People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked

Posted on March 30, 2021

The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tested how aphantasic people reacted to reading distressing scenarios, like being chased by a shark, falling off a cliff, or being in a plane that’s about to crash.

The researchers were able to physically measure each participant’s fear response by monitoring changing skin conductivity levels – in other words, how much the story made a person sweat. This type of test is commonly used in psychology research to measure the body’s physical expression of emotion.

According to the findings, scary stories lost their fear factor when the readers couldn’t visually imagine the scene – suggesting imagery may have a closer link to emotions than scientists previously thought.

“We found the strongest evidence yet that mental imagery plays a key role in linking thoughts and emotions,” says Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper and Director of UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab.

“In all of our research to date, this is by far the biggest difference we’ve found between people with aphantasia and the general population.”

To test the role of visual imagery in fear, the researchers guided 46 study participants (22 with aphantasia, and 24 with imagery) to a blackened room before attaching several electrodes to their skin. Skin is known to become a better conductor of electricity when a person feels strong emotions, like fear.

The scientists then left the room and turned the light off, leaving the participants alone as a story started to appear in the screen in front of them.

At first, the stories started innocuously – for example, ‘You are at the beach, in the water’ or ‘You’re on a plane, by the window’. But as the stories continued, the suspense slowly built, whether it was a dark flash in the distant waves and people on the beach pointing, or the cabin lights dimming as the plane starts to shake.

“Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualise the stories,” says Prof Pearson. “The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted.

“But for people with aphantasia, the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined.”

To check that differences in fear thresholds didn’t cause the response, the experiment was repeated using a series of scary images instead of text, like a photo of a cadaver or a snake bearing its fangs.

But this time, the pictures made the skin crawl equally in both groups of people.

“These two sets of results suggest that aphantasia isn’t linked to reduced emotion in general, but is specific to participants reading scary stories,” says Prof. Pearson. “The emotional fear response was present when participants actually saw the scary material play out in front of them.

“The findings suggest that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think all kind of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren’t going to have that emotional ‘boom’.”


Source material from University of New South Wales


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