Some learners cannot visualise things in their mind’s eye

But this doesn't necessarily make them less successful
khfalk, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
khfalk, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

A learner’s ability to create images in their mind is linked to various improvements in learning. But the absence of this ability may lead to alternative strategies that enhance rather than hinder learning.

Think of your living room. Do you conjure a picture of the room in your mind? Perhaps it’s a static but slightly hazy image, perhaps you can even “see” yourself entering the room and taking a seat, or perhaps you don’t see an image at all. The ability to create mental images has long been investigated in psychology, yet the term Aphantasia, the absence of mental imagery, was only recently coined.

Subsequent media coverage has highlighted extensive individual differences in the way we think. Even Ed Catmull, cofounder of Disney Pixar, has revealed he does not see with a mind’s eye; a fascinating insight into the relationship between the creation of visual art and our ability to create images in mind.

An article that caught my attention amongst the media furore was titled “If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?”. The article outlined that encouraging mental imagery strategies during reading comprehension can enhance learning, which led the author to conclude that a lack of mental imagery could negatively impact learning and identifying Aphantasia may provide an opportunity to intervene with alternate strategies for affected children.

Mental imagery is a visual form of memory, and memory is of course required in various types of learning. However, what we need to be wary of is the inference that because ability A (creating mental images) can enhance ability B (reading comprehension) then the absence of ability A is likely to lead to the absence of ability B. As we know, this is simply not always the case in learning. For example, reading sheet music might aid your ability to learn to play the piano, however, not being able to read sheet music does not mean you will not be able to learn to play the piano.

“Our wide-ranging experiences and individual differences in thinking lead us to learn in a multitude of ways.”

This concept became the theme of a Science of Learning workshop I conducted recently for those with extreme forms of imagery (no visual imagery or hyper-imagery). We asked what learning strategies people use in everyday life, which sparked a lively debate and demonstrated that our wide-ranging experiences and individual differences in thinking lead us to learn in a multitude of ways. This shows that we have barely scratched the surface with what we know about Aphantasia; and what we thought about the way we think, and specifically how this impacts our daily lives, may be wrong.

As far as identifying children with Aphantasia and intervening is concerned, to date there is no evidence to suggest either a positive or negative impact of Aphantasia on the ability to learn in either childhood or adulthood. Recent research shows that adults with Aphantasia can perform equally well on visual working memory tasks – an ability positively associated with mental imagery – as those who can create images in mind.

“The need to expand forms of thinking and learning strategies throughout life may be what leads to success in adulthood.”

These findings provide preliminary support for alternate forms of thinking and strategies for learning and cognition in the absence of mental imagery. However, further investigation throughout development is required to fully understand the role of Aphantasia in learning and whether it is appropriate to intervene.

For parents and teachers, differences in preference might become apparent. For example, if an individual cannot visualise, a lengthy, descriptive passage in a text might be frustrating to comprehend. This might mean some children enjoy reading some types of texts more than others but does not indicate an impairment or need to intervene.

Until there is evidence demonstrating a relationship between Aphantasia and learning, it would not be appropriate to screen for it in children as it should not dictate the way we teach. Aphantasia is one of a variety of individual differences in thinking that make us human. After all, the need to expand forms of thinking and learning strategies throughout life may be what leads to success in adulthood.

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