Silent Reading, Inner Speech

* Vincent P. Brouwers, Christopher L. Heavey, Leiszle Lapping-Carr, Stefanie A. Moynihan, Jason M. Kelsey and Russell T. Hurlburt, ‘Pristine Inner Experience While Silent Reading: It’s Not Silent Speaking of the Text’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (2018), 29–54.
* B. Alderson-Day, M. Bernini, and C. Fernyhough, ‘Uncharted Features and Dynamics of Reading: Voices, Characters, and Crossing of Experiences’, Consciousness and Cognition, 49 (2017), 98–109.
* M. Caracciolo and R.T. Hurlburt, A Passion for Specificity: Confronting Inner Experience in Literature and Science (Ohio State University Press, 2016).

The first of these papers aims to be clear and categorical about what we do when we read. They say that we do quite a bit of inward ‘seeing imagery’ related to what we are reading; and there are ‘inner words’ as part of the reading experience; but there was hardly any ‘silent speaking of the text… where the text was directly experienced as spoken or heard while reading’. This is very different from some other results of this sort; it’s supposed to be counter-intuitive; is it? I honestly don’t know whether I think there is any ‘silent speaking of the text’ (poetry any different?), because once I start performing what-it’s-like-to-read, I wonder if I am actually a good witness on myself.
      I like the bit where they wonder whether there was something strange about their experiment. Did they have an anomalous set of participants? Did they used texts that stifled that inner voice? (It was Fitzgerald and Hemingway; nothing obvious to worry about there?) Maybe their experimental protocols ‘discouraged’ reports of inner speech? They think not, because the participants themselves expressed surprise that they weren’t reporting inner speech. Is it there but somehow ‘compressed’ out of range of conscious sampling, memory, and/or self-report? They don’t think that’s it.
      ‘Clearly there is much work to be done’, they conclude, and who can blame them? I’ve cited two of the sources they engage with, both important studies, one linked to the ‘Hearing Voices’ project that considers inner speech in a variety of rich contexts, and the other a collaboration between narratology and psychology that pushes the field in interesting directions. Sampling inner experience is very hard, but empirical studies of reading are currently pushing at new and very interesting ways of solving the problems.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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