There’s so much we have yet to discover about what it means to "learn with aphantasia." Fascinated by this 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.” To 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 been your experience with learning something new? What alternative strategies have you tried when acquiring a new skill such as reading or writing? What’s worked? What hasn’t worked? Why?
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.
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