Extreme Imagination Conference 2019

The world’s first conference for people with ‘extreme imagination’ took place at the University of Exeter, UK, on 5 – 7 April 2019.

With lectures by the leading scientists and thinkers working on aphantasia and hyperphantasia, plus themed workshops and discussion groups, the conference brought together people from all over the world to gain understanding, build a community, and explore the implications of imagery extremes.

Professor Adam Zeman – Phantasia: the psychological significance of visual imagery extremes’

Although the psychologist, Francis Galton, recognised in the nineteenth century that some people lack the ability to visualise, the existence of ‘visual imagery extremes’ has been otherwise neglected by science until very recently. Our invention of the term ‘aphantasia’ to describe the absence of the mind’s eye, and ‘hyperphantasia’ to describe the converse, has unlocked a surge of public and scientific interest. We have now heard from over 12,000 people who identify as a- or hyper-phantasic. In this talk I will present the findings of our recent – so far unpublished – questionnaire survey, including fascinating associations between imagery extremes, occupation, face recognition ability, autobiographical memory and synaesthesia, the ‘merging of the senses’. I will discuss a series of related questions: Can we sure that the visual imagery extremes really exist at all? Are aphantasia and hyperphantasia best thought of as disorders – or rather (as I will argue) intriguing variations in human experience? What are their advantages and disadvantages? What are the key directions for future research?

Professor Joel Pearson – The cognitive neuroscience of mental imagery

Mental imagery can be advantageous, unnecessary (aphantasia), to clinically disruptive and traumatic. It allows us to disconnect our senses from reality and test out virtual combinations of sensory experience. With methodological constraints now overcome, empirical research has shown that visual imagery can function much like a weak version of afferent perception. This talk will cover methods of objectively and reliably measuring visual imagery, its neural mechanisms and how to hack them to control imagery strength. Further, I will cover some of the behavioural and neural implications of having aphantasia and show an overarching framework for imagery and how we use it in everyday life.

Dr Crawford Winlove – The Neural Basis of Visual Imagery

Stop reading at the end of the next sentence, close your eyes, and follow its instruction for at least 30 seconds. Imagine an elephant. What happened? You may have created a picture in your mind, true-to-life or cartoon-like. This might have been full of colour, rich in detail – even mobile and interactive. Or perhaps it was completely absent, as occurs in Aphantasia. My talk will describe the neural correlates of normal visual imagery, as revealed using fMRI, and show how these patterns of activity differ to those seen in a range of similar cognitive processes – and in Aphantasia.

Professor John Onians – Neural Deficits as Assets: Life as a Colour-Blind Art Historian

Having once been told by a Dutch government doctor that, because I was colour blind, I couldn’t take the job I was being offered as an art historian, I am too conscious of the potential negative sides of my neural deficit. But I am much more conscious of the positive sides. I get constant pleasure from imagining colours I can’t see, and I enjoy the challenge of understanding just how problematic ‘seeing’ is. That all helps me to appreciate the variations in seeing experienced by all human beings, including the most famous artists, such as Leonardo or Bacon. Most of all, though, the impact that the lack of a few colour receptors in my retina has on my life means that I want to understand how all the myriad neurons in my brain help me survive. My neural deficit makes me very interested in neuroscience.

Professor Emily Holmes – Mental Imagery and Emotion: Psychology from lab to clinic

A really interesting thing about mental imagery is that it has a more powerful impact on our emotion that its verbal counterpart. Imagining something positive can make us feel more happy for example than merely thinking in words about the same event. Mental imagery can act as an emotional amplifier and as a motivational amplifier. When used adaptively this can be very helpful. Intrusive (unwanted), affect-laden mental images cause distress in various difficulties associated with mental health. For example, intrusive memories that “flash backwards” to past trauma occur in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while images that “flash forwards” to the future can occur in bipolar disorder. My clinical research group also has an interest in understanding and treating maladaptive mental imagery via psychological therapies. To do this, we are curious about what we can learn from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to inform treatment development. I will discuss the possible impact of imagery in depression and also in bipolar disorder, as well as recent very exploratory work concerning dampening down intrusive memories of traumatic events (via dual task interference including computer game play such as Tetris). We will discuss examples of imagery-based psychological therapy techniques from a recent clinical book (Holmes et al, 2019).

Professor Fiona Macpherson – What is it Like to Have Visual Imagery?

What is it like to have visual imagery? How exactly does visual imagery differ from visual experience? David Hume famously said that visual imagery is less ‘lively and vivid’ than visual experience. However, to the extent that these descriptions are true, they are metaphorical descriptions. Can we say in non-metaphorical terms what the difference is? And can we do so in a way that allows us to describe to people who have congenital aphantasia what it is like to have visual imagery? Many philosophers think that if you have not experienced something then you cannot know what it is Iike to experience it. However, David Hume claimed that there was one exception: experiences that are very similar to ones that you have had. I examine a series of unusual perceptual phenomena and show that they are in some respects like that of visual imagery. This may allow those who have never had visual imagery to triangulate and come to know what imagery experiences are like and, at the same time, help us to focus in on the properties of visual imagery that make it different from that of visual experience.