Friday, January 25, 2008

Consciousness While Reading -- Is It Visual? Imagistic? Auditory?

Some people say they speak silently to themselves when they read; others say they don't do that, but do entertain visual imagery. Others claim to do neither but rather only to see the page and take it in. Melanie, whom Russ Hurlburt and I interviewed at length in our recent book about conscious experience, reports no visual experience of the written page at all; rather, she experiences only the images, thoughts, and emotions that the text creates in her. (No visual experience of the page whatsoever? Wow, that's hard for me to imagine!)

Maybe people are very different in how they experience reading. If so, I know of no systematic studies. (Of course there are plenty of studies of differences in reading skill, in the use of the eyes on the page, on the sorts of errors people make, etc., but that's quite different.) If there is such variation, it could potentially be very useful to reading teachers (and poets?) to take advantage of it.

Or maybe people differ mainly in their reports about how they read, while their experiences are all very broadly speaking the same. (We do have, I think, false general impressions about our stream of experience quite often.) So it would be neat, before going too far out on a limb here, to get some external corroboration for the reports.

It's easy to think up cute experiments:

* People who speak silently to themselves while reading would tend, I'd think, to have strong impressions about how to pronounce unusual names they find in the text (it's GOLL-um, dammit, not GOAL-um!); people who are more strictly imagers may not. Experimenters could pronounce a name in an unusual way and measure (a) likelihood of being corrected by the subject, (b) skin conductance (a measure of stress), or (c) attentional blink (poor performance on an immediately subsequent task).

* People who say they hear the text aloud sometimes claim to hear it mostly in their own voice; others claim to hear the author's (imagined) voice or the characters' voices. The latter sort of reader, but not the former, may show additional facility or impairment when an external voice or sound is presented that matches or mismatches the characteristics of the author's or characters' voices.

* People who visually experience the page may have better memory for visual details of the text than people who do not.


If the results of such measures align neatly with people's self-reports, great! There may really be a phenomenon here worth studying.

So many experiments, so little time!


Phaedrus said...

I think you're right to be skeptical or at least suspicious of readers' reports of how they apprehend the narrative. I once did a small study--still unpublished--on subjects' images of God. When I presented the findings to a church group, I was lectured harshly by a woman who maintained that having an image of God was akin to sacrilege and idolotry. Then she proceeded to discuss several of her own powerful images of God to make her point. When I thanked her for her contribution, she was oblivious to the irony.

So how could we gain a more empirical pathway to discovery, where reading is concerned? It seems to me that readers certainly vary in their emotional connection--connectivity?--to what they're reading. A broad comparison might suggest that some are more cognitively connected and some, more affectively (emotionally) connected.

Some of my colleagues, for example, seem to exhibit a kind of verfremdungseffekt while reading: They have a keen cognitive grasp of what's been said but not, I think, a more multi-dimensional appreciation and understanding. Others discuss what they've read with passion and seem to have entered some sort of dialogue with the author that has affected them on an emotional level--sometimes to the detriment of cognitive acuity.

If we had subjects reading the same passage--something by Jane Austen, say, or perhaps Tolstoi--we might see different areas of the brain lighting up on fMRI or PET scan. (I can't believe this hasn't been done, but I'm too lazy to do the literature search.) We might gain insight into who claims to see images versus words and who claims to hear the narrative in their own or the narrator's voice versus the characters' voices.

My self-assessment: I seem to be one of those readers who's aware, at some level, of scanning the words on the page. But I'm also aware, at times, of hearing the narrator's and even characters' voices. (This, by the way, is why my friends think I'm a slow reader. "Hearing" the words tends to slow me down.)

When reading a novel or a poem, however, or perhaps a provocative essay, I will often lay the book aside and allow my mind to associate--that is, to have images--of what I've been reading. (This tends to slow me down even further, of course, and suggests that I can't multi-task, when reading, the way my faster reading friends can.}

On the one hand, I would say that my approach tends to allow me to engage better with the author and discern her or his meaning better. But, on the other, I get defensive, when people remark that I'm a slow reader.

Just thinking aloud.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating question, Eric. I'm just beginning a literature search on research on voluntary slow reading, and see this as a possible tie-in. Perhaps if people are choosing to read slowly, they may be more aware of their stream of experience at the time. Now I'm definitely going to read your book.

Anonymous said...

This could be related: one of the reasons I don't learn too well by listening is that I have to picture in my mind the words that people say. In English it doesn't seem to be every word, only about half. But in German or Russian, it's every word even though I'm well into the intermediate and intermediate-advanced stages.

The Financial Philosopher said...

I believe we should ask ourselves "how we learn" before asking "how we read." Depending on personality, especially in terms of how we prefer to receive our information (i.e. internal / external) and where our energy comes from, we may learn best by any of a number of means (reading, writing, visual, verbal).

To return more specifically to your topic, I am a "slow reader" as well because I am a slow and methodical learner. I stop and think quite often, which makes a classroom setting quite difficult for learning, especially if the professor is a "rote" teacher that just "lectures" for the entire course and never pauses for thinking or dialogue.

I prefer to think about what I am reading and think about what others are saying. I imagine many "lecturing" style professors are also speaking without "thinking" because their lectures have become so "automatic" that the words are without any real meaning to them...

If taking notes is required, I'm behind after just a few sentences!

Justin Tiwald said...

Very interesting, Eric. Perhaps those who visually experience the page could be tested for their memory of the location of a particularly poignant sentence or quotation. We often think we know where on two facing pages a passage appears (e.g., on the lower third of the left-hand side), but fail to remember other salient features of the passage (e.g., the page number on which it appears, the argument that precedes it, whether it appears in the middle or at the beginning of the chapter, etc.). But while we often think we can recall the passage's location, we're sometimes wrong. Does this mean that we are less the visual readers than we believe?

I'd say I almost always have a hunch about the location of the passage on the page, sometimes even when I haven't picked up the book for a few years. But I confess my hunch is often wrong, maybe 20-30% of the time. This phenomenon is responsible for many a wasted hour, flipping through entire chapters and scrutinizing the same section on every odd or even-numbered page. I'm fairly certain that I'm not the only one who does this, but come to think of it, I've never asked.

Justin Tiwald said...

I should finish my first question. If I misjudge the location of a passage I read very recently, does this mean that I'm less the visual reader than I thought? Or does it just mean that I have a poor memory? I'm tempted to say it's just poor memory. (But then again, I have ample external evidence of the weakness of my own memory!)

Josh Weisberg said...

Interesting idea, Eric!

I think this would be something amenable to fMRI testing. Have people read in the scanner, ask them about their experience, maybe ala Melanie, and see if we can corroborate reports of phenomenology with increased brain activity. One might predict visual areas vs. auditory areas lighting up, or areas associated with graphemic processing lighting up, etc.

(I tend to lose all impression of the written text when I am absorbed in good reading--it happens with fiction much more than philosophy, I'm afraid!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks!

Interesting story about images of God, Phaedrus. I bet there's a high percentage of BS/self-deception there, though!

I also like your and Josh Weisberg's idea of having people read while in an fMRI, then seeing if the self-reports match what one would expect based on brain activity. I wonder if it has been done. Maybe I'll work up a lit search on that for a future post?

Thanks, too, for your reports, John, anon, and financial! A slew of ideas for an energetic researcher!

And yes, Justin, I've done that very thing you mention. I think of myself as more an "auditory" reader -- but I also think the page is still visually there too. That would be another interesting thing to try to correlate with the self-reports!

Shoot, so many research projects, so little time!

Anibal said...

Stanislas Dehanene is a french neuroscientist interested in understanding the neural underpinings of our number sense or arithmetic faculty shared with other animals, and also with our most recent cultural invention of reading.

He confirmed the existence of an area in the visual cortex (e.g. fusiform sulcus which also codes for others visual categories such as faces and objects)called the visual word form area (VWFA)
that responds to the symbolic representation of our writting systems, say, words, and he pursue many neuroimaging studies examinig subjects reading

In this sense, i argue given the neural data that consciousness while reading can be view as mixture of visual and imagistic pheneomena that conflates subvocal processes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, that's plausible. Of course, the tricky thing is lining up the neuroscience with the consciousness. Of course there will activity in visual and wordy regions, since you're taking in the text -- but is that activity enough for consciousness proper? Here's where I don't think we can get away from some kind of touch-down in self-report (even if the self-reports are often horribly inaccurate).

Anonymous said...

For lossless image compression, microfiche scanning I have transformed my image using lifting wavelet transformation, now I should do Huffman coding on transformed matrix