Life With and Without a ‘Mind’s Eye’

What Reading is Like When Unable to Create Mental Images

Silvia Villalobos
4 min readJun 18, 2021
Photo by Kevin Wolf on Unsplash

Visualize this: you’re going about your life when a sudden memory pops up, triggering all sorts of feelings. Can you see it?

The mental exercise called visualization is vastly different for everyone, according to a new article.

Scientists are finding new ways to probe two not-so-rare conditions to better understand the links between vision, perception and memory. Carl Zimmer, Many People Have a Vivid Mind’s Eye, While Others Have None at All

Early Age

From a young age, kids learn by forming mental images in their so-called mind’s eye. My childhood, for example, was heavy on oral storytelling. I remember hearing long tales with words that represented key ideas: white wolf, black horse, run through freezing snow, and processing the ideas until they became vivid images in my mind.

When retelling the story, I would describe the concepts in enthusiastic detail because the images were vivid enough at times to scare me.

The condition — for lack of a better word — is called hyperphantasia. The extreme opposite, aphantsia, is the inability to voluntarily pull up mental images in detail.

A New Old Term

As a hyperphant (new term for me), I can spend a lot of time in my own head. It can be a self-started exercise. It can also be something triggered by various things in my environment — a sound, a word — sudden colorful visualizations of past and present events that seem as real as ever.

As fun as that sounds, there is a downside. An overactive imagination can make a story so real, it becomes at best distracting, at worse, frightening. Experiencing uninvited mental images leaves me drained. So, I wouldn’t mind remaining solidly attached to the real world more than to my imagination.

Here is one example: over the weekend, when shopping at Lowe’s, and crossing through the lumber section, a memory triggered by the smell of lumber popped up — one tied to a distinct smell from childhood.

Suddenly, the older yet more vivid memory took me to my grandmother’ house, where there was a shed filled with freshly cut wood. I’m not particularly wild about the smell of wood, but the association with a treasured childhood memory was enough to make being in the moment difficult.

I stood there, in the home improvement store, like a dummy, transfixed by this old image with strong emotional content. I haven’t thought about my grandmother in ages, but a renewed sense of loss shook me right then.

Picture This

How many times have you heard someone say: picture this?

For hyperphants, it’s easy to assume picturing something is the norm. That others can visualize what we see. I grow animated when telling a story, because I relieve it — sometimes in sharper focus than when it happened in real life.

Let’s say we’re reminiscing about our last weekend at the beach. For me, the story would bring clear images of blue water glistening under the sun, clumps of seaweed getting washed up on the beach, white sand contrasting with the azure-blue water.

What would you see?

I ask because we have this preconceived notion that many experiences are common. Yet the notion of I know how you feel, I feel the same way, might be misleading since I apparently don’t know what you see. I don’t see the same way. Our shared experiences, and by association our emotional responses, have to be vastly affected by ways in which we are able or unable to voluntarily create mental images.


As a writer, I find the notion of a so-called mind’s eye fascinating. If a number of people can not voluntarily create mental images, how do readers who are not visual story tellers enjoy reading ?

So, I looked up: what is reading like for people with aphantasia (inability to voluntarily create mental images).

Reading changes everything.

Reading creates distinct images for everyone, including people with aphantasia. And that’s not all. Reading creates mental images more pronounced than those seen in real life.

I have trouble pulling up images in my head of my own accord(I can, but the images have no hard lines, dull color, and I can only very vaguely render small portions of a scene at a time. But when I read everything is crystal clear, and in fact MORE vivid than real life. — Source

How great is that? Reading, and by extension writing, can make words disappear and not only replace them with images but with MORE VIVID images for those who otherwise can not conjure up mental pictures on their own.



Silvia Villalobos

Silvia Villalobos is a native of Romania who lives immersed in the laid-back vibe of Southern California. She writes mystery novels and short stories.