Think Bomb

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Spelling, reading, and the mind's eye

My understanding of words is strictly phonological. I do not visualize words in my head well, rather the image that pops up is of the object or sometimes a color I associate with a more abstract word (e.g.: I read or hear "car" and immediately visualize the object, not the letters of the word. For the more abstract word "philosophy," I just see yellow). This method is so ingrained that my efforts to visualize words have not come very far. If a word is not spelled phonetically (I do fine with phonetic words), then much of my memory for how to spell it comes from the muscle memory of typing or writing. If the word is short enough and I make the effort to see the word rather than the object, then I can visualize the word, though this is not my natural inclination.

I believe that my highly phonetics-based understanding of the written word also accounts for my inability to speed read. I have tried speed reading, but it relies on a visual understanding of words. For me, the visual stimulus (written words) must first be translated into a phonological mental representation (in other words, me talking to myself in my head) before I can access the meaning of the word. This process happens in a split second, so I can still read quickly, but only as fast as I can talk (as I am talking to myself in my mind as I read). I will not understand a word if I only glance at it and do not say it to myself. The meaning is only accessed once the phonetic representation is produced. Of course, it is such an automatic response that I usually cannot force myself to glance at word without mentally saying it. I do miss some road signs though, because of this phenomena. A friend will ask as we drive, "well didn't you see that big green sign a few miles back?" and I will recall having seen the sign, but not what was written as I did not bother to translate the material. Good speed readers, on the other hand, can access the meaning of words visually. The need for translation into a phonetic mental representation does not exist, so the speed of reading is only hindered by the speed of vision and understanding.

This whole talking in my head business has its benefits. For one, e-mails, letters, and books seem more conversational. Each writer gets their own voices as they speak to me in my mind. Plus, this makes me a better writer as everything I write is being said in my head at the same time. The writing then comes out very smoothly, as if I were just talking (because that is essentially what I am doing in my mind as I type).

I wonder how many other people approach reading in this fashion and which is more common.

Interesting link:


  • my eye is automatically drawn to the important words of a sentence, i have a difficult time actually reading all the words. i skip from "word" to "idea" almost instantaneously. the mental experience is similiar to recalling memories, but not as memories per se, rather memories transformed into present phenomenon of idea. i rush through the ideas and a synthesis of fluid thought emerges. this is a very different experience from the one you described...i think

    zach cheeley

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:29 PM  

  • Your post reminded me of the searching I did after we discussed this phenomenon last time. I found a few articles that referenced seeing "colors" when people read words. Interestingly enough, quite a few people see shapes and a few people see textures (like Math might feel like Tapioca pudding). The instances of this non-traditional imagery is significantly higher in savants than any other studied group (in fact the original research on the subject came up during savant research). One study about the guy that sees words as textures is a savant that can do any sort of mathematical calculation in his head just as fast as a calculator and describes the experience as running his hands over different textures and being able to tell what it feels like next.

    While most people by far see images of the word or meaning while reading things you are not alone in the world and perhaps you are a savant for Biology (you don't have to be an idiot to be a savant its just more likely)


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:04 PM  

  • Zach- Your method of interpreting words is fascinating and very, very different from my own. I imagine it must be quite difficult for you to recall a passage verbatim, as you are more likely to remember only the idea behind the words. I imagine this can make spelling difficult as well, as you too do not necessarily see the word, or even hear it, just understand it. You must be a wicked fast reader though! I would be very curious to see if those who incorporate your method are faster readers but poorer spellers.

    Scott- I don't necessarily think my method is uncommon and I won't go so far as to say I have synesthesia, like the people you describe. People with synesthesia may go so far as to see the word in actual color on the written page, while I merely get a hint of color when reading abstract words. I am curious to know if you too hear narration when reading, as you are a pretty good writer (which would follow my hypothesis that this can aid writing).

    By Blogger Kim Russo, at 1:36 PM  

  • I'm one of those speed-reading bastards-- not sure why. I actually had trouble learning to read at first, but by the time I hit second or third grade I was well ahead of the class.

    I don't see colors or feel textures, each word is just a straight beeline to meaning. I guess it just goes to show that our brains really do process even the most commonplace things very differently.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:50 PM  

  • well spelling is somthing that kind of plagues me but i dont put a effort into using correct spelling unless i am trying to impress a girl. my view on it is as long as the message gets acrossed then its fine. i dont actualy see spelling when i read i see a word that starts with a S and ends with a g and has a p and some l's and in my head its spelling. i dont visualize as colors or shapes but rather as the person who wrote it. talking.

    kind of odd i guess.

    but when i read what you write i see you sitting there talking to me. and if its someone i dont know a random personality is generated. depending on the way you write ill usealy tell if your a guy or a girl and what race you are or where you grew up. just by your speach.

    (sorry for the mispellings but just proving a point)

    to me spelling is not importent in my life. i dont goto colladge and even though i do program i dont focus on the spelling conventions of posts or anything. as a result people online hate me.

    if you met me in person and conversed with me you would see that i am a decent person to talk to... just when you read my spelling its quite literaly a train wreck.

    By Anonymous Trowa, at 10:35 PM  

  • by associating letters with colors it sounds somewhat like synethesia. it's weird i don't recall ever associating words or letters with colors unless the word is a color.

    i can relate with having this inner-monologue while i read and write. sometimes i can imagine a person or myslef speaking and other times just a voice (not distinctly recognizable) telling the story of the writer.

    many times i do associate words with objects.

    also i believe the older i get the more quickly i can read. i assume that by encountering a word or phrase i'm not familiar with my brain stores the experience in a temporary, easily accessable area that my brain can instantly pull from until the experience is fully completed, thus giving the word or phrase meaning to me.

    (ex. for instance i've never used or encountered the word 'phonological'. and i think my brain has taken this word and now associated it with my experience from writing this comment and giving it a relationship with my analyzing it having the word "phono", which means to me a phono jack (or 1/4 inch plug) on headphones -> thus realizing it means audible...

    without this process of decifering the meaning "the experience" the word lacks meaning and is just stored for future recall.)

    kudos for this informative experience. =)

    By Anonymous djMidknight, at 12:02 PM  

  • I was trained to spell phonetically, a habit I've slowly and incompletely unlearned. Aside from being an unrealistic approach to English spelling, it's no good for playing Scrabble.

    By Blogger Sam, at 1:25 AM  

  • Curious: Have you ever heard of RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation)? It's an interesting way to eliminate the slowest part of reading, scanning across a page looking for the next batch of words.

    You can get a web demo here:

    ..and there's a Win32 implementation here:

    Someday I'll fix the core bugs these things have (not accounting for prosody, centering instead of fully justifying, etc.). Still, the technology can work really well, even as is.

    By Blogger Dan, at 1:57 AM  

  • There's a lot of research done on speed reading. I too am a speed-reader (when I desire to be such)

    The key is not switching from word-> meaning, the key is disassociating the reading of the word from the processing of it's meaning.

    For me, I speed-read diagonally because I find that it breaks apart the clusters that my mind siezes on and instead just fills my head with the words. A whole paragraph goes into my head, and then is processed afterwards into the meaning of that paragraph.

    Usually the barriers are described as:

    50-100wpm: letter-based reading
    100-200wpm: subvocalization (pronouncing the words aloud in your head)
    300-500wpm: phoneticization (hearing the words spoken in your head)
    600-1000wpm: word structure (visual recognition of whole words)
    1000wpm+: word/sentence groupings and out-of-order reading

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:10 PM  

  • Just found your blog from a link to a post you made last year - I got pulled in and have been reading quite a few. Good stuff, good writing, deep thinking: a nice surprise in the world of blogs. Since your most recent post is several weeks ago, hope it's not too late to respond. Your description of how you read fascinates me - it's very different from the way my brain works re: words & spelling. I wonder how many different ways people process the same info; certainly points to the need for more methods to teach reading (& other things). Are you familiar with Martin Gardner's theories of different "intelligences"? He also has a great book on the brain/mind, perhaps a bit out of date in terms of the neuroscience knowledge, but still a great read. It's called "The Shattered Mind"; he notes that so much of what we know about "normal" brains come from "damaged" brains. Which leads me to another of your excellent topics/questions, "can religion and science coexist?" - makes me think of a quote (by whom I have forgotten): "The brain is just a piece of god".

    By Anonymous PJ, at 12:15 AM  

  • I'm pretty sure I recognize a word instantly when I see it. There's no breaking it down, just the word as a whole. I remember the spelling of a word totally aesthetically. Which would seem to imply that I can't remember a word that's spelled arbitrarily, but I update my aesthetic sense to understand the word as it's spelled. So every word's spelling just "makes sense" to me, and I can spot a misspelled word in a text even faster than I can read it. I'm pretty good at spelling in general, unless it's a word you only hear at spelling bees. I don't understand how people could see the same word thousands of times in their lives and still misspell it.

    I used to read without repeating it to myself with any voice at all. It was completely voiceless, direct apprehension of the meanings from the visual appearance, and I used to read a lot faster then. Now I have to repeat everything to myself to understand it. (not to recognize the word, just to understand the meaning) I can still read at least as fast as I can blurt out something resembling words, though. It's always in my own voice, or not really a voice but still pronounced. A mostly voiceless voice based on my voice.

    Sometimes if I'm really tired I might read the words of a sentence in the wrong order.

    which reminds me of something strange... i started accidentally *writing* letters in the wrong order, transposed (consecutive letters), and i didn't start doing that until I was typing fast enough to accidentally transpose letters. Which I think is really weird. it's like magic.

    Sometimes I can be listening to someone speak a whole sentence or two and not paying attention, paying attention to something else, and then recall the whole thing audially and interpret it. (i can count fast repetitions of a sound that way too, but maybe everyone can, i don't know)

    By Blogger Richard, at 7:32 PM  

  • I can visualize a word pretty well--i can verbally spell out a long word in one breath by visualizing it.

    i don't have eidetic memory, though.

    i can talk and hear what someone is saying at the same time. i thought that was just a given until I realized my mom can't hear you when she's talking. if you talk while she's talking she doesn't even know you said anything. that was a weird revelation.

    By Blogger Richard, at 7:55 PM  

  • oh, i forgot to say, one thing that really boggles my mind is speed reading. i mean reading a whole page in seconds. there are so many things about that i don't understand.

    -how can a person visually perceived that much information at once? the paragraph when looked at as a whole is a bunch of squiggly lines to me.

    -if you could visually perceive that much information at once, how could you recognize the words it spells that fast?

    -if you could recognize the words that fast, how could you assimilate the semantic meanings of a whole page that fast?

    -supposing i learned the magic trick to speed read, why would i even do it? it wouldn't give me the time to think and reflect on the information, it would be a shallow reading.

    By Blogger Richard, at 8:16 PM  

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