How do you read?

So last week, and Ted and I were sitting around talking, and Emily said something about the radio drama in her head while she was reading. Ted said, “You only get a radio drama?” and she said, “Oh, no, I get pictures, too.”

Now, Ted has said this before, but I always thought he was exaggerating, so it sort of threw me, and I said, “You really see *pictures* while you’re reading?” And they both insisted that yes, they did. Rather like being the camera in a movie, in fact.

It took me rather some time to believe them. I don’t *get* pictures in my head when I’m reading. If I think back on a scene, I can see it play out, but it doesn’t play out in my head while I’m reading it. Nor does it play out in my head while I’m writing it. I have, at best, stills. I can call images and scenes up, but they don’t naturally play out in my head.

So we went to my parents’ house and asked them, because this was so fascinating and weird to all three of us (for me, that they see pictures; for them, that I don’t!). My parents don’t see pictures when they read.

Ted’s parents and brother do.

Shaun does.


The random waitress we asked at Tony Roma’s does.

Do *you*?

And, corollary to that: if I tell you to think of, oh, Tom Cruise, do you see a 3-D sort of image of him in your mind? Or a photograph? Or… what? I *can* call up an image in my mind, but I can’t hold it. I *know* what Tom Cruise looks like, but I don’t *see* it. So… what happens when you, my gentle readers, read?

Further corollary, for writers: what happens to you when you’re writing? Do you see what’s happening, or do you … *know* what’s happening (I more or less do), or do you (struggle to?) hold images in your head to describe them (I do), or something else entirely?

Third corollary (I’ve just learned how to spell corollary and I’m very excited about it, can you tell?): how fast do you read? We’ve determined thus far that the seeing pictures aspect isn’t, as we thought it might be, related to reading speed, as Dad, who reads slowly, doesn’t see pictures, and Ellen and Ted, who read very fast, do, and Shaun and Emily, who read slowly, do, and Mom and I, who read very fast indeed, don’t. But I’m curious anyway!

Please! Discuss! :)

36 thoughts on “How do you read?

  1. No pictures. I often get a radio drama, though. And sometimes I have to slow down because my brain insists on reading a section aloud to itself, just to savor the language. :)

  2. I usually have images while reading. (And yes, now I can “see” a headshot of Tom Cruise and that godawful grin.)

    I always have images in mind while writing. Well, almost always. Sometimes description comes naturally; other times it takes some coaxing, and at those times I’m having trouble seeing what’s there. Dialogue is always easier, and I can almost always “hear” it.

    When I was a teen, I speed-read. If memory serves (and it might not, because I’m very old), I had even more vivid images in mind while reading back then. These days, I’m not exactly pokey, but I’m much slower until I get near the end of a mediocre book and just want to know who the hell dies.

    P.S. How did you get grab your Mr. Picassohead image? I want mine, but I can’t figure out how to download it. I know, I know, I’ve become a mere end-user.

  3. Pictures, definitely. Sometimes to the point where I can’t even remember seeing the words on a page.

  4. I read very quickly. I do not get pictures of much of anything clearly in my head. Not when reading not when things are described to me… I just don’t see pictures in my head. I can sort of hold a photograph picture of Tom Cruise in my head and if I concentrate on it, I can fill in all of the details but unless I’m concentrating it’s very blurry and just not there in places.

  5. I get vivid, full-color, soundtracked movies and television shows. The fact that you *don’t* doesn’t surprise me even a little. Over the years I’ve known you, I’ve dropped a rough ton of pop culture references on you and a large portion of them whizzed right over your head. I’m pretty certain both that, and the not-pictures thing, are part of the same thing. I grew up very much media-saturated; I was taking a video bath pretty regularly, as it were, and every bit of most every movie I’v seen has mainlined at the least its storyline, imagery, and soundtrack right into my brain. Can the same be said of you? I’d be startled if your experience is even all that close. What is a little surprising is that you don’t see what you’re reading as a comic book or graphic novel, given your digestion of same. Folks visualize in terms of the visual language they’ve learned, ultimately.

    And, corollary to that: if I tell you to think of, oh, Tom Cruise, do you see a 3-D sort of image of him in your mind? Or a photograph? Or… what? I *can* call up an image in my mind, but I can’t hold it. I *know* what Tom Cruise looks like, but I don’t *see* it.

    How would you like me to visualize him? I can do full 3-D, and get most every angle available. I can recreate him saying any line he has or hasn’t said. I can flatten him to a photograph. And I can run through a good portion of his Mission: Impossible performances, some bits from Rainman and Minority Report and Top Gun, and of late, fragments of what I’ve seen of the previews for The Last Samurai.

    Nothing to say on the second bit.

    On the third: I read fast, but I have to rewind and reread with some frequency. Unfortunately, my speed of reading tends to outpace my comprehension of what I’m reading (bizarre and freakish, I know) … I have the lovely confusion of having (relative to my other skills) poor reading comprehension but a degree in English. Go fig.

  6. I sometimes get pictures and sometimes don’t when reading. If I am engrossed by the writing I always get mental visuals. I always get them when writing.

    I read fairly fast, but not as fast as I used to when I was younger (I’m more easily distracted now).

  7. On the third: I read fast, but I have to rewind and reread with some frequency. Unfortunately, my speed of reading tends to outpace my comprehension of what I’m reading (bizarre and freakish, I know) … I have the lovely confusion of having (relative to my other skills) poor reading comprehension but a degree in English. Go fig.

    Not freakish; I have the same problem. What’s frustrating and embarassing is that my wife reads significantly faster than I do. I can read at her speed, but not with any comprehension. The competetive side of me gets very very twitchy about that. =)

    As for what I see when I read…hmm. I don’t really get pictures unless I happen to associate something with something that’s already in my memory. Sometimes, if I try, I can assemble an image of some or something, but I either can’t hold onto it or it becomes an image I already know. Sometimes I surprise myself by discovering, much later, what this image is. Often-times it turns out to be an image I created in a dream. Sometimes I hold those in my mind more clearly than real images.

  8. I’m a pop culture fiend and I don’t have the visual recall that you do. I would love to be able to recall things like that. It’s like I compress for space by flattening and thinning out.

  9. In so far as I create images while reading (or writing), they tend very much to be static. Not necessarily comic-book in rendering or layout, but if I have images they’re not the full-action thing that so many people describe, and they’re also not instinctive. I can call up images — or scenes, for that matter, and see them in action — but it’s not anything like what you describe. My images tend to be more… movie-poster, or book-cover, or, yah, maybe comic-bookish.

    We discussed the media-saturation point, too. Aberdeen and Ted both say they didn’t watch much in the way of tv/movies in their youth, so while it seems like it might be a factor, I’m not sure how weighty it is. It’s all *really* interesting, though.

    I have the same problem with reading too fast and having to rewind sometimes, but not often.

  10. Not an image to be found. If I really, really, really try, I can get a sort of vague, detail-less thumbnail.

    I saw Lord of the Rings two days ago, which impressed the hell out of me visually, and even now, I can’t call up more than a somewhat hazy image of any of the particular scenes–I KNOW, for example, that in the last scene, Elrond was very tall and wearing white robes and I sort of know what the actor looked like, but I can’t describe it in any more detail, and I could no more sit down and draw it out than I could fly. I recall dramatic panning scenes, I recall being impressed by them, but I can’t see them again–not in detail, not in general outline, just a sort’ve hazy “Yeah, there was something big over there, and I guess some guys here, and…uh…a darkish bit here?…”

    It’s a little like flipping at high speed through a bunch of TV channels–there’s a brief glimpse, but I can’t hold it long enough to make out details.

    I think in words, actually. A phrase from a scene will stick with me, and I have a very solid sense of interaction, say, but no visuals. And it’s not like I really hear the words inside my head, like a radio, either–the words just ARE. I dunno.

    Why I’m a visual artist is still a mystery to me, but I think I’m actually lucky–a lot of artists express frustration when a painting doesn’t match the picture in their heads, and for me, with only the haziest of thumbnails as a starting point, the issue just doesn’t come up!

  11. Augh, now you’ve done it. That question is rather like asking exactly which muscles you use when walking — it immediately becomes impossible to take another graceful step. And now I can’t read a line without pausing to check if I see images =)

    The more serious answer is, uhm, ‘sometimes’. Some scenes evoke very clear images, most don’t unless I stop to actively try to summon one. I was reading ‘The Last Continent’ a bit earlier, and a scene with thirsty sheep clustering hopefully around a windmill was a clear image while I was reading. (Rincewind frantically digging a hole for water was complete with moving images of damp clods of earth crumbling in 3-d action.) On the other hand scenes like the old man carrying the universe in a sack brings up zilch, and the surfing wizard in once scene I can only imagine in poor 2-d, toon-style.

    Which brings the LOTR movies to mind — I never had any kind of clear image of Gondor, so was perfectly happy with the one chosen in the movie. I was also happy with things like the elf rope detaching itself from the stone in Two Towers which maches my mental image. Scenes that are entirely contrary to mental images are more difficult to deal with. (Blond and longhaired Legolas, where I had a fairly clear mental image of black hair worn short.)

    Anyhow. Back to staring at the turkey and trying to make it defrost just a little quicker — dinner will be late today =)

  12. Ha! Ted and his family watched tons of movies, near as I can tell; at least when he was in late HS and college….I remember us being astounded at the number of movies his folks had on tape, and Ted *always* seemed to have an answer to those “What was the movie with X doing something like Y….?”

  13. No pictures here. Soundtrack, rarely. Feelings, sometimes. I read fairly quickly and I like to think that I have good reading comprehension. I also have a fairly good memory for those pop culture references I’ve been exposed to. My SO and kids and I have been known to have conversations in quips from movies. (Yes, even the four year old occasionally quotes from her favorites.) However, those references aren’t accompanied by pictures in my mind. Visual porn/erotica also doesn’t do much for me. Give me words and my imagination!

  14. Upon thinking on this… I have to say both. Sometimes when I read, there are no pictures, but sometimes the scenes are locked so vividly in my head with the characters that long after I forget the plot of the book, the scenes still play just as though I’ve seen a movie. Sometimes I have to go back and reread something to try to get a picture scene in my head – which is like directing a play. You go there, you stand here, don’t trip over the table which says that it’s in the middle…

    Typically I’m a fast reader.

    Same goes for writing – there are scenes that I carry around and they play out in my head. When I try to write these I usually fail miserably. I almost prefer when I’m writing and it’s almost a surprise that that is how the scene plays out. I may see a way a hand is gestured or how someone is tromping across a snowy yard, but it’s not in every bit and piece I write.


  15. I don’t see pictures as I read usually. But if I think back on a book, I will have pictures to go with it. They just weren’t there when I read it (that I’m aware of, they surely must come from somewhere).

    If you tell me to think of Tom Cruise, I will whine. But I will probably see his face and be able to hear his voice.

    When I write, I am usually just trying to keep up with the narrator in my head, who is much quicker than I am. Very rarely are there visuals as I write it. Again, after the fact, I have images.

    I read pretty damn fast. (My husband and I just had a conversation about what happens if he accidentally brings home confidential material. He says to me “Don’t read it.” And I stare at him because I pretty much can’t *look* at a page of printed material without reading it. When reading I often have to slow myself down so I don’t miss the details.)


  16. *laugh* I spent the whole weekend reading books and stopping to think about whether I was seeing images, too, but I wasn’t, and after a while I accepted that and stopped trying to see. :)

  17. I do that too–if I think back on a scene from a book I generally see the action, not the words, but *as* I’m reading, it’s just the words.

    Fine, fine, envision your grandfather instead of Tom Cruise, I don’t care. :)

  18. Wow. I can’t decide if I’m astounded or not. I sort of am, because you’re a painter, but on the other hand, you write really well, too, and I’m not at all surprised that you think in words.

    And it’s not like I really hear the words inside my head, like a radio, either–the words just ARE.

    Yes, exactly. *Exactly*.

    Wow. Okay, you put a big old hole in the “artists will see pictures” theory, but that’s so cool! This has all been a very interesting discussion!

  19. *giggle* Good discussion topic. To bring up my own favorite actor (HAH! she brings up Mr. Crowe on the thinnest of excuses)… when I generally think of him it is in 2-d context because that it is how I see him most often, via pictures and movies. I think this is probably why my brain melted when we passed him on the street in Portland, because suddenly he was 3-d and real, and AAAAAH THAT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN! ;) Same deal with Alan Doyle and Great Big Sea.

    I can, however, very easily call pictures of the media gentlemen I admire to mind. I can bring up Tom Cruise in my brain, for that matter.

    Reading… I don’t quite get the full movie effect. I get bits and pieces of things visualized. Or else I’ll get a full scene in my head but it is wispy and insubstantial, like a dream. It partly depends on the power of the writer. Much of what I can visualize as I read will be the main characters and how they interact with one another. The language of what I am reading will distract me somewhat from the visualization, if it’s good enough. Sometimes. Other times it’ll improve what I can see.

    (Go not to the Elves for counsel, etc., etc., hee.)

    Writing, I can get more visualization because more often I need to build the picture in my head to figure out what’s going to happen next, and how to describe it. Especially if there are multiple people involved in the scene. It’s become sort of a descendant skill of being on a MUSH and keeping tabs on where everybody is by their poses. With writing, though, it’s just my brain, and there’s no text involved until I actually write it, so I start visualizing stuff.

  20. I definitely don’t see pictures in my head when I read, or really any other time unless I’m asleep (or close to it) and day-dreaming. Sometimes if I try I’ll remember a particular scene from a book with a visual, but it’s usually random; for instance, when I think about a particular Pamela Dean short story I picture a cinnamon stick because someone is described as having something (eyes?) the colour of cinnamon. Not a reliable memory method for me.

    If you mention Tom Cruise I get a very brief flash of a woman with long hair which I think comes from the trailer for Far and Away, a movie which I’ve never seen and which I actually have no idea if it has Tom Cruise in it, but I think maybe his wife was? Or was that Tom Hanks? Again, I have no idea what Tom Cruise looks like, and can’t generate anything like a picture. Even if you’d picked an actor I know very well I couldn’t hold a picture of them in my head for more than a half-second; if I want to be able to describe someone I have to write a mental description in my head while looking at them.

    When writing I struggle to hold images in my head, or just know what’s happening in words.

    And I read very fast.

    Hi Kit! Congratulations!

  21. *giggle* Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman were both in Far and Away, in fact. :)

    Hi Cera! Thanks! :)

  22. Hmmm… I was pretty saturated with media stuff as a kid, but I still don’t see pictures, per se. More… hmm… full-body senstim plus emotional immersion and plot mapping with time coordinates… 4-D? Plus the extra stuff that words easily convey that pictures don’t.

  23. *grin* My mother, who’s a very good painter, is exactly the same way–doesn’t see images at all, plans everything out in words and blurry thumbnails first.

    On t’other hand, we’re both realists to a large extent–she started as a very exact photo-realist, in fact. It may be easier, if you’re a painter who thinks in words, to paint as a realist because you DON’T need to mine the image from inside your head–you just gotta get the references and try to match them all together.

  24. I forgot to answer the other parts of the question, so for completeness:
    I read fast, though I tend to deliberately pace myself these days so the books will last longer and I won’t have to go back to check details so much. (Twenty years ago, I’d barely be skimming the pages while reading to get the gist of the book.)

    And my formative years were multi-media deprived. Not sure we had a tv when I was a toddler, and we didn’t get a color one until I was in my teens. Wasn’t allowed to watch more than half an hour of tv a day in general, and going to the movies was quite restricted for economic reasons.

  25. I see pictures. In fact, I see movies as I read and wallow in the prose occasionally – particularly GGK and the VC.

    I have a distressingly good memory – I can find my way back step by step in a city I’ve never been in simply by remembering what I was thinking at each step of the journey. Even if I was taking back streets.

    I multi-think. I don’t know if anyone else does this or if I’m just weird, but I think about more than one thing at a time. I always have at least three tracks dedicated to characters and WIPs–of which I have far too many.

    When I write, I see it, feel it, live it. Hence the inconsolable crying for about eight hours during and after writing the death of the character who has become my favourite.

    I hear the characters and see them 24/7. Though sometimes–Lucas–their presence is rather too much of a distraction.

    I can visualise Tom Cruise any way you want and probably quote extensively. There again, I’m the person who can quote at length from Shakespeare In Love and probably play the whole thing in my head note-perfect.

    Words and their accompanying images are, and always have been, overwhelmingly important to me. I learnt to read before I was four and my favourite book then was Lord of the Rings. The first film I ever saw was when I was 5/6, and I didn’t have even semi-regular access to a TV until the age of 13.

    I do, however, dream vividly. To the point that, if I were not a lucid dreamer and aware that I’m not awake, I would believe myself to be so. I see, hear, feel, smell and taste everything. Dunno if that might be a clue.

    I can dream entire novels, or wander round a house I have only read about. It’s like being able to visit another world in a way.

    Sometimes it feels that way when I write – that I’m visiting a world inhabited by people I’ve met and described rather than created.

    I read fast. I think I read more slowly now, because I get sidetracked by characters’ reactions. At fifteen, Animal Farm took me quarter of an hour.

    Once, in high school, I was timed reading a page. Eight seconds. So they quizzed me on it, convinced that I had just skimmed, and I could recite it back practically verbatim.

    I don’t have a photographic memory, but if I hear something–and I do hear reading–I can often reproduce it accurately. To the point of being able to continue conversations from a year previously.

    It drove my teachers crazy, because they *knew* I was reading under the desk, but I could still tell them word for word what they had said. And my mother used to tell my brothers, sister and myself off for quoting over-extensively from everything we’ve ever seen, so I think they’re similarly inclined. ;)

    Of course, I could just be a raving loony. That’s more than possible.

  26. Yes, but you’re a raving loony with a REALLY COOL ICON. Ahem. :)

    I multi-think, too. Which may not make you any less of a raving loony, but at least there’s someone else in your company. :)

    The retracing steps through a city via what you were thinking about is pretty cool, though.

  27. I mentally saved on to this and came back, because quite a bit of what you’re talking about has a direct corollary (*wink*) to the work I’ve been doing for the past five years.

    Okay, we all know about the two hemispheres of the brain, right? Right. The left side of our brain processes language; the right side deals with images. There’s also a little connector-thingie (gotta love those technical terms!) between the two sides.

    Most people make images when they read or write, whether or not they’re really cognizent of it. We think in images–words are just abstract symbols to convey those images, as we haven’t developed telepathy yet. We do this with oral language as well, but again, most of the time we aren’t really conscious of it. Buried away in my old work stuff are some great quotes on imagery from Aristotle, Einstein, Tennessee Williams, etc. about this sort of stuff.

    There’s also two kinds of images: receptive and expressive. You might think of them also as recall and self-generated. When you’re asking about picturing Tom Cruise, you’re basically asking folks to recall an image they’ve seen before. Cruise, as a well-known actor, has had many, many images spread out to the general public, so most people will recall one or a mishmash of those. Few people are going to generate their own image of him, say, naked in the kitchen wearing only an apron. And if you’re picturing that happening now that you’ve read this, it’s a response to a stimulus (the words).

    Receptive images are easier than expressive–it is easier for the brain to retrieve an image than to create one. However, if one has sufficiently stimulated both halves of the brain (and has a strong neural connection between them), creating images based on language is much easier. (For more info on the language-picture thing, try googling Dr. Paivio’s dual coding theory. If you can’t find anything, let me know, and I’ll see what I can dig up from my work stuff.) Some people do not receive this stimulation at an early age and have difficulty forming pictures–I have a strong suspicion that overdoses of TV at a very young age have much to do with this (although genetics do play a good factor here). Reading to a child is important for those early stages of brain development; it forces the brain to create its own images. However, if all a child does is watch TV during those formative years, the brain is going to develop much slower, and more along the receptive-image side.

    The development of that dual coding ability is crucial for comprehension. (As someone else noted in hir response, s/he does not make pictures and has poor reading comprehension.) One must be able to generate images from language–either oral or written–but one must also be able to communicate one’s images in language. When either of those abilities are stunted, we often see a learning disability–hyperlexia. (Another symptom is someone who can image just fine, talk about the images just fine, but cannot distinguish the difference between details and main idea. For example: picture the sentence “A man walked his dog in the park.” What did those words make you see? If you answered something along the lines of “a man with a dog on a leash,” you’re doing good. If you answer “grass,” that’s a possible indication of weakness.) Hyperlexic students may also have difficulty with things like consequences, results, what might happen next. They may have difficulty following oral directions–if given a list of five things to do, they may get the first and the last, but nothing in the middle. Students with poor oral comprehension skills are particularly nailed in school, often misdiagnosed as ADD, ADHD, lazy, unmotivated, etc. They cannot process the language, so they tune out–much the same way you or I might do so in, say, an organic chem lecture. We can try to pay attention, but if we’re not getting it, our minds drift. And the more abstract the subject matter, the more difficult it is to picture (this being the reason I didn’t do well in high school chemistry–things were just too small, too abstract, for me to mentally see).

    to be continued . . .

  28. Now, being able to picture and holding the images are different skills. Much of the time when we read (and by “we,” I mean people who are able to picture without any difficulty), the images come so quickly we are not conscious of them. (Same with recall, to a certain extent.) Being able to clearly hold and build on a self-generated image takes a lot of practice if it is not something one is used to doing. You can train your brain to do it, but for some people it comes more naturally than others.

    As for reading speed, there’s a slight connection, but not to the degree that one might think. Base reading speed and imaging don’t have much to do with each other, but if you’re decoding (ie, translating the symbols into recognizable words) at a faster rate than you’re picturing, comprehension will suffer. Haven’t you noticed that when you’re reading something complex and abstract that you slow down, particularly when the subject matter is something you’re unfamiliar with? Dual coding in action.

    I hope that helps shed some light on your questions. I know it doesn’t completely answer them, but let me know if anything I’ve said sparks more curiosity. ;)

  29. I’ve been thinking about this, especially as I churn through book after book in my quest to clear my shelves of unreads.

    I think I’m kind of a cross–I tend to get extremely clear pictures for some things, but often particular details are blurry. Faces, especially, seem to fall in this category. Every so often, I think, “Oh, X looks like Y” and that slots into place for the rest of the book, but it’s pretty rare. It’s like flashes of a movie, I guess, scenes and stills, but not always the entire reel at once. And sometimes, I’m not aware of any pictures at all, if I’m really immersed in a story.

    When thinking of a particular actor or item, I also get sort of a cross; 3-D, but generally of a photograph or somesuch I’ve seen, and certain details always stand out, like Mr. Cruise’s teeth, frex.

    I don’t write much, but did notice this morning when writing down my dreams, that I replayed the images I could remember, as I wrote them down. This sometimes happens when I’m doing minutae life-recap, too, in my journal, but not always.

    One entirely random weird thing is that I tend to read awfully slowly from a screen, online, but I’m a pretty fast reader on paper. Which I don’t understand at all, and maybe someday I’ll experiment with this, but there you go. Anyway. I’m not as fast a reader as I once thought, when I was the only one around who read for pleasure, but I still tear through books at a fast clip, a page or three a minute depending on the density of the story.

    I also have just about the worst media retention on the face of the planet, forgetting details and even plot all too easily. Some things stick with me, and I’ve always done well on standardized tests, so it’s not a total long-term failure, but if I read a book or watch a movie just once, I’m sure to get fuzzy on what happened after a couple of weeks. If I’ve seen/read it a few times, I can recall things almost perfectly, in general. Case in point, most of the Return of the King movie is crystal clear, but the book’s a bit uncertain by now.

    And in reading others’ responses–I was fairly balanced in my formative years, I think; I watched a fair bit of tv, though definitely missed a lot of movies and shows my contemporaries saw, and read way more than anyone else I knew at the time. Also spent a hell of a lot of time imagining and playing out fantasy stories in my head, with imaginary friends who treated me better than my classmates, which my have had more of an impact than any of the media foo.

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