Reading with Aphantasia

Posted February 25, 2019 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in My Work / 0 Comments

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Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week’s off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It’s time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Note: Patrons may recognise this topic as one I’ve discussed previously in a locked post, but I felt it was important to address it more publicly as well since a lot of people expressed interest in this when I mentioned working on it on Twitter. Ultimately, I felt it was too similar to the original essay to consider pitching it, so I’m sharing it this way.

Reading with Aphantasia

I’ve loved stories since I was old enough to understand them and have been consuming and creating them since I was old enough to do either. It’s little surprise then that I also loved hearing or reading authors discuss their process. Many of them would do so through imagery. One stand-out description, though I don’t recall the author, involved a meticulous account of where the ‘film’ they were seeing was in relation to their surroundings. Our language, in general, is geared towards visualisation: Let me paint you a picture. Imagine this. Your mind’s eye. Visualise your success.

I always thought that they were just an inadequate and flowery way for people to explain their brain using sight as their dominant sense. It wasn’t until around 2016 or 2017 that I first heard the term ‘aphantasia’. A friend linked me an article about it and said something like “Hey, that sounds like you!” and it did. I don’t picture anything in my mind’s eye. I can’t visualise things. That was the day I learned that there is a whole dimension to reading that I never even realised was there.

Aphantasia, as a concept, as a concept, was described as early as 1880 when Francis Galton published Statistics of Mental Imagery. Little research appears to have been done. It wasn’t until 2015, when a team of researchers led by Adam Zeman published a paper coining the term aphantasia to describe this inability to picture anything in one’s mind’s eye.

Reading as a whole relies on readers’ ability to visualise, but fantasy (and secondary world fantasy especially) is a genre that utterly thrives on it. It’s a genre that invites the imagination to play by pretending things that don’t exist do and asking people what that thing would look like for them. Think of the various ways in which artists have depicted gryphons. Artists have different ideas about where the feathers go, what colour they are, how the eagle/lion divide works (some give them four lion paws, others give them two lion paws and two eagle claws). Sure, the basic template is the same, but there is a lot of variation that results from how those artists picture the creature. The one that doesn’t exist except in their mind.

Having aphantasia means I can’t do that. I always thought it was their brains that were different. Special. Turns out it’s mine that works differently from other people’s. So I’m not surprised when some people hear me talking about aphantasia and ask me how I can write or even like fantasy when I can’t picture anything, as if there’s no other point to reading than a paint-by-words exercise.

The truth is, I’m still figuring that out, but I know that I do. Fantasy has always been my first and strongest fictional love, and yes it’s partially because of the visuals. Just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean I can’t use them at all, after all. What it does mean is that I rely heavily on other aspects of writing to carry me through.

Probably the best example I can give of that is detouring to the medium of graphic novels for a moment. I find graphic novels particularly difficult to read, but that’s because I have so much trouble parsing the images and the flow between them, that I focus strongly on the dialogue and the written narrative: those are what carries me through a graphic novel. The images, gorgeous though they often are, don’t stick around that much.

Fiction is similar, though not quite the same, and can be incredibly hard. James Tiptree Jr.’s Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death, for example, is difficult for me to parse because I don’t visualise. It’s a gorgeous story, but it relies heavily on readers using Tiptree’s sparse descriptions of Moggadeet and his actions to fill in the blanks, as it were.

Tiptree’s first description of Moggadeet reads “I am hugely black and hopeful, I bounce on six legs along the mountains in the new warm!”. This tells the reader that Moggadeet has six legs and is large enough to ‘bounce along mountains’. I’ve no idea how large something has to be to accomplish that, but I’m guessing it’s “really big”. It isn’t until Moggadeet says “I stop, pluck up a tree.” that the reader can be certain that Moggadeet is large enough to pull up trees. For many readers, Tiptree has been signalling Moggadeet’s size throughout and that sentence, the concept of Moggadeet just casually pulling out a tree, isn’t a surprise. It was for me.

The issue is that, since I don’t visualise[1], I don’t retain the information in a visual description very well. The issue is that 21 lines after Tiptree tells the reader that Moggadeet is black and has six legs, I’ve already forgotten that Tiptree told the reader this. It’s not that I picture Moggadeet as a humanoid giant – I don’t; the concept that Moggadeet isn’t humanoid, at least, sticks – but that I don’t have any way to translate the information Tiptree provides into a cohesive idea. I can’t, unlike others, translate ‘has six legs’ (or, better yet, ‘can bounce along mountains’) into ‘has the ability to pull up trees’. Does Moggadeet have two arms along with those six legs? Do the legs have fingers or toes at the end? Are they that stereotypical fantasy giant spider sharp tip type of leg? Tiptree doesn’t explain because most readers will come up with their own answers, just as artists come up with their own interpretation of a gryphon. Readers without aphantasia will use the details Tiptree so masterfully spreads throughout the story to finetune and sharpen the image they have of Moggadeet and his world.

By the time Tiptree describes Moggadeet’s fight with Frim, I’m just lost as to how to make sense of the visuals. I couldn’t try to describe what Moggadeet and Frim look like in different words. Wikipedia tells me that they look spider-like. I’m just going to roll with it because on my own I’ve got nothing. I need something else to hold onto while I read.

I find that stories that rely so strongly on visualisation are actively off-putting to me. Michelle Kan’s No More Heroes is an urban fantasy superhero story, taking several cues from action films. Its descriptions are rooted in the author’s own experiences with parkour and martial arts and it shows in the incredibly depth of detail Kan employs to convey the action. For visually-oriented readers, the book is a sheer delight because so much of it follows that structure of a visual medium translated into words. It’d make a fantastic film or tv-series. However, Kan’s focus on visuals is so strong that other aspects of writing, such as character development, suffer a little. Kan is relying on the mental images readers form to fill in blanks about those characters’ emotions and characterisation the same way we fill them in during a film. Readers with a strong visual imagination will find no problem doing just that because, to them, it’s almost like a film. They have no problem imagining the subtle facial cues or the tone of voice in which something is said. Readers like me, though… We’re scrabbling to find anything to hold onto because the writing style doesn’t give us much to work with.

As such, I find that I tend to lean more towards stories that have a strong introspective bend, such as J. Emery’s Help Wanted. Emery’s work is, obviously, not devoid of visual descriptions, but it relies far more on the inner thoughts and emotion of its narrator to convey its story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also a first person narrative whereas Kan’s book is in omniscient third person. The way Emery’s story leans in to its emotional state and relies as much on dialogue as it does visuals to carry the story means that my aphantastic brain has a lot of other things to glom onto while I read.

It’s not that I skip descriptions altogether, something which Steve Humbert-Droz notes in his article Aphantasia and the Decay of Mental Images in Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics (ed. Florian Cova and Sébastien Réhault) is something some aphantastic readers are wont to do, because I actually don’t. Likely, a lot of aphantastic readers skip visual descriptions because they don’t provide any relevant or useful information to our experience.

But that’s not strictly true. A description can give a wealth of information that has little to nothing to do with the actual visuals. Gimli’s description of the Glittering Caves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, for example, takes up almost an entire page if one includes the exchange he has with Legolas. The description itself, on top of being several hundred words long, isn’t immediately or directly relevant to the plot. The characters aren’t in those caves when Gimli describes them. Yet the lavish descriptions Gimli provides do more than show the reader a detail of Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The way Gimli speaks about the caves goes directly towards his personality and the sense readers have of Dwarven sensibilities. It speaks directly to the relationship Dwarves have with Men at this point in the story. The back and forth between Gilmi’s descriptions and Legolas’s remarks show the strength of friendship between them as well as the ways in which their cultural differences and prejudices stop them from understanding one another. Though the description itself isn’t something I can work with as a reader, that’s a lot of information to glean from the way Tolkien weaves it into his story.

I’m far more likely to skip shorter visual descriptions in the narrative as even a single adjective can trip me up if that adjective is there solely to provide readers with a guideline of how to interpret the narrative. You might think that literally being unable to picture anything as you read would reduce the likelihood of unconscious reading bias and that it is easier for an aphantastic reader to, ah, imagine characters as falling outside of the default concept of “able-bodied, thin, alloromantic allosexual cisgender White man”. It really doesn’t. It would be interesting to see research into the way aphantastic readers explore descriptions because it could offer an additional research avenue when it comes to diversity in literature.

You might also think that visual descriptions don’t matter to aphantastics at all because they may be more likely to skip them. In my experience, that assumption also doesn’t hold up. Even though I can’t picture anything and I rely mainly on dialogue and emotion, visual descriptions are still a necessary component of my reading material. They still provide structural beats in a novel and I find that when I’m editing work, I’m far more inclined to ask an author to add details to help me follow along than to take them down. So, even though I don’t actually see what the author is describing, I notice when descriptions are lacking as well as where and how. I can’t use them and yet I obviously do. I like to think that it means people who do visualise as they read have a nicer experience as well.

Now if I could translate that into knowing where the things go in my own work, I’d be set!

Self-deprecating joke aside, though, I also use visual descriptions in a text as a kind of pause or a breath. It’s a moment to reflect on the emotions and events that precede it and to contemplate what comes next, even if only for so short a time you don’t notice it. Part of that is the age-old practice of tying visual descriptions to the mood the writer wants to convey, using the scenery as an extended metaphor for the character’s emotions that Western children get taught early on. Largely, though, it’s simply a space of text that, on its own, doesn’t always do much for me, so the interplay between my inattention to the actual words and my immersion in other aspects of the stories creates a brief break in which I can fold together those other aspects of the story or work out some visual aspect that I’d missed until then.

Aphantasia, then, affects how interact with fantasy on the whole. I struggle with a medium of storytelling that’s usually considered to be highly accessible because I find it so hard to read. I shy away from books that are heavily reliant on visuals because I bounce off them more times than not. I lean towards narratives that are quieter and smaller. I prefer small casts to big ensembles because smaller casts mean there’s more room for the story to focus on inner turmoil and character interactions, and less visualisation required to understand what’s going on.

Curiously, it wasn’t until I learned that aphantasia existed that I felt I might be excluded from certain aspects of fantasy as a whole. I grew up assuming comics weren’t aimed at me, true, and it meant that I’ve never been overly fond of the medium, but neither of those things ever bothered me. Books, though? Books have always been my home, and apparently there’s a whole dimension to reading that I’ve never experienced? That I’ve always waved away as creative license in trying to explain how brains work? There are authors who have no problems inserting descriptions into their work because they can see it?

Now I know there’s a word for the way I process fiction and now you know it too. What aphantasia means for fantasy fiction as a whole? I don’t know because we don’t know. We’re only just beginning to study it seriously and we’re only just beginning to understand how it affects us. But I hope I’ve shown you that it does affect us.

End Notes

[1] And possibly because I struggle with maths, thanks dyscalculia.

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