How Do Visual Readers Read Nonfiction?

You know those reading memes and cartoons that circulate regularly that say something to the effect of, “Reading is just staring at slices of trees and hallucinating vividly”?

I never understood that. Not just because that’s not what hallucinations are, but also because I don’t really visualize when I read. I don’t have complete aphantasia, but I can’t hold images in my head. I get flickers or indistinct pictures. I certainly don’t see a whole movie play out in my head when I read, and I don’t particularly want to.

I’ve learned that I am in the minority on this. While everyone has their own unique reading experience, most people tend to “see” something in their head while they read, as well as “hearing” an inner narrator recite the text — I don’t really get that narrator, either. I just have song snippets playing in a loop 24/7.

While I can’t relate to the visual reading experience, I can understand it…at least when it comes to novels. Novels and fictional movies are laid out similarly, so it makes sense that you could have one playing out internally as you read. But not all books have a plot or characters, and it’s come to my attention recently that I have no idea how visual readers process those.

From what I’ve heard, visual readers rely on those visuals to understand and remember content. (That might explain why I can’t remember much of what I read.) It’s not just a fun bonus, but an integral part of the process — at least, that’s the impression I get as an outsider.

Recently, I had to read a book called Financial Intelligence for work, and it was a slog. It was essentially a long list of financial terms and definitions. As I was reading, I wondered what happened in the heads of most readers when they encounter these kind of books. Although there was the occasional metaphor or example that could be imagined — someone speaking up in a meeting, too much stock in a warehouse, etc. — the vast majority of the text was describing different ways of thinking about numbers. Profit versus revenue. Different formulas for calculating risk or assessing the value of a company. They’re not exactly concepts that lend themselves to pictures.

So I bring this to you, normal/visual reading public: what do you see in your head when you read nonfiction? A memoir or history book might be as easy to visualize as a novel, but what about dry or abstract text? Is it “dark” in your mind most of the time, when there isn’t an easy visual, or do you imagine something only tangentially related? Is it harder to read books that don’t lend themselves to visuals? Please, indulge my anthropological curiosity about how the other readers live.

As for me, how did I process and remember that book? I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure I did. In school, though, I would process and remember by discussing concepts with others, and/or taking notes and rereading them, and even reading those notes out loud and listening to them before a test. Mind maps or doodle notes never had much appeal to me.

I find it fascinating that we can all bond over this shared love of books and reading while experiencing it so differently. It’s a great example of how we all move through the world differently, and while the way our brains work might feel the most normal to us, it’s far from the only way of doing things.

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