Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Experience of Reading: Imagery, Inner Speech, and Seeing the Words on the Page

(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.

Some quotes:

Baars (2003): “Human beings talk to themselves every moment of the waking day. Most readers of this sentence are doing it just now.”

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.”

Alan and I can find no systematic studies of the issue.

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.)

The responses:

[Note: For words on the page, we asked: "How often do you NOT experience the words on the page as you read? Example: your mind is filled with the ideas of the story and not the actual black letters against the white background". We have reversed the scale for presentation here.]

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.

11 comments:

Clark Goble said...

I wonder if this correlates with those studies going back I think to the early 60's where you count and see if you can talk at the same time. Some people can and some people can't, tied to how they mentally "represent" the counting. Some use visuals, some auditory and some by the feel of taps.

Scott Bakker said...

So what's being confabulated, the report or the experience reported? There no answer of course. I wonder what results you would get if you simply approached random individuals reading without any priming or tacit institutional obligation to meet expectations?

Fascinating stuff as always! Given my own outlook, these results are to be expected, since they involve an 'ecologically atypical' instance of metacognition. Given the amount of educational research on metacognition, you would think someone has done something on reading that might shed some at least orthogonal light on this...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clark: Yes, Alan and I are thinking of a follow-up in which we try to correlate the subjective reports with classic psychological tasks that draw on different modalities.

Scott: Interesting question. I agree about the distortive influence of institutional expectations and metacognition. Alan and I (mostly Alan!) are hunting through the literature trying to find precedents. The educational psychology literature is one area we've been looking -- especially the literature on "learning styles" (visual vs auditory learners). So far, the results of our searches have been somewhat disappointing.

Scott Bakker said...

Surprising, and perhaps not so surprising. But it is a great opportunity to plug Pina Tarricone's THE TAXONOMY OF METACOGNITION!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hey, that does look interesting, Scott. I haven't read it. Thanks for the tip!

Nick Byrd said...

I look forward to your presentation on this next week. See you in Bristol!

Chris Mole said...

Hi Eric,
This is only very slightly a propos, but just after reading this blog post I was struck by this from Auden's The Dyer's Hand:

"One can read Shakespeare to oneself without even mentally hearing the lines and be very moved; indeed, one may easily find a performance disappointing because almost anyone can with an understanding of English verse can speak it better than the average actor or actress. But to read Racine to oneself, even I fancy, if one is a Frenchman, is like reading the score of an opera when one can hardly play or sing."

I wonder whether its true that intuitions on this differ depending on the sorts of texts one is used to reading. Philosophy texts might well be unusual in this regard, and so philosophical intuitions might be off. (At least, modern ones might be. Remember Ryle's remarks (in the postscript to 'Improvisation') where he complains about philosophers' increasing use of symbols such as 'prime', which he can't hear in his mind's ear.)

Juan said...

I'd like to offer my own unusual "reading experience". When I read stories to my 6 year old sister I often get bored by what we're reading, and drift off into daydreams that have nothing to do with what's on the page. During this period of introspection the reading experience itself seems out of focus, almost as if a part of me was doing the actual reading while the other part was off doing something else.

So this is essentially the same experience as those who reported only seeing imagery, except that in my case the images have nothing to do with what I'm reading.

I don't feel confident in the reliability of my own judgement in these matters, but it has popped up often enough that it made me want to share it when I read your post. Hope that helps. :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting, Juan! We also collected people's reports of whether their minds had wandered, and we asked them to describe their experiences in detail. I agree that the analysis described here runs roughshod over those points -- but we'll treat them at greater length in the full-length paper when we draft it out....

Lonnie A said...

It depends on what I'm reading. I consider a novel as really good if I experience it as a movie. However, with some authors, if the writing is done exceptionally well or very poorly, it will pull me out of the movie and I'll focus on the words, grammar, etc. This also happens if the author surprises me. (Stephen King is particularly good at surprising me.) I can't do this with all types of writing. Philosophy, for example, is an excruciating experience for me to read. I have to read the words/sentences over and over before they make sense.

As far as your experiment goes, I think knowing it was an experiment would disrupt my normal reading tendency. It would be difficult to 'dive into the story.' And it would depend on what I was reading. I don't really think that I necessarily determine whether or not I experience a novel as a movie...I think it is the author who primarily determines that. I do have the ability. I was very surprised to find out one of my children did not have that ability. I had assumed everyone did.

Lonnie A said...

It depends on what I'm reading. I consider a novel as really good if I experience it as a movie. However, with some authors, if the writing is done exceptionally well or very poorly, it will pull me out of the movie and I'll focus on the words, grammar, etc. This also happens if the author surprises me. (Stephen King is particularly good at surprising me.) I can't do this with all types of writing. Philosophy, for example, is an excruciating experience for me to read. I have to read the words/sentences over and over before they make sense.

As far as your experiment goes, I think knowing it was an experiment would disrupt my normal reading tendency. It would be difficult to 'dive into the story.' And it would depend on what I was reading. I don't really think that I necessarily determine whether or not I experience a novel as a movie...I think it is the author who primarily determines that. I do have the ability. I was very surprised to find out one of my children did not have that ability. I had assumed everyone did.