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The Sound of Science - 'Aphantasia'

NIU STEAM
NIU STEAM

The Sound of Science - 'Aphantasia'

Welcome to The Sound of Science from WNIJ and NIU STEAM. It’s a weekly series explaining important STEM concepts. Today’s hosts are Jeremy Benson and Newt Likier.

Picture this: you’re outside on a warm day. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and a nice breeze rustles through the leaves on the trees. You have a shiny green apple in your hand.

Can I take a bite?

Sure!

Mmmm

To all you listening, were you able to picture that scene in your head? Would it surprise you to learn there are extremes to how people experience visualization? Some people have what’s called hyperphantasia, or extremely vivid mental imagery.

Nikola Tesla, for example, is said to have been able to fully visualize detailed projects in his mind as clearly as if he was holding them. While some people have aphantasia, or a complete lack of mental imagery.

I’m one of those people. But most people fall somewhere in between. The term Aphantasia was first coined in 2015, when a surgical patient lost his ability to visualize after an operation.

Since then, scientists have used new technology to discover more about how the brain creates these images. Unsurprisingly, there’s not just one part of the brain responsible for this, and research has suggested connections between visualization and the visual and prefrontal cortexes of our brains.

In 2020, a group of scientists used electricity to stimulate neurons and determined that the more excitable or reactive your visual cortex is, the more likely you are to experience aphantasia.

This was exciting enough on its own, but they took it a step further. Using electricity once more, they discovered that decreasing that excitability led to an increased ability to visualize.

The prefrontal cortex which helps with cognitive function and planning, also seems to play a role in our ability to visualize.

Interestingly enough, stimulating the prefrontal cortex had a similar, but opposite effect. Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex showed an increase in the ability to visualize.

If there’s anything you want to learn about the world around us, submit your questions to niusteam@niu.edu

This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ. Where you learn something new every day.

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