Visualization is a large part of the learning process. We picture how a word looks or mentally “see” how a character looks as he is described by the author. But what if you weren’t able to visualize? Some people can’t. The condition is called “aphantasia,” and we’re only beginning to understand how this affects the educational – and especially the reading – process.
Aphantasia has been recognized since the 1880s, when psychologist Francis Galton – one of the pioneers of eugenics – published a paper called Statistics of Mental Imagery. Galton set out to “define the different degrees of vividness with which different persons have the faculty of recalling familiar scenes under the form of mental pictures.”
For the 98% of the population who are able to use their “mind’s eye,” visual imagery is essential for memory, daydreaming, and imagination. Blake Ross, the co-creator of the Firefox browser, though, cannot do these things. He described how it feels to lack that ability, as well as his surprise at finding out that other people are able to do what he cannot. “I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago,” he wrote on Facebook. “I thought ‘counting sheep’ was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this.”
Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario established in 1971 the theory of “dual coding” to help explain how information is stored in the brain. According to the theory, information is stored in two different ways – verbally and visually – and while these two codes are independent of one another, and each can be used alone, they can also interact to enhance learning and recall. Those with aphantasia are unable to consciously access the visual code, impeding their ability to learn and recall.
Studies of poorly performing readers who were given visualization strategies to enhance their reading experience demonstrated a significant improvement of their reading abilities. The results are interpreted as support of the use of mental imagery as a comprehension-monitoring strategy.
According to Harvey & Goudvis (2000), by consciously using words to create mental images, students gain a more thorough understanding of the text they are reading. Students who visualize as they read not only have a richer reading experience, but they can also recall what they have read for longer periods of time. The ability to generate visual images from texts becomes of greater importance as students move from illustrated storybooks to “chapter books” that have only a few pictures. And, as they gain more deliberate practice with this skill, the act of visualizing text becomes automatic and fluency increases.
Visualizing text as it is read also creates personal links between the reader and the text. Readers who can imagine the characters they read about, for instance, may become more involved with and interested in what they are reading. This makes for a more meaningful reading experience and promotes continued reading.
What, then, should teachers do if they have students with aphantasia? Visualization is only one of our senses, and it should be possible to devise alternative learning strategies, ones that rely on sound (such as listening to a book or reading it out loud) or touch (drawing pictures of the scenes that are described; building models of structures). Just as students without the condition are individuals and strategies have to be modified to accommodate their differences, teachers must become creative in their approach to students who do have aphantasia, creating an environment conducive to reading and learning each step of the way.
 Gambrell, Linda B. and Bales, Ruby J. (Fall 1986). Mental Imagery and the Comprehension-Monitoring Performance of Fourth and Fifth-Grade Poor Readers. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/747616?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
 TeacherVision. (nd). Visualizing. Retrieved from https://www.teachervision.com/reading-comprehension/skill-builder/48791.html