Note For Anyone Writing About Me

Guide to Writing About Me

I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella. I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

Citing My Posts

MLA: Zisk, Alyssa Hillary. "Post Title." Yes, That Too. Day Month Year of post. Web. Day Month Year of retrieval.

APA: Zisk, A. H. (Year Month Day of post.) Post Title. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Friday, December 30, 2016

"Blind imagination" neuroscience press release

For anyone new to the aphantasia discussions: It's a fancy word for not visualizing, or as I've tended to describe it, not having a mind's eye. I don't picture characters or scenes when I read books, for example.

As a rhetoric person and disability studies person, I looked at how we talk about aphantasia, in three parts. (Part one, part two, part three). As a neuroscience student, I wrote about one of the articles (Zeman et al, 2010, the case study) in terms of significance. And yes, some of the results are things I could totally have told you myself. Like the fact that "mental imagery" tests such as rotation (check if two block structures with angles are the same or not) can be done in ways other than rotating an image of the object. I know that because I don't view such images in my head and I'm good at the task. Testing everything is how science works, and trying to figure out what someone is doing rather than just what they aren't doing is still handy. So here it is!

A research team in the UK has shown the potential for dissociation between the experience of visual imagery and performance in tasks typically associated with visual imagery and visual memory in a case study. The patient, a 65 year old retired surveyor referred to as MX, reported the sudden loss of his ability to visualize. However, he retained the ability to complete tasks typically associated with visual imagery and visual memory, including mental rotation tasks.

The authors did a series of tests both on MX and on a group of controls of similar age, IQ, and professional backgrounds. These tests included assessments of general intelligence, memory, executive function, visual perception, subjective vividness of visual imagery, and imagery abilities. MX scored significantly lower than controls on subjective assessments of visual imagery. However, his scores in the other tests were not significantly different from that of controls. In the fMRI experiments, MX showed similar areas of activation to the control participants while viewing images. However, MX showed significantly different activation patterns when asked to generate faces. Rather than activating the posterior visual network, MX showed prefrontal activation in areas associated with many executive tasks.

Further behavioral testing was conducted to test if MX was using alternative cognitive strategies. The researchers gave MX variants of Brook's matrix and verbal tasks, along with mental rotation tasks. Here, MX's performance differed from typical patterns. While typical controls consistently perform better on the spatial Brooks task than on the verbal one, MX performed better on the verbal task. When asked to perform the typically visuo-spatial version of the task with verbal or visuo-spatial interference, MX showed no significant difference in performance between no distractor and visuo-spatial interference. However, his performance was significantly lower with the verbal distractor, again in reverse of the typical performance pattern. On mental rotation tasks, MX showed no impairment in correct performance. However, he consistently required more time than controls and showed a different relationship between angle of rotation and time required from the controls.

Both the behavioral and fMRI testing indicate the use of alternative cognitive strategies in order to perform tasks typically associated with visual imagery. On most tasks, these alternative strategies yield similar levels of accuracy to controls with typical visual imagery abilities. The case of MX provides insight into alternative ways of completing typically visual tasks. His performance indicates that mental imagery is not essential to tasks typically associated with it, making it less clear that mental imagery is the subject of mental imagery tests. It also indicates that reliance on the mind's eye in decision-making as suggested by Kosslyn is not universal. In addition, this case study may provide insight into the cognitive functioning of a small but significant subset of the population who report no mental imagery. Surveys dating back to 18801 show a group that report never having experienced mental imagery, alongside documentation of prior cases where imagery is lost. Further study could determine if similar strategies are used by this population, and what cognitive differences, if any, this is associated with.2

1  Galton, Francis. "I.—Statistics of mental imagery." Mind 19 (1880): 301-318.
Also relevant is: Faw, Bill. "Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research." Journal of Consciousness Studies 16.4 (2009): 45-68.

2 Spoiler alert! This happened to some extent in Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia." Cortex 3 (2015). This case study got written up in Discover, then some people who have never had subjective mental imagery [like me!]  contacted the authors. Then people saw the follow up, some of whom also contacted the authors. The 2015 letter was actually the first one I found, followed by the two commentaries on it. [They wonder if there may be a connection with faceblindness, or prosopagnosia, which I also have. My brain. It is multiply interesting.]

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

No Boundary Thinking Seminar Reflection 1

This semester, I'm took a seminar on no-boundary thinking. Which sounds like a fancy word for what I often try to do as a vaguely disability studies like person: focusing on defining an issue and addressing it from any methods that work and not worrying about (often not knowing) what fields those definitions or methods come from. (To my professor from the seminar: Congratulations, you found my blog.)

So here's my first reflection post. Bracketed things were not in the original reflection that I turned in, and have been added since.

[So, at the start, we need to know what no-boundary thinking is. It's kind of what it sounds like: we're going to ignore the lines between disciplines as much as possible.] Huang et. al. (2013) discusses no-boundary thinking as thinking where problems are defined without being limited to a single discipline or group of disciplines, while the knowledge used to define and solve the problem can come from a variety of disciplines. Dr. Brian Dewsbury mentions that no-boundary thinking doesn't necessarily mean bringing more people on to a team just to have them – just because a given discipline has some bearing on a problem, that does not mean we must have a person who specializes in the discipline on the core team. If we did, teams could become overly large and difficult to coordinate, because many disciplines will have information that relates to any given problem. Stakeholders are brought up, and a fellow student says she is reminded of participatory research.

There are connections here: in participatory research, the idea is that affected communities 1) deserve a voice in discussions of problems that affect them, and 2) have useful information related to solving those problems. However, there is a risk of having people just to have them in participatory research – depending on when community members are included the research process, they may have little input in defining research questions, may be left out of data analysis and interpretation, and may generally find themselves used as a sign of community input rather than an actual source of expertise or information. [As opposed to how we should be defining and leading this thing. If anyone's job is "source of expertise for getting the thing done but not really deciding what needs to be done" it should be the outside academics studying the community.]

This problem in participatory research resembles a similar problem in interdisciplinary research, where the input from any given discipline is limited to where the people running the project think that discipline belongs, rather than appearing everywhere it could be helpful throughout the project time line. In both cases, the problem is with boundaries, whether between identities (academic, policy maker, or community member) or between disciplines. The problem is also with the assumption that people fit into exactly one of these boxes – a scholar on fisheries whose family depends on fishing does not fit into precisely one position. When I do research related to disability, I don't either. [I'm Disabled. I'm Autistic. I'm also legitimately a Disability Studies scholar, and I'm starting to be a researcher in assistive technology.] In both participatory and interdisciplinary research, the no boundary idea that we should be defining and approaching problems in ways that are “not limited by disciplines, traditions, vocabularies, or even technologies” (Huang et. al. 2013, p. 2) would be helpful.

Work Cited
Huang, X., Bruce, B., Buchan, A., Congdon, C. B., Cramer, C. L., Jennings, S. F., ... & Moore, J. H. (2013). No-boundary thinking inbioinformatics research. BioData mining, 6(1), 1.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia, 3/3, Zeman et al.

I'm writing some more about aphantasia, or no mind's eye. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. I think this is the last rhetoric discussion about aphantasia for now.

So now, after looking at some modern/mainstream articles and some older stuff – Galton's 1880 paper and a tracing of how people have thought about mentalimagery/the lack thereof by Bill Faw, I'm going to look at how Adam Zeman, those working with him (Michaela Dewar for both the papers where the word aphantasia is used, Sergio Della Sala for all three papers I'm looking at, and Lorna A. Torrens, Viktoria-Eleni Gountouna, David J. McGonigle, and Robert H. Logie for the loss of imagery paper that wound up inspiring the later aphantasia papers), and those reacting to their work in formal academic settings. I think of Zeman as the main person mostly because he tends to be the one to talk to journalists. (Isn't that how it goes?)

I start with the 2010 paper in Neuropsychologia. I did a "press release" report on this one for my neurobiology class this semester, which I may wind up sharing here too. (Note that this was published after Bill Faw makes his hypothesis about imagery-like processes at the subconscious level, so any evidence to the contrary was not available to him when he was writing.) In the introduction, the authors start off using “most people” instead of “people” when describing the ability to “call to mind an image that is less vivid than the original but has a visual 'feel.'” (145) This might seem like a small thing, but it's not. All too often, researchers talk about what all people do and implicitly exclude folks who don't do that from humanity. It's enough of a problem to have led to the paper, “On Not Being Human.” Pitfall #1 avoided.

The authors mention a debate over the importance of (visual) mental imagery in cognition, whether it plays a key role (maybe even a required role) or whether propositional/factual knowledge is sufficient for imagery tasks. As someone who doesn't experience any (visual) mental imagery, I know that there are other ways to do it, but the thing about scholarly discourse is that everything needs to be studied and checked. At least they're asking questions about how folks without mental imagery do the things rather than insisting that if we can do things like recognize rotated objects we must actually have a minds eye. The authors then propose that there are several ways to do imagery tasks at the cognitive level. Hi, cognitive (neuro) diversity, and that multiple ways might be available to “healthy adults.”

(Now what does it mean to be healthy here?) In this case, I think it refers to the fact that the in cases the authors know about where mental imagery is not a thing, it had been a thing before (so they recognized that there was a change instead of it being a normal state like it is for me) and then when it stopped being a thing, it was an event that also led to trouble with the imagery tasks usually used to check if a person can visualize things or not. They were also related to injuries or illnesses. Then MX shows up having lost his ability to visualize (again, not a thing I'd be able to show up with because I'm totally used to not visualizing), and he can still do these tasks. Mostly. There's some difficulty immediately following the loss of visualization ability, and a decrease in these difficulties as time goes by. The study authors interpret this as initial difficulties followed by development of a verbal strategy.) This upsets the theory that visualization is needed, though not necessarily the one that it's related or used for most people. The authors want to know how, which wasn't examined in the cases reported in 1954 where the ability to create certain kinds of mental visualizations went away after injury but the ability to do certain things visualizers would expect to be related weren't affected. (Reading and writing after not being able to visualize recently viewed pages, which wait people visualize pages? Also drawing building plans after not being able to visualize new building plans.) Brain, the author of the 1954 paper, noted that this must mean disconnection between the “visual imagery” related tasks and actual visual imagery was possible.

Despite the focus on understanding what MX does rather than what he doesn't do (the research team even goes into the fMRI part expecting that he's going to show different activation patterns than the neurotypicals do) they do talk about abnormal patterns of activation and healthy controls. That is, there's a definite “normal” mind that the authors are working with for this paper.

Moving on to the 2015 letter to the editor in Cortex where the term “aphantasia” is finally coined, we see a different tone. We're still talking about “imagery generation disorder” for the 65 year old who suddenly stopped having mental imagery, and we're still talking about a “condition”, but there are differences. Rather than assuming visual imagery is an everyone thing, it's now described as a most people thing. They also suggest that this is going to be a variant, comparing it to synaesthesia (not usually pathologized!) and prosopagnosia (kind of pathologized.) Of course, Zeman et. al. are calling both of those things disorders. So. It's a bit of mixed bag. The authors are replacing clearly pathologizing terminology like “defective revisualization.” They're also doing better than most of the journalists at not assuming that their readers all have mind's eyes. Quite a few of the journalists write like they think everyone in their audience can visualize, and that the aphantasiacs are not their audience. Really, 2% of the population is significant and we're probably more likely to be reading an article about aphantasia than the visualizers are. This is a bad assumption, which Zeman et. al. aren't showing.

Then, “Reflections on Aphantasia”, part of a 2016 discussion and again in Cortex, shows a distinct clinical focus, as one would expect in an academic journal focused on the relationship between the nervous system and cognition using neurodivergent people for contrast. (Both acquired and developmental.) The authors point out that calling mental stuff organic or functional doesn't quite work as a divide. (Functional sounds a lot like an academic version “all in your head” to me, in that functional apparently implies reversible? This idea is one of the things the authors are criticizing.) They point out that a range of factors can affect the level of visual imagery, including certain medications, depression, brain injury, and PTSD. They argue that lifelong aphantasia is unlikely to have such a source (and is therefore not pathological? Zeman is pretty insistent that aphantasia is not a disorder when interviewed. Or at least that congenital aphantasia isn't a disorder.) They also say that other psychiatric factors should be taken into account when assessing someone who claims aphantasia. It sounds like they're trying to have their cake and eat it: aphantasia isn't a disorder, they're born this way. But here's all this disordered stuff that could also cause it, and if you experience/complain of aphantasia because of those things, it's a disorder. So maybe it is?

I'm a bit reminded of the “we're not crazy” discourse around asexuality and around being transgender. Some of us do have pathologized stuff going on in addition to being asexual/transgender/aphantasiac. (Hi, I'm Autistic, asexual, nonbinary, and aphantasiac!) That doesn't mean the other states are somehow invalid or pathological, even if they are related to or directly caused by my being Autistic.

At the end of it all, I'm thinking people aren't quite certain how to place aphantasia. Is it a disorder? A disability? A sign of something else that's one of those things? Just a natural variation that we legitimately don't need to pathologize? (Even if it comes with other stuff we tend to pathologize?)

I lean towards variation that we don't need to pathologize, even if it comes with (or is caused by) stuff we tend to pathologize. I also lean towards disability under certain circumstances. In environments that are very specific about wanting visual methods to be used, aphantasia could well be disabling. That doesn't mean other people are talking about it that way. We're currently getting a mix where folks aren't quite sure how to write about it, I think.

Works Examined
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia." Cortex 3 (2015).
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Reflections on aphantasia." Cortex 74 (2016): 336-337.

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