Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Experience of Reading

What kinds of imagistic or sensory experiences do you normally have when reading prose? Here are three possibilities, not exclusive:

(a.) Inner speech. You "hear" (or more accurately auditorially imagine) a voice -- maybe your own voice, or the voice of the author, or the voice of a character, or some other voice, saying the words you are reading.

(b.) Visual imagery. You experience visual images of the events described or hinted at in the text, or maybe images in other modalities (auditory images besides those of the words you are reading, maybe tactile images, olfactory images, motoric images).

(c.) Sensory experience of the text. You visually experience the text on the page, that is, the black and white of ink on paper or pixels on the computer screen.
I'm inclined to say, in my own case, that (a) and (c) are pretty much constant and (b) comes and goes. I also would have been inclined to think that (a) and (c) would be pretty universal for everybody and (b) highly variable between people. But it turns out that reports of (a) and (c) are also highly variable.

For example, the research participant "Melanie", interviewed in my 2007 book with Russ Hurlburt, says that normally when she reads she starts out in inner speech and then "takes off" into images, leaving the inner speech behind (comparable to the difference between an airplane taxiing and flying; p. 101). When she is asked to report on two particular moments of experience while reading (having been interrupted by a beeper), she comes pretty close to explicitly denying that she has any sensory experience of the text on the page (e.g., p. 100).

Julian Jaynes says to his readers "And as you read you are not conscious of the letters or even of the words or even of the syntax or the sentences and punctuation, but only of their meaning" (1976, p. 26-27) -- thus seeming to deny at least visual experience the text on the page, and probably auditory imagery or inner speech of the words as well.

In contrast, Bernard Baars seems to assume the near-universality of inner speech, writing: "Human beings talk to themselves every moment of the waking day. Most readers of this sentence are doing it now" (2003, p. 106).

Wittgenstein writes: "Certainly I read a story and don't give a hang about any system of language. I simply read, have impressions, see pictures in my mind's eye, etc. I make the story pass before me like pictures, like a cartoon story" (1967, p. 44e).

Charles Siewert writes, after quoting the Jaynes passage above: "[If] Jaynes is denying that we consciously see the book, the page, or anything printed on it, then it seems what we are asked to believe is this: typically when we read, we function with a kind of premium-grade blindsight.... I find this extreme denial of visual consciousness, once made plain, very strange, and just about as obviously false a remark as one could make about visual experience" (1998, p. 248-249).

Max Velmans, like Siewert, seems to find the visual experience of the text mandatory, inner speech more optional: "When consciously reading this sentence, for example, you become aware of the printed text on the page, accompanied, perhaps, by inner speech (phonemic imagery), and a feeling of understanding (or not)" (2002, p. 16).

Gavin and Susan Fairbairn, in a text intended to instruct college students in better reading, write: "In contrast to the experience of those who find that they are conscious of every word when they read fiction, many people find, especially but not exclusively when they are reading fiction, that when they 'get into' the text they seem to be aware of meanings, sounds and pictures, even smells and feelings, without any conscious awareness of the words used to convey them.... Hearing the sounds of words when you read can be a handicap" (2001, p. 25). This view seems rather close to Melanie's analogy to taxiing and flying.

Almost all these authors -- Melanie is of course an exception, and Wittgenstein may or may not be -- take these statements to describe the experience of reading in general, not just for themselves individually. Obviously, though, they reach very different conclusions. (Such is consciousness studies!) As far as I'm aware, however, no one has ever published a systematic study of the matter.

Quotes, descriptions of your own experience, etc., warmly welcomed in the comments section.

(Thanks to my student Alan Moore for some of the quotes above. His own interesting work on the experience of reading will hopefully be the topic of a future post.)

17 comments:

gregory said...

i would say it is a more subtle experience than any of the things you have named ...

if you look at what "vak" is in sanskrit, and the various and deeper, more subtle, concepts in that word (in all of sanskrit too) and the relationship with subtler levels of consciousness, you might agree with this ...

english is so crude for inner experience, way too clunky ..

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I certainly agree about English! Sanskrit, unfortunately, I know not at all.

Kezia K. said...

I think an important variable might be what is being read. Some writing easily inspires intense imagery, while other types invoke a single voice, and still others demand attention to the words on the page.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Kezia, that seems likely! I wonder whether intra-subject or inter-subject variation would be greater.

K_Boughan said...

My notion of my own interior experience of reading is that it's strongly auditory. Good writing -- or at least, writing I enjoy -- has a certain musicality; there's tone and rhythm.

On the other hand, when I'm skimming text or reading something not especially challenging (say, a flight magazine or a catalogue or a cereal box), I don't think of myself as "hearing" the text.

One way to screw up my reading is to suggest hearing it in an strange voice, like Donald Duck's, or in a comical accent, like Col. Klink's. Then it's hard not to hear it in that voice or affect. Although the duck voice does improve the experience, if not the comprehension, of some of drier philosophical prose, like Wittgenstein's.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wittgenstein in a duck's voice? Brilliant!

I like your idea of playing around with suggesting different voices. Possibly, Alan could do something with that....

Anonymous said...

Definitely auditory experience, but since I read pretty fast, it's not like listening to someone read out loud, more like an internal rhythm and melody created by the sentence structure. As to sensory experience of what's described in the content, it depends very much on the writer. Hemingway has given me perhaps the strongest visual experience. When I recall scenes from a Hemingway book, they unfold like a movie, albeit minus the dialogue! The commercial-novel writer Robert Goddard has an almost uncanny ability to produce in my mind vivid images, with only a few words, of his characters' body language--gestures, posture, facial expressions. I should say I'm not a visualizer by nature, so I'm inclined to notice images when they occur.

As far as I'm aware, I have virtually no experience of the words as print on the page.

Swift Loris

mcjoei said...

It was very interesting for me to read the text and comments, since this topic has long time fascinated myself.

One year ago, I realized for the first time - after almost 20 years of reading experience - that the high interest of others in novels and prose could perhaps be explained by their vivid visual imagination during reading. I talked to many of my friends and almost all of them have instantaneous visual experiences while reading. I find this very funny and bizarre! For me personally, it is funny to imagine someone who has quasi always visual "images" in his head while reading text or listening to someone telling a story etc. I often do now ask: "do you really have to imagine this right now?" :)

Obviously, I don't experience any involuntary visual impressions while reading and to imagine what I read, would really cost some effort and conscious attention. It seems obvious from my point of view that there are people who are more propostional-inclined and others that are more visual/situational readers. Both groups, though, seem to have the same competences and skills in text understanding and comprehesion, although "propositional/meaning-oriented" readers are more often bored by novels perhaps and stick to non-fictional literature....

The possibility of "hearing" different inner voices and even to control choosing which voice is to be heard in their head is extremely funny too!!!

My impression is that I utter the words in my mind to myself while reading, but this becomes only conscious when explicitly reflected on it and is not a very intense experience. Usually everthing, every perception, thought or imagination fades out and becomes background when I read... there is only meaining...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughts, mcjoei! I wonder: What behavioral or comprehension differences might one expect given different reading experience styles? (My grad student Alan Moore is working on exploring just this.)

T. said...

I transfer texts usually in visual images, theoretical texts turn into a kind of sequence of abstract paintings. As a result, I lack a sense for the duration and timing of reading (which has of course some rythms of activity and digestion) and I usually forget in which language the text was written. Adventurous stories are memorized like seen films, so that I sometimes don't remember if I saw the movie or read the book. A drawback is that I associate with abstract concepts their visualizations and not the terminology and have to take care not to forget parts of verbal definitions. My relation to books and libraries is quite strong, how is that for others?

T. said...

There is a very interesting article on the experience of reading, writing and creative thinking (p. 34-73, "Découvrir et transmettre" by A. Herreman) in this booklet.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip, T. I can't seem to open the file. Could you give a different citation?

T. said...

It is: Notes sur l'histoire et la philosophie des mathématiques IV. Colloque de Cerisy, 1999 IHES prepublication IHES/M/00/75

It seems not to be on the IHES preprint server, I mail you the file. BTW, how can one put pdf's,ps's,doc's etc. free and without costs online? by googledocs?

T. said...

Just found as pdf on Alain Herreman's site:
http://perso.univ-rennes1.fr/alain.herreman/

“Découvrir et transmettre. Une analyse de la dimension collective des mathématiques dans Récoltes et semailles d’Alexandre Grothendieck” is a very deep and fascinating analysis of the psychology of reading, writing and creativity initiated by a remarkable text by A. Grothendieck.

Contrarian said...

Reading an annoying e-mail recently prompted the following thought: Could the experience of reading text in all caps offer some intuitive evidence for (a)? IT SEEMS PLAUSIBLE ENOUGH TO ME THAT THE REASON THIS TEXT IS SO ANNOYING IS ITS "SOUNDING" LOUDER TO THE "MIND'S EAR".

Chaz Firestone said...

Reading an annoying e-mail recently prompted the following thought: Could the experience of reading text in all caps offer some intuitive evidence for (a)? IT SEEMS PLAUSIBLE ENOUGH TO ME THAT THE REASON THIS TEXT IS SO JARRING IS ITS "SOUNDING LOUDER" TO THE "MIND'S EAR".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought!