What It’s Like to Not Be Able to Picture Anything When Reading

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a sunset, what might you see? Maybe you see a vivid picture of the sunset, so vivid it’s like you’re imaging a scene from real life. Maybe you see something blurrier, with the colours of the sunset visible but no clear image.

Me? I see nothing. I know what a sunset looks like and I can describe one to you with words. But when I try to picture a sunset in my head, all I see is black.

The inability to create mental images in your mind is called aphantasia. I’ve read that aphtansia is on a spectrum, as some people with aphantasia can see some hazy images in their minds eye. However, I’m completely aphantasic as I cannot create any mental images.

I love reading (perhaps in spite of my aphantasia?) but I think my aphantasia might lead me to approach reading differently than other people without.

Overly descriptive language doesn’t do much for me

Learning about what a character looks like or what the setting is like does help me understand a story better. For example, I still know what a character with red hair looks like even if I can’t picture it in my head.

But it’s a different story when an author goes on about a character’s hair, or all their physical features, or the map of the city the book is set in, or the exact layout of the room the characters are in.

I’ll still process this information and it might give me some insight about the story itself. I personally find these sections very unhelpful and tend to glaze over sections like this if they start to drag on for too long. I think these sections are meant to help readers picture the story better but I can’t picture anything anyways!

What helps me better picture something is when authors give references to senses that aren’t just visual, like an author describing a plate of food not only by how it looks but also how it tastes and smells. Book illustrations that show a map or how the author pictures the character are also great since they give me a better sense of what everything is supposed to look like.

The way that the words sound, the author’s writing style, and the plot itself are more important for me since the words themselves are my main way of engaging with the book, not the pictures the author creates.

I’m a fast reader

I can’t speak for everyone with aphantasia, but I wonder if there’s a relationship between aphantasia and reading speed. My guess (with a sample size of one) is that people with aphantasia might read faster because they can’t visualize. Or, maybe people with aphantasia read slower because it takes a lot more effort for us to ‘see’ things?

I’ve heard some people say that reading is like a movie in their head and that they slow down to visualize the scenes they’re reading about. But it’s not something that I can do because of my aphantasia, so I never stop to try and do this. I just focus on the words itself and what they’re conveying, if that makes sense. Not stopping to visualize scenes saves me a lot of time when I’m reading.

If I felt like it and I had the time, I could finish a 300+ page book in a day and still remember much of the book afterwards! This was a really useful, but unintentionally developed skill in university. I was an international relations major and had a lot of readings for my classes. The ability to read quickly made it easier to get through what I had and to manage my workload. Though, it did make geography classes a bit tougher since I had a hard time picturing where things were and where places were in relation to one another.

Do you have aphantasia? If so, how does it impact your reading? And for those of you who can visualize, what’s reading while being able to picture things in your head like?


20 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Not Be Able to Picture Anything When Reading

  1. Krysta September 20, 2022 / 6:22 am

    Well, now I’m confused. People see book characters and scenes in their heads like they are watching movies?? I don’t see anything in my head when I read. I can mentally note that a character has black hair and glasses, or whatever, but I don’t come up with a mental image of them and I certainly don’t have a visual of them acting out all the scenes or anything like that. And if the author never describes the character at all, (as Austen tends not to, I believe), I wouldn’t even notice unless someone else pointed it out.

    There are books like Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series where a bunch of cockroaches are the protagonists. And I have to keep reminding myself that the characters are cockroaches and not humans. I don’t see giant cockroaches running around, in my head. I’m just reading the story and understanding that the characters are doing certain things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint September 22, 2022 / 1:06 am

      Apparently they do! But those people aren’t me, haha.

      I also don’t really attribute physical characteristics to people. I’ve never read Gregor the Overlander, but I have read a lot of alien romance – and it’s hard for me to picture them beyond just blue humans.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. abookowlscorner September 20, 2022 / 7:49 am

    Ooooooh, this is one of my favorite discussion topics you’ve ever done, Mint! 🤗 I’m in the complete opposite camp – I apparently have hyperphantasia and can’t for the life of me imagine what it’s like to NOT see images in your head. I can’t think any other way, whether I’m reading or otherwise. And I guess, as a result, I absolutely love descriptions in books 😁 Although the way language sounds also matters a lot to me!

    And it’s an interesting theory that mental imagery influences reading speed. I have no real answers for you, but I can tell you that I read extremely fast, even though I’m continuously picturing things. That’s just something that happens automatically while I read – it takes no extra effort! I’m very curious to hear about other people’s experiences with this, though, so be prepared for me to stalk your comments 😂

    (Also, just in case you’re curious – I wrote a post called “What Do You See in Your Mind When Reading?” about this same topic about two years ago… You totally don’t have to check it out, but I find the comments really fascinating, so maybe, in light of this post, they’d interest you, too!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint September 22, 2022 / 1:04 am

      Ooh, that’s interesting, I’ll have to check your post out! I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

      I would love to know what it’s like to have hyperphantasia, even if it’s just for a little bit! I’ve never seen anything other than black… and that gets boring after awhile, haha!

      And stalk away – that’s what comments are for!

      Liked by 1 person

      • abookowlscorner September 23, 2022 / 3:40 am

        Lol, I can’t even fathom what it’s like to just see black all the time – my brain can’t do it! Thinking without imagery sounds so paradoxical to me that I still find it hard to believe aphantasia exists! 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sara @storiesandsidequests September 28, 2022 / 4:55 pm

    This is such an interesting topic! I think I’m somewhere toward the aphantasia side of the spectrum, in the sense that if I really slow down and think about it I can sometimes picture scenes in my head if I can relate it to something I’ve seen before in real life or in a film. If I stop reading and try to construct the scene, then I can “see” a picture but I generally don’t see anything WHILE reading and I mostly tend toward focusing on the feel of the writing itself when scenery is being described.

    Like you mentioned, the addition of other sensory details helps to give a more rounded picture and I feel like I can conjure a better visual in my mind if there are at least some other senses being described. I generally do pretty well picturing action sequences but when people themselves are described I have zero ability to conjure an image of them without a concrete frame of reference. And even if there’s an illustration or picture on the cover I still don’t generally picture anything while I’m actually reading unless something in the text calls attention to the character’s appearance. I guess that’s why I could never relate to people who react to the castings for adaptations with “that’s not what [character name] is supposed to look like!” To me it’s like, “cool. now I can picture someone instead a vague human-shaped concept.”

    Interestingly, I’ve noticed that I tend picture things more when I’m listening to audiobooks (as long as I’m not trying to multitask too much). Maybe not having to decode the words with my eyes leaves more space in my brain to conjure images.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint October 2, 2022 / 12:49 am

      Huh, I wish I was more into audiobooks so I could test whether I’m better at visualizing things then – even if it’s just black!

      And I’m with you on finding it hard to picture character castings. If there’s a descriptor that stands out to me, I’ll notice it – like Clarisse La Rue from Percy Jackson being a larger, muscular character versus the casted actress being more skinny – but other than that, I don’t tend to pick up much about characters/casting.

      It’s so interesting to hear from people with lots of different reading experiences, thank you for sharing yours.


  4. Anna Elissa, OP September 30, 2022 / 3:54 am

    Oh hey, thanks for bringing this up! Interesting discussion on an equally interesting phenomenon. Now the researcher in me is feeling moved to look up some articles 😅 This doesn’t seem to be an entirely negative experience, it seems?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint October 2, 2022 / 12:50 am

      I’m sure there are some out there on this subject, it is fascinating!

      For me, I don’t find it to be entirely negative. Being able to see visualize would be a cool and useful skill I think, but there are also benefits to not having it.

      Maybe my lack of visualization is a great thing if I ever want to read horror novels, as maybe they won’t scare me so much!


  5. Morgan @ Morgan Is Reading Again September 30, 2022 / 4:09 am

    Oh my gosh! I have a draft about the same topic which I now want to write even more. I have aphantasia too, I can’t see anything while reading, or when someone says: “close your eyes and imagine a red apple”, I only see darkness haha. I’m amazed by people who can actually create these colourful movie-like scenes when they’re reading, I could never. Interestingly, my dreams are really vivid and colourful though!
    I don’t like long descriptions just like you, because it doesn’t add anything to the story, I can’t imagine it, so I don’t really care. And character descriptions! What they’re wearing, etc., those are so unhelpful for me!
    A question I have: so if you, for example, traveled to Rome, and you saw all the sights, and there’s a book set in Rome, and there’s a scene set at one of those sights, can you see something, or it’s blackness as well? Because for me, if I have been to a place, and want to recall a memory, I can imagine a really hazy, colourless picture, but nothing vivid unfortunately. I love this topic, it’s so interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint October 2, 2022 / 12:51 am

      Definitely write it, it’s a really interesting topic that seems to lead to a lot of interesting responses!

      To answer your question, it’s total blackness as well. It’s fascinating that you can imagine a hazy, colourless picture because I don’t even have that. I have been to Rome a couple of times as well, so my body has the physical experience of seeing it – if that matters at all to the visualization process.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mugfullofbooks September 30, 2022 / 8:34 am

    great post! Like you I can’t picture in my head and hate overly descriptive books (I noped out of Tolkein so fast despite being a huge fantasy fan)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint October 2, 2022 / 12:52 am

      I feel like Tolkien would be a big ‘miss’ author for me because of the big descriptive element! I know he’s a classic, but I’ve just avoided him because I have the feeling that I’d find his books incredibly boring…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Janette October 7, 2022 / 3:50 am

    Wow, this is interesting! I hadn’t ever thought about how much I visualise what I read in my head. I think that I’m very like Krysta and although I can visualise things in my head, I don’t tend to do that when I’m reading. I think I’m probably more likely to do it for books if I’ve seen an adaptation. So the last time I read LOTR, I definitely visualised the film characters. Like Krysta, when I read Gregor to my class, I think I would agree that not visualising would make you a quicker reader. I certainly read quickly

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint October 7, 2022 / 6:10 pm

      It’s been so interesting to see everyone’s responses! I think there’s been more visualizers here than non, which makes sense. The data I’ve seen seems to suggest that the non-visualizers are in the minority – though it’s a difficult thing to get data on, since everyone’s experiences are so different!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Carla November 5, 2022 / 3:03 am

    Wow, this is very interesting, Mint. I have never heard of aphantasia, but I am going to do some reading on it. I don’t know where I fit on the visualizing thing. I don’t see a book like a movie while I am reading and I don’t necessarily picture the characters or setting, but maybe that’s the thing. I do it subconsciously which enables me to enjoy the story and picture it without realizing I am doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint November 10, 2022 / 1:12 pm

      Huh, that’s interesting! I don’t *think* I ‘see’ characters or setting subconsciously, but talking about the subconscious can be hard to describe because well – it’s subconscious!

      Liked by 1 person

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