Friday, June 4, 2021

Reading (and writing!) with aphantasia

In January of 2020 I wrote a post about reading without a mind's eye and discussed what reading with aphantasia is like for me. Since then, I've thought about this A LOT. Almost daily I think about whether or not I can "see" things. Am I overthinking this whole visualization thing? Surely people can't literally see scenes play out like they're watching TV. They must be exaggerating, right? Maybe my being able to think about or imagine something is what visualizing is. But no, I'm definitely not visualizing.

I've talked to countless people about their experiences and, while I'm still not convinced people can actually SEE things in their minds, I've accepted that I truly can't do whatever it is they can. This week I decided to reach out to both sides of the book community to see how many readers and writers are able to visualize. 

First, I reached out to readers on Book Twitter and in a large reading group on Facebook. While I didn't have tons of responses, I did end up hearing from just shy of 400 people.


Most of them were fully able to visualize while reading. We're talking movies playing in their heads and forgetting they're looking at words on a page! Some were also able to visualize in flashes or could see settings but not people. One person even described visualizing more like a storyboard. Several readers said they took on the role of the main character and saw events from their point of view, which sounds amazing to me! Some people were very confused about how it's even possible to read without being able to visualize and got a bunch of info from various aphants. 

Next, I tweeted out into the universe in hopes that Twitter would get me to the right place. Thankfully, some wonderful people got my tweet to Author Twitter and I got a really great response there too! At the time that I made this chart, I had 180 responses. 


I honestly did not see this coming at all. While the overwhelming majority of authors who responded do visualize what they're writing, it seems that more writers than readers are unable to do so. One reason I've given for not wanting to write is that I can't picture settings or faces or clothes or anything else, but apparently there is a significant portion of authors who are able to come up with entire books full of visuals without being able to see them. One aphant author said she uses reference images if she really struggles to describe something, while a visualizing author said she considers all the senses while writing.

The only thing I can confidently say is that everyone has very different things going on inside their minds while reading and writing.


This post is already getting long, but I really want to share some random thoughts I've had while thinking about my own aphantasia over the past year and a half. 
  • People often ask me if I can hear the character's voices while reading and the answer is a hard no. I don't hear things in my mind either. I've also heard that some people can imagine taste, smell, and touch in their minds and I can't do that either. I guess I'm what they call a full aphant. 
  • I think that my lack of visualization is the reason I get so bored with books people consider slow. Unless it's extremely atmospheric, I don't have much patience for books that are super slow, probably because I can't visualize what's happening during the lags. 
  • Similarly, I think this is why it takes a certain kind of horror book to scare me. SO many books on "most terrifying" lists don't do a thing for me. Pet Semetary is constantly recommended to me as terrifying but I was incredibly bored. I tend to prefer creepypasta-style horror because it's more to the point.
  • As I mentioned, I am okay with slow books if they're very atmospheric and make me feel a certain way while reading. Several of my favorite books fall into this category! Some great examples of this are For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten and The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson. Both have been repeatedly called slow in reviews, but the atmosphere created by the authors transported me without visuals.
  • Very often when I'm reading I skim long descriptions of places and people. I really couldn't care less about how many ruffles are on Jane's dress because I can't see them. I don't need to read about the seventeen species of trees in the garden because I can't see that either. I've been known to skim full pages of description, especially in fantasy. 

Do you visualize while reading?
How would you describe your reading experience? 
Let me know in the comments!