Aphantasia and Autobiographical Memory

University of Glasgow researcher from the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, Dr Andrea Blomkvist, has partnered with an international team of researchers to investigate the relationship between aphantasia and autobiographical memory using virtual reality technology. The project is sponsored by the Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy ($25,000) with additional funding from Dr Blomkvist’s LKAS Fellowship (£58,000).

Objective of the project

Mental imagery is often claimed to play a crucial role in cognitive functions such as episodic memory, decision-making, and planning for the future. This project investigates aphantasia, an individual difference characterised by reduced or absent mental imagery. It aims to uncover how having reduced mental imagery affects other cognitive functions, in particular, autobiographical memory. People with aphantasia often report difficulties in remembering events from their own lives, and previous subjective questionnaires confirm that people with aphantasia generally recall fewer details than the average population.

VR technology allows us to test the memory abilities of people with aphantasia in an objective paradigm. At the XR-Lab, we will immerse participants in highly detailed simulated environments which can be fully explored. VR technology allows us the freedom to completely curate the testing environments, where these could range from everyday environments such as a kitchen, to natural scenes like a mountain top, or fantastical scenarios like a spaceship.

In addition, we aim to investigate other cognitive functions, such as working memory, using mobile EEG. To date, no large-scale studies have investigated the temporal dynamics of aphantasia, and this project will contribute to our understanding of the neural underpinnings of the condition by using a well-established test battery.

The international research team comprises of Andrea Blomkvist (PI, University of Glasgow), Katherine Boere (Co-I, University of Victoria), Em Walsh (Co-I, Johns Hopkins University), Raquel Krempel (Co-I, State University of Campinas), Mary Vitello (Co-I, UCLA), and Han Li (Research Assistant, University of Glasgow).

The Impact

Understanding aphantasia – This project will contribute to our growing research body on aphantasia. It will shed light on autobiographical memory abilities and working memory abilities of people with aphantasia, which in turn will give us a better understanding of the lived experience of people with aphantasia, as well as contribute to our understanding of the neural systems underpinning memory.

Autobiographical memory – This project advances a new methodology for studying autobiographical memory using VR, something practised by only a few labs to date. It will contribute to the development of this novel way of studying memory by establishing new paradigms and protocols which can be applied to other populations in the future, such as patient populations who suffer memory loss following trauma or neurological disease.

Taking part

This research project is currently recruiting participants. If you are interested in taking part, please see further details here or email andrea.blomkvist@glasgow.ac.uk.