Do you think in words?

I’m an engineer/scientist, and I have always been driven to try to understand how things work, and to use that understanding to solve real-world problems.  I build mental models of almost everything that I work on, they are often spatial models, but they don’t involve visual images.  Frequently the models involve equations, but again in an abstract way: just wordless mental models of mathematical relationships.  Quite often the models involve both space and time, imagining how a complex system would evolve.

I spend of lot of time working on those mental models, criticizing and improving them.  While I’m doing this I generally don’t think in words- I just ponder and twist the mental models, and try to tie together all of their loose ends.  Only when a non-visual, non-verbal mental model becomes really coherent do I start trying to describe it in words or with pictures and equations.  Words and equations and visual images are essential for communication, but they really slow down your thinking.

So I wonder whether my “averbality” is universal, or whether it is perhaps associated with aphantasia.  Do other aphantasics also go averbal sometimes, while normal people’s conscious inner thoughts are nearly always expressed in language?

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As an aphantasiac (?) I find myself obliged to do almost all of my thinking verbally.  I believe the only situation where I think non-verbally is when recalling a familiar space. I would liken it to mentally feeling my way around the space in complete darkness.  I can’t sense a whole room that way but I can mentally make my way around to its various elements.

I have always been good at thinking averbally. When I first learned about aphantasia, I struggled with the question about whether it could apply to me because I was always good at what I called “visualizing” geometric and spacial problems. (Note that I put “visualizing” in quotes there because I realize now that I was never actually seeing what I was “visualizing.” I just didn’t have a better word to describe my thinking process.) 

on June 9, 2021

I predominantly think in words, and actually do my best thinking while in discussion with others. I find it difficult holding multiple abstract ideas in my mind in unison, and will either rely on speaking through complex logic aloud to clarify my thinking or break-down the systems into component parts and logic in a spreadsheet or on a sketch pad. But again, my most reliable critical thinking tool is collaborative brainstorming. I think this is largely benefitted by the emphasis I place on asking strategic questions, and in conversations I can focus more on asking these questions which not only receive answers from my counterpart but then allows for more comprehensive idea-critiquing, and compliments some of my cognitive inefficiencies – like juggling too much mentally or moving more slowly through thought experiments.
Not sure if I explained that well, it’s an hour past my bedtime haha

on June 9, 2021

But to clarify, I do not ‘hear’ the language in my mind. I have aphantasia across all imagery spectrums, including auditory!

I’m a hypophantasic and basically a non-verbal thinker. I’d always considered myself a “visual thinker”… until I watch a video clip about “aphantasia”. Then I switch the term… that I’m an “abstract thinker”, no more “visual”.

More at my post:

Haha I think only in words. Constant narrative stream. When I try to describe something from memory only words come out. Makes me shudder to think of any other way.

Hi Ian,

I’m a VERY verbal aphantasic (or nearly aphantasic; I can get dim and fleeting images sometimes.) People with aphantasia use more verbal scaffolding on average than controls do during object memory tasks, probably because we can’t form pictures directly so we give ourselves verbal cues.

That said, spatial abilities are totally preserved in aphantasia, indicating that spatial and object memory probably use different neural systems. I don’t think your experience is unusual. You’re probably just using spatial rather than verbal workaround strategies where non-aphantasics would simply generate images.

I hesitate to add this, because I don’t want people to make automatic assumptions about themselves…but aphantasia is also correlated with autism, and some autistics have very pronounced abilities in spatial/mathematical thinking.

Hi Shannon,

I’m amazed and fascinated by the variety of inner experiences that people are describing on the site.  I’m also struck by how difficult it is to clearly represent our experiences- we are all forced to use the same words to try to describe widely varying subjective experiences.  Makes me glad I’m not a psychologist!

Of the postings I have read so far the one by Lê Định seems closest to my own experience.  I recall and think about most stuff in terms of wordless/image-less relationships between things.  The specific attributes underlying the relationships vary widely- sometimes spatial, sometimes temporal, sometimes family connections, sometimes skills, all sorts of things. 

I find that quite abstract relational way of thinking is very useful for solving problems, but at the same time it is a real hindrance to recalling specific data: names, faces, dates etc.  My wife is the opposite, so we complement each other nicely.  I don’t get lost, she recalls the name of the restaurant we are looking for or the acquaintance we run into.

I suspect you’re right about an aphantasia-autism (or Asperger’s) correlation.

You’re right about the subjectivity issue in cognition studies. (I’m a baby neuroscientist). They often come up with some extremely clever ways around that, though, like priming in binocular rivalry.

Isn’t the division of labor in marriage wonderful? My ADHD brain never has to do taxes again. That said, I’m mad about my husband’s hyperphantasia because I’m an artist and he’s not. 😛

I started writing a literature review on visual imagery mainly because I was interested in the different ways that people think — pictures, words, sometimes even numbers. Fascinating stuff. Most of us don’t even think about these differences in our inner lives. Why would we? How would we know they exist? It reminds me of that old question, do colors look the same to everyone?

Hi Ian,

I understand your spatial models completely. I do the same.

In my teens I built and flew free-flight model airplanes competitively. They varied in size from 250 sq. inch up to a 1700 sq. inch monster. I never made plans and the only aid I had was a piece of butcher paper with a long horizontal line with perpendicular lines coming off it. This was my building template to keep things aligned. They were successful and people would ask about plans and I’d tell them there weren’t any and they’d get mad as they thought I was lying. It was hard to explain. I’ve “designed” and built or modified hundreds of things in my life, all without drawings.

I’m new to aphantasia having learned about it last week.

Hi Bob,

I think we aphantasics are, in a way, impoverished.  My wife has an astonishingly rich trove of memories and images, not just visual but also auditory and gustatory.  On the other hand, I think that we are liberated- we comprehend patterns between all sort of things, and can we do so very quickly.  People who think in terms of images, whether visual or verbal, are constrained by the forms of the images.

Have fun learning more about it.  It gave me a new appreciation for the wide range of mental capabilities people have.

– Ian 

Dear Ian: I found your story very interesting and highly meaningful is. Well detailed and fact based, it gave me a strong reference in the way my mind also works. All my life I was able to work mentally with very complex electronics and mechanical systems. Never had any problem designing, visualizing and constructing working mental models. I just discovered, about two years ago, that I have lost the ability to mentally visualize anything. I discovered that I have Aphantasia. If I close my eyes and try to see an object, face or graphic,  I do not see anything. I only see with my mind eyes a foggy colorless background. It is like the old TVs screen, when there was no signal, just visual noise. Also, what I “see” in my mind, seems to be what you see when you open your eyes underwater in your swimming pool. Merely, nothing.

I have dedicated several months to research, read and learn about Aphantasia, wich is exactly my newly discovered condition, about two years ago. It is very interesting.

Additionally, I have consulted a Neurology Doctor. I had an EGG and an MRI of my brain done recently. All results were “normal.” No medical recommendations were given. My Neurology Doctor was not very impressed and interested in my Aphantasia mental condition.

I have recently discovered that our minds work at several levels when working with ideas, concepts and graphical representations of the physical and intellectual world.

I have realized that, if I can not form a shape or form in my mind, due to Aphantasia, I can continue working with complex designs and shapes, not as mental images, but as concepts. I am able to work with “concepts.” I deal with them like they are “flash cards.” I can shuffle them, pick the ones that I want, I can combine them to develop a mechanism, design or system 

I suffered a suddenly loss of consciousness during my visit to my older Son, on Father’s Day, in 2018. I  was deeply unconscious for about FIVE minutes. The event is known as SYNCOPE. It is possible that this event is the cause of my Aphantasia, even no physical or physiological injury was caused, based on all the medical tests done.

My Son George, made an extensive research about the possible effects of the Syncope I had suffered. He found out, from reliable medical and scientific sources, that the Brain “resets”, in many ways, after the SYNCOPE event. You may lose or gain some mental abilities and capacities.

I noticeable gained improvement in mathematical, geometrical, graphical, musical, logical reasoning, verbal and written communication, etc. But, I possibly lost the ability to create images and see them with my “mind’s eyes”, and that is: Aphantasia.

I would like to establish a more one-to-one communication with you, via email, if you do not mind.

Your Aphantasia case is of special interest to me, having similar life backgrounds and a similar mental condition. I would like to share with you any new discoveries and resources.

Best regards,

George Frank Carrillo