(ORDO NEWS) — A rare medical condition that prevents people from visualizing images in their minds may have more severe mental health consequences than we thought, scientists say.
Aphantasia, sometimes referred to as “mind-blindness”, has been known since the 19th century, but only in recent years has it received significant scholarly attention.
These studies provide insight into how phantasy manifests in humans, as well as new insights into how important mental imagery is as a component of other brain functions, such as memory.
In 2020, a team of researchers led by cognitive neuroscientist Alexei Dawes at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia found that people with phantasy have a reduced ability to remember the past and imagine the future, and recall fewer dreams (and often with fewer details).
Now, in a new study, some of the same scientists have uncovered new evidence for the impact of phantasy on our memory and imagination of the future.
“Episodic memory and future foresight are functionally similar,” Daws, now a researcher at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Japan, explains on Twitter about the new findings.
Both are everyday cognitive processes involving the reconstructive modeling of events and scenes, usually accompanied by anecdotally vivid sensory replay (or “pre-play”) in the form of visual imagery.
While internal visual images are something our minds create all the time, there is still much we don’t know about how these images affect our ability to recall episodes from the past.
To explore this issue, Dawes and his colleagues conducted an experiment involving about 60 people, half of whom suffered from aphantasia, and the other half – people without this disease, acting as a control group.
During the experiment, participants completed an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, a test conducted to assess the components of autobiographical memory in adults.
In this version, participants were asked to recall six life events (real memories) and imagine six hypothetical future events based on verbal prompts, giving a detailed written description of each.
The results showed that participants with aphantasy generated significantly less episodic detail than control group participants for both past and future events.
This included significantly weaker visual, object and scene images, the researchers found, but noted that people with phantasy were as good as the control group in spatial imagination ability.
“Most importantly, the present study provides the first robust behavioral evidence that the absence of visual cues is associated with a significantly reduced ability to model the past and design the future,” the researchers wrote.
“Participants with fantasia generated significantly less internal detail than control groups, regardless of temporal direction, indicating that their descriptions of events were less episodic rich and specific than participants with visual imagination.”
While we can’t assess the extent of the impact yet, the researchers say the ability to generate visual images is important for mentally constructing events, whether it’s reconstructing real-life memories or imagining scenarios that haven’t happened yet.
The fact that both memories of the past and imaginary foresight of the future are equally affected may support the so-called constructive episodic modeling hypothesis, which states that foreseeing the future is a cognitive process that assembles fragments of past memories to paint a picture of possible future events. .
“According to this hypothesis, internal ‘re-experiencing’ and ‘pre-experiencing’ events should involve the recombination of stored perceptual, spatiotemporal, and conceptual information and thus rely on similar cognitive processes – including mental images,” the researchers explain.
Of course, all this does not mean that people with phantasy cannot remember past events or imagine future events, the researchers note.
But their ability to build or reconstruct these interior scenes appears to be reduced compared to people without the disease, whose ability to rely on a richer amount of mental visual imagery seems to give them an edge when working through memories.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the state works, but studies like this one are helping to refine the details – not just about phantasy, but about how memory and visual imagery intersect (or don’t intersect) in everyone’s head. of us.
“The interplay between visual imagery, episodic event construction, and autobiographical memory is likely to be complex, and even more complex due to the sheer number of individual differences that affect each of these cognitive processes,” the researchers write.
“However, fantasia offers a unique model to begin exploring these interactions and building a broader taxonomy of cognitive modeling in the human brain.”
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