Not Spooked by Halloween Ghost Stories? You May Have Aphantasia

Summary: Do you experience difficulties conjuring up visual images in your mind while listening to spooky stories? You may have aphantasia, researchers report.

Source: The Conversation

Halloween movies often feature kids sitting around a campfire sharing gory, spooky stories, trying to get someone to scream in fear.

This weekend you might be doing the same – sharing a horror story with friends. You may find one friend doesn’t get scared, no matter how frightening a scene you try to paint in their mind.

So why are some people more easily spooked by stories than others? We ran an experiment to find out.

Can you see it in your mind?

One reason some people are more easily spooked could relate to how well they can visualise the scary scene in their mind.

When some people listen to a story they automatically conjure up the scene in their mind’s eye, while others have to focus really hard to create any sort of mental image.

A small proportion cannot visualise images at all. No matter how hard they try, they do not see anything in their mind. This inability to visualise is known as aphantasia.

Although we have known people vary in their ability to visualise for many years, the term aphantasia was not coined until 2015.

We don’t yet know exactly how many people have aphantasia. But estimates vary at 1–4% of the population.

Credit: BrainCraft

How scared are you?

If the ability to visualise images and scenes in the mind plays a role in how we react to spooky stories, what does that mean for people with aphantasia? How do they react when reading scary stories?

We ran a study to find out. We had people sit in the dark and read a number of short stories – not ghost stories, but ones with frightening, hypothetical scenarios.

One example involved someone being chased by a shark, another being covered in spiders.

As people read these stories, we recorded their fear levels by measuring how much the stories made them sweat.

We placed small electrodes on their fingers and ran a tiny electric current from one electrode to the other.

When you sweat this allows the electric current to flow from one electrode to the other easier, due to less resistance, and this results in increased skin conductance.

This measure can pick up even very small increases in sweat you wouldn’t otherwise notice.

For most people who could conjure up images in their mind, their skin conductance increased when they read these stories. But people with aphantasia didn’t show a significant increase in their skin conductance levels when reading the same scenarios.

There was no difference between the two groups when viewing scary pictures. This suggests aphantasic people’s lack of a reaction to these stories wasn’t due to a general dampening of emotional responses.

Instead, we concluded the lack of a change in skin conductance in these people with aphantasia is specific to being unable to visualise these fear-inducing stories.

What’s going on in the brain?

Very little work has been done to measure neural activity in people with aphantasia to give us a firm idea of why they cannot visualise images.

One study shows both the frontal and visual regions of the brain are linked to visualising images. And in people with aphantasia, the connection between these two areas is weaker.

This is a drawing of a head with a spider crawling on it
So why are some people more easily spooked by stories than others? Image is in the public domain

Another study found the pattern of activity in visual regions of the brain is correlated with the vividness of the mental images.

So any reduction in connectivity between the frontal and visual regions may result in less control over the visual regions. This might lead to the inability to visualise.

So what if you have aphantasia?

If you have aphantasia, it might just mean reading a Stephen King novel is unlikely to ruffle your feathers.

Theoretically, remembering fearful experiences might also be less scary. We did not test personal memories in our study, but we hope to look at these in the future.

People with aphantasia report their personal memories (autobiographical memories) are less vivid and detailed than people with visual imagery.

People with aphantasia may also be less likely to develop disorders associated with fear memories, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Another possibility is they still may develop PTSD but it presents in a different way to people with visual imagery – without flashbacks. But more research is needed.

About this aphantasia research news

Author: Rebecca Keogh
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Rebecca Keogh – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia” by Rebecca Keogh et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences


The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia

One proposed function of imagery is to make thoughts more emotionally evocative through sensory simulation, which can be helpful both in planning for future events and in remembering the past, but also a hindrance when thoughts become overwhelming and maladaptive, such as in anxiety disorders.

Here, we report a novel test of this theory using a special population with no visual imagery: aphantasia. After using multi-method verification of aphantasia, we show that this condition, but not the general population, is associated with a flat-line physiological response (skin conductance levels) to reading and imagining frightening stories.

Importantly, we show in a second experiment that this difference in physiological responses to fear-inducing stimuli is not found when perceptually viewing fearful images. These data demonstrate that the aphantasic individuals’ lack of a physiological response when imaging scenarios is likely to be driven by their inability to visualize and is not due to a general emotional or physiological dampening.

This work provides evidence that a lack of visual imagery results in a dampened emotional response when reading fearful scenarios, providing evidence for the emotional amplification theory of visual imagery.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.