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.

Visual imagination conference 2016

The Eye’s Mind: visual imagination, neuroscience and the humanities

an international conference at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK 21st-22nd May 2016

Our Arts and Humanities Research Council project, The Eye’s Mind – a study of the neural basis of the visual imagination and its place in culture, culminated recently in a major conference. The project involved three strands – a review of the history of thought about the visual imagination, from Plato and Aristotle to Kosslyn and Pylyshyn; a metanalysis of brain imaging studies of visual imagery; a study of individuals at the extremes of the imagery vividness spectrum which extends from superabundance – ‘hyperphantasia’ – to absence, ‘aphantasia’.

The conference included talks by every member of the project team (Susan Aldworth, artist; Matthew MacKisack, historian of ideas – and the project’s full-time Fellow; Fiona Macpherson, philosopher; John Onians, art historian; Crawford Winlove, neuroscientist; Adam Zeman, neurologist) together with a distinguished and lively group of contributors from a wide variety of disciplines. Over the course of the weekend, 24 speakers and 6 poster presenters explored the full range of the elusive but captivating topic of visual imagery in its historical, philosophical, artistic, literary, psychological, neurobiological and personal dimensions.  Keynotes were given by Dr Paul Broks, a clinical psychologist turned creative writer, who engagingly introduced the concept of ‘imaginal reality’ by way of reflections on a set of cultural creations – the Greek gods – and a biological phenomenon – ‘sleep paralysis’ – that predisposes to vivid hallucinations; Prof Michael Tye (University of Austin, Texas), who discussed the nature of visual imagery in the light of philosophical debate and psychological experiment and Prof Joel Pearson (University of New South Wales, Sydney) who has developed path-breaking methods by which to measure the vividness, and even decode the contents, of imagery in the human brain.

Submitted papers considered imagery as a force in artistic and scientific creativity; its role in the reading of literature; its importance in education and therapy; its significance in memory; its heightening in synaesthesia, the merging of the senses; its potential value in computer science. One of the most remarkable features of the meeting was that, probably for the first time in human history, it gathered together a sizeable group of individuals with ‘aphantasia’, a focus of the Eye’s Mind project, and, to date, a strangely neglected psychological phenomenon: there was strong enthusiasm for a future meeting devoted to this subject.

We greatly valued the support received from the AHRC and from the journal Brain. The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, with its unique collection of art works from around the world, drawn from the full extent of human cultural history, was a wonderfully appropriate setting for our meeting. We hope that within a few weeks the pdfs of the slides used by our speakers will be available on the project website (http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/). We are extremely grateful to the speakers and members of the audience who travelled from around the world to join us. During the conference we grew into an exceptionally integrated community of specialists in the sciences and the humanities. Encouraged by an unprecedented sharing of knowledge and of methods of enquiry across our disciplines, we look forward to productive exchanges and collaborations in the future.