A picture is worth a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words” is an adage that rings true across multiple languages. It conveys the idea that visual imagery has an incredible power to encode and convey vast amounts of information in a single snapshot, far more than what could be conveyed through a simple story or description.

To put this into perspective, let’s do some math.

At an average reading and speaking speed of 130 words per minute, it would take you approximately 7.7 minutes to explain a comprehensive description of 1,000 words. Yet, that same amount of information could be displayed in a single, rich image.

Now, consider this: how many different images can a skilled visualizer imagine in that same 7.7 minutes? My fiancée Jennie is an average visualizer, and when I ask her to “imagine all the variations of all the animals” she can think of, she estimates it’s easily north of 1,000 images in just 1 minute.

That’s a mind-boggling difference in information throughput and bandwidth. While Jennie can effortlessly conjure and process thousands of unique mental images in mere minutes, I cannot rely on images at all to answer this question. Instead, I must painstakingly use 1,000 words to try to convey what a single image could have shown instantly.

Of course, it’s never practical to spend 1,000 words and 7 minutes describing a single image in such excruciating detail. But this exercise clearly illustrates the vast gap in information throughput between those who can vividly visualize and those of us with aphantasia.

Even if I spend 20 seconds meticulously describing a “tall brown horse, with a black mane, standing in a field of grass surrounded by evergreen trees with a rose-colored sunset” – by the time I’ve finished that single image, a visualizer has likely already cycled through horses, zebras, and countless other animals and scenes.

It’s important to remember, though, that aphantasia is not a disability. As I quoted Dr. Zeman in last week’s email, the average IQ for those with aphantasia is higher, if anything. The real question to consider is how important are all 1,000 words?

With no images to rely on, those with aphantasia must develop a keen reliance on core concepts, ideas, and abstractions conveyed through language. Perhaps this necessity breeds efficiency in word selection and communication since precise words and explanations are all we have to articulate the vivid scenes that play out so effortlessly in the minds of visualizers. While they process thousands of full sensory images, we carefully curate and optimize the verbiage to convey the essence as best we can.

It’s a different pathway, but not one of deficit – simply an alternative mode of comprehension and expression.