Abstract Thoughts with Aphantasia: Learning Nursing Theory without the Ability to Imagine

Guest contributor: Elizabeth “Ellis” Meiser, MSN, RN-BC, CNE

            When I took a nursing theory course for the first time in my educational experience (at the doctorate level, mind you), I found myself grateful to finally be able to identify what may make learning theory difficult for me. A few years ago I was listening to a podcast in my car from the BBC. It began with a discussion on spatial navigation and transitioned into mental visualization. The topic was on how some people have a limited ability to imagine. The podcast asked listeners to close their eyes (I waited until I got to my destination to complete the exercise, don’t worry!) and picture a beach. Go ahead and do this if you can. Close your eyes and call to mind beautiful white sand, a palm tree, blue waves crashing under a clear blue sky. I settled into my seat and closed my eyes. But when I tried to see a beach, nothing happened. It was then I realized that I had a processing condition called aphantasia.

            Individuals with aphantasia have difficulty imagining visually. For me, it means when I close my eyes all that happens is I stop seeing. Most people are on a spectrum of capability when it comes to visualization. Some can recall only things they have seen before, for some it may appear like something from a cartoon, and for others it is as realistic as if it were before their eyes. Perhaps it seems shocking that I would not be aware of this until my mid-twenties, but how often does it come up in conversation? I suppose I always thought when someone said “mind’s eye” or that they could “picture it” these were expressions but that they couldn’t actually do it. Turns out, most people can actually picture things when my mind is woefully dark. With an impact on my ability to remember things, I just always assumed I had a poor memory.

My lifelong struggle with having to learn about and analyze abstract ideas suddenly made sense! The blog posts from Dr. Foli and Shannon Constantinides about the concerns with teaching theory in nursing education, along with the potential impact of generational differences, jumpstarted my questioning of my own journey through abstract learning. I cannot envision physical things, words, shapes, or even colors. Without those capabilities, I wonder: what could be the main factor impacting my ability to truly grasp abstract concepts? There could even be a combination of many contributing factors. Then I wondered, does it even matter? Why do I even need to understand theories?

As I mentioned, I’ve been through nearly ten years of formal education for nursing and cannot recall a course dedicated to nursing theory. I became faculty armed with a master’s in nursing leadership and management and a handful of education classes from my music education undergrad. I had been exposed to Piaget’s developmental theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I knew how to write objectives using Blooms, and in my master’s had been introduced to a variety of leadership theories. I had not, however, explored anything on Benner, Henderson, or even anything beyond the fact that Nightingale had something to do with a lamp. I didn’t even know nursing theories existed, and when presented with them in my doctorate program, I struggled understanding them and their purpose. However, in my practice of simulation, I have recognized the impact of Jefferies on how frameworks can guide development of scenarios. I have embraced Benner by recognizing how to consider the learners, where they are within the program, and within their own growth process. Much of this required me to evaluate how to learn abstract concepts.

Ultimately, a huge hurdle on abstract thought for me must involve aphantasia, which presents for me as the inability to daydream and the absence of visual recollection. It can be hard for me to remember what I’ve read or seen. As a learner, and now as a nursing educator, I feel as if it is taken for granted that all learners have the capacity to visualize mental images. Despite this having implications for learning, aphantasia is not currently considered a learning disability. Furthermore, there has been no progress on aiding those with aphantasia in developing the ability to produce mental imagery as it seems to be a neurological deficit. I am unsure of whether identifying students with aphantasia, or to what extent they are capable of visualizing, is important. Instead, what we need to do is create a holistic learning environment that is accessible to a variety of learners and learners need to be equipped with tools that suit their learning style. Using varied education techniques to address learning styles has long since been routine, but how often have we considered the student’s ability for mental imagery? How are we sharing abstract ideas? Is it in a tangible way? Do we encourage students to reflect on how they think, process, and picture things? Perhaps we need to consider adding this to the conversation to help students assess their learning needs before we begin introducing abstract concepts.

When it comes to theory, abstract instruction, or other types of instruction, I have found myself having to use a range of resources. For example, graphs, images, and diagrams may help explain concepts, but they are difficult to recall as I cannot recreate them in my mind. Instead, I found myself using a mixture of media, videos, and having to use my trusty gel pens and notebook paper. As it is in any pool of learners, these will have different effects for different learners but include:

  • Make personal or emotional links to content
    • I find relating theories to stories extremely helpful. This means grounding abstract ideas to something that I can relate to, or experience.
  • Listen to podcasts or a recording of a lecture
    • This may be difficult for some with aphantasia as there is no visual imagery to which to connect the audio.
  • Write notes and draw concept maps on paper to physically forge connections
    • An age-old recommendation that should never have been replaced by typing and is even more effective when summarizing in my own words.
  • Use Flash cards, mnemonics or other rote memory tasks
    • While I can’t bring these to mind at a later date, I can force memorize the basic concepts before scaffolding the more abstract ones.
  • Involve music or rhythm
    • Again, this is helpful for the more basic concepts. However, there has been some evidence of links between those with aphantasia also having difficulty remembering sounds, tones, or music so this is very dependent on ability.
  • Teaching others or simply reading notes out loud
    • Yet another traditional method of evaluating learning and using kinesthetics and physicality to the party. When I get lost in reading about theory, I find that reading it out loud helps me stay on track.

It is crucial to remember that while linking learning to visual memory reportedly leads to better academic outcomes, it does not equate to higher intelligence. It certainly has an impact, but it is not the only variable to consider. Reflecting on how important the mind’s eye is to learning leads me to wonder how different schooling would have been had I known about aphantasia. For myself, I can apply it to what remains of my terminal degree and my continued lifelong learning. For others, I can write about its impact and attempt to add to the discussion on what influences how, when, and to whom we teach nursing theory and knowledge. Ultimately, we need to work with all learners to be advocates for what they need to succeed regardless of the topic at hand.

About Elizabeth “Ellis” Meiser

Ellis is a Clinical Educator of Nursing at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. They have their MSN with a focus on leadership and management, is a Certified Nurse Educator, and is certified in medical-surgical nursing. They are in their first year as a doctoral student in the online EdD Nursing Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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