Learning with Aphantasia

There’s no good or bad, right or wrong way to learn something just different.

Since the 1970s scientific study after study has confirmed that mental imagery plays an important role in how learners acquire certain skills.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that visualizing things in your mind can accelerate learning and improve education performance, but what if you have no mental imagery? What about the 1 in 50 people who are aphantasic?

Scientists have known that people can visualize things in their mind’s eye since the 1880s, yet the term “aphantasia,” used to describe the absence of mental imagery, was only recently coined in 2015.

Since then, it has spurred a debate around what it means to learn with aphantasia amongst the scientific and academic communities, starting with this article posted in The Guardian in 2016: If you can’t imagine, how can you learn things?

The article makes a strong 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 to 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 in fact impinges on a child’s ability to learn, then perhaps we should devise alternative learning strategies for them.

Sounds like a pretty straight forward plan. No?

There’s just one problem.

How do we go about designing alternative learning strategies if we don’t yet fully understand how someone with aphantasia actually learns?

Moreover, what if instead of seeing the absence of this ability as impeding learning, we viewed it as enabling alternative strategies that enhance learning as opposed to hindering it, as this counter article on BOLD posted in 2019 so boldly suggests?

To illustrate this point more clearly, let’s use the example of literacy skills.

According to one study conducted with Second Grade Students in 2009, learners who were asked to create mental images during word or memory tasks learned 2.5x as much as those who were told merely to repeat or memorize the words they needed to remember.

The findings of this study were conclusive: 

Mental imagery interventions facilitate the ease with which students learn new words.

While it’s abundantly clear from the scientific literature that mental imagery can help some students accelerate and improve their literacy skills, it is also clear now that this is not the case for all learners. More specifically, these learning strategies simply will not work on students with aphantasia, who do not possess the ability to conjure up mental images.

This doesn’t mean that learners with aphantasia cannot acquire new skills, nor does it mean they will have poor educational performance as a function of their inability to visualize things in their mind; it simply suggests that people with aphantasia have to rely on alternative strategies for learning.

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.

Here’s the good news: Humans are incredibly adaptive beings; in the absence of arms we learn to eat with our feet; without feet, we learn to walk on our hands; in the absence of a mind’s eye, we learn to…

The answer to which is not yet known. However, some long-standing theories around learning might hint at some answers.

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.

The 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 to explain why mental imagery can help some students improve their literacy skills, through the use of visual memory to recall specific words on a page.

Nevertheless, we digress.

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

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

Sound familiar?

It’s also important to understand the limitations in dual-coding theory – the main one being the assumption that thought processes are based on nothing but words and images.

There are perhaps other methods not yet realized, that have yet to be articulated by the scientific community.

Further investigation into the aphantasic learner might point to some new answers. We’re willing to bet that the findings could be quite mind-bending and eye-opening, pun-intended.

As phD student Kathyrn Bates who is studying mental imagery also points out in this 2019 BOLD article: 

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.

What Bates so eloquently points to is that this type of black and white thinking, doesn’t work in a grey world.

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.

Case in point; People learn in a multitude of ways.

Our wide-ranging experiences and differences in thinking force us to see and interact with the world differently. There’s no good or bad, right or wrong way to learn something, just different.

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

There is of course no one-size-fits-all way of acquiring new skills or learning something new.

That is why our network is dedicated to exploring a whole host of unique learning strategies for the aphantasic learner.

If you’d like to contribute to the conversation and ongoing investigation into what it means to learn with aphantasia, then join the discussion below or publish a story about a learning strategy that has worked for you.

Let’s explore how our minds work, together!

What alternative learning strategies do you use?

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…

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