Eye’s Mind Research – an update

There is news to share from the Eye’s Mind team. In 2015 we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380) which attracted global media coverage. Since then we have received frequent and very welcome contacts from people with ‘extreme imagery’ – both from those who lack visual imagery, with ‘aphantasia’, and from those who have it in abundance, with ‘hyperphantasia’. Emails have now come in from well over 10,000 participants. Over 2000 have sent us complete sets of questionnaires. Very many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this unique and growing data base! Please continue to share your experiences with us. Because the publicity around this topic was triggered initially by our description of aphantasia, we have heard from more folk at the low end of the vividness spectrum than the high: we are very interested in both, but especially keen at present to learn more about hyperphantasia.

Over the past eighteen months, the project has been supported by a team of extremely enthusiastic Exeter students. Many of our participants will have heard from Brit and James, in particular, who were able to devote the 2016-17 academic year to the project. The student team’s contribution has made all the difference.

We recently had some great news. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, who funded our work in 2015, have awarded us a ‘follow-on’ grant for dissemination. This will allow us to organise a conference for people with ‘extreme imagery’ – aphantasia and hyperphantasia – in 2018 alongside a travelling exhibition of work by artists with extreme imagery. We plan to contact everyone who has been in touch with us over the past two years with news of both the conference and exhibition early next year. We welcome ideas, suggestions and contributions: these events will be joint ventures between the Eye’s mind team and the enthusiastic group of people who made this work possible – so, we hope to see many of you during next year. The dates are not yet finalised, but the conference is likely to be in mid-late Summer, and the exhibition will travel between the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich, the University of Exeter and Tramway, Glasgow.

In a second piece of good news, our work has been shortlisted for the UK’s ‘research Oscar’, the Times Higher Education Supplement award for a scientific project. While the winner won’t be announced until 30th November, it is an honour to be on the shortlist. The credit belongs in great part to those who have contacted us and completed our questionnaires – thank you for this once again.

Despite these successes, the project needs further funds to enable us to push forward with the neuropsychological, brain imaging, genetic and qualitative studies we are planning. We have recently submitted a large grant application which would go a long way to meet this need. The outcome will be known early next year.

We hope to publish the findings from the questionnaire study in a scientific paper over the next few months. It will describe the striking associations we are observing between imagery vividness and occupation, autobiographical memory, face recognition and synaesthesia (cross-talk between the senses). As our sample size grows, we continue to see consistent themes but also variations – as mentioned in my previous update, many people with aphantasia dream visually, but some do not; some have a lively ‘mind’s ear’, while for others this is deaf. These is a strong suggestion from our data that imagery vividness can run in families.

Brit, James and the rest of the student team have helped us to start pilot work with local participants in and around Exeter: a big thank you to all those who have taken part in this. By the end of the year we will have preliminary data on neuropsychological and brain imaging features in people with aphantasia, hypherpantasia and average imagery. As we suspect that these variations in imagery can result from a number of different causes in the brain, it may be that we will need larger numbers of participants in a future, funded, study to draw firm conclusions, but these are some exciting signals in the pilot data. We look forward to sharing the results once the analyses are complete, in the course of next year.

If anyone is keen to learn more about work in this area generally, we are editing a Special Issue of the journal Cortex on Visual Imagery which will appear in 2018.

As before, our research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. I will and post the conference and exhibition dates and venues soon, and write again as the story develops.

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