Our Reading Lives

What Do You See When You Read?

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James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

When you’re reading, and your eyes are following the words, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Many readers claim they visualize characters, setting, and action – some even claim they can imagine sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Recently, I discovered that most people can recall visual memories. That was shocking, because I can’t. Nor do I see anything when I read. I learned I had a condition called aphantasia, which is sometimes call mind blindness. I had no idea until recently that people all around me could see things when they closed their eyes, or see things when they read books. Like a person blind from birth, I struggle to imagine what this inner sighted world must be like. I do have vivid dreams at night, so that conveys some, but it’s a struggle to imagine how most people can read and internally VR the story. That boggles my mind. Looking back, this revelation explains so much.

For several weeks now I’ve been asking friends and book club members what they see when they read. It turns out everyone sees something different. I’ve always assumed, and I think most people do too, that we’re all looking at the same reality, and it pretty much looks the same to all of us. We might all be looking at the same reality, but we’re all seeing something different. And we all have different mental abilities for perceiving it. What we see when we read is just one of many indicators of how we’re different. Some readers claim they see full-blown movies when they read. I find this hardest to believe. But, I also know there are people that can look at a scene and paint it realistically from memory. Since learning about aphantasia, I’ve been paying attention to what people say about visualization. I’ve noticed that some writers talk about seeing what they write before putting it down in words. J. K. Rowling  made detailed drawings when fictional world building. My inability to visualize might explain why I create mostly dialog when writing fiction. It might also explain why some novels are dialog driven.

Not knowing what I’m missing pushed me to research the subject of visualization and reading. The first book I found was What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. This book is a 2D multimedia presentation on the subject that uses typography, photos, and drawings to create a graphically design layout to explore the topic. Mendelsund spends most of his time on textual analysis, and querying people about their experiences. He’d asked readers of Anna Karenina how well they saw her. Many swore they saw her vividly, but when he’d ask, “What did her nose look like,” it would flummox them. Some would reply, they saw a vivid dress, or others beautiful hair. This suggests visual memory and reading imagery might be fragmentary – at least for some. Others claimed movie like visions. I’ve paid close attention to my dreams when I can, especially in lucid dreaming experiences, and they aren’t true movies. They are a series of images, and my mind makes up stories about them. I wonder if the reverse is true with reading, and the mind generates images to fit the stories. But then I’m not sure, my mind isn’t generating images. Pay attention to how you read and when an image forms in your mind and how.

The next book I turned to was The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks. This book is flat out mind-blowing, and even that’s an understatement. Sacks collects case histories of people with brain damage, usually from strokes, that affects their ability to read, including one woman who lost her ability to read music. He then explores what happens when people lose their sight. I’ve always thought people who went blind saw darkness. So did Sacks. For some blind people that’s true. For other blind people, they still see, evidently using the same visual field generator used by dreams, reading and visual memory. One woman he wrote about continued to see the apartment she lived in, and even the clothes she put on each day. She was very careful to keep her physical world the same as her visual memories. I found this astounding! Our minds have great powers. Not silly super-hero powers, but virtual reality generating powers.

We don’t see the world by looking out through our eyes like portholes. Our eyes are like camera sensors, taking in data, which is processed in our minds, with a slight delay. Evidently, that processing power can be used in various ways, including imagining what we read, remembering what we’ve seen, and even creating virtual worlds in dreams or while blind.

It disturbs me that I don’t have the ability to see when I read, or even remember visually. Not only do I feel handicapped, but I feel confused as to what happens when I do read. When I was young, I read very fast to find out what happens in the story. I’m idea oriented. Evidently, reading is more of an abstraction to me than other people. When I discovered the joys of listening to a book, I read slower. It revealed reading fast was bad because reading slow gave me time to think about the visual cues the authors presented. I didn’t visualize a rose when one was mentioned, but I felt a vague sense of rose-ness. Maybe even a faint, fleeting, glimmer of one.

Every once in a while, depending on my mental state, I’ll have a flash of visual memory. It usually startling, and I’ll open my eyes. When I was young and smoked dope, I had a lot more of these visual memory experiences. I find it hard now to imagine how people can routinely experience visual memories, or how readers, while staring at a book, can concurrently generate visuals. You’d think I’d love comic books, but I can’t read them. I can enjoy the artwork if I can tune out the text, or I can read, if I can make myself ignore the art, but combing the two is uncomfortable.

This learning experience makes me realize we should constantly strive to understand how people around us perceive the world. It may be different from our perceptions. Don’t assume when your friends read the same book they saw what you saw. We may all model reality differently, in a myriad of ways with different kinds of cognitive functionality. Visualization is a spectrum, but so are most perceptions. I’ve always thought books were solely about words, but evidently not.