Our mind is a complex powerhouse that can conjure up various types of imagery, from those that are purely mental to those based on what we see with our physical eyes. When we see things from the outside world with our eyes, our visual system takes the photons hitting our retinas, converts them into electrical signals, and sends this information to the brain’s visual areas. The brain then processes this visual information through different pathways, helping us understand motion and spatial location. Finally, the brain uses higher-level processing to tie visual information to memory, attention, and other cognitive functions to create our conscious visual experience.
When we imagine or picture things in our minds (i.e. mental imagery or visual imagination), it’s our brain creating those images on its own. In these instances, higher brain regions, such as the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes, tell the visual cortex what to see or imagine.
Visual hallucinations are a completely different story. They are perceptions of visual stimuli that aren’t really there. Unlike mental imagery and imagination, hallucinations are involuntary, feel real, and disrupt normal visual brain activity. They’re often linked to neurological or psychiatric conditions. Unlike imagination and imagery, hallucinations lack control and creative input.
These are the usual categories of vision, but there’s one more to add. Meet Tom Matte, a 59-year-old man who, after a tough mental health crisis a decade ago, found himself with a unique type of vision. He experiences a continuous flow of vivid holographic images that constantly scroll across his vision, whether he’s paying attention to them or not. Sometimes they are precognitive or related to what he is thinking about, and sometimes not. He can willfully interact with and change the images. He describes this process in this blog post, giving an example of how he can will a holographic elephant to turn into a squirrel. Importantly, he emphasizes that these images are different from hallucinations or imagination. He calls this unique ability “upsight.”
In a recent study, the IONS science team explored whether there are differences in Mr. Matte’s brain activity between upsight mental imagery and a control condition involving mental recall imagery.
How Should We Study Upsight?
The study compared brain activity during the participant’s upsight condition versus normal mental imagery. To accomplish this, we recorded the participant’s electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) while he performed a task. The participant was shown a randomly selected image for 10 seconds and would hear an audio cue saying, “Look at the image.” Then, the screen went blank, and the participant closed his eyes for 30 seconds. During this time, an audio prompt instructed him to either 1) remember the main part of the image in his mind (mental imagery) or 2) influence the scrolling “upsight” images so that the key element of the original image appeared for him to focus on. After the eyes-closed period, the participant opened his eyes, looked at the image again for 10 seconds, and then performed the other condition (recall or do upsight).
Are There Differences in Brain Activity?
Comparing the brainwave data, we found a distinct difference between the upsight mental state and the control mental imagery state. Specifically, we found a drop in alpha power during the upsight state. Your brain produces alpha waves when you’re relaxed and not actively thinking about something. So, the decrease in alpha power during upsight suggests that the brain is working harder, possibly dealing with more complex thinking tasks or requiring greater attention compared to the control condition. This aligns with previous research that connects reduced alpha rhythm to increased mental workload and attention.
Upsight also appears to be linked to increased activity in certain brain regions – the frontal and parietal regions – particularly in the left side of the brain. The brain might be working harder on the left side because of the participant’s effort to control and suppress the constant flow of upsight information that he experiences so he can focus on the task at hand. In simpler terms, the brain is working harder to filter and inhibit distracting information. This interpretation is based on the participant’s own description of his experience and is in line with previous research findings.
So What Does This Mean About Upsight and the Mind?
Our findings suggest that the unique mental state reported by Tom Matte in this study is associated with a brain state that is quite different from regular mental imagery. One way to look at it is that the increased alpha activity during mental imagery may reflect a more relaxed state, ready to engage in more active processes, compared to the upsight experience, which likely involves higher arousal or alertness. While these novel findings are encouraging, much more research is needed to understand the biological mechanism of the upsight vision, especially in more participants with the same interesting ability.
There is another question that needs answering: what are the upsight images, really? While no one knows for sure, one possibility is that they are some sort of meaningful non-physical aspect of reality that certain people can perceive, either internally in the mind’s eye or, as in this case, externally with the physical eyes.
This notion echoes the founder of psychology William James’ 19th-century idea that the brain acts as a filter, restricting access to a broader consciousness while filtering out information that is not immediately useful for survival. Altered states of consciousness, such as near-death experiences, deep meditation, or psychedelic states, could potentially thin this filter, allowing the brain or mind to tap into a broader dimension of human experience and expanding perception of inner and outer stimuli in the form of images.
The brain-as-a-filter model challenges conventional thinking and proposes non-materialist explanations for certain mental imagery experiences. If found to be true, we would need to rethink our models of reality. But, the idea of tapping into a more expansive consciousness might finally explain some of the wondrous experiences we currently consider impossible, including Tom Matte’s upsight and other psychic abilities. Then, the question might be: what is the untapped potential of the human mind?