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Science

Learning with aphantasia

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

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

Humans are visual creatures. Most of us process information based on what we see. 65 percent of us are visual learners, according to the Social Science Research Network.

This figure is consistent with a growing body of evidence that suggests that the creation and use of visual images can accelerate learning and improve education performance, but what about the ~3% of learners without imagery? What about the 1 in 30 people who are aphantasic?

Scientists have known that people can’t visualize things in their mind’s eye since the 1880s, yet the term “aphantasia,” used to describe the absence of visual imagery, was only recently coined in 2015.

Since then, it has spurred debate around what it means to learn with aphantasia amongst the academic community, 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 visual imagery seems to be especially important for reading comprehension, learning word meanings, and according to at least 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 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 know 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 that this is simply not the case for all learners. Learning strategies that require visualization simply will not work on students with aphantasia, who do not possess the ability to create 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’s eye; it simply suggests that people with aphantasia will have to rely on alternative learning strategies.

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, and in the absence of a mind’s eye, we learn to…

We will have to wait and see. The answer is not yet known. Research on aphantasia, and aphantasic learners, is still in its infancy. 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.

Dual coding 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 or information due to the absence of mental imagery; and who is, perhaps, more likely to rely on verbal strategies when acquiring new skills.

Many aphantasic learners describe using acronyms, rhythms, or engaging in classroom discussions as helpful to their learning.  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, or 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, puns-intended.

The important thing to remember is that people learn in a multitude of ways. This is especially true for the aphantasic leaner. As phD student in Developmental Science, Kathyrn Bates points out:

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.

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.

Our wide-ranging experiences and neurodifferences lead to alternative ways of learning things. There’s no right or wrong, good or bad 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 strategies that work for our unique experience.

There is 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.

What learning strategies work for you?

Contribute to the discussion and ongoing investigation into what it means to learn with aphantasia. Leave a comment below or publish your story about a learning strategy that has worked for you.

Let’s learn how our minds work, together.

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