Heartwork 1, Susan Aldworth. 2010. Artwork courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

Heartbeat 1 by Susan Aldworth

Mind’s eye research nominated for “Oscars” of Higher Education

A research project that comforted thousands of people who lack a “mind’s eye” by naming their condition has been shortlisted for the prestigious Times Higher Education Awards 2017.

Professor Adam Zeman, of the University of Exeter Medical School, coined the term Aphantasia, to describe the lack of ability to summon imagery to the mind's eye, as we do when we count sheep of visualise an absent relative. In doing so, he gave voice to people whose experience differs greatly from that of their friends and family. 

As a result of expansive global media coverage on his research, more than 10,000 people worldwide come forward to be involved, either because they are unable to conjure up visual images in their minds or because the images they experience are particularly vivid – an experience Professor Zeman has coined “hyperphantasic”.

Now, his research has been shortlisted in the category of Research Project of the Year: STEM. It is one of five nominations in various categories for Exeter - more than any other university.

Professor Zeman said: “I’m delighted with this nomination, and the response we continue to receive from thousands of people around the world. This work has tapped into a public interest on the variations in the way humans experience the world around them. It has given a name to a variation in experience that many often struggled to describe to those close to them. For some, the lack of a mind’s eye had been a cause of distress – particularly when they found they were unable to call to mind an image of departed loved ones. Others were shocked to discover that other people could summon a picture in their head at will.”

Blake Ross, the Facebook tech innovator who founded Mozilla Firefox, wrote about how his “mind was blown” when he discovered that he had aphantasia. In a Facebook blog that was shared more than 15,000 times, he said it explained what he had always experienced as being “stupid-smart” – intelligent at many tasks but lagging behind when visual memory was involved. He wrote that the discovery of aphantasia was ”as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.”

The revelation came about when Professor Zeman revisited the concept of people who cannot visualise, first identified by Sir Francis Galton in 1880 A 20th century survey suggested that this may be true of 2.5% of the population – yet the phenomenon had largely been unexplored.

Visualisation is the result of activity in a network of regions widely distributed across the brain, working together to enable us to generate images on the basis of our memory of how things look. An inability to visualise could result from an alteration of function at several points in this network. This problem has been described previously following major brain damage and in the context of mood disorder. Now, Professor Zeman and his team are conducting further studies to find out more about why some people are born with poor or diminished visual imagery ability and several grants are pending.

THE editor John Gill said: "Once again these awards have attracted hundreds of entries from the length and breadth of the nation, and from institutions of every hue. All those shortlisted can be immensely proud to have made it through this first phase, and we at Times Higher Education look forward to honouring the winners for their talent, creativity and commitment at a time for the academy when these qualities are increasingly essential."

Winners will be announced at a gala ceremony will take place at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London on Thursday 30 November 2017.

Date: 12 September 2017

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