The Sound of Science – ‘Aphantasia’


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

Imagine this: you are outside on a hot day. There is not a cloud in the sky and a nice breeze rustles the leaves of the trees. You have a shiny green apple in your hand.

Can I take a bite?



To all of you listening, could you imagine this scene in your head? Would you be surprised to learn that there are extremes in how people experience visualization? Some people have what is called hyperphantasia, or extremely vivid mental imagery.

Nikola Tesla, for example, would have been able to fully visualize detailed blueprints in his mind as clearly as if he were holding them. While some people suffer from aphantasia, or a complete lack of mental imagery.

I am 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 technologies to learn more about how the brain creates these images. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one part of the brain responsible for this, and research has suggested links between visualization and the visual and prefrontal cortices 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.

That was exciting enough on its own, but they took it a step further. Using electricity again, they found that decreasing this excitability led to an increase in the ability to visualize.

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

Interestingly, stimulation of the prefrontal cortex had a similar, but opposite effect. Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex showed increased visualization ability.

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


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