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Sydney woman Maddie Burrows was in high school when she realised she had a unique condition preventing her from having a visual imagination.

Ms Burrows said she made the self-discovery while her friends were describing their vivid dreams: while they saw people and places, she didn’t.

“I dream with scripts, rather than a show reel,” she said.

Maddie Burrow was 15-years-old when she realised she had a special condition preventing her from visualising images inside her mind.
Maddie Burrows was 15 when she realised she had a special condition preventing her from visualising images inside her mind. (Maddie Burrows)

“So I won’t have the full movie but I still have the script.

“I still have the plot, the characters, you know the information, like what people are saying, but yeah, it’s just a different quality, I suppose because I don’t have that sort of visual element.”

Ms Burrows, 26, is living with aphantasia, a phenomenon which prevents her from being able to visualise imagery.

She says it comes with both “pros and cons”.

There are an estimated 1.3 million Australians living with aphantasia, and now a study conducted by researchers from UNSW Sydney has found the condition can be detected with an “eye opening look” into the pupil.

By measuring pupil dilation, the first physiological evidence of aphantasia has been revealed.

The study found that the pupils of people with aphantasia did not respond when asked to imagine dark and light objects, while those without aphantasia did.

More than 40 people with a visual imagination were fitted with glasses to track their eye movements and pupil sizes.

When exposed to brightness their pupils grew, and darkness they shrunk.

About 19 people with aphantasia exhibited the same pupillary response: constriction to bright, dilation to dark.

To test the subjects capacity to visualise objects, they were asked to imagine those same light or dark shapes and subsequently report the ‘vividness’ of that imagery.

The aphantasic participants showed no difference when imagining light versus dark objects, but they did show a difference imagining the objects.

Tired eyes. Insomnia. Blood shot eyes
Aphantasia can be detected with an “eye opening look” into the pupil. (Getty)

“The pupillary reflex is an adaption that optimises the amount of light hitting the retina,” Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper, said.

“And while it was already known that imagined objects can evoke so-called ‘endogenous’ changes in pupil size, we were surprised to see more dramatic changes in those reporting more vivid imagery.

“This really is the first biological, objective test for imagery vividness.”

One problem researchers have with measuring imagery is that they are subjective and rely on people being able to accurately assess their own images.

“Our results show an exciting new objective method to measure visual imagery,” Professor Pearson said, adding it was the “first physiological evidence of aphantasia”.

Ms Burrows said the study reveals exciting information and encourages positive conversations.

Maddie Burrows said living with aphantasia has both pros and cons.
Maddie Burrows said living with aphantasia has both pros and cons. (Maddie Burrows)

“To learn more about the neurodiversity that everyone has, because everyone’s really quite different upstairs and we don’t know until we explore it,” she said.

The Future Minds Lab plans to investigate how this new method could be scaled up and run online to allow a global, efficient and objective measurement of imagery and aphantasia.

“This really is an exciting time. We are very close to having objective, reliable tests for extreme imagery, aphantasia and hyperphantasia (extremely strong visual imagery) that could be scaled up to run online for millions of people everywhere,” Professor Pearson said.

“This new method will allow us to understand the brain mechanisms of extreme imagery and the global implications for how we think, make decisions and feel.”

Ms Burrows believes people often think of aphantasia as “a bit of a disability or it’s something that you can’t do” but she wants people to know there is “a flipside”.

Ms Burrows is studying to become a paramedic and says her condition has shaped her life for the better.

“I’ve completely changed what I’m doing in my life, because I found out that I have all these extra protective factors against developing a condition like PTSD,” she said.

“It allows you to potentially go into some really interesting careers and to be better prepared to deal with what that might lead to, especially in terms of trauma.”

Source: 9News

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