I’ve often wondered how different people imagine the same scenes in books and stories that they read. The great thing about reading (unlike movies and television) is that it takes active participation from the reader to build the scene. The writer provides sensory clues, but the reader uses his or her own experience to see the scene unfold around them. I think of the opening of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, when Gaal Dornick arrives on Trantor and makes his way to his hotel. The vastness of the city-planet and Asimov’s descriptions of it painted a picture in my mind that reminds there no matter how many times I read the story.
But it is very likely a very different picture than what other readers, reading the same story see in their mind.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, in light of the reports that scientists have been able to produce images from the brain of what we remember when watching TV or movies. It seems to me that a particularly interesting experiment, were it possible, would be to do something similar for a passage in a book. I imagine that what our brain remembers when we see a movie is fairly similar from person-to-person. Imagine what the images might look like if we could see those “movies” in our heads created from the books we read? How different would yours be from mine?
It is interesting not just because of the science behind it, but also as a writer who creates scenes. When I write a scene, I have an imagine in my mind that I am trying to convey to the reader and I do this by using sensory description and the emotions of the characters to build a picture in the reader’s mind. But the reader will never have exactly the same image that I have. Indeed, without producing a physical image it is likely that our mental pictures will differ dramatically. That is because we each will fill in those blank spaces–the spaces not touched on by the prose–with stuff from our own background.
If I write a scene in which I say: “The desk sat in the corner of the office, by the floor-to-ceiling windows” I have a good idea of what the office looks like in my mind, but I provided a sketch to the reader. We both know where the desk is in relation to the windows, for instance, but that desk will appear very different to you than it does to me. All I described was a desk. In my mind, I have a mental picture of my desk at my home office, a large wooden desk, heavy, slightly chipped in places, with a flat surface cluttered with stacks of old science fiction magazines. But because I just said “a desk” your mental image will be filled in with details from your own experience. And that is true for every reader of the story. Given this, it would be fascinating to be able to “see” those mental images.
I suspect that what we would learn from such a study, is that the more detail provided by the author the more similar elements appear in the mental pictures from person-to-person. But anything left to reader discretion will vary from reader-to-reader, and without painting an exact picture of what is in the author’s mind, those mental pictures will always have a great deal of variety. This, as opposed to the mental pictures that come from the movies we watch.
This type of research helps make clear the line between reading and watching. They are active and passive processes respectively. An active process–on in which I need to take action to fill in the details will certainly allow for more variety than what I get if I am presented with images. Indeed, this experiment has been performed before in a completely informal and ad hoc way, by people who have read a book upon which a movie was based but never saw the movie. In discussing the story with those who did see the movie, my guess is that those who read the book will vary widely in opinion about how closely the actor chosen for the lead character varies from their mental image. Those who just saw the movie will have nothing to say on the matter because they had no preconceived notion about what the character should look like.
There is valuable insight here, I think, for writers trying to create vivid scenes for their readers. It helps to recognize that as a writer, you will never get across the exact image in your mind. But that is okay. A big part of the fun in reading a story is bringing your own experience to the words, the setting, the characters, and to some extent, making them your own.