Learning with Aphantasia: Exploring the Potential Limitations and Opportunities for Learners

There’s no right or wrong, good or bad way to learn something just different
Learning with Aphantasia
Photo taken by Gorodenkoff on AdobeStock

Table of Contents

The Importance of Visual Imagination in Learning

Think back to your favourite childhood book. What made it so memorable? Chances are, it was the vivid illustrations that brought the story to life in your mind. That’s the power of visual imagery, and it’s not just for children’s books – it’s a valuable tool for learning at any age.

When we learn something new, we often use our visual imagination to recreate pictures in our mind. This visualization process is called visual imagery, and it helps us remember information better, understand it more quickly, and recall it later when needed.

Visual imagery, for most learners, is a helpful cognitive tool that can make learning more engaging and memorable, improving understanding and retention. Since the 1970s, study after study has confirmed that our capacity to create and use mental images plays a vital role in gaining knowledge, skills and understanding.

Similarly, the Social Science Research Network shows that 65% of learners are visual learners. Visual learners tend to learn best when they can see or visualize information. This makes intuitive sense. Humans are visual creatures, after all. Most of us process information based on what we see with our eyes, or in this case, our mind’s eye. Our brains are wired to process visual information more quickly and efficiently than any other input type. That’s why incorporating visual imagery into learning can make all the difference for most learners.

But what about the ~2-5% of learners who can’t visualize?

What About Learning With Aphantasia?

Scientists have known that some people can’t visualize things in their mind’s eye since the 1880s. Yet, the term “aphantasia,” used to describe the absence of visual imagery and other mental imagery sense modalities more broadly, was only recently coined in 2015.

Since aphantasia has entered the public lexicon, it has spurred widespread debate around what it means to learn with aphantasia amongst the academic community, starting with this article posted in The Guardian in 2016 entitled: If you can’t imagine, how can you learn things?

In the article, freelance science writer Mo Costandi makes a case for why learners with aphantasia are likely to experience difficulties with learning, as visual imagery seems to be especially important for reading comprehension, learning word meanings, and according to at least one theory, is a cornerstone for literacy.

The article goes on to suggest that despite the lack of systemic research on the phenomena of aphantasia:

If the condition impinges on a child’s ability to learn, then perhaps we should devise alternative learning strategies for them.

Mo Costandi, The Gaurdian

Is Aphantasia a Learning Disability?

Devising alternative learning strategies for aphantasics sounds like a pretty straightforward plan. There’s just one problem… How do we design alternative learning strategies if we don’t yet know how someone with aphantasia actually learns? Or better yet, if aphantasia actually impinges on the ability to learn.

Neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name, explains:

We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension, but there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.

Adam Zeman

Moreover, what if instead of seeing the absence of visual imagery as impeding learning, we viewed it as emboldening alternative strategies that can enhance learning rather than hindering it, as this counter article on BOLD posted in 2019 so boldly suggests?

In this article, PhD student in Developmental Science, Kathyrn Bates, makes the case for how people learn in many different ways and cautions:

We need to be wary of the inference that because ability A (creating mental images) can enhance ability B (reading comprehension) then the absence of ability A is likely to lead to the absence of ability B. As we know, this is simply not always the case in learning.

Kathyrn Bates

Bates uses the example of learning to play the piano to help illustrate this point:

Reading sheet music might aid your ability to learn to play the piano, however, not being able to read sheet music does not mean you will not be able to learn to play the piano.

Kathyrn Bates

To illustrate this point in the context of the aphantasic learner, let’s use the example of mental rotation tasks.

The Surprising Advantage of Aphantasia

Mental rotation tasks involve rotating mental representations of objects in your mind.

Practically, mental rotation is involved in spatial reasoning and problem-solving. It is a skill we all use when we are trying to interpret which direction a map indicates we should turn, when we try to determine if an additional piece of luggage will fit into a fixed space in a car, or when we try to imagine how the living room would look with the furniture rearranged. 

Before the discovery of aphantasia, mental rotation was once thought of as a task that requires visualization.

Yet, to the surprise of scientists, people with aphantasia can not only complete them, but according to one study, the aphantasic participant performed better at mental rotation tasks than their visualizer counterparts. They just took longer to complete them.

The results of this study were conclusive: The inability to visualize may actually improve mental rotation skills.

You can read more about mental rotation tasks and this discovery in the article Mental Rotation Tasks: Surprising Advantage of Aphantasia.

Limitations of Learning With Aphantasia

This is just one example of a potential advantage of learning with aphantasia. While it provides evidence to support the notion that aphantasia is not a learning disability in and of itself, it’s important to acknowledge some of the limitations of learning without visualization.

The scientific literature makes it abundantly clear that mental imagery can help most students accelerate and improve their learning skills. It is also clear that this is simply not the case for aphantasic learners.

Learning strategies that require visualization will not work on students with aphantasia, who do not possess the ability to create mental images.

Importantly, this understanding doesn’t mean that learners with aphantasia cannot acquire new skills, nor does it imply that aphantasics will have poor educational performance; it simply suggests that people with aphantasia must rely on alternative learning strategies.

While some newly discovered aphantasics may interpret this information negatively and by consequence, attribute meaning and justification to their past experiences or challenges in various learning contexts, it’s not all bad.

Many aphantasics have led or are leading very successful careers.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Craig Venter, biologist who first sequenced the Human Genome. Blake Ross, creator of Mozilla Firefox. Glen Keane, Disney Animator and Creator of The Little Mermaid. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. All have aphantasia.

How did they acquire the skills to be successful?

The fact of the matter is that humans are incredibly adaptive beings. In the absence of arms, we learn to eat with our feet. Without a mind’s eye, we learn to…?

The answer is we don’t know yet.

Research on aphantasia and aphantasic learners is still in its infancy. However, some long-standing theories around learning might hint at some answers…

Could Dual Coding Theory Help Explain How Aphants Learn?

According to dual coding theory, put forward by Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario in 1971, information is stored in two different ways – verbally and visually.

Dual coding theory suggests that these two ways of storing information operate independently of each other but that they can also interact to enhance learning and memory potential. Perhaps this helps explain why mental imagery can help some students improve their literacy skills through visual memory to recall specific words on a page. 

The theory also suggests that there are at least two ways we can store information; in the absence of visuals, there are still verbal strategies.

This is an important distinction for the aphantasic learner who cannot rely on visual memory or information due to the absence of mental imagery; and who is, perhaps, more likely to rely on verbal strategies when acquiring new skills.

However, there are limitations in dual coding theory – the main one being the assumption that thought processes are based on nothing but words and images.

There may be other methods not yet realized, and further investigation into the aphantasic learner might actually point to some new answers on how we learn.

I am willing to bet the findings could be pretty mind-bending and eye-opening, puns-intended.

Learning to Learn With Aphantasia

Our wide-ranging experiences and neurodifferences lead to alternative ways of learning things. There’s no right or wrong, good or bad way to learn something, just different.

The more aphantasics understand how their thinking and thought processes differ, the more likely they are to identify alternative strategies that work for their unique learning experience.

There is no one-size-fits-all way of learning something new. That is why the Aphantasia Network is dedicated to exploring a host of learning strategies for the aphantasic learner.

What learning strategies work for you?

Leave a comment in the comment section below. Share a learning technique or approach that has worked for you and why you think that is.

Let’s discover how our minds work together!

Sadoski, M. (2005). A dual coding view of vocabulary learning. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 21(3), 221–238. doi:10.1080/10573560590949359
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