Just about everyone has freaked themselves out by reading spooky stories, but what about those who ain’t afraid of no ghost?
Ghosts are not the only things that some people cannot fear if they are unable to visualize them. For the first time, a new study has found evidence that people with aphantasia, which is the inability to visualize mental images, have much less of a psychological response to reading something frightening. This is because they are unable to conjure up the mental images that are nightmare fuel for most of us. When aphantasic people were tested for the reactions to reading scary stories, it proved that you can’t be afraid of what you can’t visualize.
“Aphantasic individuals show significantly less of a physiological fear reaction (SCL) when reading scary stories, as compared to control participants with the ability to visualize,” said Joel Pearson, who led a study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
When Pearson and his team tested aphantasic individuals next to a control group (who probably ended up sleeping with the lights on), the stories they gave them to read involved everything from hauntings to shark attacks. The subjects sat in a dark room, where they read disturbing stories on a screen while electrodes attached to their fingertips measured fear response. Skin becomes better at conducting electricity when strong emotions surge through us. No matter how ghastly or gruesome, those with aphantasia did not react the same way as their peers who can imagine horrible things in their mind’s eye.
The stories weren’t meant to jumpscare subjects right away. They started off by putting readers on the scene, such as the window seat of a plane. It was when unsettling things started to happen that the differences between those with and without aphantasia became obvious, because skin conductivity levels skyrocketed in whoever was able to visualize turbulence and lightning 40,000 feet in the air. Nothing happened in people with aphantasia — but this shouldn't be mistaken for a general lack of emotion. When those same subjects were shown these stories with images such as catastrophe or cadavers, they reacted like anyone would.
Forget scary stories. Some people with aphantasia don’t even understand the concept of counting sheep when they are trying to go to sleep at night, because visualization is something they cannot experience. They may or may not dream.
“The arousal response to reading the fictitious scenarios may be largely contingent on having intact imagery to simulate the scenario content. This is consistent with existing evidence for imagery's theorized role as an emotional amplifier,” Pearson said.
However, aphantasics have been found to be capable of spatial memory, which lets you remember where you are in time and space along with your surroundings. They also have the same recognition capacity as as people without aphantasia. Aphantasics can still remember who and what they have already seen; they just cannot mentally see the person or place. Aphantasia also still allows someone to feel emotion. They just aren’t able to create vivid images in their heads, as opposed to the average person, and are the complete opposite of people with hyperphantasia, who can imagine things so vividly that the mental images can have a profound effect on them.
That still doesn't mean aphantasia is the death of creativity. Aphantasic people may not be able to to draw that well from memory, but they can use visuals and other alternative ways to get inspired.
What is especially fascinating about the potential of this study is that this rare, neurodiverse condition can tell us more about how mental imagery can link thoughts and emotions. It may even help psychologists and neuroscientists better understand how conditions like anxiety disorders and PTSD are experienced by aphantasics. It is possible that the inability to reimagine past trauma may make it easier to cope with PTSD flashbacks. Or not. The trauma may not register in visual memory, but it can still register in emotions, so there is also a chance that aphantasics experience flashes of intense emotion without an accompanying mental image.
“Phantasia” literally translates from the Greek to “fantasy,” a word often used for mental images — not just fantasizing — in that language. Finding out more about neurodiveristy will keep demystifying the vast universe of the mind.
*Your friendly neighborhood author has hyperphantasia and synaesthesia (relating something associated with one sense, like smell, to something having to do with an unrelated sense, like color—so yes, I will think “this smells purple”). Living in my brain is kind of like having access to a built-in VR system.