Mental Images: why I can’t spell, but can do do math very well.

I have been tutoring high school students in science and math for 45 years. A couple of years ago I stumbled on an fascinating discovery: discussing with a student who was struggling with math, we for some reason talked about whether she could “see” the math problem, the steps that needed to be done. She said she could not. I commented that I do – it’s like a road map that I instinctively create and “see” or “visualize” what steps need to be done. 

Further discussing, I asked if she was a good speller, because I am not. She said she was. I asked if when she is spelling a word she “sees” the word. She said yes! It appears like on a screen in front of her forehead.

amazing: when I try to spell, on the other hand, my screen is blank!!

I have had this math ability and lack of spelling ability as long as I can remember, early grade school. 

I have always thought that anyone can learn math, be good at it, with the right amount of Tutoring  (such as from me!); there are no math “dummies”.

However, I am no longer so sure. I thought my observations were quite an insight and discovery.  But I now know that others have made similar observations, from today’s New York Times article on aphantasia.  It therefore appears likely that there is more to successful learning then meets the eye. 

Share this post

You must be signed in to comment
Total Comments (7)

Malcom this is so interesting! I have very vivid visual memory but I can’t see text or numbers in my images. For example, I can still describe to you the pages of the books I studied for my GCSE’s some 15+ years ago, but I can’t remember the words. I can describe to you the outside of a shop, what’s in the windows and the posters, even the images on the posters… No idea what the shop is called. Blank. 

I was however good at maths, I don’t know if that was a different part of the brain for me. I wouldn’t say I did things using my visual mind as such but it’s been a long time since I’ve done any math worth talking about. 

on June 9, 2021

This is a great observation! The fascinating thing is, these types of peculiar proficiencies and inefficiencies are actually far more common than we realize. The more of these conversations I’ve had, the more I’ve realized just how unique each of our internal experiences are. It’s not as simple as classifying everyone as aphantasic, phantasic, or hyperphantasic. Not only are there different imagery spectrums (visual, auditory, motor, spatial, etc) but those spectrums can be broken down into sub-spectrums, and one may even have hyperphantasic memory but be unable to modify their memories whatsoever or imagine anything novel (this is the case for both my brother and dad)!
Enjoy this fascinating collective journey we are on, decoding our imagination. There is much to learn, and the conversation is never dull haha
If you haven’t heard yet, we actually have been developing a multisensory imagery assessment that will help us better understand our unique imagery profiles – check out Imagination Spectrum!

Since I have found out about aphantasia, I have often wondered if this is why I cannot do math.  Lol

I especially cannot do math in my head.  If I have paper, i can do most basic math, but I cannot do it in my head because by the time I’ve gotten the first number and move on to the next number, I have already forgotten the previous number.  

I can generally spell very well though, so..  you may be on to something! 

Hi Jimi, you add a good observation to what I have experienced. Your comment reminds me of one student who could/would ONLY do his math work in his head. He could not, or would not, write it down. This worked well for him – he was an honor student –  until he got into tenth grade and the math got harder. Then he started failing. Neither I, nor his distraught parents or teachers could get him to change, to write down. 
sadly this behavior applied to other subjects such as history. 
so I’m thinking that he must have had an extreme “case” of aphantasia: strong imagining visual coupled with weak observational (or whatever one might call it) for the concrete written.

 I’d be curious to know how he turned out, it’s been many years, and to examine him with aphantasia in mind.

I’m a better than average speller, but I certainly can’t see the word on any kind of internal screen, nor can I call up the visual memory of, say, a page where I’ve previously read the word. I think I decided, very early on, that I was fed up of getting hit by the teacher (a nun) for my bad spelling and I was simply going to memorize the spellings of any words I came across that weren’t obvious, so I wouldn’t be caught out. It works pretty well.

Unfortunately, the same approach doesn’t work with maths. I just can’t keep track of numbers in my head. I was good at most other subjects in school but not what we called “mental arithmetic”, much to the frustration of my mother who couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get it, particularly since I was bright in other areas. Maybe the nun we had for maths just wasn’t as heavy handed as the one we had for spelling. 

I’ve good enough with basic math as I’ve memorized a lot of addition, subtraction and multiplication, but advanced algebra and beyond were so hard for me. I’m also an above average speller. I can’t see the word in my mind, but I can tell if it’s spelled correctly or incorrectly on the paper. 

What Syber said about a one-way connection makes sense with my situation. I can “think” what people I know look like, but can’t see them clearly in my head. I recognize faces (although I now realize why I sometimes had trouble later matching people to their names if I met them in a group) but I can’t see them in my mind.

I don’t see either equations or text, but I’m good at both spelling and math theory. OTOH, I fumble basic arithmetic when summing numbers at the grocery store. For spelling, I can’t “see” the correct spelling of a word, but I know when it’s wrong, so I often “paint” a misspelled word with the mouse, right-click, and Google it to find what the correct spelling is. I think this is similar to how aphants have no problem recognizing faces, but can’t recall them. Our matching system works but we can’t “play back” our memories into our viewing system. 

I sometimes like to think that aphantasia is like having a 1-way connection in your brain. Most people can see something and recognize it, or recall something and imagine it. For me, I can recognize things just as well (if not better) than most, but it’s a 1-way street. No imagining the thing back from the recognition process.

I can tell when something looks “wrong”. The spelling doesn’t seem right, the perspective in the sketch is off, the colors used don’t quite match, etc. etc. but that doesn’t mean I can “see” what the right thing is. Even faces are that way. I can recognize someone, but not really describe what features I was looking at to do so.

With a piece of paper, I can kind of use it as the “scratch surface” for the recognition to play off of. Scribble a little and I’ll know if I got closer or further from what I wanted. Math isn’t hard with paper since I can put all the numbers there and not have to remember what I was doing. It’s just process at that point, and my brain can do processes.

Neat to hear that experience is somewhat parodied in others with aphantasia!

How very similar you and Syber are to me.  I can spell pretty good by writing it out (it’s the visual pattern I recognize, not the letters generally) but it is almost impossible for me to spell anything complicated in the ‘air’ (like a spelling bee).


It *is* like a one way matching system!  When I developed software, it was very difficult to compete  with other top developers (but compete I did) because memory is the coin of the realm.  When coding, I always had to work with my short term stack memory (7-9 slots) to accomplish specific tasks complemented by frequently coming up for ‘air’ (looking at the call sequences, etc) to see where I was in a bigger sense in the code since I can’t visualize it.  I had some health issues in my 50s that ended up damaging my short term stack (one, two or three have become unreliable – I can’t really tell and it seems to come and go with anxiety levels) and thus I retired, leading me into…art.

Most interesting this art – I started drawing a year and a half ago – so I have somewhat of a fresh perspective on how I create it mentally.  I know what a picture is *not*.  If I try to call to mind something, say and Elephant, I see a large dark oval shape.  No, two.  There’s also a long trunk.  Curly tail.  Wait, it has ears and the are large… I can’t see these (gray fuzzy, no color but the idea of a color) but I can recognize corners and pockets – simple shapes – so I can draw each of those individual things.  It’s the overall composition my brain can’t come up with but as I put the pieces down I know when they are not ‘right’ (generally that is, I’m pretty stubborn about not using a reference [for just this mind stretching reason] until the end or I don’t have [or it shifts] a mental shape.

I feel like I threw a lot of words at this but you and Syber actually have a better description.  It’s just nice to hear other people’s experiences and coping mechanisms.

Hi Malcolm,

Interesting you can “see” a math problem but not spelling.  But there may be other reasons why you are a poor speller.  Orally or verbally easy to understand but why on paper is likely a deeper question?

For example, I have no screen across all five senses but am good at math (on paper etc) but fumble with arithmetic as I also have dyslexia and even basic math can be a challenge if only done mentally.


The trick to being a good speller when you cannot visualize is to be taught phonics rules plus the rule breakers.  There are always words that do not apply of course but it drastically lowers the amount of straight memorization.