The Science of Reading

How, why, and where we consume the written word

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Most of us say we don’t have time for it.

And yet — we do it every day.

It is as common as it is complex, for though we are continually reading, the process of seeing and deriving meaning from a series of little squiggles is a kind of magic.

How We Read

Of course, it all begins with sight.

Through a series of rods and cones which bend and refract light — and probably some other stuff I didn’t follow in science class — the objects around us make themselves known.

To keep it simple, we’ll stick close to the surface. Reading language requires two types of movements from our eyes — periods of fixation, and relatively rapid movements called saccades.

During the saccades period, the eye darts around and may take in as many as 20 characters (with an average of 7–9). It is, however, during the shorter periods of fixation that we process the actual meaning of characters.

In order to make sense of written words, we rely heavily on one small part of the brain. The Visual Word Form Area (VMFA) takes visual input from the world around us and interprets it. This region receives images of letters, shapes, and faces, and attributes them to categories of meaning.

Stanislaus Dehaene, neuroscientist and author of Reading in the Brain, describes this part of the brain as the “Letterbox.”

“What is fascinating is that it is at the same location in all of us — whether we read Chinese, Hebrew or English, whether we’ve learned with whole-language or phonics methods, a single brain region seems to take on the function of recognizing the visual word.”

Stanislaus Dehaene for Scientific American

Why We Read

Of course it’s not enough to examine the physiological process of turning words into meaning.

To fully explore the science of reading, we have to ask why we read at all.

This is area of research is less well studied, possibly because the reasons why are far more varied than the ways how.

“Writing is humankind’s principal technology for collecting, manipulating, storing, retrieving, communicating and disseminating information.”

Denise Schmandt-Besserat

The earliest traces of “writing” may actually have been small sculptures — tokens to track the transfer of certain types and specific quantities of goods.

“The token system had little in common with spoken language except that, like a word, a token stood for one concept,” archaeologist and professor Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes in The Evolution of Writing.

These physical tokens were eventually replaced with written numbers and images (such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs) and then, of course, with what we now call letters.

Letters were born from a need to keep score. When we consider the back-and-forth Twitter wars and trolling power grabs of today, it seems not too much has changed.

But of course writing is used for more than tracking debts or starting arguments. Writing can inform, and it can also entertain. We read to learn, to connect, and to push our experiences beyond only that which we can see or feel right in front of us.

Writing and reading are ultimately a means of connection. Consider how the printing press — by allowing mass production of written information and ideas — made it possible for humans to connect, advise, and revolt across the world.

“Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.”

Neil Gaiman

Last But Not Least… Where We Read

If you’ve ever though that there’s something different about reading from a screen versus a paper page, even if you couldn’t put your finger on what exactly it is, congratulations — you’re right.

In part, it may have to do with why we’re using the given format. Reading online tends to be a process of information gathering, likened by useability expert Jakob Nielsen to the thrill of the hunt. In this era, however, the big score isn’t a woolly mammoth or an impressively antler-ed stag, but a juicy answer to a burning question.

“How many ounces in a cup”

or

“Why do I sweat so much”

or

“What is a French tuck”

According to Nielsen, the difference between writing available on the web versus in print comes down to messages that are actionable versus narrative.

“In linear media — such as print and TV — people expect you to construct their experience for them. Readers are willing to follow the author’s lead. In nonlinear hypertext, the rules reverse. Users want to construct their own experience by piecing together content from multiple sources, emphasizing their desires in the current moment. People arrive at a website with a goal in mind, and they are ruthless in pursuing their own interest and in rejecting whatever the site is trying to push.”

Jakob Nielsen

Scouring social media could also be seen as a form of foraging. How many times have you turned to Facebook to crowd source an answer to a question or settle a friendly debate? Whether looking for outright information or for some social capital, the digitally written word has become our primary source.

These kinds of transactional interactions with writing are markedly different from the other kind of reading — reading for pleasure. This can be done digitally thanks to the rise of ereaders and tablets, but is more commonly aligned with that grand relic of leisure and spare time: the book.

There is something special about a real book. After all, a paperback never runs down it’s battery life, mitigating one of the greatest stresses of modern life. You don’t have to worry too much about the damaging effects of a sandy beach, and the metal bits won’t burn your legs in the sun. Plus, turning the pages of a physical book actually forces you to slow down (albeit by a matter of seconds, provided your fingers are still working.

But when we consider the way writing connects us to other people, times, cultures, physical books offer yet one more thing that tablets don’t.

We can borrow and re-use them.

Buying a used novel will quite literally put an artifact in your hands, and connect you — in some small way — with all its previous owners. Anyone who’s ever wondered at the story behind a scribbled margin note knows the connective possibility of a good, old-fashioned book.

Similarly, physical books may connect us to our memories — and an accompanying sense of nostalgia — in a way that digital media cannot.

“Recent studies have shown that reading comprehension and retention are better with “old-style” printed books[…]. When you hold and read a book, you not only absorb the words and meaning, but you also subconsciously remember the physical location of the words.”

Mark Hom for SciTech Connect


We are curious creatures, hungry for information — but beyond mental growth and stimulation, we crave an emotional connection with others and a sense of higher purpose.

Reading can provide us with all this and more — which is why, after thousands of years, it has yet to go out of style.

This post is part of a series called Is Writing Science or Art?

In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at English grammar — how it helps us understand, and how it creates limitation — and at the science of stories.

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