Monthly Archives: August 2015

Aphantasia: Losing the mind’s eye

When he wrote about a patient who had lost his visual imagination, Professor Adam Zeman was contacted by a trickle of people who lacked a ‘mind’s eye’. Lately that trickle has become a flood, and Professor Zeman is at the cutting edge of researching his newly-defined condition aphantasia. Here he describes one of the most exciting periods of his academic life…

Heartbeat 1, Susan Aldworth, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

Heartbeat 1, Susan Aldworth, 2010.
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

“What sets us apart is a life in the mind, the ability to imagine,” wrote the evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, and I tend to agree. We are addicted to imaginative journeys – recollecting events from our past, conjuring visions of our future, exploring possible worlds in fiction and film, conceiving the workings of the quark or deepest space.

For most of us, visualisation, the capacity to ‘see in the mind’s eye’, is an important element in these imaginings. Over the past ten years, we have gained some unexpected insights into the properties of the mind’s eye.

In 2003 I encountered a patient who had, abruptly, lost the ability to visualise. Previously MX, as we called him in our article, had enjoyed a vivid visual imagination, imaging the faces of his family, for example as he dropped off to sleep; when he read novels, he entered a visual world created by the fiction; when he recollected a familiar place he could ‘see’ it before him.

Suddenly, after a procedure to treat a narrowed coronary artery, MX found that he could no longer visualise, though his vision was otherwise intact.

Using the brain imaging technique of functional MRI we showed that when MX looked at faces, the resulting brain activation was normal – but when he tried to imagine them, visual areas toward the back of the brain were activated much less strongly than in control participants. Interestingly, his visual memory appeared to be unaffected: he could tell us in detail about how things looked, even though he could no longer see them in his mind’s eye.

The findings of this study were published in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2010. The article caught the eye of the American science journalist, Karl Zimmer, who described our findings in Discover, the US science magazine.

During the next few years we received a series of contacts from more than 20 people who recognised their experience in Carl’s description – except for the key difference that they had never been able to imagine. Oddly, although this phenomenon of lifelong absence of imagery had been highlighted by Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist, in the 19th Century, there had been very little systematic study since, with one exception: Bob Faw, an American psychologist, had suggested that it might affect 2-3 per cent of the population.

Seeing in the mind’s eye

We sent our contacts a structured questionnaire to learn more. They told a consistent story – they typically discovered in their teens or twenties, to their surprise, that when others spoke of ‘seeing in their mind’s eye’ they were referring to an experience which had a genuinely visual feel; as a group our contacts regarded their memory for their personal past as poor, while their capacity for abstract thought was well developed; most of them knew what it was like to visualise as they experienced imagery in dreams, or as they dropped off to sleep, although they were unable to visualise deliberately. A request to ‘count the number of windows in your house or apartment’ was especially revealing – all could do this accurately, but without consulting an ‘image’ of their home.

Working with Sergio Della Sala from Edinburgh University and Michaela Dewar from Heriot-Watt University I recently reported these results in the journal Cortex. As we were describing a condition – or variation in experience – that lacked a convenient name, we consulted a linguistically knowledgeable colleague, David Mitchell, and together coined a new term. By analogy with ‘aphasia’, the loss of language, we termed the lack of the mind’s eye ‘aphantasia’, from the Greek words ‘a’, meaning ‘without’, and ‘phantasia’, meaning the capacity to form images. Our Cortex paper described cases of lifelong or ‘congenital aphantasia’.

History sometime repeats itself constructively. Carl Zimmer wrote about our new work for a second time, in his column in the New York Times. The stream of interesting mails provoked by the previous article became a welcome flood. Over a thousand people have been in touch since, giving detailed and fascinating account of their experience – or lack of it.

With such a large sample, themes and patterns begin to emerge: for example, a substantial proportion of those contacting us also report problems with face recognition or ‘prosopagnosia’. A similar association, with ‘weak’ visual imagery, had been reported recently, from the opposite direction, by prosopagnosia researchers.

Next steps

What is the next step? As ‘aphantasia’ has been such a neglected topic, there is everything to learn.  Through an interdisciplinary  project funded for a year by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘The Eye’s Mind and its place in culture’, involving among others the artist, Susan Aldworth, art historian John Onians and philosopher Fiona Macpherson, we are planning future studies and placing ‘aphantasia’ in context. An inability to visualise does not imply an inability to imagine: imagination is a much richer, more complex capacity than the specifically visual ability lost in aphantasia.

The few weeks since Carl Zimmer’s article appeared have been among the most exciting of my academic life. Why does the topic of ‘aphantasia’ touch a chord? I suspect that, as Robin Dunbar implies, the answer is that we live so much of our lives ‘in our heads’: visual imagery may not be required for imagination, but, for most of us, it is a key ingredient.

Lives without imagery can be rich and fulfilling, but they are different, and remind us of the great, but easily unnoticed, range of variation in human experience.

Find out more about about Professsor Zeman’s work into aphantasia in our news story.

My Industrial Placement at Microsoft UK

Final year Business School student, Ben Kosky, has been named Intern of the Year by Microsoft UK; in this blog post, he talks about his internship experience, why it helped him plan for life after graduation and why he would encourage new students to consider the the With Industrial Experience scheme.

Learn more about Ben’s award.

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft


When deciding on my degree and University the opportunity to take a placement year was essential. The University of Exeter stood out, with an exceptional ‘With Industrial Experience’ (WIE) programme.

I was excited by the opportunity to take a year out of studying to get stuck into the workplace. My ultimate aim being to challenge myself further to learn and develop, whilst also applying the key principles and theories I had studied during my degree.

After a tough interview process, I managed to secure 1 of 125 Internship places at Microsoft UK as a Sales Solution Professional within their Cloud and Mobility divisions of the business, selling to their largest 313 enterprise customers.

To begin with, it was very daunting and I found it completely different to the familiar environment of studying that I was accustomed to. However, by not being afraid to challenge and push myself to learn and develop, whilst also not shying away from sometimes failing, it was truly amazing how much I grasped during my year, in order to grow as an individual and team member, whilst developing into a more rounded business student.

Some of you may be asking yourselves should you do a year in industry? Personally, I cannot recommend it enough! It is a fantastic opportunity to really push yourself, to apply what you have studied and finally to have a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Microsoft, we had an amazing intern community, with a huge array of opportunities and activities to get involved with.

Further, a year in industry really develops your ability to manage your time effectively and improve your work ethic, which will be imperative in having a strong final year. It is known that WIE students secure excellent grades in their final year as they are able to apply the theories they study into practice using their personal experiences, whilst building and utilising the work ethic and time management competencies they developed from the workplace into their studies.

My industrial placement at Microsoft was truly unforgettable and was rounded off with their most prestigious award. Through the contributions I had made to Microsoft’s Sales and to areas outside my actual job specifications, I was named their ‘Intern of the Year’ against 125 other interns across the UK.

Reflecting on WIE

Upon reflection, the award highlights to me that if you’re willing to work hard, apply yourself and if you love what you do, if that is towards your sport, studying or whatever hobby you have, then you have the ability to succeed and excel.

The support I received during my year from my team, manager and WIE programme tutors and directors was incredible and without them, I would not have had such a successful and enjoyable year.

Looking forwards I am excited about coming back to Exeter to finish my final year Business Management with Marketing degree. I truly believe that my ability now to really relate to the theoretical concepts I will study, through drawing on my personal experiences will be imperative to me having a successful final year.

I am also looking at graduate jobs with the aim to start in September 2016. I will definitely be applying back to Microsoft as I cannot recommend the company enough. The time and effort they put into their programmes is truly remarkable and the responsibility and authority you are given, even as an intern, is amazing!

Without these components, I truly don’t believe I would have had such an amazing year and would have learnt and developed as much as I did. However, there are a vast array of companies out there so I would definitely recommend, and have been recommended by others, to apply to other companies.

One final thing I would say is that even if your industrial placement highlights to you an area of a business or industry that you may not want to continue your career in, this is still a key and a vital learning point in your career development and therefore is hugely valuable.

In light of my year I cannot recommend the WIE programme enough and truly recommend everyone to at least consider the opportunity and possibility of taking a placement year. I do hope this brief insight into my experiences has been useful and I would be happy to help with anyone looking for further information or who has any questions I will leave my details below. Thanks and good luck!

Ben Kosky – 4th Year Business Management Student

It’s raining; it’s pouring, and yet the old man appears to be snoring

Could rainwater reuse technology help the UK tackle water storage and drought?

STREAM Research Engineer and Researcher for Centre for Water Systems, Sustainable Water Management, Peter Melville-Shreeve takes a look at the technology which is waiting in the wings to help us address problems of drought.

When will the Old Men in central government provide support for rainwater reuse technologies in the UK? Do we need for the taps to run dry, or our cities to flood even more frequently? The technology is waiting in the wings and yet, despite terrible drought conditions in 2012, followed immediately by record flooding, nothing has been done. The latest market data from 2009 shows that a measly 5,000 rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems are installed each year.

A dried up riverbed.

A dried up riverbed.

The RWH technology captures water from roofs and allows it to be reused instead of precious drinking water for uses such as WC’s and garden irrigation. It reduces the impacts of floods and droughts and yet the policymakers continue to ignore its potential. If we take the 2012 Drought as an example, the government had serious concerns that there might not be enough water to supply the Olympics!

Harvesting rain can reduce flooding and drought.

Harvesting rain can reduce flooding and drought. Image by Peter Melville-Shreeve

“A Western European country”, I hear you mutter, “where it rains 24/7, running out of water. Surely not?” Well no… not quite… not yet. So let’s introduce climate change to the equation. A mythical beast that will change our rainfall in ways which only supercomputers can comprehend. We need to act now to build resilience into our water infrastructure. RWH is the ideal tool to provide additional capacity within our water networks without the need for crazy energy-intensive schemes such as the proposal to pump water from the River Severn to the Thames. With urban flooding on the increase, research at the University of Exeter has demonstrated that the installation of rainwater reuse can also reduce flooding. The government should mandate rainwater reuse at new developments as RWH represents the ideal solution to these problems.

RWH has provided water to civilisations over thousands of years, and yet it seems to be a forgotten opportunity in the UK. We expect all water we interact with to be fit to drink, and yet only two per cent actually gets drunk. So why does the remaining 98 per cent need to be potable? The phrase “fit for purpose” comes to mind. You wouldn’t serve a can of coke in a crystal flute, so why flush your morning ablutions with pristine drinking water.

The rainwater harvesting solution?

If every house collected roofwater for use in toilets and washing machines, potable supplies could be reduced by 50 per cent. Our reservoirs would never run dry, and perhaps even The River Kennet might experience some natural flow.

With unsustainable abstraction rates, alternative water supply options must be implemented, otherwise, the south east of the UK will run out of water in the decades ahead. It’s not just common sense to flush with rain, it’s a solution to a problem that frequently raises its ugly head over the horizon. However, government policy is a slow moving beast and it is evident that the complex needs for sustainable technology delivery are mired in murky incentive mechanisms such as the Feed in Tariff.

In recent years, the government has provided a range of costly subsidies for photo-voltaics and so-called property level flood protection. Conversely, mandating sustainable practices such as rainwater reuse is a low-cost approach and the economic benefits would be widespread as the industry would boom and employment would grow. It wouldn’t cost the government a penny, but it would generate millions in tax income. The mandatory use of RWH works in Belgium, so why do we lag behind here in the UK?

A water butt is a good way to start harvesting water.

A water butt is a good way to start harvesting water. Image by Peter Melville-Shreeve

You won’t be surprised that it comes down to cold hard cash. Even in the south west where water rates have reached £5 per thousand litres, water is a cheap resource. We simply do not pay the true cost of water, as the environmental damage associated with over use is not included in the price we pay. Water companies are incentivised to sweat their existing assets and defer upgrade expenditure. A ticking time-bomb some say? The price of water must more accurately incorporate the wider environmental and asset replacement costs to enable a natural incentive for people to stop flushing drinking water. Forward thinking policymakers would take action now to relieve pressure on the water networks before the camel’s back is broken.

The time has come for the senior ladies and gentlemen of government to stir into action and mandate rainwater reuse. After all, it will help stop flooding, prevent drought and leave our green and pleasant land as just that. The solution’s been here since year dot… it’s time for policy to fall into line. So I say, “Wake up Old Man… it’s raining outside and we are offering you a free umbrella”.

Peter Melville-Shreeve, BSc, MSc, Stream Research Engineer, Centre for Water Systems. Sustainable Water Management Researcher. Contact: .

Peter wishes to acknowledge the generous support from Professor David Butler and Dr Sarah Ward in the delivery of his current research projects.

Tracking Pied Flycatchers

Honorary Research Fellow, Dr Malcom Burgess is a Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science been interested in woodland birds since childhood, and has a PhD on the Mauritius kestrel, a tropical woodland bird.

Dr Burgess set up, and now runs citizen science website, to monitor Pied Flycatchers in the south west of England. In this blog post, he writes about how they have managed to track the migration of the Pied Flycatcher.

This blog post first appeared on the British Ornithologists’ Union site.

Pied Flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca are one of the best studied passerines in Europe, yet we know little about their migratory timings or even where populations winter. We are now starting to find out.

Pied Flycatchers, like Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus and Great Tits Parus major, breed in nest boxes at high densities which enables large numbers to be monitored, so making them good model systems for all manner of studies. But an important difference between tits and flycatchers is that flycatchers migrate. Despite knowing a huge amount about Pied Flycatcher breeding ecology, we actually know little about their migration timings, migration routes or the locations of their African non-breeding grounds. This is important to find out, as the UK population has declined by 53 per cent since 1995 (Baillie et al. 2014) and has declined in other parts of their European breeding range (BirdLife International 2015).

In the UK there is little evidence that declines are strongly linked to factors affecting them on their breeding grounds. Availability and quality of western oakwoods is largely unchanged (Amar et al. 2010), although it is possible that timing of breeding has become increasingly mismatched with prey availability as warmer and advanced springs result in earlier availability of invertebrate food (see my previous BOU blogs here and here). Such a phenological mismatch has been linked to European Pied Flycatcher declines (Both et al. 2006) although UK data suggests some adaptation, with advances in egg laying date at the same time as relatively unchanged productivity (Baillie et al. 2014). Although these factors may play some role, it seems likely that other important pinch points exist outside of the breeding season.

We know so little about the non-breeding and migratory ecology of Pied Flycatchers partly because we have been unable to follow individuals. Without any precise information about where they go between breeding seasons we have little to go on. In the UK, 645,000 Pied Flycatchers have been ringed since 1909, and yet just five UK breeding (and no UK hatched) have subsequently been found in African wintering grounds. This is one recovery per 129,000 birds; ringing alone is not going to help us. But continued miniaturisation of the lightest available tracking devises, geolocators, now means we are able to track Pied Flycatchers.

A 0.36g geolocator and leg loop harness ready for deployment in 2015. In contrast the geolocator and harness we used in 2012 together weighed 0.59g © David Price

A 0.36g geolocator and leg loop harness ready for deployment in 2015. In contrast the geolocator and harness we used in 2012 together weighed 0.59g © David Price

In 2012 myself and Chris Hewson (BTO) fitted geolocators to 20 adult male Pied Flycatchers at my long term monitored population at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve in Devon, UK (Burgess 2014). This transpired to be an unlucky choice of year. The following spring was the coldest since 1962 with winter-like conditions continuing into April resulting in the latest Pied Flycatcher first arrival date at the study site for 23 years (despite a long term trend for earlier arrival). It was an extra nervous wait for tagged birds to return. But once they did arrive we quickly identified two birds, caught them and removed their loggers. The late and cold spring meant return rates were low for both tagged and untagged males and so we retrieved fewer loggers than we hoped. But the two tags we did retrieve revealed tracks and timings to Africa and back, and the two winter locations derived from 20 loggers is equivalent to 35 years of national effort ringing hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Just one track from a species can be newsworthy and provide totally new information, such as recent work on Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus(Smith et al. 2014 – see their BOU blog post) and Ring ouzel Turdus torquatus(Sim et al. in press). Our two UK breeding Pied Flycatchers went to the same region as the UK ring recoveries – Liberia or southeast Guinea. This is important information, suggesting UK birds are concentrated in a relatively small portion of the species’ winter distribution in sub-Saharan western Africa.

Attachment of a 0.36g geolocator to a male Pied flycatcher in 2015 © David Price

Attachment of a 0.36g geolocator to a male Pied flycatcher in 2015 © David Price

University of Groningen PhD student Janne Ouwehand combined our UK data with equivalent data collected from other breeding populations from the Netherlands, Finland and Norway, which has recently been published in the Journal of Avian Biology (Ouwehand et al. 2015). This reveals an interesting pattern of migration connectivity. Instead of African wintering ranges being stacked west to east in order of breeding latitude, the opposite was found. This pattern was evident in both the geolocation and ring recovery data. Flycatchers from all populations shared a similar autumn migration route through Iberia and the western edge of the Sahara. But the timings were different, reflecting population differences in the mean timing of breeding. The earlier breeding UK and Dutch flycatchers departed their breeding grounds first (in mid-August). These flycatchers arrived in the humid sub-Saharan zone of western Africa first and then moved east until settling in an area encompassing Liberia/Guinea/Ivory Coast. The later breeding Fennoscandia flycatchers departed breeding grounds later, arrived in sub-Saharan Africa later, but remained in the western part of the humid zone instead of continuing eastwards. The geolocator data showed this was reversed in spring, with UK and Dutch birds departing from wintering grounds first and arriving back to breeding grounds earliest.

The work of Ouwehand et al. suggests the differences in wintering locations, and unexpected pattern of migratory connectivity, results from geographical variation in breeding phenology and timing of migration. From a conservation perspective this highlights a need for more study of seasonal food availability in wintering areas and how this affects migration ecology and fitness. This work contributes to the growing literature and debate on migratory connectivity (Cresswell 2014), which tracking studies are well placed to contribute to, especially through pan-population analysis of tracking data – another recent example being a pan-European study of European RollersCoracias garrulus (Finch et al. 2015).

We waited for further miniaturisation of geolocators before tagging more UK flycatchers, but this season we tagged a further 20 adult males using geolocators 39 per cent lighter than those used in 2012. We eagerly await some of these birds back next spring and hope in the future to look at individual repeatability and relate tracks to demographic information.



Amar, A., Smith, K. W., Butler, S., Lindsell, J., Hewson, C., Fuller, R. & Charman, E.2010. Recent patterns of change in vegetation structure and tree composition of British broadleaved woodland: evidence from large-scale surveys. Forestry 83: 345-356.

Baillie, S. R., Marchant, J., Leech, D. I., Massimino, D., Sullivan, M., Eglington, S. M., Barimore, C., Dadam, D., Downie, I., Harris, S., Kew, A., Newson, S. E., Noble, D. G., Risely, K. & Robinson, R. A. 2014. BirdTrends 2014: trends in numbers, breeding success and survival for UK breeding birds. BTO Research Report 662. BTO, Thetford. View

BirdLife International. 2015. Species factsheet: Ficedula hyploeucaView

Both, C., Bouwhuis, S., Lessells, C. M. & Visser, M. E. 2006. Climate change and population declines in a long-distance migratory bird. Nature 441: 81-83.

Burgess, M. D. 2014. Restoring abandoned coppice for birds: Few effects of conservation management on occupancy, fecundity and productivity of hole nesting birds. Forest Ecology and Management 330: 205-217.

Cresswell, W. 2014. Migratory connectivity of Palaearctic–African migratory birds and their responses to environmental change: the serial residency hypothesis. Ibis 156: 493-510.

Finch, T., Saunders, P., Avilés, J. M., Bermejo, A., Catry, I., de la Puente, J., Emmenegger, T., Mardega, I., Mayet, P., Parejo, D., Račinskis, E., Rodríguez-Ruiz, J., Sackl, P., Schwartz, T., Tiefenbach, M., Valera, F., Hewson, C., Franco, A. & Butler, S. J. 2015. A pan-European, multipopulation assessment of migratory connectivity in a near-threatened migrant bird. Diversity and Distributions. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12345. View

Ouwehand, J., Ahola, M. P., Ausems, A. N. M. A., Bridge, E. S., Burgess, M., Hahn, S., Hewson, C., Klaassen, R. H. G., Laaksonen, T., Lampe, H. M., Velmala, W. & Both, C.2015. Light-level geolocators reveal migratory connectivity in European populations of pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleucaJournal of Avian Biology. DOI: 10.1111/jav.00721.

Sim, I. M., Green, M., Rebecca, G. W. & Burgess, M. D. in press. Geolocators reveal new insights into Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus migration routes and non-breeding areas. Bird Study. DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2015.1077779.

Smith, M., Bolton, M., Okill, D. J., Summers, R. W., Ellis, P., Liechti, F. & Wilson, J. D.2014. Geolocator tagging reveals Pacific migration of Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus breeding in Scotland. Ibis 156: 870-873.