Bookish Musings: How Much Do You “See” and “Hear” in Your Head While Reading?

 
 

If you’ve been on Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen some tweets going around about the different ways different people’s brains work. Some people have a constant inner monologue, while others don’t hear any words in their mind. Some people can visualize images vividly, some see nothing in their minds, and some see things in varying ways in-between the two extremes.

As a reader, I can’t help but wonder if these differences among people might explain some of the differences we have in reading habits, preferences, and experiences. And what better way to find out than a discussion post? I can only talk about my own experiences, but I hope everyone will chime in with your experiences in the comments!


How My Mind Works

I’m someone who sees things pretty vividly in my head. Everything might not be perfectly realistic (something like an apple is easier to make realistic than a person, for example), my brain might keep the unimportant things a bit vague, sometimes things might look more like a painting or animation than real life, sometimes the details might shift, but I do see things in my mind. If you tell me to imagine an apple, I can see, inside my mind, a shiny red apple sitting on a counter top. Or I can have it sitting on my family’s dining table. Or I can picture it on the tile floor. I can make it a green apple. I can imagine someone picking it up and taking a bite. I probably won’t worry too much about the details of the person—unless you tell me it’s a woman with dirty blonde hair in a ponytail, wearing a yellow halter dress, and then I’ll envision that.

This wasn’t really discussed in the Twitter hubbub, but I can also imagine sounds in my brain. I can hear the crunch when that woman bites the apple, I can hear the thunk when she sets it down, etc.

My brain will also generally fill in the blanks when it’s not given specifics. If you told me she was eating the apple in a coffee shop, I wouldn’t need details about the coffee shop. I just picture what I think of as a coffee shop, complete with tables and chairs and other people and the sounds of talking all that jazz. I couldn’t tell you what each person is wearing, or maybe even what colors the chairs are, because those aren’t super important details, but they’re there (kind of like how I don’t notice every detail in real life, but they’re still there), and I could create and see those details if I were asked to. Kind of like how I couldn’t necessarily tell you what a character is wearing in every scene I imagine them in, but they’re definitely not wandering around naked. My brain just puts some clothes on them but doesn’t focus too hard on it unless I’m given a description for the clothes.

Another thing not mentioned but that could be interesting to discuss here, I don’t really control where the “camera” is positioned. My mind just automatically makes those decisions when I’m reading, writing, daydreaming, etc. Sometimes it’s up close and personal, sometimes far off, sometimes 1st person POV, sometimes 3rd person POV. And the POV a book is written in doesn’t affect that.

So how does this apply to my reading habits?

I love character description. The more detail, the better. Because I am going to visualize every character. And if I don’t get enough description, they come out looking kinda vague and generic in my head. Or they’re just constantly shifting because I don’t know how they’re supposed to look, and my brain doesn’t want to lock into anything. And that frustrates me. It’s interesting though because there are some characters my brain can see so vividly, and others that I struggle with.

I don’t always love setting description though. So either that’s because I’m not as good at visualizing that (sometimes I don’t know what authors are talking about when they describe architecture and designs from certain time periods), or it could mean we still have preferences that don’t necessarily relate to how our brains work.

I read slowly and almost always listen to audiobooks on 1x or 1.10x speed. I want to envision all the scenes in real-time in my head, like a movie, and I can’t do that if the narration is too fast.

I’m super picky about audiobook narrators. When I read, every character has a different voice (to an extent, I kinda have a few go-to voices) that I feel suits them, and I hear them talking. I hear the way they talk, their accent (if it’s one I’m able to do), their emotion, etc. So when I listen to a narrator and think, “This would be so much better in my head,” it’s just frustrating. Or when I hear a narrator and think, “That is so not how I imagined that character sounding.” This is why I will sometimes choose to listen to books with TTS (text-to-speech) instead, because that way I can kind of let the robot voice fade out and overlay it with my own imagination.

I don’t like watching movie adaptations after reading a book. I hate having the images in my head ruined.

How Might This Affect Other People’s Reading Habits?

I don’t know, that’s what I’m hoping to learn from you all!

How do you experience stories in your head?

Does it affect what genres or types of books you like?

Do you like character and setting description?

Are you a slow or speedy reader/listener?

Are there any other ways that the way your brain works affects your reading?

This is interesting to me, and I would love to know more, so let me know your thoughts! (Is that a pun in this instance? Lol.) Maybe better understanding the differences in how our brains work could help us all communicate better and understand each other more in general. And if you write (or have already written) your own post about this, leave a link in the comments :-)

 
 
 
 

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How much do you "see" and "hear" in your head?
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  1. Davida Chazan

    OMG! This is exactly my NEXT discussion post! (Spoiler alert: I hear the words in my head, AND I often see the action in my head as well. Makes me a slower reader, and also makes me dislike film adaptations as well.)

  2. Lorna

    I definitely lose myself to the action in my mind. I can picture it all and not necessarily as the author wrote it. I’ll picture someone with dark hair only to find out half way through that she’s a red head or blonde. As far as sound, I really couldn’t tell you. So maybe not? Though I can imagine voices. Interesting topic!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, that happens. That’s why authors need to tell us what characters look like close to the beginning of the book lol. If you hear voices, maybe you hear sounds and just don’t really notice?

  3. Sam@wlabb

    The fastest I go with my audiobooks is 1.25X. I am usually doing something as I listen, therefore, if they are speaking too fast, I miss stuff. I also don’t like when the voices are pitched too high. I am sort of a hypocrite, because my voice is high, but when I crank up that playback, it’s like Minnie Mouse is reading to me. And, same with adaptations. I will watch after I have read, but not vice versa. I never thought about it ruining my visual, I just thought I probably know all the major plot points already.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m glad to find someone else who doesn’t speed up audiobooks to 2x or higher, seems like that’s what everyone does lol. Funny, I’m the opposite with adaptations. I’ll read after watching but not the other way around because at least then I’m not having any of my own visuals ruined.

  4. Roberta R.

    This is such a unique post!

    Like you, I tend to be quite visual – I even see weirdly detailed stuff in my dreams sometimes, maybe in the middle of a blur. An item of clothing, a pavement design, a piece of furniture – and they often have very distinct and strong colours. (I love strong colours LOL).

    I “see” the things I’m reading about, and I don’t seem to think of real places and people when I try to figure out how my bookish places and people look – I kind of make up my own. And once I have an image in my mind, it doesn’t change on my second or nth read. The funny thing is, as able as my minds’ eye can be to come up detailed images, I can’t seem to reproduce the stuff I “see” in a drawing – I can’t draw to save my life 😂.

    I like some descriptions in my books, but too detailed ones sound redundant and pedantic to me…I tend to get bored.

    I wouldn’t know about audiobooks because I’ve never listened to one, but I suppose I would come up with my own imagery as well, and I know for sure I would only want to listen to them at normal speed. Also, voices matter a lot to me, so they would probably make or break a book in my case!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Interesting! My dreams are the same level of visual as my thoughts, though I don’t think I notice specific highly detailed things like that.

      I make up the images too. I know some people can’t though. They visualize based on things they’ve seen in real life, like imagining all houses as theirs or their parents’ or their friends’ houses. I *can* draw, but I still need references! It’s like, I know what something looks like until I have to draw it, and then I have no idea, haha. It’s just a different beast, I guess, imagining something vs actually being able to draw it from memory. I generally picture things the same on rereads, unless I realize I’ve made a mistake (e.g. gave the character black hair but they’re blonde), and then I’ll sometimes try to change it.

      I do think you’d be a 1x speed person, like me. And yep, the voices can def make or break a book for me, it’s why I’m so picky with audiobooks!

  5. Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy

    This is such a cool post! I see images as I’m reading but I’ve never considered how clear they are. But I definitely “see” a scene in my head as I’m reading. I also “hear” each word as I’m reading, strangely enough in my own voice. I’m sure that’s what makes me a slow reader. I know speed readers have trained themselves not to hear words in their head.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Whoa, really? I didn’t know that about speed reading. I thought they just heard the words faster, haha. *high five for slow readers* I’m not sure if I hear the narration in my own voice or the POV character’s voice or kinda a mixture of both. I think I aim for character but probably slip into my own sometimes.

  6. Stephanie Jane (Literary Flits)

    I’m a fast reader and, yes, I do picture people and scenes in my head as I am reading. It’s not a conscious thing and it hadn’t occurred to me that other readers Don’t do this until I read your post. (I missed all the twitter discussion!) I don’t particularly hear sounds or voices though unless I am struggling to decipher an accent that the author’s written phonetically. I love lots of description and atmosphere building in novels because I am imagining myself on the edge of the scene as I read.

  7. Greg

    It is a fascinating subject! Some of the stuff I’ve seen makes me wonder too. Like how different people “see” or “think” in their heads. Oh, and this. “If you told me she was eating the apple in a coffee shop, I wouldn’t need details about the coffee shop. I just picture what I think of as a coffee shop, complete with tables and chairs and other people and the sounds of talking all that jazz”

    Exactly. I’m the same way, I’ll just picture the coffee shop, but if I stop and think about details in the coffee shop, they’re there if I hone in on them I guess, but otherwise it’s just a cozy little coffee shop haha. I love how our brain just gives us enough to go with whatever we’re reading or thinking about. :)

    I tend to like setting descriptions if it’s a nature setting, or maybe even a sci-fi setting sometimes, like futuristic or cyberpunk. I guess my love for those kinds of settings gets me all wanting to visualize something wondrous or awe- inspiring, which is probably why I spend so much time looking up SF/F art lol. I don’t know. I do seem to be drawn to certain stuff like that tho.

    1. Kristen Burns

      It’s so cool how our brains can just fill in the blank and how they do that automatically.

      Oh that’s a good point about settings! I guess I do enjoy some description if it’s a cool setting, like something beautiful or SFF, although I can see you enjoying those descriptions even more since you do really love that kind of art!

  8. Angela

    If I’ve watched a movie before reading a book, then I tend to hear the actors’ voices in my head when I actually read the book (like when I read The Martian, it was Matt Damon’s voice). I do picture characters and places, but for some reason they always tend to look like people I know or places I’ve been, regardless of the description. Like, every house in a book looks in my head like one of my parents’ houses.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Oh, yeah, I usually see the actors if I’ve seen a movie before a book, but idk about voices. That’s interesting about picturing things based on things from real life. You’re not the first person who’s told me that, so it’s not just you!

  9. Rosaline @ Rosaline's Rolls & Scrolls

    Ooooooh, this is a super fun topic. I completely agree with how you described the way your brain works. I am exactly the same and it’s so interesting to find someone so like myself in this regard. However, the POV in books do affect how I see things in my brain. For example, if I am reading from Jane’s POV and then suddenly there’s a John chapter, the “camera” in my brain shifts to see Jane from John’s perspective. But I can still see John. I’m just a third person who is standing awfully close to the character describing things.

    As for audiobooks, for the life of me I cannot follow them. When I’m reading a book, there’s this tiny voice in my head who reads characters’ lines in a way it thinks they sound like. Their voice sometimes shakes or goes high when they’re excited or gets deep or loud. And that has nothing to do with the descriptions, I mean they help but my brain has a mind of its own. Haha!
    So because of this, i find audiobooks very boring. Also I start daydreaming in my head and forget to listen. I’m not very good at remembering things that are said to me, but if I read something once I can recall it perfectly. That’s why I have to write people’s names down to remember them.

    So yeah, I find all of this so fascinating. You’ve inspired me to go around and find out more about people’s brains. ;D

    1. Kristen Burns

      We are a lot alike in our brains lol because I’m also not an auditory learner. I too have a hard time processing and remembering things I hear and am much better when I can read it instead. It’s cool to find someone whose brain visualizes things like mine though! That makes sense about the POV thing, but for some reason, my brain is usually just like, “Nah, Ima do what I want and look at this scene from over here instead.”

      That’s definitely a problem with audiobooks. Sometimes I’m baffled at why the narrator chose to say a certain line a certain way because that’s not how I imagined it, but it’s also interesting to realize that so many lines in books could be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and I wonder how the author actually intended it.

  10. Karen Alderman

    I see things pretty easily and much int he same way as you but I’m sure not quite as vividly – because you’re more artistic than I.

    I see the whole scene and I often dream about it later.

    Audiobooks are VERY difficult for me. If a narrator acts it out too much using their voice it pulls me right out but too bland – same thing. And I also have my own idea about what things look like and the narrator sometimes ruins that for me.

    Now, on a weird note – I can’t *make* myself see things under pressure. Like to meditate and someone tells me to picture an ocean – well then I can’t lol

    Karen @ For What It’s worth

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol that is a bit of an odd problem, not being able to visualize under pressure. Maybe on a similar note, I sometimes have a very hard time picturing myself doing things from my own 1st person POV. As a gymnast, they would tell us to visualize ourselves doing routines, and I just couldn’t do it lol.

      Anyway, I don’t think being artistic necessarily means I have more vivid pictures. I actually first heard about this when I came across a YouTube video of an artist talking about how she can’t see anything in her mind.

      Yep, we’re both picky audiobook listeners :-P

  11. Arya D. @ Arya's Fangirl Lexicon

    This is a really interesting topic! I read rather fast most books I can finish in less than a day. I do however see pretty vividly the scenes play out in my head. I also hear the voices in my own head usually in my own voice. If I don’t have a reference on what the voice sounds like my head projects it as my own thoughts/voice.
    I don’t really care for overly descriptive scenes unless it’s really important for the plot. I don’t need to no every aspect of what the character is wearing or what a room looks if I can fill in the blanks by myself unless it is again is really important to the plot or in a nontraditional setting.
    On a different note if I see a movie adaption before I read the book than I see those actors and hear their voice because I already associate them with the characters.
    In audiobooks, I have to listen to them at a fast pace or my mind wanders. I think since my reading speed is fast that I need my audiobooks so match that speed or it doesn’t feel like reading. So I tend to listen at 2x speed or a little slower if the narrator is hard to understand. I also am able to understand and imagine a scene while hearing the story. However, the voice is no longer in my head because I have it as an audiobook if that makes sense.
    I’m really excited to read everyone else’s responds and how they differ!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks!

      I agree about descriptions of clothes, rooms, etc. I don’t mind details if it’s important to the story or interesting or helps me get to know the character, but I don’t need every single outfit and setting explained. It’s cool how our brains can just fill in the blanks.

      Oh, yeah! I also end up seeing the actors (and prob hearing their voices) if I’ve seen the movie first.

      That makes sense, we all probably listen to audiobooks at a similar speed to how we read. That does make sense about not hearing in your head since you’re listening to the audio. I’m the same, which is why I sometimes listen with TTS instead because then I can kind of hear with my ears but also block it out since it’s kinda monotone robotic and hear an emotional version in my head too.

      It’s been really interesting seeing all the different responses, glad you’re enjoying it too!

  12. Olivia Roach

    Amazing that you hear sounds! I totally don’t imagine much of anything while reading… and I tend to think in memories I’ve discovered, since twitter, and as I don’t have memories of the creative things happening in the book, I don’t really picture anything. Sometimes I pause what I am reading and think it over and can kind of conjure a picture of things? Based on memories and combining stuff. And if I love dialogue I tend to read it aloud to myself if I can, like reread a bit and it entertains me more because that’s as close I get to ‘hearing’ it. You’d think I like seeing the film first based on what I just said but I DON’T. Because as I think in memories all I can think about is the images from the film and it distracts from the book. But if I have read the book, then watched the film, then reread the book – I can remember my first reading experience and the few things I pictured or memories of my feelings while reading more? I hope this makes sense ahaha

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s so interesting that you really only think in memories when it comes to images. I’m curious though if you have an inner monologue, like your own voice in your head? Since you said you can’t hear dialogue, but idk if you just mean you can’t hear it in a character voice.

  13. Brittany

    Oooh what a fun post! I always listen to audiobooks at 1x speed, I’ve tried to do faster but it sounds too weird to me haha. And sometimes it takes me a couple chapter’s to get used to a narrator’s voice, especially if they aren’t great at doing voices for the opposite gender. I also visualize characters in my head and they each have a voice, so I can’t switch from a print book to an audiobook because it throws me off when they don’t sound like I think they should. Same goes with descriptions and adaptations. I don’t care how detailed the descriptions are as long as they come early in the book. If there is no description I just kind of come up with a picture of them based on their personality, and if I find out I’m wrong later in the book I tend to ignore the description and keep what I had originally in my mind. I’m also not a huge fan of setting descriptions, but I don’t think that has to do with visualizing so much as I usually find long setting descriptions boring and unnecessary because I like character driven plots!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! Yeah, I listen at 1 – 1.20 usually, depending on the narrator since some do talk really slow. If I speed it up any more, it means I’m not really into the book and am trying to finish faster and don’t care anymore lol. I noticed that about switching from print to audio, or reading in print and then listening in audio for a reread. I hate that the narrator doesn’t match how I imagined the voices. Same for me about characters vs. settings, I think!

  14. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    This is such an interesting topic, and I just read another similar one (but now I can’t remember where!). I honestly don’t think I form very vivid images in my head when I read. But I CAN picture things in my head if I specifically try. Like when you were mentioning all the apple stuff—I could do it if I tried, right down to hearing the crunch, but I don’t think I naturally picture things that specifically when I read a book. I have some general impressions for sure, but I’m not picturing all the action as it’s happening—it’s more like flashes that pop into my head from time to time. I do sometimes hear specific voices in my head, though, especially if the character has an accent or distinctive speech pattern. But I listen at 1.5X or 2X speed because I’m not sitting and visualizing each line as its read.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Interesting! The way you can imagine things but don’t really naturally do it. I guess it just takes a bit of effort, and that’s too much for your brain to do for a whole book.

  15. Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer

    When I read, I take what the author gives me for character descriptions and places and my mind fills the rest in, including voices. So that when the character speaks as I read, I hear them with their voice and inflections. Because of this once I start a series by reading I cannot switch to audio format. However, if I start a series on audio I can read novellas, or switch to book format at anytime because my mind reads the story to me in the narrator’s voice.

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  18. Lola

    I also have a visual image in my head and my mind will fill in blanks when there is no description. Which is why I hate it when later I suddenly get a description or info detail that I didn’t have at first as my mind might’ve already filled in that detail. I like to get sufficient descriptions of characters so I can form a good image form the start as once I have an imagine in my head it’s hard to change. So that first description is very important. I also have characters that just keep looking vague when there isn’t enough description. But at the same time sometimes a small description can be enough to get my brain going and have a good image, while at other times I need more details for a solid image. I recently read a book with little description of everything and the whole world and character all looked so vague, it was weird. I did do a lot of imagining details and added details myself just because there was so little of that.

    I don’t really visualize voices as strongly. I think that’s what I love about audiobooks as it gives me the chance to hear more voices and those voices can really add to a personality and my head doesn’t do that as well on it’s now, so having the audiobook really helps. I don’t get how people can listen at higher speeds, I only ever listen at speed 1 as else it feels rushed to me and I don’t like that. I wonder if I will get better at visualizing voices now that I listen more to audiobooks.

    Settings can be difficult at times as some things are harder to visualize or like you said when you don’t know exactly what a word means or what the author means with something. My mind is also pretty good at visualizing settings on it’s own and then when you have details that clash it can get difficult. But nevertheless I do really like description, as long as they don’t get too long or overly detailed.

    Greta discussion topic! It’s fascinating to hear how other people visualize things and how we differ or handle things the same.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, that’s why descriptions need to come early! It’s weird how some characters I struggle with more than others to visualize.

      I can definitely see why you’d like audiobooks if you’re not as good at imagining voices. I really don’t understand listening at 2x speed. It just sounds rushed and unnatural to me too. Maybe you will!

      Some description of settings is good, definitely, just not too much.

      Thanks :-) It really is fascinating!

  19. Malka @ Paper Procrastinators

    This is really interesting! So I definitely have a voice in my head that reads everything. But I also have a very big visual component. When I read I find I take basic descriptions into account, but then I completely ignore the details. So if I image someone as a vague person, and I’m told they’re wearing a red shirt, my brain won’t add that detail in. The person remains in whatever blurred out clothing I created for them when they first came on the page. The thing that fascinates me the most is that when I reread, I imagine everything the exact same way as I did the first time, even if I now know details that contradict my brain’s original visualization!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I think my brain sometimes ignores details, other times latches onto them, it’s weird. Yes! It makes rereads so easy, especially if I’ve read the book multiple times, cuz I already have such a clear picture of everything from the characters to the settings and always picture it all the same! Once something is in your brain, it’s hard to change it, even if you realize something is incorrect lol.

  20. Sam @ Spines in a Line

    I have difficulty visualizing world-building, even with all the description authors provide which is why I don’t really like fantasy. It was much easier for me to read and enjoy the Harry Potter books after seeing the movie because I’d had trouble my first try in picturing this wizard world.

    1. Kristen Burns

      World-building can be hard, especially when the things being described are so foreign or fantastical. I guess that’s one way movie adaptations can be helpful!

  21. Suzanne @ The Bookish Libra

    I love this post! I definitely see the scenes in my head as I’m reading. I’ll still watch movie adaptations after finishing a book, but I confess that I often find myself thinking “The book is better than the movie, and my vision of what happened in the book looks way better than what was in the movie.” LOL! I can’t usually do audiobooks any faster than 1.5x and that’s only if it’s a contemporary story that’s easier to take in. Fantasy and sci-fi have to be slower.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol I’d probably be thinking the same things during movie adaptations if I watched them. Fantasy definitely can be harder to listen to quickly in audio if it has a bunch of unusual places or creatures or other things to imagine.