As you may know, Russ Hurlburt and I recently published a book centering on a woman's reports about her experience as she went about her normal day wearing a random beeper. When the beep sounded, her job was to try to recall her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" just before the beep. Russ and I then interviewed her about these experiences, trying to get both at the truth about them and at methodological issues about the value of this sort of approach in studying consciousness.
Russ and I have presented our joint work in a number of venues now (including at an author-meets-critics session at the APA last week), and normally when we do so, we "beep" the audience. That is, we set up a random beeper to sound when Russ or I or a critic is presenting material. When the beep sounds, each audience member is to think about what was going on in her last undisturbed moment of inner experience before the beep. We then use a random number generator to select an audience member to report on her experience. We interview her right there, discussing her experience and the method with the audience and each other. We'll do this maybe three times in a three-hour session.
As a result, we now have a couple dozen samples of reported inner experience during our academic talks, and the most striking thing we've found is that people rarely report thinking about the talk. The most recent six samples are representative (three from a presentation by me at Claremont Wednesday, three from the APA).
(1.) Thinking that he should put his cell phone away (probably not formulated either in words or imagery); visual experience of cell phone and whiteboard.
(2.) Scratching an itch, noticing how it feels; having a visual experience of a book.
(3.) Feeling like he's about to fade into a sweet daydream but no sense of its content yet; "fading" visual experience of the speaker.
(4.) Feeling confused; listening to speaker and reading along on handout, taking in the meaning. [I'm counting this as an instance of thinking about the talk.]
(5.) Visual imagery of the "macaroni orange" of a recently seen flyer; skanky taste of coffee; fantasizing about biting an apple instead of tasting coffee; feeling need to go to bathroom; hearing the speaker's sentence. The macaroni orange was the most prominent part of her experience.
(6.) Reading abstract for next talk; hearing an "echo" of the speaker's last sentence; fighting a feeling of tiredness; maybe feeling tingling on tooth from permanent retainer.
Where is the cooking up of objections, the thinking through of consequences, the feeling of understanding the meaning of what is being said, the finding of connections to other people's work? In only one of these samples was taking in the meaning of the talk the foremost part of the experience.
It could just be that Russ and I and our critics are unusually deadening speakers, but I don't think so. My guess is that most audience members, listening to most academic talks, spend most of their time with some distraction or other at the forefront of their stream of experience. They may not remember this fact because when they think back on their experience of a talk, what is salient to them are those rare occasions when they did make a novel connection or think up an interesting objection. (I think the same is true of sex thoughts. People often say they spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but when you beep them they very rarely report it. It's probably that our sex thoughts, though rare, are much more frequently remembered than other thoughts and so are dramatically overrepresented in retrospective memory.)
Here are two hypotheses about understanding academic talks that harmonize with these observational data:
(1.) Our understanding of academic talks comes mostly from our ability to take them in while other things are at the forefront of consciousness. The information gets in there, despite the near-constant layer of distraction, and that information then shapes skilled regurgitations of the content of the talks.
(2.) Our understanding of academic talks comes mostly from those few salient moments when we are actually not distracted. Maybe this happens three or twelve or thirty times, for very brief stretches, during the course of the talk. The understanding we walk away with at the end is a reconstruction of what must plausibly have been the author's view based on our recollection of those few instances when we were actually paying attention to what she was saying.
Any bets on (1) vs. (2)? Or candidates for a (3)? If (2) is closer to the truth, then it may be possible to discover strategies to get much more out of talks by discovering ways to better focus our attention on the content.