How Growing Up With Aphantasia Impacted My Relationship With Reading
I was raised in a home most would confuse for a library. Calling my family book lovers would be an understatement: my father was a prolific editor, and my mother a literary agent. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves holding books of every genre lined the walls. So when I began learning to read and did not instantly love it, I felt a distinct sense of otherness. I now believe that aphantasia is at least part of the explanation for my experience.
The worlds of books did not open to me in the same way that they opened for those around me. I never lived in the worlds or saw them like a movie, as friends and family described. This realization led me to wonder about aphantasia and the reading experience; how mental imagery impacts individual perceptions of the reading experience.
Exploring the Role of Mental Imagery in Reading
To some, picturing a story may feel like an essential part of their reading experience. There are individuals who speak about imagining the worlds and characters described in the narratives. Of course, while there are certainly those who do have the experience of living in a narrative or viewing it like a movie, this was never my experience as an aphantasic. These differences in our internal experience of narrative led me on a path to better understand the experience of reading in individuals with a range of imagery abilities, especially those with aphantasia.
Insights on the Impact of Aphantasia on the Reading Experience
Visualization and reading became the theme for my master’s thesis at the University of York in England. My study involved 287 participants with a range of mental imagery abilities as measured by the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) (Marks, 1973). The overarching research question for this study was, how does mental imagery ability impact an individual’s perceived reading experience? While there were several aspects included in the study, the focus of this article will be on the last two open-ended questions that are particularly relevant.
- “When you read for pleasure, what do you prefer to read and why?”
- “Do you believe that your mental imagery ability impacts your reading experience? If so, how?”
Part of the study was to have each participant complete the VVIQ (Marks, 1973), which helps to assess how vividly a person can imagine pictures in the mind’s eye on a scale from 32 to 160; 32 is considered low to no ability to visualize, and 160 is considered high or exceptional visual imagery. Participants were directed to complete the VVIQ tasks once with their eyes open and once with their eyes closed. Interestingly, several participants who fell within the average imagery range reported that they found one condition (eyes open or closed) easier than the other.
Exploring the Relationship Between Mental Imagery Ability and Reading Preferences
It was hypothesized that those with differing mental imagery abilities would report distinct experiences when reading. Using a thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2019), themes were developed from the responses to the two open questions. These indicated that while preferences for specific genres were not necessarily guided by mental imagery ability, the ways in which an individual engaged with a narrative showed marked differences based on their conscious mental imagery ability. Overall, findings from this study indicate that individual mental imagery ability may play an important role in how an individual experiences reading.
Preferences and Reasons to Read
The first question asked participants:
“When you read for pleasure, what do you prefer to read and why?”
The responses to this question fell into two larger categories:
- what they read (i.e., genre)
- why they read it (i.e., elements of the chosen genre that appeal to the reader)
What They Read
Fiction was more popular than nonfiction across all imagery abilities. More specifically, of the fictional genres mentioned by participants, fantasy was the most commonly mentioned, followed by thriller/mysteries, and then by science fiction. In nonfiction, news and political writings were most commonly named, followed by history books and biographies.
Why They Read
Two distinct themes were developed from responses with regard to why individuals reported that they chose to read what they do:
- sought experience
When considering an individual’s purpose for reading, 55 participants directly mentioned reading as a way to learn; 26 of them were in the low imagery ability bracket, whereas of the 65 participants who spoke of reading to escape, only 16 were in the aphantasic imagery bracket.
This suggests that the experience of escapism may not be the most alluring aspect of reading for those with low mental imagery. That is not to say that reading is not enjoyed, but future research should investigate how the experience of transportation into a story is impacted by mental imagery ability.
As for the theme of sought experience, there was a clear preference for a plot with a fast pace and/or which required active problem solving and a preference for stories with engaging social aspects and dynamic characters amongst aphantasics. This is exemplified well in the following quotes:
“What really draws me into a story are the characters and their relationships (not just romantic ones). I love considering issues from different perspectives. I enjoy almost feeling like a different person for a while. I love the insights I gain into actual humans and real-life situations through experiencing fictional ones. In life, you see, “he did this.” In books, you get to see “he did this because…” (Favorite authors include Brandon Sanderson, Jane Austen, Shannon Hale, Louisa May Alcott, Agatha Christie, and Patricia C. Wrede).Aphantasic Participant
I think, for me, the beauty of reading is discovering the internal lives of the characters I read about. It’s just not something you experience in a movie or TV show. I get to learn how the characters think and feel, how they reach decisions, how things affect them, etc. It’s like learning the souls of the characters.”Aphantasic Participant
How Does Mental Imagery Ability Impact Reading Experience?
The study’s second question asked participants:
“Do you believe that your mental imagery ability impacts your reading experience? If so, how?”
73% of all respondents reported that they believed that their visual imagery ability impacts their reading experience. Across all levels of reported visual imagery ability, there were more responders who answered yes than those who answered no or maybe.
One participant reported:
“When I read, I just lose myself in the story. I become unaware of the text on the page and just watch the story unfold.” Another said: “Yes… For me, reading is as immersive as movies, likely because the characters, places, and plots come alive in my mind’s eye.”Hyperphantasic Participant
While a third responder, this one with aphantasia, said:
“Yes. I tend to skip over bits in stories (especially fiction) that are very detailed, describing a setting, etc. Those sections feel like just a bunch of words that generally don’t help me to be further invested in the book or scene. A conversation or description of a character’s thoughts is more engrossing for me.”Aphantasic Participant
Several themes developed from aphantasic responses relating to the reported experience and fell into four main categories:
- Attention / Memory: individuals reported that their memory and/or attention were impacted by the lack of imagery.
- “Feeling” / “not Seeing”: aphantasics noted that while they did not create a visual representation of the text, they described that they had an innate sense of the story.
- Skimming: participants consistently mentioned that they skimmed through sections with lots of detail.
- Plot Driven: many aphantasics specifically mentioned that they preferred stories where the plot moved along and progressed at a good pace.
These themes diverged markedly from the responses of those of individuals who fell within the average imagery and hyperphantasic range.
Responses from readers with average imagery abilities and above who reported that their imagery did impact their reading experience consistently noted that their imagery allowed for full immersion into the text through images. In general, the consistency of the responses from those with conscious mental imagery was striking: they use imagery to immerse themselves into the story, and it serves as an important part of their comprehension.
It is worth noting that responses of those technically within but on the lower end of the average imagery range often reported that “no” their reading was not impacted by their mental imagery ability. Interestingly, these responses often echoed themes mentioned by those in the aphantasic range who answered yes.
For example, one participant stated that their experience was “…not as rich an experience. I often miss out on descriptive elements,” while another responded, “No – I have very limited mental imagery abilities. Never have been able to clearly picture so I don’t rely on that skill.”
So, are there differences between perceptions of reading in individuals with differing mental imagery abilities?
There are clearly differences in perceptions of the reading experience between aphantasics and those who consider imagery to be an essential part of their reading experience. The responses of aphantasics showed a far more nuanced experience and self-reflectiveness.
What’s Next? Where Is This Research Most Needed?
This study importantly did not touch on whether there may be a measurable impact on performance as a result of these differences in perception. This will be an important area for future research to consider. In general, it seems clear that a continued belief that the reading experience is the same for most people has potentially negative implications. Several aphantasic responses reflected on school experiences. One participant said:
“I can remember the librarian in elementary school reading to the class and asking us to close our eyes and imagine whatever it was she was reading. I hated that as I sat in the dark and couldn’t understand why we were doing this. I had no idea others conjured images in their mind and escaped to that world. I was around 29 years old, taking a master’s level reading class, when I realized people actually conjured up images in their minds. I thought [it] was just a figure of speech. I was dumbfounded.”Aphantasic Participant
While another spoke directly about their experiences with exams:
“Once I’ve read a book, I can’t remember it at all unless I’ve read it numerous times. Every time I read a book, it’s like starting afresh. I tend to be in the moment with a book and often will not think about it after I’ve read it unless talking to someone about it. I struggle to recall the plot, so enjoy listening to someone talking about a book as it helps me remember. I can never quote from a book unless I actually have it open in front of me and am reading it from the page. O-level and A-level English (classes) were really hard because of this, but I didn’t realize why at the time as I didn’t know about the mind’s eye.”Aphantasic Participant
These were only a few of the responses of those with low imagery who offered unprompted accounts of school experiences. There were numerous responses like the ones above, which mentioned that they only recently learned that their mental imagery experience was different
from that of others. Although there is no evidence to believe that aphantasia is a barrier to reading, it does seem to have the potential to impact a person’s experience.
One participant, in response to question 2, said:
“Since I can’t create an image of the fictional world in my mind, I get lost and very frustrated.”Aphantasic Participant
In the end, while many things were beyond this study’s scope, the clear differences in reported reading experience present an exciting area for future research, as a better understanding of the individual reading experience can only help strengthen educational practices.
Braun, Virginia, and Victoria Clarke. “Reflecting on Reflexive Thematic Analysis.” Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, vol. 11, no. 4, 13 June 2019, pp. 589–597, https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806
Marks, D. F. (1973). Visual imagery differences and eye movements in the recall of pictures. Perception & Psychophysics, 14(3), 407e412. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03211175