Learning and aphantasia

There’s so much we have yet to discover about what it means to “learn with aphantasia.”

Here’s a thought-provoking post from 2016, which makes the case for why leaners with aphantasia are likely to experience difficulties with learning; “as mental imagery seems to be especially important for reading comprehension and learning word meanings, and according to at least one theory, is a cornerstone for literacy.” In contrast, this post from 2019 states that while a learner’s ability to create images in their mind is linked to various improvements in learning, the absence of this ability may lead to alternative strategies that enhance rather than hinder learning.

What’s your experience learning with aphantasia? We’d love to learn more about what’s worked/hasn’t worked for you.

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Honestly, I haven’t had issues with standard learning methods. In fact, I’ve generally excelled in standardized testing environments. The only place I’ve somewhat struggled, or at least found frustrations throughout life, has been when directed to draw a picture, or something else visually creative. It may just be a personal dislike, or it could also be connected to my inability to visualize internally.

In my experience, when "visualizing" something, it almost feels as if there is an image buried deep within my head, and my inner voice is verbally describing it to me, in lieu of actually seeing. I can focus in on specific details, from the overview look, to probing with a fine tooth comb. It’s how I’ve always thought about and experienced things, and perhaps why it took until adulthood, listening to a radio program, to realize that I was processing things in a different way than the average person.

The absence of a visual memory made my journey through the sign language interpreter program difficult. We were pushed to visualize everything, and then describe our visualizations. I found myself embarrassed and frustrated. We were asked to create visualizations and rotate through different perspectives of the same scene. It blew my mind that others could do this. I soon came to realize that my visual memory is rerouted through my kinaesthetic memory (the way my body feels when I am somewhere. The “feeling”of it). I realized this when I was asked how I find my keys when they are lost. Well… I think about each room in my house and if it “felt” like I had my keys in there. I felt my way through my course and graduated on the Deans Honour Roll. I’m just wired differently, but it works for me.

Narrative. I overresearch everything and build up a story around everything. I need to sift through tons of extra information before I find the golden nugget of the detail that speaks to me, and then I am better able to catagorize anything I need to learn according to the detail I am passionate about. So yeah, passion. That’s my strategy. I take a subject that seems dispassionate at first and I read everything I can about it; usually some obscure detail screams at me, jumps out from the boring rote details at me, and hooks into my memory; then I hang all the other requisite mundanities off the hook of the one passionate detail. It takes a lot of work and time but this strategy replaces regular studying and reviewing. Reviewing lecture notes just seems to fly out the back of my head. I can’t look at a page of notes and picture it even one second later, everything must get turned into a connecting narrative with a passionate center detail, even if that detail means nothing to the structure of what I’m supposed to learn. I usually find some unusual point to center the web of mundanity. Make sense? Works for me.

As an educator I am keenly interested in how aphantasia affects learning and wonder why it is still so rarely discussed or acknowledged. Perhaps it is because most aphantasics find alternative strategies and can learn and respond to many tasks very successfully using these. As the article ‘Learning with Aphantasia’ states, "in the absence of visual there are still verbal strategies." For as long as I remember, I have been very good with words and talented in literacy. From an early age I had my stories read out, led debates and enjoyed giving presentations. Whilst I’d not remember or, often, even notice what someone had been wearing or the colour of the room we may have met in, I had a very good memory for conversations and often wondered why others repeated the same stories or information to me several times having forgotten they’d already told me.
My memory and learning works through words and semantic associations. Since finding out about aphantasia, I have wondered if my lack of visual memory has actually created more ‘space’ for my semantic memory: I’m certain it has increased my knowledge of words and symbols, whilst simultaneously focusing and sharpening my use of them.
I ended up as an English teacher and Head of Media Studies; perhaps ironically, teaching students how to analyse and make meaning of moving visual images! They do, of course, have to do this with words.

Whoa this is a very different experience from me. English was my worst subject growing up, in middle school I spent hours struggling to even write a C paper. Horrified of participating in debates and not a fan of presentations. I’m relatively chill about presentations now though. Was also bad at history. Great at math and most science classes.

I find myself writing out notes over and over as though it is more my hand doing the remembering rather than my eyes. I struggled a lot with written exams for subjects such as english and drama as often we had to write about the images created and such forth. I find comfort in subjects in which i can remember facts. Diagrams often are issues in my memories and so i try to write down facts about them like if it was a cell diagram i would have to remember the facts of the diagram rather than the image like the nucleus is the biggest part of the cell and the cell membrane is the outside bit. Remembering pictures as facts are what got me through my recent exams.

Wow. That is me exactly!  
I remember in school I wrote notes repeatedly until I had them memorized. Then when I took the test, it was like spitting out a ticker tape of words but they didn’t have a bigger conceptual meaning. 
I recall diagrams from memory. Box 1 said this. Box 2 says this. But no picture. If I try to conger up a picture, I find myself physically moving my eyes in the direction to create the image.  

on February 3, 2020

I find myself writing out notes over and over as though it is more my hand doing the remembering rather than my eyes. I struggled a lot with written exams for subjects such as english and drama as often we had to write about the images created and such forth. I find comfort in subjects in which i can remember facts. Diagrams often are issues in my memories and so i try to write down facts about them like if it was a cell diagram i would have to remember the facts of the diagram rather than the image like the nucleus is the biggest part of the cell and the cell membrane is the outside bit. Remembering pictures as facts are what got me through my recent exams.

Learning whilst in the traditional education machine was absolute torture. A significant contributing factor to this however, was a healthy dose of dyslexia. The prevailing experience of primary and secondary school can be summarised with extreme frustration, grief and anger.

However, at about the age of 14, having been moved to a private school with smaller class sizes, a more relaxed teaching environment and extracurricular support, I (finally!) began to learn. This learning was not the content of each class but the context out of which content could be deduced. Let me try explain that: content would be factual statements – that which you are implored to memorise for exams; context would be an intuitive understanding out of which facts would appear.

Classes were easiest when in the form of group chats. Getting spoon fed information in a linear format didn’t work, nor did forced note taking during this delivery and attempted uptake of information. Reading over notes or re-writing facts didn’t make sense either. If I was stuck on an issue I had to discuss it until, as if by magic, the understanding of the context arose and content would therefore be produced. This ability was especially powerful in chemistry, biology and physics where very little or no studying was required once the understanding was achieved. (However, the understanding of context could always be improved, but this is aside from what others would consider studying.)

Although I could not read and write (to an effective level) at the time of my exams, if someone read and another wrote for me then I could answer and perform to a high level. Interestingly, if I was stuck and knew that the question demanded a simple fact with no serious mental effort, I could recall exactly where that fact was and in which jotter then recall it from a kind of emotive memory. Previously, I thought I was a highly visual thinker because of this ability to recall as if seeing a picture. However, it’s not seeing in the visual sense, but through emotion.

Introspectively, I believe that in regards to literacy, mental imagery may act as a symbol in the ‘normal’ mind which then creates a pointer towards emotions – for it appears to me that thoughts, ideas and ‘images’ follow from, or out of emotion. In this aphant mind, in lieu of mental imagery, the learning had to be in such a way that emotions were easily intuited: ie. group chats, group activity, videos, flow charts, literature (especially fiction). 

University was/is impossible, not for lack of potential or ability but by the sheer inability to stay within the lanes of a prescribed course. After the age of 20 or so, when my reading finally clicked, my intellectual interests flew from philosophy to astrophysics to computer science to psychology and so on. Over the years the amount of time I spend learning on a daily basis has increased so that now, pretty much all I do is work, learn or socialise. Not having to remember facts has been very freeing, and has transformed the concept of learning – if I need to know something then it will appear, and if it doesn’t then, well…  i’ll look it up or ask someone else. Simple solution.

I guess the combination of aphantasia and dyslexia has resulted in the polymath approach to learning and a social approach to life – both are extremely rewarding.

N.B. It would be nice to have a degree however, I would genuinely cry if you forced me back into a class room!

I have to organize everything so that I can clearly see how everything interrelates. I create lots of job aids. 

I didn’t realise I had Aphantasia until I was over 60.  Before that I had passed all my School exams and got a place at University.  Back then only 2% (approx) of people in the UK went to University.  I also reached a fairly high level at playing the piano.  I have an uncanny knack of being able to place tunes in the right key without prompting. I am very good not only at navigating but also being able to describe journeys to people, all without being able to “see” what I am talking about.

I never knew I was in any way different as a child, or as an adult, yet managed to get through it all and have a successful career in engineering and technology and was well known for knowing facts and figures others had forgotten.

What does all this mean?  I have no idea other than there are processes going on in our heads that we really don’t understand. 

There is clearly a lot of research needed.

Ive was always absolutely appalling at any numbers related component in any and all subjects. So maths, the traditional sciences – forget about it!

So in terms of subjects like history, for example, I only really had problems if I was asked/expected to know what date a particular historical event happened. 

Other than that, despite over 10 years as a university level academic, I have zero insights to offer in terms of how i learn, except to say that the various educational institutions long time obsession with so called mind maps/word clouds seems to have caused me to develop an actual physical aversion to the mere mention of the aforsaid, still to this day! 

I have never had any difficulties during my studies. To study my method is pretty simple, but takes some time : 

– I litteraly rewrite everything by hand with abreveations and symbols (I can’t learn if it’s written in sentences) and very very small so that it takes up the minimal space required (it helps, because I have the impression to learn less because everything fits on fewer pages, and also it helps seeing the structure)

– I learn everything by reciting out loud 

Even though writting everything is very time consuming, it forces me to understand and be exposed to all the informations. Afterwards, learning it doesn’t take a lot of time, because I already remember most of it (it’s just very tiring and demands lots of concentration). Yes, writting everything takes a lot of time, but in the end I don’t think it’s more time consuming than people who have a visual memory and have to think about how to display the information and make it pretty to be able to learn everything + I feel they spend more time learning the informations afterwards.

I did not know others had mental images the way the do until I was in my late 30's. I knew when teachers said, "Picture this," I couldn't, but I didn't know others could. I thought it was just a phrase teachers used. 
I too have found that writing things down helps me remember what I am being asked to learn.
I am also one who has to highlight phrases and key words within a text and jot notes in the margin of my books.
If I see something and can draw it out, such as a map, then I can remember the details better.
I have always struggled with spelling and mental math. There is no "chalkboard" in my mind to write things down on, so I struggle with these skills.
However, I must say that having aphantasia has not deterred my learning ability. I have a doctorate degree and a fairly high IQ, so there is hope for anyone!
As an educator now, I try to help other teachers realize that not all students can visualize and they need to provide alternatives in case they have a student who can't. A lot of curriculum relies on mental images to help students remember items, and a lot of teachers don't know this lack of ability exists.