Aphantasia is the inability to create mental images. In the most extreme cases, people with this condition are completely incapable of re-creating any sensual information and lack mind's eye. All thoughts, memories, and feelings are processed as 'words' rather than images, smells, touches, and sounds.

The majority of mnemonics rely on mental images. They usually call for visualisation of a keyword in one way or another. But since people with aphantasia cannot do that these techniques do not work.

I wonder if there are any alternative methods that would help to memorise vocabulary and complex characters (like Japanese kanji or any other logograms or hieroglyphs [in a wide sense of the word, i.e. stylised pictures of an object representing a word, syllable, or sound.])

Please refrain from 'you just need to try a bit harder and you will definitely see the picture'. This is not a lack of effort case.

  • 5
    Great question!
    – fi12
    Nov 18, 2017 at 12:35
  • 1
    This is an interesting question. However, could you focus on either just kanji (and/or Chinese hanzi) or just hieroglyphs? I think these are two separate cases. In addition, could you provide a few more details about aphantasia? E.g. how do people with aphantasia learn alphabetic writing systems such as the Latin alphabet or Cyrillic?
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 29, 2017 at 18:51
  • @ChristopheStrobbe, I am not asking about memorising a specific set of characters. I am asking about memorisation methods which can be applied to anything. So, it does not matter whether we are learning logographs, vocabulary, or our shopping lists. As for aphantasia, there is simply not enough research on this topic. It attracted interest just recently. So, there is no information that you request. The only 100% known thing is that people with aphantasia are capable of learning and memorising.
    – Olga
    Nov 30, 2017 at 0:32
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    Please don't get me wrong. The reason for my previous question is that I think I can provide advice for hanzi and kanji but not for hieroglyphs or other things that look like images. Hanzi and kanji are really different from hieroglyphs, even though they were originally derived from drawings/images.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 30, 2017 at 11:31
  • @ChristopheStrobbe, I think you are a bit overthinking it. Why don't you share your advice and let me judge how useful it is for me?
    – Olga
    Nov 30, 2017 at 22:31

2 Answers 2


This is a really interesting question. As a Chinese instructor, I often encounter students who have great difficulty learning Chinese characters. It is impossible to say whether any (or many) of these students have varying degrees of aphantasia, but I know certain students' problem relates to mentally mapping Chinese characters because visual aids, which help some other students, only contribute to these students' confusion. It is always a challenge for me to figure out ways of helping these students along (instead of counting on their dogged persistence alone).

I have noticed: students who are engineers (and who have no problem drawing generic diagrams of engines, machines, ships-hence it's questionable whether aphantasia is the issue) have a hard time re-producing Chinese characters, even while they can verbally describe the components of a character (by repeating what they have been told).

One approach I have used as an instructor--and your miles may vary--is to appeal to the logical part of the brain. For example, instead of asking the (perhaps aphantasia afflicted) students to memorize characters by working on the shapes, ask them to find a logical way to organize the characters for ease of memorization. Grouping characters, for example, in a way that works for you (which may not necessarily be encouraged or even approved by your instructors) definitely works. Use a simple character/radical as an "anchor" to trigger memories of additional components (for example, once you write out the "anchor", add a line, add a dot...)

Of course, repetition, like writing something many, many times over, does help, but it can be time consuming and not practical for some learners. But an alternative method, using flashcards--which you manually create yourself from scratch, may work as well as repeated writing practice. You may not be able to mentally form an image of a character, but you may be able to recognize the image/character once you see it. Working with flashcards may be just as effective as writing characters many times over. The emphasis is on flashcards you make yourself from scratch.

A combination of repetition with other techniques probably is your best approach.


I have never used visual mnemonics to learn Chinese characters. When I started learning Chinese, our teachers gave us a handout of several dozen pages that showed the stroke order of roughly 450 characters. He also gave us the following advice:

  • Write each new character a hundred times before you move on to the next character.
  • Keep a "character notebook" that is small enough to fit into your pocket so you can take it wherever you go. This notebook is for recording new characters, their pronunciation and their meaning. (This was before smartphones came onto the market.) I also added their stroke order and sometimes one or two example words in which the character is used.

We weren't told very much about the components (radicals) that make up Chinese characters; learning to recognise radicals came automatically. Recognising radicals is one of the things that turn characters into more recognisable shapes. (The other thing is stroke order.)

So I learnt Chinese characters by writing them many times and reviewing them many times. I used the notebook to review characters when commuting, while standing in long queues, etcetera. When I reviewed the characters, I also imagined writing the character in my mind, but this may not work for people with aphantasia. It is also possible to trace the character with your finger on the notebook, on your leg (if you are sitting down) or even in the air. This creates muscle memory. I hope this works for people with aphantasia. Since Chinese characters (hanzi) and Japanese kanji have a fixed stroke order, you can sometimes see native speakers of these languages trying to trace the character in the palm of their hand in order to recall that character. This recall technique relies on muscle memory.

I mentioned in a comment that I consider hanzi and kanji as a different category of writing system than hieroglyphs. That is because hanzi and kanji have a fixed stroke order. I have no idea whether this is/was the case for hieroglyphs. In order to apply the above method to hieroglyphs, you would need to treat them as if they had a fixed stroke order.

  • 1
    This is not very different from traditional rote learning... And yes, imagining writing a character will not work. What about the vocabulary?
    – Olga
    Dec 3, 2017 at 2:29
  • @Olga There are no magic tricks, I'm afraid. You could add spaced repetition to the mix, but I think you've indicated elsewhere that you don't like Anki very much.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 3, 2017 at 16:39
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    it is not about magic tricks. It is about efficiency and information retention. Rote learning, as far as I am aware, does not score well in both of these. Your method also seems to be limited to Chinese characters. I was interested in techniques like 'memory palace' or even keyword method adapted for people lacking the mind's eye. They seem to have a wider scope of application and be effective than pure repetition. I am also much more invested in searching for new approaches to learning vocabulary since I already have a very effective method of learning kanji.
    – Olga
    Dec 4, 2017 at 4:44
  • @Olga I asked you to separate Chinese characters and kanji from hieroglyphs. Instead, you wrote, " I think you are a bit overthinking it. Why don't you share your advice and let me judge how useful it is for me?" So that's what I did. Memory palace is a technique that requires visualization, so I did not mention it.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 4, 2017 at 10:43
  • Please don't get me wrong. I appreciate your taking the time and writing the answer. The notebook is a great idea. Muscle memory makes a lot of sense. I hoped that you might also have some suggestions for vocabulary.
    – Olga
    Dec 4, 2017 at 19:59

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