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Random Thursdays Archives - Answers With Joe

Category: Random Thursdays

“Don’t Look Up” Could Actually Happen

Don’t Look Up is a satire that imagines what modern society’s reaction would be to an Earth-killing asteroid that generated a lot of acclaim – and backlash – since it came out last year. But what if that did happen? What are our actual plans to deal with a major asteroid strike?

TRANSCRIPT:

Last year, the movie Don’t Look Up premiered on Netflix to huge critical and audience acclaim. And just a few weeks ago, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Of course now there’s a bit of a backlash against it because I guess it was a little too popular.

But if you’ve been living under a rock or didn’t see the Oscars, the movie is about a team of astronomers who discover an Earth-killing asteroid and the frustrations they have getting the rest of the world to take it seriously.

It’s an obvious satire of climate change and the recent pandemic that basically points a finger at the way we’ve reacted so far to a long-term existential threat and says, what if we acted like that with something much more near-term? How bizarre would that be?

For me anyway, I thought it did that brilliantly in fact some of it was a little too close to home for me, but like I said, there has been a bit of a backlash for being a little too on-the-nose and self-congratulatory, so no, it didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. And nothing else interesting happened that night.

But the whole thing got me thinking about asteroid strikes, which are a real threat. And it got me wondering… What exactly is our plan if a Don’t Look Up scenario were to occur?

You might be surprised to hear this but every day, our planet receives visitors from outer space. I’m not talking about Grays or Zeta Reticulans… Although, who knows?

No, I’m talking about meteors, and there’s a lot more of them that hit the Earth than you might think.

In fact, Earth is constantly attracting material from outer space. This is mind-blowing to me, 100 tons of material enters Earth’s atmosphere every day. 100 tons! Most of it burns up in the atmosphere but every day 17 meteors make it to the surface. meteoroid is the more general term, but any object burning in the atmosphere is a meteor

Actually that’s not true. If it reaches the surface, it’s a meteorite.

Yeah, we tend to use the word meteor to describe small rocks in space but technically a small rock like this flying around in space is a meteoroid.

Once it enters the atmosphere and burns up, that streak across the sky, the shooting star, that’s actually a meteor. And then once it hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.

Think of it like other minerals you might find on the ground like calcite, anthracite… meteorite.

And an asteroid is bigger than a meteoroid. It’s more like a planetoid; tiny planet.

But yeah, somewhere on Earth every day 17 of these things fall from the sky. Now, most of the Earth’s surface is water so most of them land in the drink but every once in a while, one hits land. And every once in a long while… They can do some damage.

Meteor Crater, AZ

Last year, 2021, I visited the Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. Also known as Barringer Crater, it’s nearly a mile wide and 550 feet deep, and it was created by a meteor impact some 50,000 years ago.

The meteor weighed hundreds of thousands of tons and released something like 9-10 megatons of TNT.

Which is roughly the same energy released by the Tonga volcano in January. The one that did this.

And honestly, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see in person. Especially the part where you start seeing giant out-of-place rocks and boulders strewn all over the place for dozens of miles before you get there.

And this… wasn’t even that noteworthy as impacts go.

Keep in mind this is meteor crater. It was made by a meteor. Asteroids are bigger.

Planet Killers

According to NASA, a meteor the size of a football field hits every 2000 years or so. Asteroids large enough to cause extinctions and end civilizations come along “every few million years.”

Some of these are comets but most of the largest impacts we know about have been from asteroids.

The most famous one, of course, is the one that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago and created the Chicxulub crater in Mexico.

Luckily impacts on that scale are extremely rare. In fact, only two craters on Earth rival Chicxulub for size and they’re both around 2 billion years old.

So it’s incredibly unlikely another planet-killing impact will happen in our lifetimes. I mean… If our entire species survives to see the next one, it’ll be pretty impressive.

But an impact doesn’t have to be a planet killer to ruin your day

Chelyabinsk and Tunguska

In 2013, a meteor that fell over Chelyabinsk, Russia injured 1419 people

7200 buildings were damaged over an area of tens of kilometers, not by pieces of the meteor landing on it but from the shock wave when it exploded in mid-air.

In 1908, a much larger explosion devastated an area near the Tunguska River in Siberia. It more-or-less flattened eight-hundred square miles of forest

Uprooted trees formed a ring around the blast’s center, where upright trees were stripped of limbs and bark

Hundreds of reindeer died, but no humans, which was lucky. Not so lucky if you’re a reindeer.

What is a NEO?

NASA defines an NEO as comets or asteroids that pass within 1.3 astronomical units of the Sun.

An astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance between the Earth sand the sun, so just under 93 million miles (150 million kilometers). So basically anything near or inside of our orbit, NASA considers an NEO, and takes particular interest in them.

That’s not just because of the danger. Asteroids and comets are like time capsules from the birth of the solar system. It’s thought that comets were formed in the same process that created the outer gas giants and asteroids are from the process that created the inner rocky planets.

So yeah studying either of them is like opening a window to the solar system 4 billion years ago.

Of course we’d rather go to them than have them come to us. You know, because of the whole…thing.

Near Earth Objects whose trajectories bring them uncomfortably close to Earth are upgraded to Potentially Hazardous Objects, or PHOs. And now I’m hungry for Vietnamese noodles.

Asteroids are by far the most common, so they’re sometimes referred as PHA — Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

PHOs of all kinds have been tracked by astronomers for years, but efforts got a major boost in 2005, when congress passed a US law directing NASA to identify 90% of NEOs over a certain size. (140 meters)

Asteroid History

And that my friends put NASA in the ‘stroid huntin’ business.

Of course ‘stroid huntin’ goes back a long way. The first first asteroid was discovered in 1801, and was given the name asteroid because it means “starlike”. In a dead language people used to speak.

By the year 1900, 464 asteroids had been discovered. By the year 2000, we had 108,066 in our catalog. It’s almost like our technology progressed in that time.

But to give you an idea of how much our technology has continued to progress, in the last 20 years we’ve discovered nearly 10 times as many asteroids. NASA’s current count is just over 1.1 million. That’s some good ‘stroid huntin’.

They range in size from a diameter of less than 10 meters to the largest asteroid in our solar system, Vesta, which is about 530 kilometers. This is the asteroid the Dawn space probe visited in 2011.

Thankfully Vesta is not an NEO, it’s located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where most of the solar system asteroids hang out, though they have been known to migrate.

Which brings us back to the danger ‘stroids.

Good News, Everyone!

First of all, the good news is there are currently no known PHOs is expected to hit us in the next hundred years.

The not-so-good news is that there’s still a lot that need to be found. NASA estimates there should be about 25,000 that fit the parameters of the 2005 directive… and so far they’ve found about 10,000.

When you scale that up to asteroid size, NASA estimates there should be about 4700 PHAs. So far we’ve found 2263 of them. As of the time I’m recording this.
(NASA considers an asteroid that passes within half an AU from Earth to be a PHA)

So yeah, we’ve only found about half of the danger bois that should be out there. But the ones we know about tend to be the larger ones, so it’s not likely another Chicxulub will sneak up on us in our lifetimes.

But what if one does? What if that one in a trillion Don’t Look Up scenario comes true? What are our actual plans?

Threat Mitigation

Well, in the US anyway, the plans fall to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which yes, sounds like the group the Men In Black work for.

By the way, the PDCO is the umbrella office over the Near Earth Object Observations Program that is finding and tracking them in the first place.

So the first thing the PDCO would do is send a probe to study the danger boi because it’s not just the size and trajectory that matters, we also need to know it’s composition.

Because some of these objects are solid iron and others are essentially piles of rubble in space. Hitting one with a missile will have different effects than hitting the other.

In the case of a solid doom rock, there is the option of just nuking it. And my nipples got hard just saying that.

But yeah, NASA has proposed this, not because it would destroy it, but a nuclear blast could deflect it off course, which is all we need to do.

A smaller asteroid might not need to go nuclear and could just hit it with a conventional missile or projectile – the sciency term is “kinetic impactor”.
But these aren’t the best options for the rubble-pile asteroids because an explosion could just cause it to disperse into a cloud of rubble, much of it still directed toward Earth.

It’s like instead of getting hit with a bullet we get hit with buckshot – still not much fun.

So an alternative for rubble-pile doom rocks is landing a rocket on the surface and pushing it off course. This would work for the solid ones as well.

But let’s not kid ourselves, we wanna nuke it if we can.

Now, if the asteroid made of the right material we might be able to deflect it with a laser.

This is known as laser ablation. Basically, the laser would melt part of the asteroid’s surface, and the plumes of gas and ejected material would create enough force to slowly move the asteroid to a safe orbit.

This might could even be done with a large mirror or fresnel lens.

But “slowly” is the operative word, here, this is only an option if the asteroid has the right composition and we find it WAY in advance.

Now, if we get really unlucky and a massive danger boi sneaks up on us, deflection might not be an option. We may have to go straight to disruption.

I mentioned earlier that if we blow up a rubble-pile asteroid it may just create a shower of smaller asteroids. Well it turns out if you hit it hard enough, it might actually work.

I’ll be honest, when I started researching this I really didn’t think that this was a serious option, but there’s a chance that a big enough explosion could turn a dangerous asteroid into space foam.

One recent experiment simulated what would happen if a 1 megaton bomb were detonated near a 100-meter asteroid. They found that it would would disperse 99.9% of the asteroid’s mass.

Instead of a city-killer, they were left with a chunk no bigger than a Chihuahua’s head. Which is the weirdest measurement I’ve ever seen on this channel…

Americans will do anything to not use metric.

But it could work! And by the way, it doesn’t have to just be one bomb, we could send multiple bombs, the first one breaks up the asteroid, the second flings the pieces further off track, repeat as needed.

It’s not like we don’t have thousands of nuclear weapons sitting around.

The question is, could we pull that off in time?

Back in April 2021, NASA conducted an exercise to put existing technologies to the test. They set up a fictional scenario involving an asteroid of unknown size and composition, and gave international experts 6-months lead time.

It… didn’t go well.

They concluded that no existing technology could do the job. No existing rocket could deliver a nuke in time. No existing spacecraft could collide with enough force.

Six months, the experts concluded, is simply not enough time. Opinions differ on how much time would actually be needed but the NASA official who designed the scenario said five years, at least.

(react) Now would be a good time to remember that the chance of this happening is extremely low. But still, we need more information on the PHOs we know about and we need more tools to detect PHOs.

Just like cancer, early detection is key.

NEOS, DART, and HERA

Thankfully some awesome new tools are on the way.

2026 is looking to be a big year for planetary defense for a couple of reasons, the first being the Near-Earth Object Surveyor.
NEOS is a space-based, infrared telescope specifically designed to help NASA finish its mission of cataloging 90% of large NEOs.

It’s kind-of been stuck in development limbo since 2014, but it’s recently cleared a major hurdle, so appears to on its way.

Also 2026 is when NASA expects to get data on the DART mission.

We heard a lot about this when it launched in November of last year, but DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. And it’s the first time we’ll attempt to redirect an asteroid using a kinetic impactor.
Its target is a 160-meter wide asteroid named Dimorphos that orbits a 780-meter wide asteroid named Didymos. It’s kind-of like a moonlet.

A mini-dangerboi.

The idea is that DART will slam into Dimorphos at a blistering 6.6 km per second, which should move its orbit closer to Didymos.

Currently, it takes 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit, it’s expected after the blast it’ll orbit every 10 minutes. And this will be detectible by Earth-based telescopes.

Now to be clear, neither Didymos nor Dimorphos are a threat to Earth, this is merely a test to provide data on asteroid deflection.

So yeah, it launched last year, it’s set to collide in September of this year, 2022, and we’ll be able to tell if it was successful pretty soon afterwards.

But in 2026, a pair of cubesats developed by ESA will rendezvous with Dimorphos to examine the aftermath and see what went right… or what went wrong.

Either way, it’ll provide insights that will improve our deflection plans. And might help astronomers sleep better at night.

A Near-Miss That Wasn’t

Just a few months ago — January 2022 — a discovery was made that probably caused a few nightmares.

On January 6, an asteroid called 2022 AE1 was spotted on what appeared to be a collision course.

Work to Be Done

Because yeah, a year-and-a-half is not enough time to deflect it with current technology. Now, I want to say that if we really only had a year an a half to save ourselves that it would clarify things and we’d find a way to solve the problem. Recent events have given me reason to doubt that.

Which is why Don’t Look Up resonated so much when it came out. With the current wave of distrust in science we’re seeing, would people be willing to fund an emergency project to stop a threat that we can’t see? One that’s not going to affect us for a couple of years? Tell me what you think down below.

This whole topic is interesting because simultaneously 100 tons of space stuff falls to Earth every day… but the chances of any of it being catastrophic is extremely small.

I guess that’s just the reality of being on a rock flying through a vast galaxy filled with tiny rocks. And a handful of dangerbois.

How Scientists Accidentally Created The World’s Worst Smell

Thioacetone is a chemical whose smell is so bad, it’s almost impossible to believe. Weirdly, it was created from a chemical that you can find in candy. But it opens up questions about how smell works and why we react to smells the way we do.

TRANSCRIPT:

We’ve all kinda gotten used to COVID-19 at this point and we’ve heard all the weird effects it can have on the body but one of the weirdest has to be that it makes you lose your sense of smell.

Remember when it was still new and we were learning new things about it all the time, how weird that was? Remember panicking if you thought you weren’t smelling something at the level you thought you should?

We only have 5 senses, and this disease, for reasons we still don’t understand two years later, turns one of them off.

Imagine if it made you blind temporarily, or deaf, or you couldn’t feel anything you touched?

I guess there are other diseases that do that actually.

But the point is, everybody who lost their sense of smell talks about how weird it makes everything, how it makes it hard to eat because food all tastes like Elmers glue.

Don’t know what you got till it’s gone I guess.

But there are some instances where not having a sense of smell would probably be a good thing. For example if you were ever to run across a certain chemical called Thioacetone; considered by many to be the worst smell in the world.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever smelled? Really, think about it, put it in the comments. I bet just thinking about it brings you back to a vivid memory of some kind. Probably not a great one. Maybe it’s even something that traumatized you. And you’re now spiraling into a dark abyss of pain you thought you had escaped. A door you thought you had permanently shut. And now you’re back inside of it, trapped, screaming into the uncaring void…

…Sorry I just made you do that.

But that’s the power of smell, it’s wired directly into our emotional centers, it’s our most primal sense. And yet, we still don’t really know how it works.

I know that sounds like clickbait, but it’s true, there’s no single agreed-upon theory of smell.

What we do know is that a smell happens when an odor molecule binds to a receptor within the nasal cavity.

That smell is then interpreted by the glomerulus which gets a bunch of information from other receptors in the nose called olfactory receptor neurons, and then combines all that info together into what we call smell.

And that is about how deep our understanding goes, we’re still struggling to figure out how exactly our olfactory receptors detect the molecules in the first place.

There are competing theories.

Docking theory of olfaction: Purposes a very 1:1 match. It’s kind-of a lock and key situation where a molecule key fits into a receptor lock. Each receptor is either on or off and the number of different receptors tells the brain how to interpret it.

Odotope theory: Is similar to docking theory except that molecules can fit several types of receptors and vice versa. It’s more of a matter of processing the signal through the noise.

Vibration theory of olfaction: That the molecules fit into receptors but the receptors are actually interpreting the vibrations of the molecules at the atomic level.

This one is pretty controversial, it also posits that quantum tunneling is involved which is totally nuts, so it’s heavily debated. I just think it’s funny that smelling science has drama.

But because we don’t know exactly how it works, it turns out you can’t really measure stink.

Or I should say you can measure the concentration of a smell but good or bad is rather subjective. One person’s stinky cheese or dripping gasoline odor is someone else’s bouquet of roses. Noses are weird.

So there is no objective scale of smells like, say scoville units that measure spiciness by the level of capsaicin in a food.

What we can gather is people’s reactions to the stink and see just how universally hated it is. Then we can look at how much this chemical can disperse and still be detected. And from that, of course, we can create a weapon.

Because humans gonna human.

Yes, the US Department of Defense studied smell in order to create a non-lethal stink bomb to use against the enemy.

One person who consulted on the stink bomb project was a cognitive psychologist named Pamela Dalton.

She said that the DOD had created a lot of different smelly chemicals and gave her access to their stink inventory.

She zeroed in on one that the government used to simulate large military latrines to test cleaning products on.

From this base of stink Dalton went on to create what she dubbed the “stench soup” she described the soup as smelling like “Satan on a throne of Onions” and that she couldn’t imagine a worse smell.

Well, she might not be able to imagine it, but there is a worse smell. FAR worse.

In the year 1889, German scientists were working with a chemical called Trithioacetone, which today is used as a flavorant in candy. So fairly harmless chemical, but as they were experimenting with it, they “cracked” that molecule.

Turning Trithioacetone into just thioacetone. And it turns out that while good things may come in threes, one is the loneliest number.

Because this compound smells in a profound way.

Almost supernatural.

Okay, so let me take a second and tell you what I really wanted to do with this video.

I heard about thioacetone and my YouTuber clickbait brain took off I was like, I’m gonna get my hands on some of this stuff. I’m gonna take just a tiny bit of it and go down to the park and rub it on a tree and then shoot people reacting to it as they walked by.

I mean I’m not really into prank videos but smell is a difficult thing to get across visually so I really wanted to show someone reacting to it, either other people or myself, I’d title it, “I Smelled The Worst Thing In The World” And I’d even do the whole Thumbnail wow face, put a red circle in there, I was ready to sell out big time.

…But then I read some of the stories about thioacetone.

And yeah… That’s not going to happen.

When the German chemists accidentally made a small amount of thioacetone, they also accidentally spilled a little of it.

And apparently one little quirk of thioacetone is it spreads through the air so fast that the people standing right next to it don’t actually smell it right away.

And by the time they picked up on the smell in their lab, people were literally passing out and vomiting in the streets of Friberg.

A newspaper at the time described it as “an offensive smell which spread rapidly over a great area of the town causing fainting, vomiting and a panic evacuation.”

They literally tipped over a beaker and it caused people to evacuate their homes and businesses up to a half a mile away in all directions in a matter of seconds.

That’s some fast stank.

Thioacetone popped up again in England in 1967.

British researchers Victor Burnop & Kenneth Latham were using thioketones to synthesize new polymers, and made a terrible mistake.

They left a bottle of residue open for a moment. In that time a building filled with people 200 yards away started to become overwhelmed by an unspeakable odor and nausea soon followed.

Just having a bottle open for a few seconds caused people to get sick in another building two football fields away.

At around that same time Professor Mayer at Dresden University of Technology stumbled upon it while experimenting with chemical compounds called thioketones.

He had heard about thioacetone and wanted to experience it for himself. And even though he was fully prepared to smell something awful, he was still blown away by it. Saying…

He calls it red. I’ve heard it described as brown and orange as well.

Oh, and another thing about thioacetone – it lingers.

As if the pungent smell wasn’t bad enough, apparently it’s described as “sticky” and will get embedded in your clothes and hair.

There was a story of some chemists that were exposed to thioacetone in a lab and even though they followed all the protocols and washed it off and everything, later that day when they went to a restaurant, the other patrons complained about their smell to the manager so much he literally sprayed deodorant on them at their table.

There’s Stench, And Then There Is Thioacetone, the World’s Stinkiest Chemical

But all of these stories are from a long time ago, it’s actually hard to find modern accounts of scientists working with Thioacetone, because I think they did enough research.

It doesn’t seem to have any other uses, it just stinks, really bad, really really bad. Enough said.

It’s literally like a WMD of smell, and it’s just not worth messing with it.

Because smelly spills happen all the time.

One of these spills happened in the city of Rouen (row-on) in Normandy, France.

There they have a chemical plant run by Lubrizol. And in 2013 they had a large chemical spill.

That chemical was heated by the air and evaporated, filling the air with the smell of rotten eggs that the wind carried for hundreds of miles, as far away as London.

People in Rouen reported feeling nauseous and having migranes from it.

The chemical spilled? Wasn’t Thioacetone actually but its baby brother mercaptan which is often put into natural gas lines to detect gas leaks.

Yeah, the use of mercaptan in gas lines goes back to… you guessed it… The Victorians!

I mentioned in one of my many Victorian videos that when gas lines first started appearing in homes, lots of people died of gas leaks, because natural gas is odorless and they didn’t know there was a leak. So they started adding mercaptan to it.

The human nose can detect 1.6 parts per billion of mercaptan, so you can imagine just how intense the odor must have been when pure mercaptan was floating over Europe.

The reason is the sulphur in the molecule, and the human nose is so good at detecting sulphur it is thought even a single molecule can even be detected.

Fun Fact:

The human nose is also really good at detecting the scent of vanilla (scientifically known as Vanillin). Vanillin has an even lower detection threshold of 2.0×10-7 mg/m3.

Yeah, apparently if you took an oil tanker full of pure vanillin and poured it out, it would literally make the whole planet smell like vanilla. The whole planet.

Which would kinda turn the whole planet into Disneyland. They pipe in vanilla scent through vents along main street Disneyland.

But back to thioacetone, why? Why is this stuff so bad? Especially when you consider it was derived from something that goes in candy? Chemistry is weird.

Thioacetone is derived from the Thiol group aka sulfur family.

Thiols are sulfur analogues of alcohol (Thi = Sulfur ol=alchol)

Humans evolved to avoid them because rotten things tend to release sulfurs. And rotting things tend to also contain you know, death and disease; stink, saving lives.

After a couple thousand years of evolutionary pressures, and now we are grossed out by dumpsters on breezy summer nights. Looking at you South Dallas.

Ultimately that is really what our human perception of stink is supposed to do. It’s what all of our senses are supposed to do, keep us alive.

Thioacetone really shows just how powerful chemistry can be and arguably dangerous, I can’t imagine what two oil trucks of thioacetone being tipped over would smell like. International smells like death day…week?

But luckily that’s very unlikely to happen. It doesn’t seem to have any use so there’s not a lot of factories making the stuff.

Like it’s so bad that you can’t even weaponize it, which is why the DOD was experimenting with other things. Try to smoke out some bad guys or disperse a crowd with thioacetone and all your guys will pass out in their own vomit too.

So even though my original plan for this video was kinda thwarted, maybe some things are best just left as a mystery.

Perhaps shelving thioacetone for good is the wise thing to do.

Researching into this episode made me appreciate my nose, as silly as that may sound.

I found myself taking time to really smell things around me, because most of our surroundings we grow used to and “smell blind” to but taking time to take deep breaths allowed me to appreciate new scents in my home and outside.

Smell is also powerfully tied to our memories and our emotions on an almost animal instinctual level. Most people can remember a smell, be it the smell of their grandmother’s house or their favorite flower.

It is very integral to who we are as humans, it enriches the world around us. Smell keeps us safe, and also leads us to food or water. One of the lowest concentrations of smell humans can detect is the scent of rain.

That scent, geosmin, can be as faint as 400 parts per trillion and still be detected, which really speaks to just how ancient and well tuned our booger factory is.

So it’s not all horrible. I asked you earlier to think of the worst thing you’ve ever smelled, how about I leave you on an upbeat, what’s your favorite smell? What’s a smell that takes you to your happy place?

And maybe as you go about your day, take a minute from time to time to focus on your nose and the smells around you. You might find it gives you a more rounded out experience, besides, it just helps you live in the moment, which is always good.

 

Apparently “Mind Blindness” Is A Thing

 

What do you “see” in your mind’s eye? Is it as real as looking at a photo? Or do you not see any images at all? It turns out there are 3-5% of the population who don’t have the ability to form images in their heads. It’s a condition called “Imagination blindness” or Aphantasia, and it was only recently discovered.

 

Along with Aphantasia is the opposite end of the spectrum, Hyperphantasia, where the mind’s eye is so vivid, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagination.

It opens up a lot of questions about how we see and perceive our world.

 

I want to start this video with a little exercise. So if you don’t mind playing along with me, here’s what I want to do…

I want you to imagine a dog. Any dog. Just whenever I say the word “dog” what comes to mind? And then I want you to go into the comments and describe what you see in as much detail as possible. Go ahead and pause the video, take your time, just what do you see when I ask you to imagine a dog.

 

Go ahead. (wait a beat. Eat something)

 

All right, so some of you will have described a very specific dog, specific color, hair length, size, age, maybe it’s even doing something like panting or sleeping or running.

A certain percentage of comments might describe it exactly like looking at a photograph or a video.

 

For others, the description might be of a vague dog, no specifics really but still a dog.

And of course most of those comments will describe your mom.

 

But if recent studies are any indicator, there’s about three to five percent of you that weren’t able to visualize anything at all. Maybe didn’t even understand the question.

Because it turns out that some people don’t have a mind’s eye.

 

This inability to visualize in your mind’s eye is a condition called aphantasia. It’s also known as “image-free thinking.”

Those who have aphantasia are unable to create images in their minds of people, places, and objects.

 

On the complete opposite end is a condition experienced by 10 to 15 percent of people called hyperphantasia.

That’s when someone has extremely vivid visualizations in the mind’s eye.

https://aphantasia.com/what-is-aphantasia/

 

[Basic definitions:
Aphantasia = no ability to create visuals in your mind’s eye
Hyperphantasia = inability to turn off the visuals in your mind’s eye]

To be clear, it’s not simply that some people have one or the other and some don’t. It’s a spectrum.

According to Dr. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter in Britain, “This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”

 

And Dr. Zeman should know because he coined the term a-phantasia. Phantasia being the Latin word for fantasy or imagination. So, A-phantasia is someone who is without that.

He coined this phrase in 2015 after meeting a patient he named “MX” who could no longer imagine after undergoing heart surgery.

 

After telling the patient’s story to the media, people started coming out of the woodwork to say that yeah, they can’t do that either.

And this is when things got interesting because it turns out this is a relatively common experience, but people didn’t really talk about it because they didn’t realize their experience was any different than anybody else’s.

 

We just kind of assume that other people’s experience of imagining things is similar to our own, so we don’t question it. It kind-of took someone losing it for us to know that it was something you could be without.

 

Although it wasn’t totally out of the blue. British psychologist Francis Galton first reported similar cases way back in 1880.

He conducted a study where he asked 100 participants to imagine their breakfast tables. Twelve people claimed to have very dim mental images or no imagery at all.

 

But this research was practically ignored for more than a hundred years until Zeman came along with MX’s story.

Now even though the term “aphantasia” technically means “without imagination”, that’s not really what’s going on here.

 

People with aphantasia can still be imaginative and experience the world fully. They just don’t do it with what we might call a “mind’s eye”.

In fact, they’re probably really good at knowing facts, but struggle with episodic memory and remembering faces.

 

When asked to describe his fiancee, one person told the BBC in 2015 that he can think about her, that she’s brunette, and that she has her hair up at the back.

“But I’m not describing an image I am looking at,” he said. “I’m remembering features about her, that’s the strangest thing…”

 

In other words, some people with aphantasia can recall things they’ve seen, but it’s memory and not imagination.

Also, it’s not just visual images. Fairly recently it swept social media that some people have an inner monologue and some people don’t. That’s a kind of aphantasia.

For what it’s worth I don’t just have a monologue, I have a dialogue. Between multiple characters. My brain’s basically a Monty Python sketch. And I personally can’t imagine how someone could function without that, but a lot of people do and that’s super interesting to me.

 

Actually my writer Jason, when he was researching this topic, he found out that a member of his improv group has aphantasia.

He said that he kind-of has an inner monologue, but it’s just a string of words, unless he imagines it in like an actor’s voice, then it’s like his thoughts have a narrator. And as for images, he says he can remember a similar image and extrapolate from that, but to put it in computer terms, images are more like a database entry with various qualities of the image listed but the link to the image is broken.

 

And this is a common thing I ran across researching this, that people with aphantasia can recall various details of an image but it just doesn’t form an actual image in their minds. Now to switch to the other side of the spectrum for a second, someone with hyperphantasia might see pictures in their mind so vivid that they can have trouble telling the difference between imagination and reality.

 

In fact, for some people the visualization in their mind is more visceral and affecting than looking at an actual image.

The artist Clare Dudeney described this in an interview with Science Focus in 2019, saying, “When people describe some terrible accident, I visualise it so strongly that I feel it’s happening to me.” She added, “I can watch gruesome things on TV and be fine, but a passage in a book can bring to mind such vivid images that I faint.”

 

Honestly, I might be closer to that than I am to aphantasia. Sometimes I’ll be daydreaming and maybe I’ll imagine trying to catch something and I’ll knock things off my table. Happened a lot when I was a kid in school actually, I got stared at a lot.

 

[It’s not just a “some people have it and some don’t” scenario. It’s a spectrum and on one extreme is aphantasia and hyperphantasia on the other. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

It was only given a name recently when (details in the TED talk) someone had a brain injury and they noticed they couldn’t visualize afterwards.
It’s not something that was understood to be a thing because people don’t question how they experience the world; we just assume everyone experiences it like we do. It took someone losing it to know what it’s like to not have it.

How people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia experience the world]

 

But like Dr. Zeman said earlier in the video, this isn’t a cognitive ailment by any means, there are pros and cons to both extremes of the spectrum.

 

Some of the positive traits for aphantasia include:

– High abstract reasoning
– Increased concentration skills
– Being more present in the moment

Some disadvantages include:

– Unable to dream in pictures
– Inability to imagine the faces of loved ones who have passed away
– Being lost when someone describes something you haven’t seen or experienced

For hyperphantasia, the pros may include:

– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Ability to plan things in more detail
– Resuming dreams after waking up

And the challenges may include:

– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Reliving situations over and over in your head
– Losing focus

 

In fact some have argued that people with aphantasia are better able to deal with traumatic experiences because they don’t recall it as vividly and immediately as other people do.

Whereas someone with hyperphantasia might be more prone to conditions like PTSD because every time they remember the trauma it’s like it’s happening all over again. So if you have aphantasia, you might be more likely to work in scientific or mathematical professions than other people, you might have a natural leg up in those areas.

 

Which might make you ask, where do you land on this spectrum, what natural abilities might you have because of it? Well, there are several tests to help determine that. British psychologist David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) in 1973. Researchers refer to it most often when they study imagery extremes like aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

 

The test includes four scenarios in which you’re asked to rank how vividly you can see them in your mind. The scenarios include imagining a loved one’s face, a favorite store, or a pretty landscape. The one-to-five ratings go from “no image at all” to “perfectly realistic.”

 

Another evaluation is the Spontaneous Use of Imagery Scale (SUIS), which measures general occurrences of imagery in daily life. It consists of twelve scenarios and uses a five-point rating scale. A Dutch version uses nine scenarios.
https://psyarxiv.com/j2h8k/download

 

SUIS doesn’t measure the auditory part I mentioned earlier, the inner monologue thing, it only focuses on visual imagery. SUIS is concerned with the frequency and likelihood of mental imagery, compared to the VVIQ that focuses on the vividness and quality of mental images.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4538780/

 

There’s also the Object-Spatial Imagery Questionnaire (OSIQ), which was created to evaluate individual differences in visual imagery experiences and preferences.

 

It has two scales:

– Object imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing colorful, high-res, and pictorial images of specific objects
– Spatial imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing relations among objects, spatial transformations, and schematic images

 

Binocular rivalry is another way to measure mental imagery. This process investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual awareness. Visual perception alternates between our eyes during binocular rivalry when we’re presented with two different fields of view. The back and forth of perception relies on the strength of inhibitory interactions between neuronal groups in the visual cortex.

 

Studies using binocular rivalry priming have shown that aphantasia is more due to a lack of sensory imagery and not a lack of metacognition. That was a lot of big words and I think it broke me. I’ll put links to all these tests down in the description if you want to go see where you lie on this scale.

 

Pros and cons of aphantasia and hyperphantasia

A few things that stood out was that it’s possible people with aphantasia might handle traumatic experiences better because they can’t visualize them whereas people with average or hyperphantasia relive bad memories over and over more vividly. However, being unable to visualize in your mind might make some types of work impossible (TED talk mentions architect)

 

Types of tests to see where you are on the mind’s eye spectrum:

VVIQ
SUIS
OSIQ
Binocular rivalry

 

But hold on a second, if we experience visuals in our “mind’s eye” so differently, does that apply to how we see things in general? Like how does our brain process visuals in the first place?

 

Here’s a brief rundown.

The optic nerve travels to two places, the thalamus and the superior colliculus, which helps determine where our eyes and head move. Visual input then travels to the visual cortex from the thalamus. The visual cortex is located at the back of our brains. It’s where the building blocks of vision are combined to produced perception.

 

Researchers believe that visual processing occurs through two information streams:

– Where Pathway – which deals with object movement and location
– What Pathway – which recognizes and identifies objects

 

But the visual cortex can be divided into several distinct sub-regions, with simple visual features located in lower areas and more complex features in higher areas. The primary visual cortex is at the bottom, and it’s sensitive to basic visual signals like object orientation and direction. The next area up responds to contours, textures, and if something is in the background or foreground.

 

After this area, the pathways carrying What and Where information split up into specific brain areas. For example, the inferior temporal cortex that represents complete objects is located at the top of the What hierarchy. There is even a part of this cortex called the fusiform face area that specifically responds to faces.

 

But this bottom-up approach to processing vision is slow. That’s why the brain also relies on top-down mechanisms to process visuals.

Since a lot of information gets lost by the time it reaches the brain, our brains construct reality for us based on past experiences and stored information. Top-down mechanisms affect things like attention, object expectation, scene segmentation, and working memory.

 

The entire visual pathway, except for the retina, is influenced by top-down mechanisms. Knowing this, how do we create images in our heads? In other words, how does imagination work in our brains?

 

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 helps answer this. The study’s researchers analyzed multiple patterns of fMRI data and discovered it wasn’t just the visual cortex alone that contributed to imagination.

 

There were twelve “regions of interest” also involved. Brain areas like the cerebellum, the medial frontal cortex, and the precuneus helped create a “mental workplace” to create imagined people, places, and things.

 

People with aphantasia who have difficulty imagining things may have had it their whole lives, or it was brought on by a medical or psychological condition. Another reason people with aphantasia might not be able to visualize may be due to cortical excitability.

 

In other words, how sensitive the neurons are in your frontal cortex. In a study published in eLife in 2020, scientists discovered that the less excitable someone’s visual cortex is, the more vivid their mind’s eye. “When we found that cortical excitability was negatively correlated with imagery strength, we were at first surprised,” lead researcher Rebecca Keogh told Aphantasia Network. “But as all of the other experiments started to line up showing the same trend, we became excited that we had found a potential underlying mechanism that explains individual difference in imagery ability.”

 

The researchers conducted further studies and arrived at a theory that those who have hyperphantasia either have a not-excitable visual cortex, an excitable prefrontal cortex, or both. And those who have aphantasia have a more excitable visual cortex, a less excitable prefrontal cortex, or both.

 

And I said before, this experience varies across individuals. And it’s not one or the other, it’s a whole spectrum.

[Any research into how we create visuals in our brains (Reticular Activating System?) and why on a physical level some people can’t do it

Inner monologue similar – some people have it and some don’t.

My own experience (might do one of these tests on myself and see what I get. I feel like I lean toward hyperphantasia)]

 

For me this is just further proof that how we see the world is unique in so many ways. I mean we’re literally over here talking about how we visualize the world differently.

 

And maybe now that we understand the “phantasia” spectrum, it can open up conversations about how we see things differently. Maybe this is the beginning of a new era of understanding and celebrating our different worldviews.

 

Any day now. Any day now that could happen.

Why Go To Space – An Editorial

With the Inspiration4 mission in the books, hot on the heels of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic launching their first crewed missions, we’ve seen a bit of a backlash against this new space race. So today I just wanted to share my opinion on why space travel is important and the framing we’ve seen around these flights and these companies is misguided.

All opinions are mine (as of this recording anyway). Disagreements welcome.

Peter Bergmann: The Man Who Never Existed

On June 15 of 2009, the body of a middle-aged man was found on Rosses Point Beach in County Sligo, Ireland. He had no identification on him, no passport, even the tags had been removed from his clothes. Over the following days, as authorities reviewed his activity with security camera footage, they found that he went to great pains to dispose of his personal effects without anybody seeing. This was a man who wanted to disappear completely. And he was almost successful. But one random thing went wrong and turned him into one of the biggest internet mysteries of all time.
Who was Peter Bergmann?

7 Ways To Pull Carbon From The Atmosphere

If we are ever going to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels, we have to take out some of the carbon we’ve already put into the sky. Still, carbon capture is a controversial topic and one that many people know very little about. So let’s look at 7 carbon capture methods and how they work.

The Most Mysterious Place On Earth?

The Bermuda Triangle has held our collective attention for decades. This area of the ocean is blamed for countless missing ships and planes, spawning theories as wide-ranging as time/space vortexes, methane bubbles, the City of Atlantis, and, of course, aliens.

But is there a rational explanation for all the weird phenomena reported in the Bermuda Triangle, or is it more of a pop culture phenomenon? Let’s take a look.

Solid State Wind Energy

A recent paper has made some waves theorizing a way to generate wind energy with no moving parts. I spoke with the author of the paper and break down how it works, with a bit of a reality check.

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