KENSINGTON, Australia — Ever wonder why some people don’t even flinch when they hear a scary ghost story? For some, a recent study finds they may have a case of aphantasia — the inability to visualize imagery. Researchers in Australia say, for people with “mind blindness,” reading a scary story may be no different emotionally than reading an instruction manual.
The team at the University of New South Wales Sydney compared the emotional responses of people with aphantasia to the vast majority of people who have the ability to form images in their mind.
For the roughly two to five percent of the population with aphantasia, there is little to fear from hearing or reading a spooky story. Researchers say their brains simply do not conjure up an image. Their study found that seeing frightening images is the same for everyone. In other words, seeing is believing.
“We found the strongest evidence yet that mental imagery plays a key role in linking thoughts and emotions,” says senior study author Professor Joel Pearson, director of UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab, in a university release.
Your skin can reveal how scared you are
Study authors applied a common psychology research tool to check changing skin conductivity levels. How much sweat participants produced during the buildup of a scary story provided data on their gut reaction.
Skin is a great conductor of electricity when someone is experiencing strong emotions like fear. For the study, 46 participants (22 with aphantasia and 24 with typical imagery abilities) entered a blackened room, where researchers attached several electrodes to their skin.
The scientists then flipped off the lights in the test room and left participants alone to view texts of stories unfolding on a screen — like reading the screenplay of a horror flick. The stories would start innocently enough, with phrases such as “You are at the beach, in the water” or “You’re on a plane, by the window.” However, as is often the case with fictional stories, the suspense would begin to swell. People on the beach started pointing towards something that looks like a dark fin in the distant waves. In other stories, the cabin lights started to dim while the plane begins to shudder.
“Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualize the stories,” Pearson reports. “The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted. But for people with aphantasia, the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined.”
What we actually see terrifies us more
To confirm that the findings were not the result of different fear thresholds, researchers repeated the experiment. This time instead of text, however, the team flashed frightening images in front of participants — including a photo of a cadaver or a snake bearing its fangs.
The results? Both groups were equally creeped out by the spooky pictures.
“The findings suggest that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier,” says Pearson. “We can think all kind of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren’t going to have that emotional ‘boom’.”
Researchers say the findings show that the fear factor of hearing a story is essentially snuffed out when the reader is unable to visualize the scene in their minds. This result suggests that imagery and emotion are more closely linked than scientists once thought.
The research team previously studied the impact aphantasia has on other cognitive processes, such as memory, dreaming, and imagination. Researchers got the idea for the current study after seeing comments on aphantasia discussion boards about the lack of pleasure in reading fiction books. The results of this study provide an important clue.
Does this only apply to fear?
Study authors say their findings confirm how rare the condition is and believe these results may provide another tool to diagnose it in the future. They also caution that there are variabilities within those with aphantasia. Although the study focuses specifically on fear reactions, the results could be different with other emotions.
“So don’t be concerned if you have aphantasia and don’t fit this mold,” Pearson continues. “There are all kinds of variations to aphantasia that we’re only just discovering.”
Researchers at the Future Minds Lab next plan to study how disorders like anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) might be experienced for those with aphantasia.
“Aphantasia is neural diversity,” Pearson concludes. “It’s an amazing example of how different our brain and minds can be.”
The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.