How do you Think?

An article on the BBC website ( ) highlights new research at Exeter University on what the researchers call “aphantasia” – the inability to see mental pictures in one’s head. Prof. Adam Zeman suggests that this could affect 1/50 of the population.

This doesn’t surprise me at all, as I have this “affliction” in a mild form myself; I can see pictures, but they aren’t at all clear. But the article has reminded me of another observation which I made, years ago, which I often mention to clients who don’t visualise well.

I think in language – “Internal Dialogue” – in perfectly grammatical English sentences. I always assumed that everyone else thought this way too, until I asked a Chinese friend brought up in England what language he thought in. He didn’t understand the question, because he didn’t think in language at all; he thought in pictures and symbols. (In retrospect, this may have been connected with the way that Chinese is written.) I’ve asked this question to others many times since, and received a variety of answers.

One of the first things you learn when you study NLP is the concept of “representational systems”. The main ones are V (visual), A (auditory) and K (kinaesthetic – touch and feeling). NLP textbooks say that we all use a mix of these systems, although presumably anyone with total aphantasia will have no V system. Generally speaking, though, we will always have a “preferred” rep system which is better developed than the others; mine is A, so I have a preference, for example, for music and writing (and proofreading!) over the visual arts – I’m hopeless at drawing and painting. I also find it hard to remember faces.

As well as the preferred rep system, we also have a “lead” rep system that we use to retrieve information from memory. If I ask you to think about your last holiday, for example, what is the first thing that comes to mind? When I first came across this concept, I was surprised to discover that my lead rep system is V; the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my last holiday is definitely a picture – although of course it’s not a clear one.

When I took my first NLP Practitioner training, I struggled with some of the exercises, as the trainers’ preferred rep system was clearly V. I still have a problem with a few highly visual NLP techniques, such as Time Line, Swish and the “Fast Phobia Cure”, so I tend to avoid using them with my clients; as a general rule, I prefer to use techniques (in NLP and other therapies) which I have tested on myself.

If you’d like to know more about representational systems, have a look at this article on my website, which was an early attempt of mine at a piece of writing using language appropriate to each of the three main systems. (NLP textbooks also say that we tend mainly to use the language of our preferred rep system.)

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  • Robert Scammell  On August 26, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    It seems I have ‘hyperphantasia’! Oh dear, is that bad…?

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