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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.)

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 12, 2010 at 12:57

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19 Responses

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  1. Hi, nice post. A thought on multitasking,
    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, clinician psychologist had talked about it in a TED talk : http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html
    The human nervous system can only process 110 bits of information and a conversation takes 60, hence the incapacity to handle two convesations at a time.

    Yves

    July 12, 2010 at 13:42

  2. I’ve noticed same traits in myself: I used to listen to a lot of podcasts when I had a 45 minute commute on public transport every morning and every evening. Now I telecommute and virtually stopped listening to podcasts for several years, because I couldn’t concentrate on producing text or coding at the same time as listening to spoken word. Either or both suffered.

    I’m slowly finding the joy of podcasts again, after finding short podcasts (max 30 min) and using various sleep timer applications in my phone to stop playback if I fall asleep – I usually listen to podcasts in the morning after waking up or right before sleeping.

    And yes, I love Feynman too. I’ve got three of his books about his adventures.

    Miia Ranta

    July 12, 2010 at 14:17

  3. Fascinating post. Thanks, Matt!

    I have always found some casual curiosity in thinking visually (or at least not “audibly”), but I never thought there was so much to it. Curious to know how your adventures with speed reading turn out, and now I have another book to read! :)

    Dylan McCall

    July 12, 2010 at 15:07

  4. Interestingly you miss out the third way that people process information in their brain.

    You cover visual and auditory, but not kinesthetic.

    Kinesthetic processing is probably the most interesting, but the hardest to define because the majority of people are either visual or auditory and therefore find it hard to understand.

    Kinesthetic memory is all about movement, feeling and emotion.

    To use your example of counting numbers, somebody whose brain is primarily kinesthetic would probably count by feeling the movement of their fingers.

    The different perceptions of people depending on the primarily modality of their brain was one of the more interesting parts of the NLP/Hypnosis studies I did before joining Canonical.

    Tangentially, I was actually taught to speed read when I was at school and it very much relies on visual processing of information. Most people at Canonical are aware I can do this though, given how people have got into the habit of switching desktops if I’m behind them :p

    Scott James Remnant

    July 12, 2010 at 16:03

    • Interestingly, Feynman touches on this in the same chapter:

      …I tried to figure out a way of reading out loud while counting—something neither of us could do. I figured I’d have to use a part of my brain that wouldn’t interfere with the seeing or speaking departments, so I decided to use my fingers, since that involved the sense of touch.

      I soon succeeded in counting with my fingers and reading out loud. But I wanted the whole process to be mental, and not rely on any physical activity. So I tried to imagine the feeling of my fingers moving while I was reading out loud.

      I never succeeded. I figured that was because i hadn’t practiced enough, but it might be impossible: I’ve never met anybody who can do it.”

      I’ve heard that it’s rarest to have a preference for kinesthetic senses when it comes to taking in information. Maybe that’s related?

      Matt Zimmerman

      July 12, 2010 at 16:52

  5. That’s really interesting – I didn’t realize you could teach yourself to be a visual or audio reader, i.e. just seeing the words or sounding them out.

    I think I do both. I prefer the sounding them out method but if I’m in a hurry I’ll switch to visual. I don’t enjoy it as much though and I would never read a fiction book for fun that way.

    Stormy

    July 12, 2010 at 16:04

  6. +1 (Insightful)

    I’m an audible-reader, but I can actually do light reading while listening to someone tell me something. I believe I’ve heard or read somewhere that the human brain does this kind of thing the same way a single-core computer does, i.e. several context switches per second. Maybe my CPU is just clocked high enough. ;)

    Another interesting data point is that I can easily finish typing a sentence or two which I had already planned as someone begins to say something to me, whereas it is quite a bit harder (but possible with a lot of concentration) to start a new sentence. In a way, it’s as if I’ve already sent the data on to my fingers and they’re just flushing the buffer in the background.

    (Incidentally, I never bothered to learn an alternate keyboard layout like DVORAK or COLEMAK because I figure that I already need longer to decide what I’m going to type than to actually type it in almost all situations.)

    Michael Goetze

    July 12, 2010 at 16:29

  7. I noticed that I can’t sing or whistle while typing passwords. Otherwise I think I’m pretty much the same as you when it comes to multi-tasking, I had a similar experience with speed-reading too.

    Jonathan Carter

    July 12, 2010 at 17:05

  8. I’m an audible-reader too. It’s much more noticeable when writing: if somebody talks to me when I’m typing then one track is liable to bleed over into the other, and I’ll find myself typing what I just hear or something like that. (Indeed, while typing this, I’m subvocalising my words in advance, although that’s exacerbated by the fact that I type more slowly on my phone.) By contrast, when coding or doing other more complex tasks, I tend to build up abstract concepts more visually. My unfounded amateur suspicion is that this is related to the learning process: I was taught to read aloud first and silent reading came later, but I taught myself to program later when I had better-developed abstract faculties.

    I did once train myself to listen to two conversations at once, by a geeky but effective method: I consciously time-multiplexed, switching attention a couple of times a second. This is enough to be able to follow both and sometimes even take part in one as well, although it’s hard work to keep up. If I needed to do it a lot I’m sure it would get easier.

    Colin Watson

    July 12, 2010 at 19:09

  9. Try to say something (with meaning) to a person who is writing something. I’m pretty sure they will ask you, what you just have said.

    Knusper

    July 12, 2010 at 19:12

  10. Hey Matt,

    Very interesting topic and info.

    Scott I remember chatting to you about this in London, and was fascinated by it all, and how our language use shows our favouring of either visual/auditory processing by using phrases like ‘I see what you are saying’ or ‘I hear what you are getting at’ etc.

    I personally definitely read auditorilly for pleasure, but have discovered I can visually read when required – although I agree the info is then transient. I have also found when reading visually sometimes I lose focus and will be tracking the text with my eyes, but will get to the end of the page and realise I am actually thinking about something else.

    I too have an issue with being spoken to while typing/writing, or thinking about something else while completing what I wanted to type and end up typing what I am thinking instead. Marvelous Freudian slips can follow!

    Finally my memory storage and recall is very visual. I did an aptitude test once where numbers were read out in sequence and I had to repeat the sequence as far as I could remember both forwards and backwards and I was told my ability at this was remarkably good and surprisingly almost the same forwards AND backwards. I did it by visualising the numbers written on the wall in front of me as they were read out and then I simply ‘read’ them back from the residual visual I had imprinted. When remembering facts from book I can often picture the page and location on the page where that info was.

    I am not sure about the kinesthetic angle for myself, but I have discovered that for me touching my finger tips to my thumbs back and forth in sequence and/or grasping onto something (like a stress ball or water sachet) is very helpful in getting through tough physical situations (like labour and birth, or running a race). My mind focuses on that sensation and allows tension to dissipate in that way and then the rest of my body is able to stay relaxed and ‘zoned out’. Not sure if this is related to the above in any way though…?

    Fascinating stuff!

    JaneF

    July 14, 2010 at 07:06

  11. I am amazed to read that many people read out loud in their heads. When we did speed reading at school we were told that it was “wrong”). I naturally visual-read from about age 7 (when I learnt to read in silence), and can’t imagine doing it any other way. I can listen to music, talk, exercise and do multiple things whilst reading. Very occasionally when I am reading, I get distracted and switch to out-loud-in-my-head reading. Immediately I start listening to my own voice in my head, and forget to think about the meaning of what I am reading. This especially happens if I read a language I am not good at (e..g Afrikaans). I can read a whole paragraph and realise I didn’t take any meaning in at all.

    Beccy

    July 14, 2010 at 09:05

  12. [...] bad habits. Slides are loaded with long titles, a lot of text, and lots of bullets − but people can’t read and listen at the same time! You already know this, yet somehow still think more than 6 words on a slide is [...]

  13. I must visually read because I just timed myself at about 850wpm if I’m not rushing, 1200wpm if I am. Yet I cannot focus on my reading if there is anything on in the background at all. I think I have an odd hybrid of visual and auditory reading, where most of it is visual but my mind catches on random words and I voice them in my head while reading the rest of it visually.

    But I find I am definitely an auditory learner, so when I try to read visually in my strongest foreign language (Japanese) I can SLIGHTLY comprehend the text but learn absolutely no new words, nor can I practice words I could possibly guess how to pronounce. But if I read it auditorally, I can learn new words while reading and broaden my vocabulary.

    Maybe this could be a useful skill to develop in my 2nd language so I could skim when needed, but it would definitely take away reading’s potential to help build my vocabulary if I did it all the time!

    Megan

    April 5, 2011 at 14:29

  14. Interesting stuff indeed. So my question is this: when I go to a coworker’s office and he/she says, “go ahead, I can listen while I’m typing (whatever it is they’re typing), or, when my doctor is typing notes or checking something on his/her exam room computer and says, “please, go on. I’m still listening to you,” I usually assume by default that even though they may think they can and try to do so and are not being patently rude or dismissive, it simply isn’t possible. (My experience usually shows that I’m right, as either the other person clearly won’t get what I said or will ask me to repeat it, or else they will actually stop to give me their attention, presumably because they realize it is becoming difficult to continue that way.) Am I justified in assuming that it is indeed impossible, and is there enough science to allow me to put my foot down and demand the typing stop on the basis that it is very likely to be impossible for most people?

    David

    September 4, 2012 at 15:24

  15. [...] not interested, but in the line of fire) of a technical presentation have lost the ability to Read, Listen, and Comprehend simultaneously.  Just as is the case with manufacturing and engineering (Cheap, Fast, and of High Quality) you [...]

  16. I can actually write and hold a coherent conversation. I do it to my husband all the time. I’m able to split my attention, not evenly, but I hear the words he says, I choose a few words to comprehend and depending on the subject, I can follow, respond and keep the conversation going. They say multi tasking isn’t the greatest, but as much as my husband talks…this has worked for me!! : )

    Neghie

    November 28, 2012 at 17:59

  17. I wonder if you could listen to an audio book while reading another book

    Nate

    December 27, 2012 at 18:39

    • I have recently discovered that my 11 year-old son can do this. I read to him at night and he has taken to reading another book at the same time. If I stop him at any point and take his book from him, he can repeat the last paragraph from both his and my book. Is there a name for this ability?

      Chris

      June 1, 2013 at 04:09


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