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What's your visual experience when reading technical material?

by AllAmericanBreakfast1 min read27th May 202121 comments



In my never-ending quest to understand the best way to read a textbook, I'm back to where I started - exploring the importance of visual imagination. When you read technical material, such as science or math, or posts on rationality, to what degree do you visualize the text? Here are some possibilities, but no need to confine yourself.

  1. Is your visual imagination "permanently off," so that you experience the concepts in a symbolic or diagrammatic manner?
  2. Can you activate your visual imagination when you choose, but you're not in the habit?
  3. Is your visual imagination for STEM material a consistent aspect of how you read?

Beyond this, do you feel that you'd get a lot out of being more able to visualize text, or having a more active visual imagination? Have you noticed any change in your ability to visualize over time?

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I feel like I'm not comprehending the text if I'm not visualizing it to some degree. It's like I require the visualization to remember things. Symbolic/diagrammatic is also visual for me. Basically all of my sensory modes have to have a visual tag for me to remember them easily. I struggle to remember music without a lot of repetition. It induces the visual tags as I hear it, but it doesn't seem to round-trip properly. Maybe if I knew musical notation well enough to transcribe what I heard, I could do it that way and remember, but I don't.

Visualizing mostly happens naturally for me in the process of thinking. But more difficult material requires a slower, more conscious effort. I have to pause and think. That doesn't work while skimming, and it takes brain power away from other things. I feel like I'm not as aware of my visual field when concentrating, even if my eyes are open. I always had trouble keeping up with the lectures in school. I ended up zoning out and just reading the textbook. But I often watch YouTube lectures at 2x. This works because I can pause it if I need to think, or rewind if I missed something important while thinking.

When doing algebra, or refactoring code, I'm doing symbolic manipulation in my head in a visual way.

I think my imagination (and memory) might have been somewhat more vivid as a child. Now I can get away with lower-resolution abbreviations. But I also feel like I have better control now. As a child, I used to occasionally have chaotic visual thoughts that would sometimes become obsessive and hard to stop, like a day-mare. I can arrest such thoughts within seconds of choosing to do so now, and they're rare. I can also visualize three dimensions pretty well now. That took some practice, but it's a skill I started to develop while I was elementary-school age.

I've been a music teacher for a decade and a serious classical pianist. One thing I found over time was that for me, music is kinetic. When I listen to classical music, I feel vastly more engaged and connected to it if I can sit in my chair and conduct it (creatively, not like a metronomic baton-waver), or dance to it, and try to also express the emotion on my face.  It helps me gain a spatial sense of the music. After I'd gotten lots of practice at that, I was eventually able to get the same effect with smaller and smaller movements, until finally I ... (read more)

My visual imagination is pretty much constantly on when I read chemistry papers.  There's a stereotype that you read a synthesis or catalysis paper by (1) carefully looking at the figures, (2) reading the experimental procedures, and then maybe (3) reading the text if you need clarification on a point or two.  Lots of areas of chemistry (organic, biological, materials science) benefit greatly from visualization because of the fundamental idea that structure determines function.  If you can't visualize a catalyst in 3D, it becomes much more difficult to explain things like stereoselectivity or reaction mechanism.

I visualize math all the time. Geometry, linear algebra and analysis are of course very visual. Probability theory and combinatorics too. Some topics, like group theory, I don't know how to make visual, so I don't learn them :-(

7AllAmericanBreakfast22dMaybe it's time for a post titled "The Best Visual Textbooks In Every Subject." Nice recommendation!
4cousin_it22dVery nice, thank you! I just read through part of it, Cayley diagrams make sense and it's pretty easy to see subgroups. Will read more tomorrow.

I read Jaynes’ Probability book from cover to cover last year, and most of my understanding of it came visually. This was a big breakthrough for me, because I’d never tried to understand math visually before - I think I thought the graphs in my calculus education were there to explain the equations, and that the equations held the real core meaning. I finally gave up on trying to gain any intuition through equations alone and went visual first when reading Jaynes and this approach gave me 5 or 10 times the value I would have gotten if I tried to understand it algebra-first.

5 or 10 times the value

That is a bold statement! Sincerely taking you at your word, I can't think of another intervention for reading comprehension that offers anything like that kind of value.

By contrast, I've spent the last few months trying to develop a systematic method of translating my biochemistry textbook into a rigorous form of shorthand that can capture causal and structural relationships. It's been extremely laborious, and while I feel I've made a lot of progress on seeing how far you can push note-taking, coming back to visualization feels like it makes everything move much faster.

3Maxwell Peterson22dVery interesting shorthand project! It reminds me of my other big learning realization, about 8 years ago, of “don’t take notes during a lecture, just sit and try and understand in the moment”. So maybe my high-level studying strategy is something like “go all in just trying to grok the thing as best you can, even if you forget a lot of the details at first”. Visualization fits nice into that strategy. Though I think I’m basically just more visual - I’m obsessed with data graphics in a way my coworkers just clearly are not at all.

As I have Aphantasia I never visualize when not dreaming.  Before I learned about Aphantasia, I would have been amazed to learn that anyone visualizes while they read.  I  am curious to the extent that visualizing helps learning to see what kind of handicap I faced as a student.  I have a PhD in economics.

Interesting that you can visualize while dreaming. From what I remember hearing about aphantasia, I thought dreams would be non-visual too. Maybe that can also vary with the individual.

Have you ever looked into lucid dreaming? That is, dreams when you're aware that it's a dream. The awareness lets you control it to some degree, by consciously shifting your expectations. There's a technique called Wake-Induced Lucid Dreaming (WILD) where you can shift from a waking state to a dreaming state without losing awareness. I'm wondering if the technique would be possible for you, and if you could learn to daydream (and then visualize) from the practice.

4James_Miller21dBased on reading the Reddit Aphantasia forum, some people with aphantasia can visualize when they dream, while others can't. I have been actively trying to lucid dream for a while with a small amount of success although I have never tried WILD. I will look into it.

I wonder to what extent people choose their fields/topics based on their visual imagination capacity. It seems possible that there are some fields that depend much more on a facility for algebra than for geometric intuitions. I'm studying biology, where the three-dimensional structure of molecules is of fundamental importance.

3jmh22dA mechanic engineer once told me that anyone wanting to be one should be able to visualize in 3-D or they will struggle. Seems to fit with your view -- and I suspect also for any chemical engineering as well.
1Selueen21dWhen I've first learned about the phenomenon, I've seen discussions by professional artists, designers, architects, animators and the likes, that managed to work in these areas despite their aphantasia. It's been a while and I m not able to find the links, and it was not formal study to begin with, but it's so counterintuitive that I wanted to share anyways.

Interesting! So how do you think about e.g. a bivariate normal distribution? To me it looks like either a bunch of dots in the shape of a fuzzy circle or ellipse, or a correspondingly shaped hill on a 2D plane, depending on what the problem needs. I can't imagine how to think about it without having such mental images.

2James_Miller13dI don't normally think about them, and if I needed to I would just find some image on the Internet.

I visualize math a lot. Ironically, I don't like geometry, because my visualization is not precise, I don't visualize lines and angles. My visualizations are more like: objects in 3D space; shapes in 2D space; or numbers written on a board.

For example, if you asked me to calculate from memory "464+245", I would keep repeating the numbers mentally (to keep them in the auditory loop), but at the same time I would imagine them written on the board below each other (ones below ones, tens below tens, etc.), and try to add them kinda like I would on paper.

When I think about set theory, I sometimes imagine the sets visually as graphs (small balls connected by strings), with the node representing the set at the top, and the nodes representing its elements below it, connected by lines; etc. Then e.g. the Axiom of Foundation becomes "there is no infinite downwards chain". Then I can use different colors for different types of sets, etc. Similarly, nonstandard integers are horizontal chains of small balls, etc.

I have a picture in my mind, then I read the axioms and translate them to statements about the picture. This sometimes allows me to make intuitive guesses, such as "it is impossible for a picture to be both X and Y" or "a picture that is both X and Y would have to look kinda like this", and then I try to translate the intuition back to the language of mathematical statements. Sometimes it turns out I was wrong, then I try to fix the picture.

It seems to me that the auditory and visual processing have different advantages and disadvantages. If I have to remember the number, the sound of "six - nine - eight" is more reliable than the picture of "698", because the sounds of individual digits are different, while the pictures are similar. On the other hand, the auditory loop is linear, and beyond certain size you have to use pen and paper; while visualization allows you to see 2D or 3D structures and mentally moving and rotating them, and make some statements that are simple in the visual form, but their description in words is clumsy. (It is easier to move your hands and say "rotate like this" than to say "rotate around the vertical axis by 90 degrees clockwise".)

I personally do not visualize whenever learning or reading STEM material. I think mostly in words. Weirdly, I do find that diagrams and graphs help make things clearer for me, but I don't (or sometimes can't) visualize them myself in my mind's eye (even though I understand the concept).

The first layer of internal visual experience I have when reading is a degree of synesthesia (letters have colors). Most of the time I'm not aware that this is happening. It does make recalling writing easier (I sometimes deduce missing letters, words or numbers from the color).

Then there is the "internal blackboard", which I use for equations or formulas. I use conscious effort to make the equation appear as a visual experience (in its written form). I can then manipulate this image as if the individual symbols or symbol groups were physical objects that can move and react with each other. This apparently allows me to solve more complex equations in my head than most mathematicians. (I believe this is a learnable skill.)

Finally, there are the visual experiences that I use to understand concepts. I'm not sure how to describe these, because these certainly aren't actual images that are actually possible. More like structures of shapes, spatial relations and other "sub-visual" experiences. It's not like I can actually visualize an n-dimensional subspace, but it isn't simply a lower-dimensional analogue either. It looks thin, but with a vast inside, in a way that would be contradictory in "normal" visual experience.

Whenever I read about a concept that seems interesting (e.g. Moloch), I pause. Then I take the verbal experience of what I've read, and use it as a guide for some internal thought process to follow. The nature of this process is the creation and manipulation of impossible visual experiences of this kind.

These days my visualization is a lot fainter than it used to be, so faint in fact that sometimes I barely see anything at all, in spite of knowing what I'm (not) seeing. This includes my dreams, and maybe even waking experience (how would I tell?), and I believe this is unnatural. This only seems to have a negative effect on the "internal blackboard", but not on any of the other mechanisms I mentioned.

1 Related Questions

2Mary Chernyshenko20dFascinating! My first "thought" on reading the description was that I see the golden background around the olive-skinned man, like on an old painting, and I know how his body is tilted. Then, "there's an assassin". What? :) I mean, sure he's an assassin, but let's not be hasty here :) And this reminds me of how some writers compress visual imagery. Pratchett's "complex interplay of forces" (when a man throws a dagger, I think in the beginning of "The Pyramids") really did a lot for me. It's the successional character of the movement, half-conscious but ever so controlled, so living-muscle, which draws the attention very tightly and maybe makes imagination cheaper in the process.
2Mary Chernyshenko20dI wonder how that relates to visualizing the development of chess positions. For me it's kind of in-between imagination and just seeing the board as is (and I seldom can imagine it beyond one exchange of moves). Also, imagining "trivial" things like sitting on a riverbank with a fishing rod is easier for me than imagining things from, say, a dictionary of botanical terminology. It has always been a pain to the extent that I can't describe leaf shapes etc. like they are supposed to be described, beyond the elementary level. But that might be a different failing, an inability to sort things accurately. For some reason, I can still use identification keys which require one to choose between several options, even when the key says "the combination of features is different". I guess people make them as easy to follow as possible, stripping the vocabulary to the basics.
1Crackatook18dMy gaining here is that people without aphantasia still have weakness in creating mental images. Aphantasia people just have more. Writing a visual description, creating a mental image for art, or remembering every moment of life are obviously difficult tasks to normal person, while trained aphantasia person may be able to. In my experience, intention of creating mental image directly turn to the "feeling" of creating the image(most people stops here), which can be scattered easily if I try to look up the image clearly. Based on unreliable online source, aphantasia comes from the error of response from visual part of brain. Then brain's memory ability can be unrelated issue. Well, it is intuitive to remember something we know well and vice versa. We can lead to more memory issue.
2Selueen21dI have not tried the square test before, and it's weird. At my first attempt I just completely failed. I've certainly seen enough squares in my life to imagine them, but it just did not happen. Then I imagined drawing that square - not the tactile sensition of it, but just the process of going from A to B to C to A, but that only gets me the 3rd type of square. I can push it to the 4 with additional effort, but I can't seem to get past that just yet. So it's far from red. The shape is certainly easier for me to imagine than color, colors tend to be really bleak. It reminds me of another classic example, where they ask you to imagine an apple. At my very first attempt I found that difficult for some reason, but after a while I have no trouble imagining any apples I want - green, red, yellow, mixed color, stem with leaf or without leaf, no stem, partially eaten, cut in half, partially rotten, with a worm inside it, etc etc. But then again I have a lot more experience paying attention to apples then to abstract red squares, even if I do see squares way more often. Maybe it adds to effect. Or maybe all the possible transformations of shape distract me enough from color so that I fail to notice how poor my imagination of it really is.
2mingyuan21dI think it used to apply to me more – as a kid if people asked me something along the lines of "what did you do today?" I would automatically say "I don't know," and then if I thought they wanted a real answer, I would think for a bit. But I could almost always answer after thinking for a couple seconds. I think part of your confusion comes from conflating experiential memory with verbal memory. In the essay, he also mentions that he's really good at remembering arbitrary sequences of digits; I presume that extends to things such as grocery lists, and possibly also intentions that he's formed. For me, I have very few memories of my childhood or even specific experiential memories of more recent years, but I have no trouble remembering what I need to do in a day. (I do keep a LOT of lists and always have. But I have no idea if this is related.)
2Mary Chernyshenko20dBeing around people who value talking about abstract things makes me more attuned to the "word content" of the day. It's like, I can remember going to work on a sunny day or I can remember someone asking her colleague "how do you see/define the depth of a surface in a painting".
1Crackatook21dI suspect personality, skill level, and now aphantasia in your case impacted on fiction writing. Right now, I put personality as the top reason for this. I like comic books and web comics, thus my fiction consists of a series of images and motions in my head, and I don’t really write them down in texts. In this path, I am also not confident of writing a description with a variety of vocabulary. Oh, at the end, lack of time is the main issue, sadly;)