Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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What do we see when we read?

A fascinating article: What We See When We Read

A thought experiment: Picture your mother. Now picture your favorite literary character. (Or: Picture your home. Then picture Howards End.) The difference between your mother’s afterimage and that of a literary character you love is that the more you concentrate, the more your mother might come into focus. A character will not reveal herself so easily. (The closer you look, the farther away she gets.)

This whole article is well worth reading.

It’s also interesting to me because I do relatively little — sometimes almost no — physical description of characters. I have literally written entire books without ever describing the protagonist. That has occasionally caused a few minutes of bother, as an editor will sometimes ask, “Who’s an actor who looks sort of like your protagonist?” and I have no idea (a) of the names of any actors of remotely the right age and general type; and (b) only a vague idea what my protagonist looks like. I have to sit down and google “young male actors” or whatever and scan through a lot of images until I finally say, “Sort of like Really Famous Person I Had Never Previously Heard Of.”

In some ways I have a very visual imagination. But not in that way.

By all means click through and consider the question of what Anna Karenina looks like.

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15 Comments What do we see when we read?

  1. Evenstar

    I discovered last year that I can’t see mental images (aphantasia) – or rather, that almost everyone else can visualize them. That explained a lot of little things, including some of my preferences for reading. I like characters and setting, but focused on what people think and how things work. I’ve always skimmed past physical descriptions and could say very little about what any of my favorite characters look like!

  2. Rachel

    Over the past decades, I have gradually become aware of how remarkably different people’s mental experience and, for lack of a better term, mental landscape can be. It’s so difficult to imagine experiencing the world with a different kind of visual imagination.

    I remember how I sat up straight at the explanation of face blindness — as you say, suddenly a lot of little things I had never understood made sense, such as why other people never seemed to have trouble telling actors apart when watching movies, when, say, every tallish male actor with short dark hair looked basically the same to me.

  3. Kim Aippersbach

    Aphantasia, huh? Is there a version of it that only applies to faces? I can picture landscapes and buildings just fine, but I can’t “see” faces in my mind. I don’t have face blindness in person, and when I think of a person, I “know” what they look like, but when I try to actually picture them they just slide away.

    So I never picture fictional characters. I wonder if that affects the type of writing I like. I’ve never stopped to notice whether I prefer writers who don’t describe characters: is that why I like Rachel’s work so much?? (Pretty sure that’s not it, but who knows!)

  4. Evenstar

    Yes! I’ve thought a lot over the years about how people’s perceptions are different. I have a big family and I’m certain all of us children perceived a different reality in childhood, not just that we remember it differently now. But I hadn’t connected that to the physical until recently – that people see and hear and touch differently all the time. Perhaps the amazing part is that humans have enough shared reality to relate to each other!

  5. Hanneke

    I think my mind works a bit like Evenstar’s. I don’t really see mental pictures, not even of my mother. Like Kim, I ‘know’ what people and places look like, but it’s more of a feeling, a ‘gestalt’, rather than a clear visual image.

  6. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    This also applies to a mental “voice” – a voice you hear in your head. Different people have different types of mental “voice,” and some people literally have no such voice.

  7. Elaine T

    INteresting. I recall people by voices rather than looks, usually.

    This article is particularly timely because for reasons I don’t recall Teen and I were looking at various depictions of the princes and princesses of Amber. Most of them were ‘wrong’ – often IMO looking too young and soft. Even though Zelazny never provided much detail (as mentioned in the OP) of features. But we both had definite opinions, again, as the OP points out.
    There were a couple good ones: one of Julian where we weren’t sure the looks were quite right, but the expression was that of someone who could say and carry out “I’ll nail his hide to a tree” about a brother. The other was of Corwin, which didn’t look right until we put it next to another by that artist, which was Oberon, and they looked closely related, but one older and bearded. So that made the Corwin portrait/trump work.

  8. Hanneke

    One thing about this which I just noticed is that (at least for me) the limitation appears to be in the retrieval system, not the memory-storage system.
    On the edge of falling asleep, or sometimes when I wake up out of a dream, I sometimes do get a flash of a clear mental image of something, generally a situation of which “I” am a part (even if I’m a 6 inch tall glowing blue matchstick figure or whatever, in this situation).
    This can be a real-life memory; a fictional memory, from something I read or constructed from something I saw – once a movie poster seen in passing gave me a dream I woke up from with horror imagery and feelings filling my head; a total fantasy,
    a dream I made up myself (like the adventures of the blue matchstick figure with the herd of yellow and pink spotted cloth giraffes); or a constructed fake (dreamed) memory (like asking mum in my dream if she could sew on new buttons after I lost them; then a week later I was surprised my blouse was still missing its buttons as I clearly remembered ‘asking her about the repair’).

    Because my dreaming mind does communicate in images, and the concomittant feelings feel as if they are occuring to me if I remember anything of the dream when I wake up (and can get blurred with real memories if they are very realistic), I need to be careful what kind of images I feed it (especially emotionally fraught ones, as those stick best in my memory) that it can use to construct those dreams. Hence the avoidance of horror and such, at least in part.

    The same goes for auditory memories: I cannot recall even my mother’s voice clear enough to hear it in my head, but on the edge of sleep I have very rarely just heard someone say something, from my memory, that was as clear as if I really just heard them say it. An auditory hallucination, it’s called, and apparently everyone has them occasionally; which must mwan that tge memory of that sound is recorded that exactly – how else could you retrieve it so accurately if unintentionally?
    I love a lot of light classical instrumental music, and recognise the melodies as familiar when I hear them, but can’t retrieve the melodies into memory unless I can sing them to myself, and I almost always need song-words as the hook to do that. Though the start of “Für Elise” is so familiar, I can recall it by mentally going Ta-da-da-da-da-da-dah…

  9. Rachel

    I am now really wondering who subvocalizes when reading, when thinking of music, when recalling or imagining conversations, and in general when thinking.

    Raises hand for all the above.

  10. Hanneke

    Raises hand for all of the above too, except for the instrumental music that has no songtext… which is why I can’t recall it into memory unprompted by hearing it again.

    I have a strongly word-oriented memory, even more written than heard. Even trying to visualise something I do by mentally describing a photograph of it.

  11. Evenstar

    Raises hand, I subvocalize everything!

    Same with dreams, I do see and hear in dreams and barely remember as I’m waking up but then those senses slip away.

  12. Maria

    I can picture faces quite well, therefore I like descriptions, but I actually often dislike it when a character is compared to an actor or a painting, etc. because if they say that the hero is handsome like XY actor and I don’t like the actor, I find it difficult to picture him as attractive :(.

    It doesn’t bother me either if the characters’ features aren’t described, I imagine them with facial features anyway. For me reading is kind of like watching a movie in my head.

    What I really like to know though is colours, hair, eyes, clothes, etc., because without them it’s like watching a black and white movie.

    On the other hand I don’t really hear voices in my head when I’m reading. In dreams or memories yes, but not so much when I’m reading.

  13. Allan Shampine

    I also subvocalize everything. Everything I read, type, or just think is a voice in my head, and a fully-featured voice at that, with distinct intonation, pitch, etc.

  14. Elaine T

    I would have said I dislike descriptions, but some of my favorite writers are also illustrators, so I don’t know. I don’t consciously pay lots of attention to description, and would have thought I often skim it. I don’t subvocalise unless I’m trying to figure out how to pronounce something.
    I occasionally, after reading or rereading something particularly engrossing get the characters’ voices in my head. And they DO sound different from each other.

    When it comes to facial features… thinking about those Amber portraits I mentioned upthread, the ones I called ‘good’ were the ones that I could identify the character without needing a caption. And those caught something of the how the character was characterized. (Like the Julian example.) Caught the person in the story, not the looks, so much.

  15. mona

    >> Perhaps the amazing part is that humans have enough shared reality to relate to each other!

    I think so too, Evenstar! Our perceptions are so individual.

    I’m also pretty bad at visualizing faces. Even if we’ve just met and talked for an hour, haha.

    I always subvocalize when I read (and think, and work, and… etc.). I remember learning about speed reading in high school or college sometime. One of the things that made the technique so difficult was trying not to subvocalize! I mean, I *can* read like that, but… it seems to hinder my understanding, I suppose? Which is contrary to the purpose.

    Also this conversation reminded me of this article:
    https://psyche.co/ideas/talking-out-loud-to-yourself-is-a-technology-for-thinking

    If I can’t actively move while I’m thinking something through, and I really need to get my thoughts out, I tend to quickwrite.

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