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.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Measuring People Twice

Lots of psychological studies involve measuring people twice. For example, in the imagery literature, there's a minor industry that seeks to relate self-reports about imagery to performance on cognitive tasks that seem to involve visual imagery, such visual memory tests or mental rotation tasks.

(A typical mental rotation task presents two line drawings of 3-D figures and asks if one is a simple rotation of the other, for example:Image from here.)

Participants in such studies thus receive two tests, the cognitive test in question and also a self-report imagery test of some sort, such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), which asks people to form various visual images and then rate their vividness. Correlations will often -- though by no means always -- be found. This will be taken to show that people with better (e.g. more vivid) imagery do in fact have more skill at the cognitive task in question.

This drives me nuts.

Reactivity between measures is, I think, a huge deal in such cases. Let me clarify by developing the imagery example a little farther.

Suppose you’re a participant in an experiment on mental imagery – an undergraduate, say, volunteering to participate in some studies to fulfill psychology course requirements. First, you’re given the VVIQ, that is, you’re asked how vivid your visual imagery is. Then, immediately afterward, you’re given a test of your visual memory – for example, a test of how many objects you can correctly recall after staring for a couple of minutes at a complex visual display. Now if I were in such an experiment and I had rated myself as an especially good visualizer when given the VVIQ, I might, when presented with the memory test, think something like this: “Damn! This experimenter is trying to see whether my imaging ability is really as good as I said it was! It’ll be embarrassing if I bomb. I’d better try especially hard.” Conversely, if I say I’m a poor visualizer, I might not put too much energy into the memory task, so as to confirm my self-report or what I take to be the experimenter’s hypothesis. Reactivity can work the other way, too, if the subjective report task is given second. Say I bomb the memory (or some other) task, then I’m given the VVIQ. I might be inclined to think of myself as a poor visualizer in part because I know I bombed the first task.

In general, participants are not passive innocents. Any time you give them two different tests, you should expect their knowledge of the first test to affect their performance on the second. Exactly how subjects will react to the second test in light of the first may be difficult to predict, but the probability of such reactivity should lead us to anticipate that, even if measures like the VVIQ utterly fail as measures of real, experienced imagery vividness, some researchers should find correlations between the VVIQ and performance on cognitive tasks. Therefore the fact that some researchers do find such correlations is no evidence at all of the reality of the posited relationship, unless there's a pattern in the correlations that could not just as easily be explained by reactivity.

In the particular case at hand, actually, I think the overall pattern of data positively suggests that reactivity is the main driving force behind the correlations. For example, to the extent there is a pattern in the relationship between the VVIQ and memory performance, the tendency is for the correlations to be higher in free recall tasks than in recognition tasks. Free recall tasks (like trying to list items in a remembered display) generally require more effort and energy from the subject than recognition tests (like “did you see this, yes or no?”) and so might be expected to show more reactivity between the measures.

The problem of reactivity between measures will plague any psychological subliterature in which participants are generally aware of being measured twice -- including much happiness research, almost any area of consciousness studies that seeks to relate self-reported experience and cognitive skills, the vast majority of longitudinal psychological studies, almost all studies on the effectiveness of psychotherapy or training programs, etc. Rarely, however, is it even given passing mention as a source of concern by people publishing in those areas.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Perplexities of Consciousness, submitted draft

I have just submitted my new book manuscript, Perplexities of Consciousness, to MIT Press. The whole thing is now viewable from my homepage.

Comments still welcome -- more than welcome! -- either on this post or by email.

Now that this manuscript is in, I can focus on catching up with all those other things I should have been doing and didn't!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Winner's Way

... a novel written by my father, Kirk Gable (born Ralph Schwitzgebel), is now available at Amazon. I hear his voice on every page, glimpse some piece of his worldview, which so affected my own.

Here's the blurb:

In this inspiring coming-of-age novel, Mark, a young man who thinks his life is full of walls, obligations and dead-ends, comes to realize that there is something more. Mark is a freshman in college, studying business—a field that doesn’t interest him at all. Family obligations have turned him from his real interests. Boring classes and medical problems make him feel vulnerable and unable to make long-term decisions.

With the words, “You are not who you think you are,” a chance meeting with a mysterious man named Sensei shakes up Mark’s world-view and changes his life-course in ways he never imagined.

Winner’s Way received a Hewlett Foundation Grant for incorporating life enrichment skills in a novel. Although this engaging novel can be read for pleasure, the extensive author’s notes at the end contain information, humor and self-help resources. A Discussion Guide can be found at

Winner’s Way creates a new category of fiction where magical realism meets do-it-yourself. The ideas in this story and the author’s notes are wildly creative and yet as practical and useful as you are likely to find in any non-fiction book.”—Sandra Ryan, Literary Critic

“The hero, Mark, is everyman for all of us. His struggles typify what is true for so many of us—the groping for something exciting, inspiring, and meaningful. Mark’s eacher, Sensei, is the kind of teacher we all wish we had. Winner’s Way is a rare and wonderful treat for anyone in search of richer self-understanding, compassion, and substance.”—Timothy Zeddies, Ph.D. psychologist

Winner’s Way is an inspiring tale of life situations that readers can easily relate to. Although the story happens to be fictional, readers can take away many lessons and apply them to their own lives.”—Etienne Emanuel, Peace Corps Volunteer

Kirkland R. Gable has had three careers: As a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and later California Lutheran University, he worked with serious criminal offenders; As a lawyer, his writings have been widely cited, including by the Supreme Court; With his twin brother, he developed the electronic monitoring bracelet for criminal offenders. A student challenged him to write about psychology in a more accessible fashion. Winner’s Way is the result.

Winner’s Way ISBN: 978-1-932842-32-6; LCCN: 2009921117; $17.95; 8.5 x 5.5; release date: May 18, 2009; available via Amazon, Star Cloud Press and Winner’s Way is published by Star Cloud Press of Scottsdale, Arizona. Contact for more information.