I discovered several years ago now that many people see pictures in their heads. When they read, when they listen to music, when they’re told stories, they get pictures in their heads.

I do not get pictures in my head. Not when I’m reading, not when I’m writing, not when I listen to music. I had *no idea* that people did. It was a stagger-worthy shock when I realized that Fantasia was based on the idea that people *saw stories in their heads* when they listened to all that music.

*No one* in my immediate family had any idea people did. Dad said he’d have taught many classes differently if he’d known that. I remembered a drama class visualization exercise where we were supposed to visualize we were lying on a white beach with the blue sky above, and palm trees and all that sort of thing, and it bent my brain to think that probably two thirds of the people in the class were *actually seeing that*.

They say to succeed at sports, you have to visualize the win. I had no idea they meant literally. Sure, I can talk myself through it, but actually *see* it? Buh. No.

This clarified something that had been puzzling me for years, when I learned it. There’s a scene in EMILY CLIMBS, the second book of the Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, in which Emily is talking to a man whose son has died. The man can’t remember what the boy looks like, because he isn’t like other people, and can’t bring images to mind.

My entire life, I had always thought that was a weird little scene. I mean, not like I spent nights awake because it actively bothered me, but it always bugged me a little. Like, what did that mean, bringing images to mind? Like people *did* that or something? *snort* (There is another, similar, scene in one of the Feynman books in which he and several other, y’know, like, nuclear scientists, are discussing how to best keep time in one’s head, and he said something about, after they’d all sat around seeing how *they* did it, that the most accurate time-keepers were the ones who saw a clock counting down in their minds. And I thought, buh? Like you could *see* a clock ticking the seconds off? It was only after this conversation came up with friends that I realized that in fact most people can.)

My husband was astounded, because my writing makes clear pictures in his head, and he couldn’t imagine how I did that if *I* wasn’t seeing pictures in my head.

The answer is by working really, really hard.

Behind the cut is a scene from URBAN SHAMAN, my first published novel, and further commentary on this visualization thing.

The horse made more sense now, for some nebulous value of the word sense. It had been able to rear up because after it kicked me in the chest it had torn out the entire door structure, and part of the roof had fallen down. The rest of the roof was on fire. I wasn’t sure how that had happened, but it didn’t seem to bother the horse.

Horse is such a limited word. The beast in the diner had the grace and delicacy of an Arabian and the size of a Clydesdale, multiplied by two. It shimmered a watery grey, bordering on silver, the color so fluid I thought I might be able to dip my hand in it. Despite myself, my gaze jerked up to its forehead. There was no spiral horn sprouting there, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been. It was Plato’s horse, the ideal upon which all others are based.

It was trying to kill me, and all I could do was admire it.

Then it screamed, shrill and deep all at once. The blonde behind the counter shut up, but I screamed back, a sort of primal response without any thought behind it.

Just for a moment, everything stopped.

There was a rider astride the grey, arrested in motion by my scream. He wore grey himself, so close to the color of the horse I could barely tell where one ended and the other began. The reputed Native American belief that white men on horseback were one exotic creature suddenly seemed very plausible.

The rider turned his head slowly and looked at me. His hair was brown, peppered with starlight, and crackled with life, as if touching it would bring an electric shock. It swept back from a massively sharp widow’s peak, and was held in place by a circlet. His face was a pale narrow line, all high cheekbones and deep-set eyes and a long straight nose.

The impression he left was of living silver. I locked eyes with him, expecting to see that liquid silver again. Instead I met wild-fire green, a vicious, inhuman color, promising violence.

He smiled and reached out a hand, inviting me towards him. His mouth was beautiful, thin and expressive, the curve of teeth unnervingly sharp, like a predator’s. I pushed up the counter, using it to brace myself, and wet my lips. Marie was right. I was going to die. The rider wanted my soul and I was going to give it to him without a fight because of that smile and those inhuman eyes. I took a step towards him.

That scene, those paragraphs, took me about six hours to write. Not all at once, but going back and staring and thinking and crafting and working as hard as I could to get all the words right. The penultimate and antepenultimate paragraphs took me about four hours of work alone. Remember that I write, on average, about a thousand words an hour. Description is *not easy* for me. And I find it utterly fascinating that apparently something like two thirds of people see pictures in their heads.

Me, I can’t hold an image in my head for more than an instant. Ted, otoh, can apparently call up a specific person or thing, hold the image in his mind, do a 3D rotate on it…bizarre beyond belief.

(At a con a few years ago I put this question (“Do you visualize?”) to the 40 people in the room with me and my panel partner. Every single one of them raised their hands. I said, “You all are *weird*,” and only realized when several people laughed and pointed out I was the oddball there that I was, er, well, the oddball. But being me, I persisted in thinking *they* were weird.)

So tell me: do you visualize? If so, can you do the 3D image thing? If you’re a writer, what happens in your head while you’re writing? Are there pictures? Do you keep images in your mind when you write them? If you visualize, do you like poetry? What *kind* of poetry?


22 comments to Visualization

  • Michele Conti

    That’s very interesting. I found your books at the bookstore, picked one up, one of the stand alone ones as apparently none of the “Book One’s” were in, anywhere.

    That being said, I never knew there were people that *didn’t* visualize. That, some people, couldn’t draw up the pictures of events that had happened in their minds. I always thought that was just the way things were. Interesting…

    The problem with *me* visualizing, and writing, is that my brain goes off on tangents that make no logical sense for whatever I’m writing. So if I decide to not work on any particular storyline I end up having to edit out a bunch of journal-type-nonesense that makes little to no sense in regards to the rest of the writing.

    Poetry is easier though, or at least it seems easier to me. You don’t have to complete the sentences, or use proper grammar, or even complete a whole thought to get your point across.

    Reading other writers’ work is when I *really* start to visualize though. The books play like a movie in my head. Sometimes I actually feel like I’m there, a spectator, watching like you would a lion or monkey at a zoo, and I have emotional responses that coincide with what’s going on in the book, the movie in my head.

    Of course, then some jerk goes and makes it into a *real* movie and screws everything up, the actors are all wrong, they miss tons of stuff, that movie by rights should have been 3 hours long but it was only 1.5. Yep…I ramble about that kind of thing every time someone does a screen-play on a book that I like. Then my mother reminds me, “Well, that’s what they saw in their heads, you can’t fault them for being different.”

  • Catie asked: do you visualize? If so, can you do the 3D image thing? If you’re a writer, what happens in your head while you’re writing? Are there pictures? Do you keep images in your mind when you write them? If you visualize, do you like poetry? What *kind* of poetry

    OMG. Catie, I never ever see in pictures. I thought I was the only one in the whole world who can’t. I can’t bring up pictures of faces, even my own hubby or mother. If I saw a mugger or murderer I could tell someone what they looked like, if I started the process right away, but I’d never be able to do it after a few minutes. I’d recognize them if I saw them again, but I couldn’t bring up a *picture* of them.

    My hubby can do the 3D thing. First time he told me about it, I didn’t believe him. So can my mom. We 3 were eating lunch one day and they were talking about this and I told them they were destined for the loony bin. I *had no idea!!!* (Mom also has the gift synesthesia, colors and numbers, pictures and numbers, which is weirder.)

    When I write, the world disappears, and I suppose there are pictures (of a sort), but more, there are emotions and words. Just wonderful words. The words build a *partial vision.* But if I see a movie of the story later, I am not bothered by it at all. Nothing in my brain to fight with.

    And I do not do poetry. I can sometimes see what it needs, if I am critiquing it, but I don’t read or write it.
    Thank you for being a *word* person!!!

  • I do visualize as I write. I see scenes in sometimes minute detail. I’ll see a room, say. But I don’t just see shape and color and furniture. I’ll see things like the post-it note stuck on a desk with something scrawled on it in blue ink. I’ll note the way it refuses to lie flat, instead curling up slightly like a dried leaf. Sometimes I can do the 3-D thing, but I have to really work at that. But I see stuff as I write. I see people, places, objects, and the images remain in my head until the moment I’ve committed them to words. They they vanish, and recalling them without referring to what I wrote can be next to impossible. Weird.

    But I don’t get poetry at all.

  • Mark Wise

    I must say that it boggles my mind that there are people who cannot visualize things, especially writers.

    For me when I write, I close my eyes and the book plays out like a movie constantly running in my head. I can see it, feel it, and smell it. I can hear my characters voices as the speak their lines. It is almost like I am channeling another universe through myself.

    So this very idea just blows my mind.

  • I’m a movie-in-the-head type, me. But not really 3-D. More like the flat screen of an actual movie.

    I hate when I’m reading and I suddenly realize that the character I’ve been visualizing looks nothing like what I was seeing all along. Blonde instead of dark, or taller than I had imagined. But it’s not the writer’s fault – it’s just me being way too visual.

    I’m curious, to you non-visual folks…when you dream, does it look like a movie? If not, how do your dreams manifest?

  • […] because 1. I’ve been meaning to, but much more importantly, 2. I have today brought up the topic of visualization, which is one of my favorite weird things to discuss. People should pop over there and discuss it, […]

  • Visualizing with me is fairly well developed hence the user name. For me it works like this. 90% of the time it’s like watching a really great movie and I can evoke sounds too, hear conversations in my head and so on. If I try harder, I can take action in 1st person POV. It’s one of the best things that I enjoy with writing. Creating and living in a whoel new reality.

  • So tell me: do you visualize? If so, can you do the 3D image thing? If you’re a writer, what happens in your head while you’re writing? Are there pictures? Do you keep images in your mind when you write them? If you visualize, do you like poetry? What *kind* of poetry?

    Myself, I’ve always visualised — it never occurred to me that others didn’t or couldn’t. I’ve got a cinema running in my head almost every waking moment [and bloody distracting that is, too], but sometimes it’s more like looking up onto a stage and watching a live performance. And yes, I do the 3D image thing — there are times I find ‘myself’ in the thick of a scene and can turn and view everything going on around me, getting input for all five physical senses.

    As a visual artist, I’m extremely visually oriented. But I’m also a musician, and I understand that musicians tend to have larger or stronger corpus collosums [collosi?], that bit that bridges the hemispheres of the brain, so I’m guessing that has something to do with it.

    Poetry? Yeah, totally into evocative free-verse prose and haiku.

  • See, Harry, it never once in my entire life occurred to me that “daydreaming” was called that because it was just like dreams, only awake. Daydreams for me are words, not images. I cannot imagine anything else. 🙂


  • There are three types of learners: visual, audio, and kinesthetic. Most people default to one type and can do the others – but with difficulty.

    This distinction flows through almost everything you do. I’m a kinesthetic learner, which means that I remember things as movements (give me an upside-down keypad, and I can’t type my pin number – I cannot tell you what it is, I can only type it up and read it off the keys); which means that I have to go through a new set of movements to learn it rather than watch someone else do it or have someone tell me ‘do this, do that’.

    It also means that the movie inside my head is mostly made up of movement and feeling and emotion; with a sideorder of dialogue.

    I can and do visualise what someone else has written – but rarely. My own stuff, I have to deliberately sit down and look around, and imagine it – and then I have the uphill task of finding the words so that it will appear like that in other people’s heads.

    Strangely enough what has helped me is partly my photography – the conscious act of *looking at stuff* – but also dabbling in 3D art. For the first time in my life, I am starting to think visually. And it’s _weird_, a sort of ‘people do this all the time?’ thing, It really has helped my writing, though, and I enjoy it, so I don’t complain.

  • I can’t visualise at all, so this has been a fascinating entry (and comments) for me.

    I admit I thought the people who can do it were the weird ones, so it’s interesting (if depressing) to discover that it’s actually me and most people can.

    I’ve always felt it’s a bit unfair as I’d love to be able to see pictures, but I just can’t. I’ve always wondered how people remember well enough to do indentikit pictures and the like as I’m sure I’d be totally hopeless at it. I guess now I know.

    My facial recognition and the like is absolutely terrible. When watching TV I have to ask my husband if that person I’m seeing now is the same person as I saw before and stuff like that.

    I have very vivid and interesting dreams that are very pictorial, but it all fades away when I wake up and I can barely remember what happened, and I certainly can’t see it any more. It’s frustrating, as I’m sure there were some good stories in there, but it’s all gone by lunchtime.

  • I “visualize,” but not visually. My sensory focus is kinesthetic and tactile; I can remember how it felt to move around in places where I used to live much better than I can remember what they looked like, for example. And the same thing happens as I read fiction; I feel, rather than seeing.

  • Holli

    I’m a visualizer. I also dream in Technicolor. I was in college before I realized not everyone did both. When I write I visualize, too. I can do the whole 3-D 360 thing. It’s like my own personal theater up there. The problem with visualizing when writing is making sure you get just enough of the scene. It’s tempting to want to describe every little thing…but that can be boring and tedious. Conversely, I can go to the other extreme and gloss over it too much. Finding the balance can be difficult. It can also make it hard to focus on what you are writing. I can space out easily into my own little scene and forget to write a word. I can get maybe 700 words an hour if I really try to focus on a good day. I also found in college that if the literature was too dry and I could not visualize it then it was almost impossible for me to absorb the information. Visualization can be helpful but it can also be a hindrance. But I cannot imagine not being able to.

  • And I forgot to answer the question about poetry…I like to read some of it, but I can’t write it well at all. I wish I could, and I try now and then, but it all comes out sounding like some angst-ridden twelve-year-old’s paean to love. Or her horse. Or whatever. 😀 And I despise studying poetry, because the teacher always seemed to want me to see the deeper meaning. What if there WASN’T a deeper meaning? What if “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was just about a dead man being washed out of a ruined plane?

    Probably why I love this poem:

    Introduction to Poetry
    by Billy Collins

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.


  • Misty, poetry is easy to a point, but well it depends on the person really. If you are a writer and you write fiction there is some really good chance that you can be great with poetry. I simply have to disagree that there is not a deeper meaning though. In poetry every word stands for something deeper and there is only ways to portray the deeper thoughts. Sometimes it’s written in a more available and not so metaphoric language, which makes understanding easier. However high rank poetry handles extreme metaphors and symbols and what not.

    Okay as for visualization I agree with Green Knight, whom by the way I am happy to see here. I read this article, handled it sometime back in school and I can’t believe I forgot about it.
    You must be kinesthetic too. I never really met or heard of an audio learner.

    PS: Misty I agree that there is poetry meant for fun. Limericks are just funny little comedy pieces.

  • “If you are a writer and you write fiction there is some really good chance that you can be great with poetry.”

    And there’s the chance that you’re not great with poetry, too. 🙂 I am not, and I’m perfectly okay with that.

    Poetry that I enjoy tends to be poetry that is easily accessible to we visual types. I don’t care for free verse much; I prefer poetry with a beat, and a rhyme. Old-fashioned, I know, but I’m an old lady, so there. 🙂 One of my favorite poems is Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”. It’s a story, designed to entertain. I love the cadence, and the language. I don’t require that it be something bigger than it is. The story is enough.

  • Catie, I had no idea! Your books are so good and descriptive. Wow do you work hard! I am humbled.

    I used to be very visual as a child, to the point of nearly a photographic memory. But as I’ve grown up I find the ability has diminished. When I read, I struggle to visualize anything. I have to reread the paragraph slowly and purposely to imagine it. Also because my eyesight is so poor I have trouble recalling things because I doubt my ability to discern details. (Also, I read so fast that there’s no point to visualizing anything. If I wanted to see it, I’d watch a movie.)

    When I’m writing, I’ll see snatches of a scene as a flat-screened movie, sometimes, and hear voices. I’m much more inclined to hear dialogue than to see a scene play out in full. The idea that people can recall things in 3D boggles me; I’ve never heard of that.

    I think it’s easier for me to visualize my own stuff as I’m making it up precisely because I’m making it up, so it can look like whatever and be ‘right’, but to recall other things or visualize other people’s works, I have trouble because it needs to be correct and I struggle with it. It should come as no surprise that I am awful with spatial relationships and depth perception. 😀

  • Logging on from the laptop from somewhere in the NC mounains…
    Misty, I dream in sepia and words. The few multicolor dreams I’ve had have always been intense, the kind where I work through an emotional childhood problem.

    When I visualize a scene someone else is writing, the world around me disappears and there are snatches of visuals, but most is just words and emotions.

    Living with a man who *never* thinks in words, it blows my mind that we can communicate at all. I taught him how to talk, and he is still teaching me to visualize.

  • “Living with a man who *never* thinks in words, it blows my mind that we can communicate at all. I taught him how to talk, and he is still teaching me to visualize.”

    That is so romantic!!!!!!

  • Yeah…*smug smile*.
    We’uns is.

  • sheri

    There must be a way to cure this terrible malady with which I suffer as well…anyone have any secret potions…other than illegal drugs…although I don’t believe even those would brighten my inner horizons.

    This must be a simple block or veil which can be lifted….any clues out there?

  • Shay

    Looking over the site for the first time and this article really caught my eye.
    I see nothing that I can ever recall while I’m reading. I can force myself to visualize what it must look like, or I’ll get a glimpse of something, but never ‘movie style’ like some people were saying.
    Oddly, even several years after reading a book, I’ll see scenes play out in my head. Especially from Louis L’Amour novels. Something will remind me of a certain scene from a book and I wont right away know if the scene was from a movie or a book. It’s always crystal clear and movie-like to me when something reminds me of the scene. But never during the actual reading. (Well, it must be there during the reading or else where did it come from? But I have no real knowledge of it happening.) I find it strange also that sometimes it’s actual people, but most of the time I visualize the scenes anime style with drawn characters.