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 😁
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 😊 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 😉
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! 😅😅