(by Alan T. Moore and Eric Schwitzgebel)
What do you usually experience when you read?
Some people say that they generally hear the words of the text in their heads, either in their own voice or in the voices of narrator or characters; others say they rarely do this. Some people say they generally form visual images of the scene or ideas depicted; others say they rarely do this. Some people say that when they are deeply enough absorbed in reading, they no longer see the page, instead playing the scene like a movie before their eyes; others say that even when fully absorbed they still always visually experience the words on the page.
Baars (2003): “Human beings talk to themselves every moment of the waking day. Most readers of this sentence are doing it just now.”Alan and I can find no systematic studies of the issue.
Jaynes (1976): “Right at this moment… as you read, you are not conscious of the letters or even of the words, or even of the syntax or the sentences, or the punctuation, but only of their meaning.”
Titchener (1909): “I instinctively arrange the facts or arguments in some visual pattern [such as] a suggestion of dull red… of angles rather than curves… pretty clearly, the picture of movement along lines, and of neatness or confusion where the moving lines come together.”
Wittgenstein (1946-1948): While reading “I have impressions, see pictures in my mind’s eye, etc. I make the story pass before me like pictures, like a cartoon story.”
Burke (1757): While reading “a very diligent examination of my own mind, and getting others to consider theirs, I do not find that one in twenty times any such picture is formed.”
Hurlburt (2007): Some people “apparently simply read, comprehending the meaning without images or speech. Melanie’s general view… is that she starts a passage in inner speech and then “takes off” into images.”
We recruited 414 U.S. mechanical Turk workers to participate in a study on the experience of reading. First we asked them for their general impressions about their own experiences while reading. How often -- on a 1-7 scale from "never" to "half of the time" to "always" -- do they experience visual imagery? Inner speech? The words on the page? (We briefly clarified these terms and gave examples.)
Now, if you're anything like me, you'll be pretty skeptical about the accuracy of these types of self-reports. So Alan and I did several things to try to test for accuracy.
Our general design was to give each person a passage to read, during which they were interrupted with a beep and asked if they were experiencing imagery, inner speech, or the words on the page. Afterwards, we asked comprehension questions, including questions about visual or auditory details of the story or about details of the visual presentation of the material (such as font). Finally, we asked again for participants' general impressions about how regularly they experience imagery, inner speech, and the words on the page when they read.
The comprehension questions were a mixed bag and difficult to interpret -- too much for this blog post (maybe we'll do a follow-up) -- but the other results are striking enough on their own.
Among those who reported "always" experiencing inner speech while they read, only 78% reported inner speech in their one sampled experience. Think a bit about what that means. Despite, presumably, some pressure on participants to conform to their earlier statements about their experience, it took exactly one sampled experience for 22% of those reporting constant inner speech to find an apparent counterexample to their initially expressed opinion. Suppose we had sampled five times, or twenty?
For comparison: 9% of those reporting "always" experiencing visual imagery denied experiencing visual imagery in their one sampled experience. And 42% did the same about visually experiencing the words on the page.
Participants' final reports about their reading experience, too, suggest substantial initial ignorance about their reading experience. The correlations between participants initial and final generalizations about reading experience were .47 for visual imagery, .58 for inner speech, and .37 for experience of words on the page. Such medium-sized correlations are quite modest considering that the questions being correlated are verbatim identical questions about participants' reading experience in general, with an interval of about 5-10 minutes between. One might have thought that if people's general opinions about their experience are well-founded, the experience of reading a single passage should have only a minimal effect on such generalizations.