Dennis B. Kottler, MD

Westlake Village, CA

Appointments:   818-991-8376 


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"Silent" Reading


Silently read this sentence:  


                                                "I am curious about what has to say about reading."


Did you hear the words in your head?


Some people hear an "inner narrative" when they read silently; other people say they don't.   Some people process and comprehend text by just visually scanning it.  However, if you ask an "inner narrative" person to visually scan a sentence without "hearing it," he will usually say that the sentence doesn't "register," or something like that.  

The " inner narrative person" has also been referred to by reading coaches as a "subvocalizer."  Subvocalizing can involve moving lips, subtle sensations of motion of the tongue, jaw, and other mouth parts, or just an "inner narration."  Readers are often not aware of these activities, until they are pointed out.  

I believe these two groups, the "inner narrative" and the "pure visual scanners," are processing text (reading) in very different ways.  The "inner narrative" brain is performing the extra, and perhaps(?) rate-limiting step, of inner "vocalization."  In a sense, these people can only read as fast as their brains can "speak" the words.  This limits reading speed to the 100 to 200 wpm range.  The "pure visual scanners" do not have this limitation.  They can consume text often at speeds exceeding 1000 wpm.  This can be the difference between taking a week to read a novel vs a month or more, or giving up and never getting through it.   

Recently, studies of these two groups of readers using fMRI (functional MRI) imaging, have in fact demonstrated that the "inner narrative" group recruits additional areas of the brain to read.  This phsyiologic correlate helps to explain the slowed reading, since it takes more time to process text when additional brain resources are being used.  There is also a subjective sense of additional "effort" which can lead to mental tiredness and boredom.*

Can you train yourself to be a "pure visual scanner" if you start reading as an "inner narrative" person?

Probably to some extent.  In fact, this is probably what happens when you learn to "speed read."  When you use your finger to scan down the page, there is no time for the "inner narration" to occur, yet you learn to comprehend most of what you see.  This method of "pacing" can be gradually speeded up, leading to faster and more efficient reading.  It is important to resist "re-reading."  Keep going forward even if you feel you missed something.  

*NOTE:  The functional MRI shows blood flow to different areas of the brain and gives information on what parts of the brain are being enlisted during various activities.  It is being increasingly used to "map" the physiology of brain function.  A downside is the subject has to do the activity while in an MRI machine.


Final Thoughts and Speculations

There is probably some "reward" value in hearing the words as you read.   The text is "savored."  Or perhaps the "inner narrative" is a type of reading modeled on the (comforting) childhood experience of "being read to."  Perhaps this style of reading can be retained for situations in which speed is not important.  Individuals who read mostly non-fiction or technical books, of necessity read slower, often requiring time during reading to ruminate, to chew on the concepts.  Are these individuals more often inner narrative readers?  Can they learn to shift back and forth between the two modes? 

Are "inner narrative" readers created or born that way.  Is "inner narrative" or subvocalization a consequence of how we are taught to read as children with a phonetic emphasis.  Do some people transcend this impediment and throw off the phonetic training wheels.

In the acquistion of second languages does the pattern of reading, "inner narrative" vs "visual scanning with no narrative," persist?    

Some individuals are obsessive-compulsive, or in the more extreme case, possess Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Slow reading can be the result of  "re-reading" for fear of missing something (being overly inclusive) or it can be the result of reading rituals involving magical thoughts.  Pathological examples are:  Need to read on after reading a passage linking to "bad thoughts," need to re -read a ritualist number of  repetitions (magical numbers), or avoidance of magically-invested content.  

What about "thought" itself?  Can a person have a thought without having an "inner narrative?"  Does thought exist apart from words?  Are mental images the equivalent of thought?  

Other areas worthy of speculation are what brain processes and subjective experiences occur when we write?   Is there a difference between typing and handwriting?  Is their a difference between recording notes during a lecture or writing user generated content, as I am doing now.  Will the disappearance of cursive writing impact how our brains process languange or just baffle future generations when they are asked to "sign" their name.  

Please share your thoughts.

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Appointments:   818-991-8376