12 Jul 2010 mdz   » (Master)

Read, listen, or comprehend: choose two

I have noticed that when I am reading, I cannot simultaneously understand spoken words. If someone speaks to me while I am reading, I can pay attention to their voice, or to the text, but not both. It’s as if these two functions share the same cognitive facility, and this facility can only handle one task at a time. If someone is talking on the phone nearby, I find it very difficult to focus on reading (or writing). If I’m having a conversation with someone about a document, I sometimes have to ask them to pause the conversation for a moment while I read.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. In Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care what Other People Think?, there is a chapter entitled “It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…” where he describes his experiments with keeping time in his head. He practiced counting at a steady rate while simultaneously performing various actions, such as running up and down the stairs, reading, writing, even counting objects. He discovered that he “could do anything while counting to [himself]—except talk out loud”.

What’s interesting is that the pattern varies from person to person. Feynman shared his discovery with a group of people, one of whom (John Tukey) had a curiously different experience: while counting steadily, he could easily speak aloud, but could not read. Through experimenting and comparing their experiences, it seemed to them that they were using different cognitive processes to accomplish the task of counting time. Feynman was “hearing” the numbers in his head, while Tukey was “seeing” the numbers go by.

Analogously, I’ve met people who seem to be able to read and listen to speech at the same time. I attributed this to a similar cognitive effect: presumably some people “speak” the words to themselves, while others “watch” them. Feynman found that, although he could write and count at the same time, his counting would be interrupted when he had to stop and search for the right word. Perhaps he used a different mental faculty for that. Some people seem to be able to listen to more than one person talking at the same time, and I wonder if that’s related.

I was reminded of this years later, when I came across this video on speed reading. In it, the speaker explains that most people read by silently voicing words, which they can do at a rate of only 120-250 words per minute. However, people can learn to read visually instead, and thereby read much more quickly. He describes a training technique which involves reading while continuously voicing arbitrary sounds, like the vowels A-E-I-O-U.

The interesting part, for me, was the possibility of learning. I realized that different people read in different ways, but hadn’t thought much about whether one could change this. Having learned a cognitive skill, like reading or counting time, apparently one can re-learn it a different way. Visual reading would seem, at first glance, to be superior: not only is it faster, but I have to use my eyes to read anyway, so why tie up my listening facility as well? Perhaps I could use it for something else at the same time.

So, I tried the simple technique in the video, and it had a definite effect. I could “feel” that I wasn’t reading in the same way that I had been before. I didn’t measure whether I was going any faster or slower, because I quickly noticed something more significant: my reading comprehension was completely shot. I couldn’t remember what I had read, as the memory of it faded within seconds. Before reaching the end of a paragraph, I would forget the beginning. It was as if my ability to comprehend the meaning of the text was linked to my reading technique. I found this very unsettling, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book I was reading.

I’ll probably need to separate this practice from my pleasure reading in order to stick with it. Presumably, over time, my comprehension will improve. I’m curious about what net effect this will have, though. Will I still comprehend it in “the same” way? Will it mean the same thing to me? Will I still feel the same way about it? The many levels of meaning are connected to our senses as well, and “the same” idea, depending on whether it was read or heard, may not have “the same” meaning to an individual. Even our tactile senses can influence our judgments and decisions.

I also wonder whether, if I learn to read visually, I’ll lose the ability to read any other way. When I retrained myself to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, rather than QWERTY, I lost the ability to type on QWERTY at high speed. I think this has been a good tradeoff for me, but raises interesting questions about how my mind works: Why did this happen? What else changed in the process that might have been less obvious?

Have you tried re-training yourself in this way? What kind of cognitive side effects did you notice, if any? If you lost something, do you still miss it?

(As a sidenote, I am impressed by Feynman’s exuberance and persistence in his personal experiments, as described in his books for laypeople. Although I consider myself a very curious person, I rarely invest that kind of physical and intellectual energy in first-hand experiments. I’m much more likely to research what other people have done, and skim the surface of the subject.)

Syndicated 2010-07-12 12:57:39 from We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

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