Author Archives: sydneydahl

My life without pictures (congenital aphantasia)

One of the main pictures in cognitive psych so far seems to be mental imagery (excuse the pun). It shows up in study tips on how to deep process and then shows up in long term memory because of the deep processing. But how do pictures relate to memory? Easy, by making pictures to associate with words. Like to remember the words ‘elephant’ and ‘piano’ you could create the image of an elephant playing a piano. Seems simple. Everyone can do it, right? I mean Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, said that the better the picture than the more intelligent you were.

Well, actually wrong. I can’t do that. I can’t form any picture in my head. Neither can one of my aunts and her son. Like, when I was a kid and had trouble sleep, my parents told me to close my eyes and count sheep. Anyone with the ability to form pictures in their head would obviously know to imagine sheep and count them, that didn’t even cross my mind. I laid down and counted in my head ‘one sheep, two sheep, three sheep’. I guess according to Galton, I’m an idiot (especially with the counting sheep thing). Well, no again. I am smart, just like everyone else; my aunt, cousin, and I just have aphantasia. Aphantasia is a mental phenomenon meaning that some people can’t create mental pictures.

The term ‘congenital aphantasia’ was created in 2015, by Zeman, Dewar, and Della Sala. But the first findings of aphantasia was recorded in 1883. Galton ‘discovered’ it when he was working on his mental imagery vividness test with fellow scientists. In his tests, he discovered that some of the other scientists had no idea what he was talking about, he referred to them as having a mental deficiency.

Recently a study by Rebecca Keogh and Joel Pearson was conducted to try and figure out what aphantasia is and how it affects people’s minds. The main question though was trying to learn if people with aphantasia really can’t form mental images or if they have poor metacognition (meaning that they have the images just not the ability to access them). They tested these hypotheses with a bunch of different questionnaires, one of the main ones being the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). After all the tests, the results showed that people with aphantasia have impaired visual object imagery but above average spatial imagery. In simple terms, this means that the brain’s ‘what’ pathway is damaged and the brain’s ‘where’ pathway is slightly faster. This was proven again with neuroscience. In a normal neurotypical brain, mental images have activation from the visual cortex as well as the parietal and frontal areas of the brain. In the brain of a person with aphantasia, there is less feedback from the frontal cortex to the visual cortex, saying that the feedback link between those areas is what causes mental images. Meaning that it the lack of images is not poor metacognition, people with aphantasia really just can’t create mental pictures.

Of course, further studies need to still be done. We need to figure out why this bad connection occurs. What other parts of the brain change with the connection? It could also help in discovering why there are mental images, or why mental images are more vivid in people with mental disorders, or why creating mental images helps with long term memory. A study with people and aphantasia and long-term memory might be a good idea as well to see if it is even possible for people with aphantasia to deep-process things in the way others can. I think of this idea because I know for me and my cousin it is hard to remember our childhoods. My mom thinks it’s because most memories are visual, and I would like to see if science agrees and can prove her idea.

Unlike my mom though, who listened to me when I explained my lack of mental images, my dad didn’t believe me (and he wasn’t the only one). My dad probably didn’t believe me, because he has perfected the ‘mind palace’ and has an amazing memory for all of his stand-up comedy (it can last up to three hours!). He tried to teach me how to see pictures in my head to build a mind palace and he couldn’t grasp how I couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp how he could. Also, when I was a kid, people tried to trick me into proving that I could see pictures by asking me what my house looks like, and when I tell them they said that they ‘knew I was lying before’. But I wasn’t lying. It might be that I have higher spatial memory (as proven in the study that people with aphantasia have higher spatial memory). I can tell you where things are in relation, but I can’t close my eyes and tell you the colors of those things. I can’t close my eyes and picture something so vivid it must be real (like my house, which I should be able to).

Now you might say that this doesn’t affect my life, I’m a psych student. If I was an art student it may be a problem. But I think it still does affect me, I’ve just adapted to it. For example, I’m also a double major in creative writing, and my aphantasia still effects me because I’m bad at writing descriptions. Half the time it doesn’t cross my mind to give descriptions until I’ve already handed in a piece. Why would it, I’ve never needed it. It also sometimes makes reading difficult, people claim to see movies when they read, I just see words. I suppose I’m lucky that I still like to read because my aunt stopped altogether. This isn’t to say that I don’t daydream, my daydream is just like a running monologue (probably why I like to write now that I think about it). And, sorry dad, but I can probably never learn how to make a mind palace.

But, even with all of this differences in how I live my life, I like my brain. And I don’t understand how others live with pictures. I learned about the phrase aphantasia in my junior year of high school, and besides a few articles (mostly my mom bloggers) I had no idea that it was scientifically proven. So, I’m happy that there are at least two studies proving that I may not be in the majority, but I’m not alone with my ‘blind’ head.


Love at First Sight!

I don’t know about you, but when I was little, I would sit in my Cinderella costume and glue my face to the tv as the Disney castle logo played. I clapped and cheered as Ariel, Cinderella, Jasmine, Snow White, and Aurora met all their perfect princes at a glance. I thought that glance was the best part of the movie, when the prince and princess met each other’s gaze and they fell in love and the audience just knew. Love at first sight. How romantic~~~

But…is it realistic?

Some people say that they ‘knew’ when they met their future spouse. For example, Prince Harry or Portia de Rossi. Ask any middle aged, happily married couple if they had love at first sight and I bet you $5 that they will sigh dreamily and say yes. But how does that work? How did they know? Why haven’t I found my soulmate like all these people did with a glance? Where is my coffee shop love interest? Or my bump on the street? Or glance through a crowded room?

Therefore, since I haven’t experienced it, people are obviously lying.

But, according to Dr. DiDonato, they might not be. In her article, she says that a study in the Netherlands was conducted on the topic. In the study, 400 men and woman completed three different tests (one online, another in a lab, and another face to face) to rate if they felt love at first sight for the picture (or person if it was face to face) and then rate how attractive the person was. The study concluded with tons of interesting data: it was most likely love at first site if there was a higher attractive rating, men were more likely to experience it, and it isn’t normally mutual at first. This data is supported by another article which continues to say that love at first sight might be a subconscious pull where we rate people to our ideal partner. But it continues with saying that after the initial glance, people then go up and talk to the person. So, this article says it’s less of ‘love at first sight’ but ‘attraction at first glance’ (which might be how Tinder works now that I think about it).

Personally, I believe that ‘attraction at first glance’ might be the better word choice for the phenomena than ‘love at first sight’. Yet, I also believe that other people think love at first sight exists. But why do they believe it even when data shows that it is the subconscious brain and facial features? Well, I think it might have to do with priming. We are told through movies, tv, books, friends, and family (to name a few ????) that love at first sight can be expected and is natural. Therefore, we are primed to believe our subconscious’ manipulations as a gut feeling of just knowing. And, our schema of a perfect partner can alter the way that we see this person. Or it could be our schema of the area where you first see them, you don’t think of love at first sight at a tattoo parlor (you can blame romcoms and movies for making coffee shops and crowded rooms the schemas).

But memory might also be a reason for why people believe love at first sight exists. That might be because the most typical people to be questioned if they experienced love at first sight are the people in stable and long-lasting relationships. The fact that those people are in a long-lasting relationship requires them to search through their long term memory to find out when they first met their partner. Long term memory is not stored in a perfect way, the information is broken into chunks and mixed in and out of order. The memories are malleable and it’s easy to have misinformation (meaning that the facts can be changed while you still think that they are true). This is to make a better story or to conform to other’s opinions; for example, if a partner felt so strongly to you in the beginning you might think your memory showed the same emotion back quicker than it really did.

Love at first sight is said to happen when someone looks at another and a love alarm goes off in our head (like in Inside Out with the boy Riley was talking to at the end). From data, technically it exists because of the subconscious mind, but there is still a lot of information that can be looked in on to get a better understanding, for science, of course….…oh, who am I kidding? We need to understand it for more realistic Disney movies so we can get more top 10 moments.



Good grades? Sleep on it.

Need a way to get good grades efficiently? Most people will say: Study as long as you can! Sleep is for the weak! Drink coffee and you’re good to go! All-nighters are an extremely common way to study, especially in college where it seems to be ‘common knowledge’ that to get good grades you sleep less. To put it simply, that is absolutely not the way to go.

Let’s use a personal case study example: my two roommates. Last year I had a roommate who stayed up until 1-2 am every night working and studying. In comparison, my roommate this semester turns off the light at exactly 10 pm. Exactly. No matter if I’m doing work or not. But between the two of them, the one that seemingly has less time (the current roommate) gets higher grades. And, since the lights are out, I’ve been going to bed earlier (instead of buying a lamp—cheap I know).  I have noticed myself getting a better memory which has helped my studies.

But you didn’t open this to hear another article about how sleeping helps your memory because it keeps you refreshed and focused (which is true !!). You came because you want to study, get good grades, and sleep at the same time.

There can’t be a way for that, can there? Spoiler alert: there is.

Years ago, when I was still trying to learn Spanish, I heard that if you play an audio recording of the language while you sleep you will be able to recognize the sounds and the words when you’re awake. I thought that was stupid and never did it. And, growing up, my dad said don’t play on your phone, just repeat your notes over and over in your head as you sleep. Again, I thought it was stupid and stayed up far too late on my phone. But after reading Dr. Cleary’s article, I started to realize how much of an idiot I was. We aren’t dead when we sleep, our brain is still active, so why can’t it learn?

Deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) is a great way to get energized for the next day—the more time in deep sleep then the more awake you are later. But also, deep sleep is a time for the brain to being memory processing. If an audio recording is played softly (so you don’t wake up) your brain will hear it and it will soak in like you are learning the info, adding it into the memory processing system it’s currently creating about the day. Think like in Disney’s movie Inside Out, when Riley went to sleep her memories were all rolled into the long-term storage.

Unfortunately, you can’t learn new information while you are asleep. But remembering more is less you have to worry about when a big exam comes. Listening to audio while in deep sleep puts all of the information into long term memory without needing the fleeting working memory, since you actually aren’t awake and using it to work. And, due to Hermann Ebbinghaus’ learning curve, it is shown that it is easier to remember things after they’ve already been learned. So you are actually saving yourself hours of restudying the material over and over again by doing this simple process: create an audio file of your information (which is studying your information and literally teaching it to yourself), go to bed at a reasonable hour, put in your headphones, hit play, and then sleep. When you wake up, your brain will be ready and already primed with the previous info and ready for new information since it is in the recency effect—meaning its just learned the information.

Now, should you really just use an audio file for this study strategy? What if you can’t fall asleep with noise on? Dr. Cleary’s article mentioned a company called Zero with an app called SmartWake which could play sounds when you were only in deep sleep. Unfortunately, she updated her article saying that it went out of business. A way that cognitive science could be applied is if another app like it came out so that you won’t have to try and fall asleep with the noise of headphones, but instead, it recognizes when your brain is in deep sleep. But, until then, headphones seem to be the best bet, if only so your roommate doesn’t question what you do with your life listening to cog psych notes on repeat for hours.

So next time, instead of pushing yourself to have all-nighter after all-nighter and show up to the exam with caffeine injected into your veins, just sleep with some headphones in and play the audio recording you made to study. You’ll be asleep and remember more than you think.




The Movie Lucy says that we only use 10% of our brains?

The movie Lucy, by Luc Besson, in 2014 features well-known actors Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson. The movie follows Johansson’s character, Lucy, as she accidentally becomes a drug carrier for her boyfriend in Taiwan. After her boyfriend’s death, the drug lord kidnaps her and surgically places the drugs into her abdomen to transfer to Europe. During an altercation with a gang member, the bag breaks within her—leaking the drug into her system. Then throughout the movie, as Lucy tries to stop the criminal empire, the leaked drugs cause her brain to have more energy. This energy slowly boosts her brain capacity from 10% to 100%. With every increase of brain capacity, the more ‘powers’ she receives; such as, telekinesis, telepathy, shape shifting, and being unable to feel pain (to name a few). Along with the powers, Lucy goes through a personality change, turning her into more of an analytical and emotionless person who claims that with more power she ‘looses what makes her human’.

Now, is the movie true when saying that we only use 10% of our brain? Unfortunately, not.

In Dr. Beyerstein’s article, Do We Really Only Use Ten Percent of Our Brain, he goes into detail about why the myth that humans only use 10% of their brain is only that—a myth. He talked about one of the main reasons why it should be obvious that it is a myth is because of natural selection. Like other animals and plants in the world, humans were naturally selected. It is strange to think about, you normally think about Darwin and natural selection with butterflies or lizards in science classes, but it is true. Humans and our brains had natural selection, meaning that only the important stuff was left after thousands of years of perfecting it. It would make no sense to have thousands of years of perfection and still not use 90% of our brains.

Also, Beyerstein wrote that it is already proven that if a person has a brain injury, no matter where in the brain, there will be some type of consequence. It could be not recognizing your loved ones, to thinking that they are robots replacing them, to not being able to make memories at all in the future. It would be impossible to have such drastic effects on a person from even a small brain injury if the brain wasn’t used in most areas; or if it was, it was such a small percentage for the entire body. And with new amazing brain scanning technology being built and improved upon every day (from CT scans, to PET scans, to MRIs, to fMRIs) scientists and doctors can see exactly what is going on in the human brain. They see that everything is not only working at 100%, but the parts are working together to make humans human.

Now, understanding why the myth is false, it brings up the question: where did the myth come from? This is a popular myth that has been used in Hollywood, other professors, and even Albert Einstein, something that influential couldn’t have come from nowhere. In Beyerstein’s article, and another article from Neuroscience for Kids, the myth was tracked back into history. And what they found is that it can’t be found. Perhaps it came from old scientists and psychologists who knew parts of the brain but told others that they didn’t know the other parts, and that got translated as ‘I know some of it and that is the only part we use’. Or perhaps it came from Albert Einstein. One large theory is that it came from an American psychologist named William Jones in the late 19th century who wrote that ‘humans use 10% of their capacity’ and it got interpreted and spread as ‘humans only use 10% of their brain’.

Ok, so now we know the myth, know why it’s false, and maybe have an idea on who made it. Now why do we still have it? There is so much information saying that it is false! In my opinion, I believe that we might still have this myth because it inspires people. If we only use 10% of our brain now, what about the future? If we work hard, is it possible to unlock more brain power so we can be better, stronger, and smarter? Maybe we still have it because of the fantasy of it that says if we unlock more, we are closer to superpowers—as the movie Lucy took inspiration from.

Bellow is a trailer for the movie Lucy (2014) if you are interested in seeing it.