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I ain’t afraid of no ghosts: People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked: The link between mental imagery and emotions may be closer than we thought

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I ain’t afraid of no ghosts: People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked: The link between mental imagery and emotions may be closer than we thought

People with aphantasia — that is, the inability to visualise mental images — are harder to spook with scary stories, a new UNSW Sydney study shows.

The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tested how aphantasic people reacted to reading distressing scenarios, like being chased by a shark, falling off a cliff, or being in a plane that’s about to crash.The researchers were able to physically measure each participant’s fear response by monitoring changing skin conductivity levels — in other words, how much the story made a person sweat. This type of test is commonly used in psychology research to measure the body’s physical expression of emotion.According to the findings, scary stories lost their fear factor when the readers couldn’t visually imagine the scene — suggesting imagery may have a closer link to emotions than scientists previously thought.

“”We found the strongest evidence yet that mental imagery plays a key role in linking thoughts and emotions,” says Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper and Director of UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab.

“In all of our research to date, this is by far the biggest difference we’ve found between people with aphantasia and the general population.”

To test the role of visual imagery in fear, the researchers guided 46 study participants (22 with aphantasia, and 24 with imagery) to a blackened room before attaching several electrodes to their skin. Skin is known to become a better conductor of electricity when a person feels strong emotions, like fear.

The scientists then left the room and turned the light off, leaving the participants alone as a story started to appear in the screen in front of them.At first, the stories started innocuously — for example, ‘You are at the beach, in the water’ or ‘You’re on a plane, by the window’. But as the stories continued, the suspense slowly built, whether it was a dark flash in the distant waves and people on the beach pointing, or the cabin lights dimming as the plane starts to shake.

“Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualise the stories,” says Prof Pearson. “The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted.”But for people with aphantasia, the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined.”To check that differences in fear thresholds didn’t cause the response, the experiment was repeated using a series of scary images instead of text, like a photo of a cadaver or a snake bearing its fangs.But this time, the pictures made the skin crawl equally in both groups of people.

“These two sets of results suggest that aphantasia isn’t linked to reduced emotion in general, but is specific to participants reading scary stories,” says Prof. Pearson. “The emotional fear response was present when participants actually saw the scary material play out in front of them.

“The findings suggest that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think all kind of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren’t going to have that emotional ‘boom’.”

Living with aphantasia

Aphantasia affects 2-5 per cent of the population, but there is still very little known about the condition.

A UNSW study published last year found that aphantasia is linked to a widespread pattern of changes to other cognitive processes, like remembering, dreaming and imagining.

But while most previous aphantasia research focused on behavioural studies, this study used an objective measure of skin conductance.

“This evidence further supports aphantasia as a unique, verifiable phenomenon,” says study co-author Dr Rebecca Keogh, a postdoctoral fellow formerly of UNSW and now based at Macquarie University.

“”This work may provide a potential new objective tool which could be used to help to confirm and diagnose aphantasia in the future.””

The idea for this experiment came after the research team noticed a recurring sentiment on aphantasia discussion boards that many people with the condition didn’t enjoy reading fiction.

While the findings suggest that reading may not be as emotionally impactful for people with aphantasia, Prof. Pearson says it’s important to note that the findings are based on averages, and not everyone with aphantasia will have the same reading experience.

The study was also focused on fear, and other emotional responses to fiction could be different.

“Aphantasia comes in different shapes and sizes,” he says. “Some people have no visual imagery, while other people have no imagery in one or all of their other senses. Some people dream while others don’t.

“So don’t be concerned if you have aphantasia and don’t fit this mould. There are all kinds of variations to aphantasia that we’re only just discovering.”

Next, Prof. Pearson and his team at the Future Minds Lab plan to investigate how disorders like anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder might be experienced differently by people with aphantasia.

“Aphantasia is neural diversity,” says Prof. Pearson. “It’s an amazing example of how different our brain and minds can be.”

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Warming of Antarctic deep-sea waters contribute to sea level rise in North Atlantic, study finds

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I ain’t afraid of no ghosts: People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked: The link between mental imagery and emotions may be closer than we thought


Analysis of mooring observations and hydrographic data suggest the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation deep water limb in the North Atlantic has weakened. Two decades of continual observations provide a greater understanding of the Earth’s climate regulating system.

A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience led by scientists at University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, found that human-induced environmental changes around Antarctica are contributing to sea level rise in the North Atlantic.

The research team analyzed two decades of deep sea oceanographic data collected by observational mooring programs to show that a critical piece of Earth’s global system of ocean currents in the North Atlantic has weakened by about 12 percent over the past two decades.

“Although these regions are tens of thousands of miles away from each other and abyssal areas are a few miles below the ocean surface, our results reinforce the notion that even the most remote areas of the world’s oceans are not untouched by human activity,” said the study’s lead author Tiago Biló, an assistant scientist at the Rosenstiel School’s NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies.

As part of the NOAA-funded project DeepT (Innovative analysis of deep and abyssal temperatures from bottom-moored instrument), the scientists analyzed data from several observational programs to study changes over time in a cold, dense, and deep water mass located at depths greater than 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) below the ocean surface that flow from the Southern Ocean northward and eventually upwells to shallower depths in other parts of the global ocean such as the North Atlantic.

This shrinking deep-ocean branch — that scientists call the abyssal limb — is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a three-dimensional system of ocean currents that act as a “conveyer belt” to distribute heat, nutrients, and carbon dioxide across the world’s oceans.

This near-bottom branch is comprised of Antarctic bottom water, which forms from the cooling of seawater in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica during winter months. Among the different formation mechanisms of this bottom water, perhaps the most important is the so-called brine rejection, a process that occurs when salty water freezes. As sea ice forms, it releases salt into the surrounding water, increasing its density. This dense water sinks to the ocean floor, creating a cold, dense water layer that spreads northward to fill all three ocean basins — the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. During the 21st century, the researchers observed that the flow of this Antarctic layer across 16°N latitude in the Atlantic had slowed down, reducing the inflow of cold waters to higher latitudes, and leading to warming of waters in the deep ocean.

“The areas affected by this warming spans thousands of miles in the north-south and east-west directions between 4,000- and 6,000-meters of depth,” said William Johns, a co-author and professor of ocean sciences at the Rosenstiel School. “As a result, there is a significant increase in the abyssal ocean heat content, contributing to local sea level rise due to the thermal expansion of the water.”

“Our observational analysis matches what the numerical models have predicted — human activity could potentially impose circulation changes on the entire ocean,” said Biló. “This analysis was only possible because of the decades of collective planning and efforts by multiple oceanographic institutions worldwide.”



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Octopus inspires new suction mechanism for robots

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I ain’t afraid of no ghosts: People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked: The link between mental imagery and emotions may be closer than we thought


A new robotic suction cup which can grasp rough, curved and heavy stone, has been developed by scientists at the University of Bristol.

The team, based at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, studied the structures of octopus biological suckers, which have superb adaptive suction abilities enabling them to anchor to rock.

In their findings, published in the journal PNAS today, the researchers show how they were able create a multi-layer soft structure and an artificial fluidic system to mimic the musculature and mucus structures of biological suckers.

Suction is a highly evolved biological adhesion strategy for soft-body organisms to achieve strong grasping on various objects. Biological suckers can adaptively attach to dry complex surfaces such as rocks and shells, which are extremely challenging for current artificial suction cups. Although the adaptive suction of biological suckers is believed to be the result of their soft body’s mechanical deformation, some studies imply that in-sucker mucus secretion may be another critical factor in helping attach to complex surfaces, thanks to its high viscosity.

Lead author Tianqi Yue explained: “The most important development is that we successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of the combination of mechanical conformation — the use of soft materials to conform to surface shape, and liquid seal — the spread of water onto the contacting surface for improving the suction adaptability on complex surfaces. This may also be the secret behind biological organisms ability to achieve adaptive suction.”

Their multi-scale suction mechanism is an organic combination of mechanical conformation and regulated water seal. Multi-layer soft materials first generate a rough mechanical conformation to the substrate, reducing leaking apertures to just micrometres. The remaining micron-sized apertures are then sealed by regulated water secretion from an artificial fluidic system based on the physical model, thereby the suction cup achieves long suction longevity on diverse surfaces but with minimal overflow.

Tianqi added: “We believe the presented multi-scale adaptive suction mechanism is a powerful new adaptive suction strategy which may be instrumental in the development of versatile soft adhesion.

“Current industrial solutions use always-on air pumps to actively generate the suction however, these are noisy and waste energy.

“With no need for a pump, it is well known that many natural organisms with suckers, including octopuses, some fishes such as suckerfish and remoras, leeches, gastropods and echinoderms, can maintain their superb adaptive suction on complex surfaces by exploiting their soft body structures.”

The findings have great potential for industrial applications, such as providing a next-generation robotic gripper for grasping a variety of irregular objects.

The team now plan to build a more intelligent suction cup, by embedding sensors into the suction cup to regulate suction cup’s behaviour.



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One third of China’s urban population at risk of city sinking, new satellite data shows

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I ain’t afraid of no ghosts: People with mind-blindness not so easily spooked: The link between mental imagery and emotions may be closer than we thought


Land subsidence is overlooked as a hazard in cities, according to scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Virginia Tech.

Writing in the journal Science, Prof Robert Nicholls of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA and Prof Manoochehr Shirzaei of Virginia Tech and United Nations University for Water, Environment and Health, Ontario, highlight the importance of a new research paper analysing satellite data that accurately and consistently maps land movement across China.

While they say in their comment article that consistently measuring subsidence is a great achievement, they argue it is only the start of finding solutions. Predicting future subsidence requires models that consider all drivers, including human activities and climate change, and how they might change with time.

The research paper, published in the same issue, considers 82 cities with a collective population of nearly 700 million people. The results show that 45% of the urban areas that were analysed are sinking, with 16% falling at a rate of 10mm a year or more.

Nationally, roughly 270 million urban residents are estimated to be affected, with nearly 70 million experiencing rapid subsidence of 10mm a year or more. Hotspots include Beijing and Tianjin.

Coastal cities such as Tianjin are especially affected as sinking land reinforces climate change and sea-level rise. The sinking of sea defences is one reason why Hurricane Katrina’s flooding brought such devastation and death-toll to New Orleans in 2005.

Shanghai — China’s biggest city — has subsided up to 3m over the past century and continues to subside today. When subsidence is combined with sea-level rise, the urban area in China below sea level could triple in size by 2120, affecting 55 to 128 million residents. This could be catastrophic without a strong societal response.

“Subsidence jeopardises the structural integrity of buildings and critical infrastructure and exacerbates the impacts of climate change in terms of flooding, particularly in coastal cities where it reinforces sea-level rise,” said Prof Nicholls, who was not involved in the study, but whose research focusses on sea-level rise, coastal erosion and flooding, and how communities can adapt to these changes.

The subsidence is mainly caused by human action in the cities. Groundwater withdrawal, that lowers the water table is considered the most important driver of subsidence, combined with geology and weight of buildings.

In Osaka and Tokyo, groundwater withdrawal was stopped in the 1970s and city subsidence has ceased or greatly reduced showing this is an effective mitigation strategy. Traffic vibration and tunnelling is potentially also a local contributing factor — Beijing has sinking of 45mm a year near subways and highways. Natural upward or downward land movement also occurs but is generally much smaller than human induced changes.

While human-induced subsidence was known in China before this study, Profs Nicholls and Shirzaei say these new results reinforce the need for a national response. This problem happens in susceptible cities outside China and is a widespread problem across the world.

They call for the research community to move from measurement to understanding implications and supporting responses. The new satellite measurements are delivering new detailed subsidence data but the methods to use this information to work with city planners to address these problems needs much more development. Affected coastal cities in China and more widely need particular attention.

“Many cities and areas worldwide are developing strategies for managing the risks of climate change and sea-level rise,” said Prof Nicholls. “We need to learn from this experience to also address the threat of subsidence which is more common than currently recognised.”



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