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Fantasy and Aphantasia


How much does your imagination affect your reading experience?


I’ll start with two disclaimers: this post is quite personal, and the title is somewhat misleading. For one, I don’t usually read fantasy. Also, I am not entirely mind-blind. I do have a very poor visual imagination, though. And I will argue that those two facts – not reading fantasy and feeble visual imagination – are not unrelated. And it is probably the reason why I prefer to read (and write) science fiction.


Aphantasia is the inability to visualize images when thinking. The first time I heard about it, I thought it was strange. How could people imagine things if not with the aid of mind pictures? But then I heard about people whose thoughts play like a movie, with vivid imagery, colors, and movements… some folks can even smell different odors! And I’m gonna tell you, this surprised me way more than learning about people who can see no image at all.


My imagination has vague shapes that morph into others in smooth but non-identifiable moves. It has a sepia palette of colors, and I cannot smell any scent nor differentiate voices. So, when reading, my mind doesn’t play the scenes as in a film. It’s more like a shifting mood board – concepts quivering like flames.



It makes me wonder, is this why I prefer science fiction over fantasy?



Escaping the real world


When asked about the reading experience, many fantasy readers gush about how cool it would be to live in this or that world. In fact, the fantasy genre is arguably the most creative regarding world-building. Reading then becomes a way to explore relatable problems in a fantastic place.


Escapism is often cited as the main reason people read fantasy.


This is not at all a shade of the genre. It's a super understandable desire. In a fantasy story, one gets to exercise empathy while staying somewhat distant from the characters. And escapism depends heavily on immersion.


Immersion is more than describing a scene effectively. It's about making the world believable. The goal of maintaining the reader closer to human emotions but far from our reality is most effectively achieved if the story can pull the reader in.


And I don't mean only about the scenery. Aside from its unique geography and diverse biomes, the culture, society, and politics should be as complex and imaginative… the world itself becomes as dear to the readers as the characters.



For someone like me, on the other hand, reading about a world is very different from watching a world, for example. My visualization when reading differs from the real deal, so I do not get attached to places I've only read about. I don't care much about descriptions of mountains or details of how weird an alien planet is.


This means escapism does not work for me.


Don't get me wrong. I NEED those descriptions! But not to get an immersive view of the scene. My brain won't retain any detail. But describing the details of the world helps me get in sync with the story, mood-wise.


But, if I cannot picture the story properly, why do I read?

I'm glad you've asked.



The genre of ideas


If I lack visualization, I thrive on concepts. Great ideas and deep philosophic bits keep my brain busy, and my interest spiked. And no other genre excites my mind as science fiction does.


My favorite stories are those that leave me with a lingering afterthought. Those stories I keep dissecting long after I finished them and whose themes keep growing on me. To me, immersing in a fantastical world is secondary to the exploration of fictional scientific ideas.


One of the consequences is that I rarely, if ever, get a book hangover. It never happened that I wished to remain for longer in an imagined world in the company of imagined people. I won't say it will never happen, but more often than not the thrill of reading starts after I finish the book when I get to over-analyze all its events, consequences, story bits, and overall message of it. And this feeling is quite different from a hangover. Not sad in any sense, but exhilarating.



The fantastic world of math


Thinking about how my imagination might have shaped my reading taste, I wondered what other aspects of my life are affected by this. Despite the poor mind visualization, I have a master’s degree in Mathematics, specializing in Geometry and Topology, which are all about shapes and forms. So one would imagine that my mind projection skills were quite impressive. That’s clearly not the case.


In hindsight, I believe poor visualization helped me do well in this department. We, tree-dimensional beings, cannot fathom objects in higher dimensions, and geometry is all about higher dimensions. To understand it correctly, you have to overcome the fact that you will not be able to “see” a five-dimensional object, which worked for me!


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That's it for today, folks!

I hope you've enjoyed my sharing this personal insight with you all. I would love to know how good (or bad) your mind visualization skills are. Let me know I'm the comments!


I want to thank Queen Bree from Angry Noodles because this analysis of my imagination came after she tweeted about her own experience with poor mind visualization.


See you next post,

Ra.

 

Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.


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