The Experience of Reading: Empirical Evidence

What do you experience while reading? Do you experience inner speech, as though you or the author are saying the words aloud? Do you experience visual imagery? Do you experience the black marks on the white page? All of these at once? Different ones at different times, depending on how you're engaging with the text?

Although educators, cognitive psychologists, and literary critics often make claims about readers' typical experience, few researchers have bothered to ask readers, in any systematic way, these basic questions about their experience. [Note 1] So Alan Tonnies Moore and I decided to try doing that. Alan's work on this topic became his 2016 dissertation, and we have now have a paper forthcoming in Consciousness and Cognition (final submitted manuscript available here).

In each of three experiments, we presented readers with several hundred words of text. In two of these experiments, a beep interrupted participants' reading. Immediately after the beep, readers were to report what was in their experience in the final split second before the beep. We collected both general free-response descriptions of their experience and yes/no/maybe reports about whether they were experiencing visual imagery, inner speech, and visual experience of the words on the page (all phrases defined beforehand). In all three experiments, we also collected readers' retrospective assessments of how frequently they experienced visual imagery, inner speech, and the words on the page while reading the passage we had presented.

At the end of each experiment, participants answered several questions about the text they had just finished reading. Some questions we thought might relate to visual imagery (such as memory for visual detail), other questions we thought might relate to inner speech (such as memory for rhyme), and still other questions we thought might relate to visual experience of words on the page (such as memory of the font). We were curious whether performance on those questions would correlate with reported experience. Do visual imagers, for example, remember more visual detail?

Here are the main things we found:

(1.) People differ immensely in what types of experiences they report while reading. Some people report visual imagery all the time; others report it rarely or never; and still others (the majority) report visual imagery fairly often but not all of the time. Similarly for inner speech and words on the page.

To see this, here are a couple of histograms [click to enlarge and clarify].

Readers' retrospective reports in Experiment 2 (Experiments 1 and 3 are similar):

Readers' yes/no/maybe reports immediately after the beep, also in Experiment 2:

(2.) Inner speech is less commonly reported than many researchers suppose. This has also been emphasized in Russ Hurlburt's related work on the topic. Although some researchers claim or implicitly assume that inner speech is normally present while reading, we found it in a little more than half of the samples (see the histograms above). Visual imagery was more commonly reported than inner speech.

(3.) Reported experience varies with passage type, but not by a lot. In Experiment 2, we presented readers with richly visually descriptive prose passages, rhyming poetry, and dramatic dialogue, thinking that readers might experience these types of passages differently. Differences were in the predicted directions, but weren't large. For example, visual imagery was reported in 78% of the beeped moments during richly descriptive prose passages vs 66% of the poetry passages and 69% of the dramatic dialogue (chi-square = 14.4, p = .006). Inner speech was reported in 65% of the beeped moments during dramatic dialogue passages vs 59% of the poetry passages and 53% of the descriptive prose (chi-square = 19.1, p = .001).

(4.) There was little or no relationship between reported experience and seemingly related comprehension or skill tasks. For example, people who reported seeing the words of text on the page were not detectably more likely to remember the font used. People who reported visual imagery were not detectably more likely to remember the color of objects described in passages. People who reported inner speech were not more likely to disambiguate difficult-to-pronounce words by reference to the rhyme scheme. Although all of this is possibly disappointing, it fits with some of my previous work on the poor relationship between self-reported experience and performance at behavioral tasks.

Alan and I believe that sampling studies will soon become an important tool in empirical aesthetics, and we hope that this study helps to lay some of the groundwork for that.

Full version of our paper available here.


Note 1: One important exception to this generalization is Russ Hurlburt in his 2016 book with Marco Caracciolo and in his paper with several collaborators forthcoming in Journal of Consciousness Studies.)


Related Posts:

What Do You Think About While Watching The Nutcracker? (Dec 17, 2007)

The Experience of Reading (Nov 25, 2009).

The Experience of Reading: Imagery, Inner Speech, and Seeing the Words on the Page (Aug 28, 2013).

Waves of Mind Wandering During Live Performances (Jan 15, 2014)

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