Power of words: reading is as good as watching a film

It’s official: books are as exciting as films – as far as our brains are concerned.
Dutch scientists tested willing volunteer readers with brain scanners for a spot reading to find out how engaging books really are. The study showed that an empathy area is activated when we read in the same way as when we watch films and feel for the character. So our brain responds in the same way to the printed word as it does to the silver screen. Read more on this research (PhotoReading, Speed Reading Tips)

Subliminal messages really do affect your decisions

If you ever felt paranoid about subliminal messages, you might be right to worry. Images we see but don’t consciously register have been shown to inform people’s decision-making. Joel Voss of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and colleagues showed volunteers 12 kaleidoscope images for 2 seconds each while they also performed an unrelated number task to distract them from consciously committing the images to memory. A minute later, volunteers were asked to look at pairs of similar-looking images and choose the one they had seen before. They were also asked whether they were sure, had “a feeling” they were right, or were just guessing. Those who took a shot in the dark were as successful as the rest. “They were 70 to 80 per cent accurate; it would be only 50 per cent if it was chance,” says Voss (Nature Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1038/nn.2260). During the memory task, the volunteers’ brain activity was monitored by electrical sensors attached to their heads. As the pattern of activity differed between “guessers” and the other groups, it suggests that we access unconscious and conscious visual memories differently, says Voss. Issue 2695 of New Scientist magazine

How our eyes read?

New technology enables scientists to understand exactly what our eyes get up to while we read.

Being able to read competently is one of the most important skills we need to function in today’s fast-paced society. Analysing the way we read can offer valuable insights into how we process visual information. Scientists have been interested in the movements of our eyes while reading for forty years. However, until now most assumed that when we read both eyes look at the same letter of a word concurrently.

Now ground-breaking research by cognitive psychologist Professor Simon Liversedge and his team at the University of Southampton has shown that this is not actually the case. They found that our eyes are actually up to something much more exciting when we read – our eyes look at different letters in the same word and then combine the different images through a process known as fusion.

The research Prof. Liversedge will present at the BA Festival of Science in York shows that the reading process is not as simple as one might think; it is rarely a case of the eyes scanning the page smoothly from left to right. Depending on what we are reading and how hard we are finding the information to digest our eyes make small jerky movements, that allow us to focus on a particularly difficult word or often re-read passages we didn’t get the first time. Analysing these eye movements enables psychologists to understand how our brain processes the sentence.

With sophisticated eye tracking equipment able to determine which letter of a font-size 14 word a person is looking at every millisecond from 1 metre away, Prof. Liversedge’s team went one further and looked at the letters within the word within the sentence. They were able to deduce that when our eyes are not looking at the same letter of the word, they are usually about two letters apart. Prof. Liversedge explains: ‘Although this difference might sound small, in fact it represents a very substantial difference in terms of the precise “picture” of the world that each eye delivers to the brain.’

So if our eyes are looking at different parts of the same word, thereby receiving different information from each eye, how is it that we are able to see the words clearly enough to read them? There are two ways the brain can do this; either the image from one of the eyes is blocked or the two different images are somehow fused together. To test how the latter mechanism might work, the team chose words that could easily split in two, such as cowboy, and presented half of the word to the left eye, and half to the right eye separately. They then analysed readers’ eye movements when reading sentences containing these particular words presented in this way.

‘We were able to clearly show that we experience a single, very clear and crisp visual representation due to fusion of the two different images from each eye,’ he explains. ‘Also when we decide which word to look at next we work out how far to move our eyes based on the fused visual representation built from the disparate signals of each eye.

‘A comprehensive understanding of the psychological processes underlying reading is vital if we are to develop better methods of teaching children to read and offer remedial treatments for those with reading disorders such as dyslexia. Our team are now measuring the range of visual disparities over which both adult and child readers can successfully fuse words.’

Why reading disgusting things makes you gag

Have you ever wondered why reading a good book can be almost as moving as events in real life? It may be because you use the same brain region to make sense of both.

Previous studies indicated that the anterior insula and adjacent frontal operculum (brain regions known collectively as the IFO) are activated both when we observe someone experiencing an emotion such as disgust, delight or pain, and when we experience it ourselves. This is believed to be what allows us to empathise with others and understand their intentions. But what if the emotion is merely imagined, such as when reading about it. Is the IFO active here too?

To find out, Mbemba Jabbi and colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands focused on the feeling of disgust. They placed quinine, which has a nasty bitter taste, onto the tongues of 12 volunteers while they lay in an MRI scanner. They were also asked to watch a video of someone simulating disgust and read a story about something disgusting.

The team found that the IFO was activated in all three tasks (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002939). They say that this similarity between first-hand experience and imagination helps to explain why fiction can be so compelling. “This is why books and movies work – they stimulate the area of the brain which is involved in what it really feels like to be disgusted,” says Christian Keysers, a member of Jabbi’s team.

The team suggest that reading about delight or pain also activates the IFO.

From issue 2669 of New Scientist magazine, 13 August 2008, page 15

PhotoReading Expert Tip 22. Reading faster helps you to be happier, more creative and energetic.

Do you want to feel better or change your mood? Do you want to feel more energetic? Read faster! PhotoReading and SpeedReading is the answer. Research done in Princeton University (Emily Pronin – read the ABSTRACT below) suggests that people who speed up their thinking with timed activities such as reading fast a piece of text that scrolled quickly – felt happier and more powerful, creative and energetic. Read more on this research (Psychology Today)