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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Experience of Reading

  • Author(s): Moore, Alan Tonnies
  • Advisor(s): Schwitzgebel, Eric
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License

What do you experience when you read? You are reading right now, so ask yourself, do you have an inner voice, visual imagery, or a perceptual experience of the words on the page. Perhaps, while you read this abstract, you simply find your mind wandering. Philosophers and psychologist provide radically conflicting descriptions of the commonplace experience of reading, and my own introspection feels incomplete and unclear.

I begin, in Chapter 1, by making the case for a healthy skepticism towards introspective reports, even those of experts describing their current experiences. In Chapter 2, I contrast the experience of reading with perceptual experiences and discuss the sources of introspective error: inference error, overgeneralization, and memory limitations. Due to these sources of error, we can not take introspective reports at face value, and I argue for the need to compare subjective and objective measures of experience using the Subjective and Objective Measures of Experience (SOME) method. Chapter 3 is an examination of the cognitive processes that underlie the act of reading, and I discuss the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, situational models of narrative comprehension, flow, and mind wandering. In Chapter 4, I describe a series of experiments on the phenomenology of reading that use SOME method.

Chapter 5 is a general discussion of the results. These experiments suggest that there is extensive variability in the experience of reading. Experts have been blind to this variability because introspective error creates systematic biases in descriptions of experience. I argue that our confidence in introspective reports is always high, regardless of accuracy, so we must evaluate methods of measuring introspective reports, not the reports themselves. Further, these results suggest that coarse-grained aspects of experience, such as modal experiences while reading, are functionally isolated. They are what I call paraphenomena. When our experiences are not functionally isolated, the relationship between experience and behavior is often one of interference instead of facilitation. I finish by laying out the implications for the relationship between phenomenal and functional notions of consciousness.

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