What Do You See in Your Mind When Reading?

Hi everyone! You’re getting a bit of a weird post from me today, but since I’ve been annoying everyone in my offline life with this question for months now, it’s high time I wrote something about it on this blog ๐Ÿ˜

My obsession with mental imagery started a little over a year ago, when I was preparing to take this huge psychology exam which is required if you want to become a teacher in Germany. I was doing a lot of background reading, also online, and my creepy stalker-computer noticed that I was apparently “interested” in the topic and started recommending random psychology-related articles. And, eventually, one of them did catch my eye. I was unable to find it again, so unfortunately I can’t link it for you, but the headline said something like: “Some people picture things so vividly in their mind that images appear almost life-like”. I was a bit perplexed – What did they mean, some people? – so I decided to read more.

The article went on to explain that there was, apparently, this condition called hyperphantasia, where people vividly imagine whatever you say to them. Like, if you say “beach” for instance, a person with hyperphantasia will “see” a beach in minute detail in their mind, along with other sensory input. They will hear the sea birds screeching, the waves lapping, smell the salt in the air – you get the picture. And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are people with aphantasia, who see no mental images at all when they think. If you say “beach”, their inner eye will remain completely blank.

A little while later, I found a picture that I think did a pretty good job getting across the differences between mental image levels. A person with hyperphantasia would imagine an apple as shown in the first picture – exactly as it would look in the real world. A person with aphantasia would see nothing, as shown in the fifth picture:

But back to that initial moment, after I had first read the article. I was absolutely stunned. It had never, not once in my life, occurred to me that some people might not think the same way I did. I couldn’t even fathom how it was possible to process information without mental imagery. Everything the article said about hyperphantasia – a condition that it said was relatively rare – described what I had thought went on in everyone’s mind. I was fascinated, but also a bit skeptical. Maybe this was a hoax, an early April Fool’s joke or something. Surely everyone thought with images!

So, obviously, the first think I did was interrogate my family. “Do you see images in your head when you think?” I asked, not knowing that would soon become my new go-to question.

I had not expected their answers at all. My sister’s, yes. She looked at me like I was stupid and said something like, Duh, of course she did. But my dad was completely confused. He didn’t even understand what I meant by that question, so I tried to explain further. “Like, when I say ‘apple’, do you see an apple in your mind? How vivid is it?” My dad responded that he did not see any apples at all, and how on Earth people were supposed to be able to see things that weren’t actually there? He could name facts about apples and describe how one might look, but apparently, he didn’t see anything. And my mom, while she did say that she could see the apple, did not relate to imagining any sounds or smells when she pictured something. She also said she couldn’t recall clear images of what people looked like when they weren’t right in front of her. Neither could my two brothers.

I was super confused, and so was my dad. He kept trying to come up with arguments to try and convince me that I couldn’t possibly be seeing something whenever I thought. “What about abstracta?” he said. “Surely you don’t see anything there?” But the thing is, I do. If someone says something like “love” to me, I immediately get hit with a ton of images and a sense of the feeling. I will see people I love, a heart, people holding hands, all super-imposed on one another. I am perfectly capable of seeing multiple images in my mind at once. And I will also see the actual word, “love”, how it is spelled, in my head. This happens whenever people talk. My brain immediately also shows me the written text. Which is why it is extremely confusing for me when I imagined the spelling of a word wrong. Like, when at age 17, I finally realized that “debris” and what I had always seen in my mind as “debree” were one and the same word. It was a shock, I can tell you.

My family, on the other hand, were completely weirded out by this. No, they assured me – other people did not think this way. How the heck could I have thought this was normal? I just shrugged. It had always seemed normal to me. I think so completely in images that I can’t imagine what it must be like to think without them. Even if people had been born blind or something, I just assumed that they could use their other senses to create a mental representation of what they heard. They might not see the apple, but I thought they would still feel and smell it, and have a sense of its dimensions… And even though my images aren’t always accurate – they can fluctuate if I don’t remember the details (like I can see a word spelled in two different ways at once, or change the eye color of a person I see) – there is no way I would be able to think without them, and they are always completely clear and lifelike.

While I was having that initial conversation, though, my brain realized something even more horrifying. How the heck could you enjoy reading if you didn’t imagine what you were reading about?

When I read, it is so much more vivid than watching movies. I am immersed in a 3D world, surrounded by scents and sounds, and I always see way more than what is actually described on the page. The whole world becomes alive around me.

My dad doesn’t read as much as I do, but despite his apparent lack of mental imagery, he does really enjoy it. So I tried to get him to explain what happens when he reads. Surely, he must see images then? But no, he said, he doesn’t. He tried to explain it to me with an analogy – “It’s like a memory: you know what happened to you, but you don’t actually see the events.” That analogy fell horribly flat, though, because yes, I DO see the events when I remember things. No matter how much he tried to explain it to me, I just didn’t get it, any I imagine he felt just as confused when I tried to explain my mental images.

However, I was desperate to learn more, so I started questioning everyone around me what they imagined when I said certain words and what they saw when reading. And the answers I got were so different! It was truly astounding. I had one friend say she usually saw cartoonish sketches when she thought about things. One of my good friends and fellow English literature students said when he reads, he sees pictures as still-images, but they don’t move, and they definitely don’t have sounds or smells. Other people chimed in and said they only imagined what was on the page but didn’t extend that to a fully fleshed out picture. If the book described a bed in a room, they would only see a room and a bed in it, but the other details remained a blur. Another one of my friends said she had never seen anything like the images I described in her life, but she still adores reading just as much as I do. Similarly as during the conversation with my dad though, I was utterly confused when she tried to describe how she did process things while reading.

So apparently, different levels to mental imagery are actually a thing. The article wasn’t lying.

And I guess it does explain some things. Like that time in chemistry class, when we were supposed to draw different reaction mechanisms of sugars using Haworth projections and our teacher suggested we make paper models so we could actually see how the molecules combined. I never saw the point of this – I could turn the molecules perfectly well in my mind, so what did I have to cut them out for?

Also, it might explain why I love descriptions so much in literature. The more vividly you describe a world to me, the better I can actually picture what the author wanted me to see. There will be fewer inconsistencies because what I imagined at first doesn’t fit with later details. This is also why I hate when character descriptions are dropped very late in a book. By then, I will already have gotten used to the way I imagined this character, and I can’t just change it to accommodate any new details the author decided to drop 200 pages in!

Or, sometimes, I’ll somehow overlook details and imagine things wrong, and then it drives me absolutely crazy on rereads. Like, the first time I read Twilight, I completely missed the descriptions on which side of the room Bella’s bed, desk and window were. When I reread it, I realized I had everything completely wrong. But I couldn’t change my images that easily! Not when I’d already gotten used and attached to them. So now, even though I technically know it’s wrong, I still imagine the room the way I did during the first read through. And when I get to the actual description, I will suddenly have multiple images competing with one another for dominance. It’s super annoying… Or even worse: in The Name of the Wind, I somehow (I have no idea why) first pictured Elxa Dal as a woman. And now that character keeps fluctuating back to his female self. I’m fine changing my images early on, but once I have thought about them a lot, it gets freaking hard!

Please tell me that at least some of you can relate to this!! Isn’t this topic just utterly fascinating??!

If you’re willing to share, I’d love to know what happens in your head when you read ๐Ÿ˜Š Do you see images? What about sounds, smells, feelings? And if so, how vivid are these things? Feel free to use the apple scale as a reference. I am most definitely a 1 ๐Ÿ˜‰

And, most importantly, for those of you who don’t see any images: When you’re reading something, how do you imagine the story? I am still looking for someone who can properly explain this to me, I am sooo confused! ๐Ÿ˜…๐Ÿ˜…

32 thoughts on “What Do You See in Your Mind When Reading?

  1. Jina Bazzar says:

    I’ve always been able to see things in my mind with clarity. But here’s one thing for you to consider: in my 20s I became blind, and that hyperfantasia thing took control of my every waking moment. My mind fills in the layout of everything “unknown” in front of me to the point where if someone tells me the roll of towel papers are beside the toaster when I thought it was on the table, it takes me a second to shift gears. Two of my kids have hyperfantasia, they can imagine anything I tell them, and even help me build a fantasy scene. But the third kid needs a lot of explanations to picture a “make believe” world.
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Thank you so much for your comment!! I always find it fascinating how unique people’s experiences regarding this topic are! And I can only imagine how disorienting it must be to have the real world not match up with the images you have in your head ๐Ÿ˜… I am already really confused when things start to contradict themselves in fictional worlds, but the closest I’ve ever come to having that feeling in real life was when I once walked downstairs in the dark and there was one stair less than I thought… That moment when my foot hit the floor instead of air came as a huge shock! So I can see how something like the paper towel situation might feel extremely strange at first…
      It’s also really interesting that your children experience mental imagery so differently! I find it fascinating that even people who are related can have completely different ways of processing the information they are confronted with…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jina Bazzar says:

        I’ve experienced the step-less moment , as well as extra steps – which isn’t fun either. I always say that my daughter – the one who’s slow to imagine things – was probably switched at birth ๐Ÿ˜‰
        if she didn’t resemble me at that age, I’d have asked for a DNA test haha.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. R A I N says:

    Man that must be sooo much fun seeing images in your mind just like the 3D world, by default! ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜ I have always been a number 3 (on the image?) kinda girl – like I can see a hazy outline of the image but not that vivid. Just a ghost of the original image, you know?

    But lately, as I have been practicing SEEING a lot in my imagination, it has gotten better…way better than it was before. And I learnt that imagination is a muscle (something reading Neville Goddard taught me anyway ๐Ÿคฃ) and you actually CAN train your mind to see in vivid images, by a bit of practice, as I have recently been able to.

    You see it all depends on how โ€œvisualโ€ we have been since childhood. Some children inadvertently develop this habit of thinking in images, some in words. So yeah, from that habit stems the intensity of vividness of their imagination, or at least thatโ€™s what I have experienced, as of late!

    GAHH! SUCH AN AWESOME POSTTTT!! ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜

    Liked by 2 people

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Wow, that’s so interesting!!! I never really thought much about how imagination can be trained… Mine has always been so vivid that I never noticed any change in it, so I guess I just assumed that thinking this way was a given ๐Ÿ™ˆ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ I would LOVE to be able to go back to my infant-self’s brain and see how I thought about things then, just to compare. I mean, at least the seeing-the-words-spelled-out-in-my-mind thing can’t have been there, since I didn’t even know how to read lol. But I can’t remember a time when I DIDN’T see images as fleshed out as they are now…
      It’s so cool that you’re noticing changes in your own imagination, though!! And it’s fascinating that you see those ghost images, I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has used that kind of description before ๐Ÿ˜Š And at least I can understand what that must be like more than not using ANY images at all. My dad is such a mystery to me, and I can’t believe it took me over twenty years to find out about this!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. pilargarciag says:

    Iโ€™ve always loved this topic and itโ€™s so weird cause I have absolutely no idea which category I fit into. When Iโ€™m reading, if Iโ€™m submerged in the story, I can picture what itโ€™s happening and I can see the images in my head. But that only happens when Iโ€™m really enjoying a book. However, I donโ€™t think I see images when people say specific words to me or anything. Iโ€™ve also heard that some people have an internal monologue (like consciousness) and itโ€™s basically like youโ€™re having a conversation with yourself I think. But other canโ€™t think like that at all. They just know? I donโ€™t understand. I think all this is very interesting but it always confuses me soooo much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Thanks for your take on this!! I feel like every time I talk to someone about this topic, I end up even more astounded and confused ๐Ÿ˜‚ It’s so interesting that you see images while reading but not when people just say words! For me, those situations are one and the same thing, and I just don’t get how there can be a difference for some people ๐Ÿ˜… There is no way I could even STOP the images from coming! It’s all so automatic; I couldn’t even think about an apple without picturing one.
      And it’s also really interesting that you don’t have an internal monologue – I mean, I don’t have that switched on all the time, but I do have situations where I’ll basically just have an internal conversation with myself. I never considered that this wasn’t something everyone did… Now you’ve given me a new question I can badger my family with! ๐Ÿ˜

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Line says:

    This explains so much but I’m so confused about myself now. Am I picturing the apple because I really want to picture the apple right now or is it what I always do?

    I’m probably something of a 3 or 4 though. When reading descriptions in books I imagine it the moment I read it, but 2 seconds later it’s gone. Kind of like that one person you say only saw the bed in the room and everything else is blurry. When there aren’t descriptions, everything is kind of blurry I guess, but I don’t feel like I need anymore details. Is all of this why some people like descriptions-heavy books while others (like myself) hate them? I hate reading a description of a room because it’s just filler to me. I only need to know about the bed if the person is lying on it, but if you’re picturing the room so vividly as you describe in your post, then I guess you love that kind of info.

    Great post! Excuse me while I go and question everything about myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Lololol, I am so sorry about contributing to your confusion ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ That was exactly how I felt after realizing that not everyone has hyperphantasia, so I can sympathize ๐Ÿ˜ Honestly, I still haven’t completely recovered, or I probably wouldn’t have written a blog post about it over a year later…
      And the thing about descriptions is definitely intriguing! I would love for someone to do some kind of study and see if people’s liking them correlates with how vivid their mental images are ๐Ÿ˜Š Because yes, I definitely love descriptions, unless they go on for pages and pages and are completely irrelevant to the story. But a few well chosen specifics about the surroundings – sign me up!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Strawberrys Corner says:

    This post is amazing! I have read either the same article or one similar about this topic before and I see things in my mind more like 3 or 4, depending on what it is, but it’s still not the strongest sense I get. For me, it’s a feeling, when I hear these words, I get a feeling of what they are or what they are to me and when I read I get a strong emotion and feeling of what is being told on the page. So, it’s a bit weird but how I enjoy reading (and writing) is through feeling the words? Haha, I hope this makes sense, either way, I loved this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Thanks so much for your input!! ๐Ÿ˜Š That actually sounds kind of similar to how my friend who doesn’t see any images at all described her reading experience. And I’d like to say that I get it, but honestly, I’m just super confused ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ When I try to only imagine a feeling without an image, my brain goes absolutely haywire… I just can’t do it!! It’s so fascinating getting these insights into everyone’s thought processes, though! Especially when they’re so different from mine!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Emer @alittlehazebookblog says:

    Ooh I think Iโ€™ve read this article too, or something similar at any rate, and only recently because I was shocked to realise that when other people read they can actually visualise faces and places whereas I cannot. Thatโ€™s why descriptions of people in books mean nothing to me. I actually like when books donโ€™t give detail like hair colour etc. Because when I visualise a character in my head I see no human shape but I see colour, and the colour is dependent on the emotions of the character. The more I empathise with them or the more real the character feels the more colour that gets layered in my head. So basically when I read I see colour and emotion.
    Itโ€™s a little different when an author describes a place. I can hone in on the scents they describe but nothing that is acutely visual, I have to try really hard if I want to picture the scene. So I mostly just donโ€™t visualise anything about the settings in my head at all and instead focus on the rhythms of the words on the page, the way the words sound in my head.
    I think this is one of the reasons I hate screen adaptations of my favourite books because the way I visualise a book is so unique to me. I think it also explains why graphic novels donโ€™t tend to move me because thereโ€™s less of a focus on the words and instead itโ€™s all imagery which just doesnโ€™t resonate with me in the same way.
    It also got me thinking about how Iโ€™m really poor at remembering faces after Iโ€™ve met a person. Say I go to the shop and thereโ€™s a new cashier on the desk and we have a nice chat. As soon as I walk out of the shop I cannot recall what they look like except for vague descriptors. I have to see a person a number of times before I can truly begin to recall their face. So kind of like practicing before I can get it right โ˜บ๏ธโ˜บ๏ธโ˜บ๏ธโ˜บ๏ธ

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      I am sooo fascinated, but I honestly don’t understand at all how your thinking process works ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ™ˆ๐Ÿ™ˆ It is so puzzling to me how you can even know what happened in a story if you don’t picture it. I do sometimes have moments, when a book is very boring, where my mind will just shut off and turn to other things. I’ll read the words but my eyes will just glaze over the page instead of me picturing what I’m reading. Then suddenly I’ll realize that I have no clue what happened in the last three pages… Without my mental images, I just can’t think at all! ๐Ÿ˜ฉ
      But it’s interesting what you said about movie adaptations, because a lot of the time, I don’t like them either. Usually, I’ll be sitting there, comparing them unfavorably to my own images, and ticking off everything they did wrong ๐Ÿ˜‚ And that’s also why I usually avoid watching the movie before reading the book. Once I’ve seen the movie, everything I imagine will automatically depend on the way things looked in the movie. I won’t be able to have my own images anymore! But if I read the book first, I can keep the way I pictured things and the movie pictures separate… I don’t know if that makes any sense, lolol
      And, funnily enough, I also don’t like graphic novels as much as other books. Kind of like with movies, they rob me of the chance to picture things myself, and I also don’t like that I only see snippets of a whole picture there. Then my gaze constantly has to jump around until I’ve seen all the details, and I never know in which order to look at stuff or when I’ve looked at it enough ๐Ÿ™ˆ With “regular” books, I know exactly in what order to read the words and then my mind fills in the complete image automatically… It’s so much more vivid!

      Like

  7. universewithinpages says:

    I think this is a really interesting post! I actually can’t visualize anything in my head, and if I try to think of objects, I only see black in my head (I’m so jealous of everyone who can see pictures! it sounds amazing being able to see family and friends in your mind). I can’t see any apple at all, no matter how hard I try. I feel like this contributes to me not being able to memorize things or details too often!

    I usually rely on words for descriptions and I struggle to picture characters in books in my head without the usage of art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Thanks for your comment!! I find it utterly fascinating to see how so many people apparently imagine things completely differently than I do! Trust me, I probably struggle just as much trying NOT to see an image as you do trying to see one ๐Ÿ˜… I’d love to be able to understand what goes on in other people’s minds when they read without seeing pictures, but I just don’t get it ๐Ÿ˜ฉ And I can’t believe it took me this long to find out about this…

      Like

  8. Nefeli says:

    This is so interesting! I had heard about aphantasia before, but I didn’t know there was a scale. I thought you can either imagine things or not. Personally, I’m somewhere between numbers 1 and 2 on the apple scale. I can see pictures vividly but sometimes not too detailed. As for smells and sounds, I can recall them but not always vividly. When it comes to reading, I think the vividness of images, sounds, feelings and smells in my mind depends on how imersed I am in the story.
    I have the same problem with descriptions when reading. I tend to create images for the characters in my head at the beginning of the book and if the description comes later, I just can’t accept it. It’s like my imagination rejects new images. Same if I’ve seen the movie before I’ve read the book. Once I have a fixed image in my mind for a character, it’s almost impossible to change it. Weirdly, I don’t have this problem the other way round, when I read the book before watching the movie.
    Brain functions are so weird and fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      It seems like everyone already knew about aphantasia except me ๐Ÿ˜‚ I am so glad I discovered it, though, since I find this topic absolutely fascinating! Finding out how other people picture things – it’s so intriguing!
      And I’m so glad you can relate to the descriptions thing. I was starting to think it might just be me ๐Ÿ˜… For me, it’s exactly like you described: I’m fine if I read the book first and watch the movie later; then I can have two separate versions saved in my mind. But if I watch the movie first, I will never be able to imagine the characters independently, which makes me so frustrated! It’s so weird and wonderful all at once ๐Ÿ˜

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Kelly says:

    Ohmigod this is me! I didn’t even know it had a name! I was turning molecules in my mind when you talked about having to cut them out, so yeah I relate to this post so much ๐Ÿ˜„

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      I am so glad someone can relate!! I felt so strange when I realized a ton of people had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned my mental images ๐Ÿ˜‚ So yeah, at the time, cutting out those molecules seemed like the most pointless exercise ever! ๐Ÿ˜†

      Liked by 1 person

  10. ella isnโ€™t studying says:

    This is such an interesting post! When Iโ€™m reading, I can imagine characters clearly but I have to concentrate a lot harder to imagine a clear 3D setting, and most of the time itโ€™s based around a place I know really well! Now Iโ€™m definitely going to ask my family and friends what they see ๐Ÿ˜Š

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      Thatโ€™s really interesting! I talked to one of my friends after writing this post, and she also says that she bases the setting on places sheโ€™s been to. I donโ€™t do that at all (although I suppose parts of it must have come from things Iโ€™ve experienced), so that is fascinating to me!
      And have fun questioning everyone! I think some people thought I was a little weird, considering how obsessively I was asking them things about this topic ๐Ÿ˜‚

      Liked by 1 person

  11. E. @localbeehuntersnook says:

    This is truly a fascinating subject!
    For me, it depends? If I focus on what I’m reading I can go full on 1 but, for example, when I listen to an audiobook on 2x speed or even faster there’s simply no time for such imaginery. I rarely have the sensation of sounds and smells and other things accompanying the image when reading though. Characters‘ voices are hmmm like an audiobook narrator? One person that does everyone’s voices but they vary just enough to recognise them? But I can imagine voices of people from my real life — for some just the general ’sound‘ of their voice and for others I can picture full sentences they never said.
    And with imagining singular things like an apple I can imagine the more detail the less detail I give the surrounding? And it gets better if I close my eyes. Which is annoying because along reading my other hobby is painting and no matter how well I can imagine things I still need a reference ๐Ÿ˜€
    My dreams though! They’re more vivid than real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abookowlscorner says:

      That’s really interesting! For me, the speed I’m reading at doesn’t change the way I imagine things at all, and it also doesn’t make a big difference to me whether I am reading something physically or listening to an audiobook… So it’s fascinating that you can kind of switch the images on just by focusing!
      And character voices are also a really good point! I also don’t imagine them as vividly as images, I think, but I do have a good sense of what a character sounds like. So sometimes, when I listen to an audiobook that I’ve already read physically, it can be quite jarring when a character sounds different from how I imagined. But funnily enough, I don’t find that nearly as disorienting as different images ๐Ÿ˜ And, sometimes, if I listen to an audiobook a lot (like Harry Potter, for instance), the audiobook voices can also change the way I imagine the characters’ voices when I read the book again – and that never happens to my images when I watch movies, for instance. So strange! ๐Ÿ˜
      And painting is interesting, too! I can also paint something much better when I have a printed out reference image than by just using what I see in my head. It’s a lot easier for me to focus on a specific detail and to not get distracted by the image I’m painting, especially since my painting skills are pretty abysmal… But I do usually have a vision how I want the painting to look that might slightly differ from what I’m using as a reference, so I usually end up really disappointed because I’m not talented enough to execute that vision ๐Ÿ˜‚ I hope that kind of makes sense lol.
      It was so cool to get your perspective on this!

      Liked by 1 person

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