction.
Although the results suggest that reading may not have as much of an emotional impact for people with aphantasia, Professor Pearson says it’s important to note that the results are based on averages and that all people with aphantasia of aphantasy will not have the same reading experience.
The study also focused on fear, and other emotional responses to fiction may be different.
“Aphantasia comes in different shapes and sizes,” he says. “Some people don’t have visual images, while others don’t have images in any or all of their other senses. Some people dream while others don’t.
“So don’t worry if you have aphantasy and you don’t fit that mold. There are all kinds of variations of aphantasy that we’re just discovering.”
Next, Professor Pearson and his team at the Future Minds Lab plan to study how disorders like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder might be experienced differently by people with aphantasia.
“Aphantasia is neuronal diversity,” says Professor Pearson. “This is an amazing example of how our brain and our mind can be different.”