I recently read an article by Blake Ross on his experience with aphantasia, a condition where someone does not have a “mind’s eye” and is unable to visualize things that are not there.  Many people when asked to visualize, say, a calming beach would see an image projecting in the back of their brain, usually a moving picture, sometimes complete with sound, smell, and touch (though some of these senses are more difficult for people to recreate). When someone with aphantasia is asked to visualize a calming beach, they will logically list things that would appear there: waves, sand, cliffs, seagulls.  They will not, however, reconstruct those items visually because their brain doesn’t function that way.

Aphantasia can lead to a different experience of the words “daydreaming” and “memory”, but one thing that struck me in this particular article was Ross’ brief explanation of his reading habits.  He used to worry that he was “doing reading wrong” since he always skipped descriptive language in novels.  If you think about it, what good would descriptive narration do for someone who cannot add it to an ongoing picture in their mind?  As a writer himself, Ross talked about how this has affected his writing style.  Where one author might write an excessively descriptive line about the physical attributes of a character, Ross might write something like “there was an assassin”.

This got me thinking about taste in literature and why we write the way we write.  At it’s core, the goal of writing is communication.  How effectively you can transfer a thought from one mind to another.  But what if your mind is wired differently than your reader’s, what happens then?

If I take a look at my own reading style or “my brain on books”, I am an extremely logical reader.  I focus on motivations, chronology, and movement.  While I don’t think that I have aphantasia by any means (I can recreate audio, visual, and usually smell on command), I think the way that I read books is non-visual.  When I read a book, I actually hear the characters talking much more often than I see them.  I’m a big fan of skipping ahead to scenes with dialogue in books because they have the most “noise”.  The only visual aspect I do often play out in my mind while reading is the blocking (movement) of a scene with dialogue.  This may be because I was raised on theater and in stage productions we always learned the blocking of a scene before memorizing our lines.  They would have us walk around the stage, mentally charting where we stand and sit, and then two weeks later, we would add in the memorized dialogue, the sounds.  Maybe that was ingrained into me, who knows.  But now when I read I match the character’s words to their movements, even if an author doesn’t tell me them.  If a character starts to get sad, I think to myself, “she would logically sit down here”.  But if you ask me to tell you the color of the sofa the main character just sat down on, well, I probably skipped that paragraph ages ago.

As a result of this reading style when I write fiction there is a lot of noise.  I like to tell people what sounds are happening in the scene, as if I were creating one of those old time radio shows that families would gather around in their living room.  I love dialogue–Hills Like White Elephants?  Magic.  Also 80% dialogue.

But it’s not just that I enjoy dialogue.  I actually get angry at description.  I remember trying to read Tolkien and getting so frustrated.  I remember thinking, “Why is he describing this table for two paragraphs?  This is useless!”  But it wasn’t.  Not to someone who is a heavily visual reader.


Dorian Corey will “visually read” you any day, honey.


So when we say the word “reading”, we’re not all talking about the same thing.  Some of us are describing letting our minds carry us to new worlds populated with intricate architecture, beautiful food, and I guess really elaborate tables.  Some of us “read” by following a story logically, mapping out emotions and motivations that follow around the main characters.  Some of us hear a radio show in our head, distinct tones and pitches that weave us in and out of dialogue.

My question to you is: how do you describe your reading experience?  Do think it relates to your preferences in any way or even how you define “good” literature?




5 thoughts on “YOUR BRAIN ON BOOKS

  1. The blog post really made me think about HOW I read – which, I can’t say, is really something I’ve considered before. It also made me consider how the way I read is not only connected to how I write – but also to who I am as an individual. I tend towards poetic language – the sort that makes me see a scene. Unlike you, dialogue isn’t big for me. But I don’t want narrow details like two paragraphs of table, either. I want the backdrop. I want all the senses. I want you to be concise in a flowery way that still makes me TASTE the apple that someone takes a bite of. And all of that is directly linked to who I am as a person; I am over-sensitive when it comes to senses, picking up on everything going on in a room. And when I read someone that can capture that, it’s like my personal reality is recreated; I can get lost in the story because it’s written in a way that is similar to the way my mind would naturally create it. so I agree, taste has a lot to do with it. But I also think that taste, in a way, is directly linked to who we are as people and the way we perceive our worlds; which is then linked to how we need words to be written in order to find them interesting or “good”. I also want to learn more about aphantasia.


    • Huh, that is very interesting to hear because as you said, that’s the opposite of what I look for in writing. Just curious, what do you mean when you say you are over-sensitive? Like extreme senses? Is there a way that people have tried to measure the magnitude to which people perceive senses? I know that some people have “refined palates” but I’m not really sure what that means. Mainly because how can we know what another person experiences taste/smell/touch like? It’s like how can we know what people experience when they say they are “in pain”? You could say by people’s reactions, but two people could react differently to the same experience of taste, maybe out of politeness or personality differences, etc. It would be pretty interesting to look into any science behind the experience of the senses and how that relates to the way a person reads books or experiences art.


  2. I’ve never really considered this before, and it’s a really interesting thing to think about. Personally, I think that I lean more towards the descriptive end of the spectrum, and that definitely helps dictate my definition of good literature. Good literature, to me, is stuff that I can really visualize and sense well, and more vivid description helps me do that. I get frustrated when I read books and struggle to picture things, but is that a problem with the writer or me as a reader? Was it not presented clearly, or am I the one who can’t conceptualize what they’ve presented? I guess it could go either way. Overall, I like to read things that are sensory and descriptive, but it’s interesting to think that the things I love and look for in writing are the things that others skip.


    • Yeah, that is the ultimate question I have been asking myself–does skipping these parts make me a bad reader, or them a bad writer? Lately, I’ve been starting to think less of putting it in terms of bad and good, just different. Someone who writes using heavy description is trying to transfer an idea in to a visual person’s mind–and I am not a visual person, so of course that idea wouldn’t transfer successfully. I think maybe the question is more about audience. But then I ask–should I be trying to cater to the visual people in my audience too? Is this about achieving a balance?


  3. George I am with you. I prefer the stripped down language of Hemingway or (as we saw in class) Lish. Really, I am in favor of anything that gets rid of words. I always feel like the fewer words an author uses, in general, the better the story. Only give me the essential details. If it’s important that the sofa is green, tell me; if it’s not, cut it. I want author’s to make the tough decisions and really consider what is important to their story and don’t waste my time with fluff. I’m not one who wants to immerse myself in the world or any of that malarkey. But we are all “wired differently” so there is a market for that fanciful writing too I suppose. It’s just not for me.


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