Mental Imagery Can Be Developed
Last Friday, Blake Ross shared a bit of self-discovery on Facebook. He realized that,
unlike the majority of people, his mind does not easily translate experience and
information into images. In fact, he doesn’t see pictures in his brain at all. Since this
article was posted, thousands of others have shared it and posted comments sharing
their own, similar experiences, and expressing relief at finally having a name for this
The thing is, while the term “aphantasia” is recent, what Ross describes is not
unfamiliar. We at Applied Learning Processes have been working with people who
struggle to make mental images for years. These people often find it difficult to
follow oral directions or tell an anecdote from their day because their brains aren’t
efficiently creating images for them to translate into words. Because imagery is
difficult, things like following the flow of conversation and “getting” jokes and
wordplay can be a struggle. In school settings, grasping the concepts being taught is
a challenge because their brains aren’t connecting the words to sensory experiences
to aid comprehension. They often find themselves memorizing key phrases to look
for on tests, and struggle to answer inferential questions or to predict outcomes of
Research on aphantasia is just beginning. However, for people like those described
above, Nanci Bell’s Visualizing and Verbalizing program provides a multi-sensory,
carefully structured program that stimulates the brain’s ability to create images. It
begins by focusing on imaging a single noun (like cowboy, puppy, firetruck, or
president) and describing specifically what the brain pictures. This progresses to
sentences (The cowboy chased his horse. The president signed the bill.), and
increases in complexity until the person can confidently hear and adequately image
paragraphs of information. Here at ALP we consistently see dramatic gains in
language comprehension and oral expression with clients who go through this
Just this spring, we have been working with a 15 year-old girl who tested in the 18th
percentile (well below average) for language comprehension. Her inferential skills
tested in the 5th percentile. When we first began imagery work, she struggled to
create images for things like the Sahara Desert and World War II. She told me, “I
know the name Hitler, and I think he was a bad guy, but I just don’t know what I
should picture for what he looked like or stuff he did.”
A couple of weeks ago, after quite a few sessions of intensive imagery work, she
asked me if she was supposed to be making pictures all the time. When I affirmed
that was the goal, she heaved a big sigh of relief. “Oh good! Because I was reading my
history textbook last night, and started making pictures about steam engines – and
then on my test this morning, that picture popped in my head, so I knew what to
That is exactly how mental imagery is supposed to work, and we’re certainly thrilled
she’s starting to see the benefits of treatment in her day-to-day life.
So while we are thrilled that Blake Ross’s post was able to provide clarity to so many
people, we hope the story doesn’t end there. We will be eagerly following the
research as it unfolds. Our experience in the clinic shows that mental imagery can be
stimulated and improved. We invite anyone of any age who resonated with Ross’s
story to contact us to learn more about options for improving mental imagery.
I’m ninety years old and have never know anyone else who could not image anything in their mind.
My mother loved western stories and she used to say she could just see those covered wagons going across the prairies of Kansas.. I never realized what she was saying was true !!! !
It has always been very difficult for me to describe anything. I can not picture anything in my minds eye.
It is a welcome knowledge to realized I’m not the only one who can’t picture anything.
I never realised that I had this until I heard a discussion on Jeremy Vines show. In my early 50’s and Its never affected me, other than never being sure if Im going to recognise close family/friends because I dont know what they look like (I always do), and being totally unable to understand how people could do photo fits. Im a designer and make jewellery for a living, so whilst I cant visualise, I know how things are going to work. I think that Ive worked around it with different senses. I have a constant monalogue going on in my mind (which I assume makes up for the lack of pictures) and touch/sound/smell/taste all act as reminders (its difficult to explain but listening to certain music or an audio book whilst working on a particular piece – then hearing or seeing the one will remind me of the other). And smells, touch, how Im feeling etc can help with memorising. I dream well and vividly, and would love to be able to see images when Im awake. It not totally black in there, and I have now worked out how to plot around a photograph (cant do it from life) to work out peoples features, I cant see it but can work out how they fit together (facebook profiles have worked wonders for almost visualising my friends). I have a tendancy to do this when trying to get to sleep, and last night I could almost see a bit of road that I travelled down daily for many years. Its a boring bit by some traffic lights near the council tip and today its almost still there. Im wondering if the windscreen is acting to make it a flat pic that I can plot. I cant work out any other piece of road (though just thinking about it, a place on the way to my mums is almost coming to mind). I would so like to be able to picture my dead dad (though can clearly still hear his voice and he does pop up in dreams).
I too have not been able to see things in my minds eye. Usually it’s swirling stuff and occasionally I’ll see colors, but never images. Nancy Bell’s Visualizing and Verbalizing program was recommended which I tried intensively (60 hours) but had no success with. Maybe it’s possible with someone younger, maybe, but as a 60 year old it wasn’t effective at all and was quite expensive so I didn’t keep with it.