Unexpected Revelations on Reading -- From the New Science of Physical Intelligence

04/30/2014 08:17 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

I love reading, and I know from my experience that some books move me so much, that I actually feel that I am experiencing what the author describes: the darkness of the room, the wind blowing outside, the smell of meal describes only in words.

A trio of researchers at the MIT Media Lab have taken sensory reading a step further. Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault have developed "Sensory Fiction." Sensory Fiction is a vest that hooks up to an e-book and enhances our reading experiences by actually adjusting the light we see, the sounds we hear, the temperature we feel, and even our heart rate while we are reading the story. It's just a prototype but it's a great example of how our sensory perception plays a huge role in our reading experience.

Factors such as font size, word location, print color and page texture are all factors in how we process information that we read. They can influence our perception of characters and events, the readability of the book, our own test performance, and the speed with which we read. For instance, studies conducted by Thomas Schubert of University of Jena have shown that we automatically and unconsciously associate power with vertical positioning, where 'up' means powerful and 'down' means powerless. We hear this association expressed in numerous metaphors such as "She looks up to him" or "He thinks very highly of her" but researchers are now discovering that the mere position of the word on the page reinforces the idea in our brains.

In one study, participants were shown word pairs representing power-imbalanced relationships on a computer screen--like employer vs. employee, army officer vs. private, master vs. slave. The pairings were presented vertically, with one word appearing at the top of the screen and the other at the bottom. The researchers asked the participants to identify as fast as possible both the word with the powerful meaning and the word powerless meaning. It took longer to identify powerful individuals when they appeared at the bottom of the screen. Likewise, it took longer to identify powerless individuals when they were positioned at the top of the screen.

Another experiment conducted by Thomas Schubert together with Kiki Zanolie and Steffen Giessner of Erasmus University Rotterdam and her colleagues found that when subjects saw words that represented powerful groups, their attention shifted to the top of a computer screen they were watching. When viewing words representing powerless groups, their attention shifted to the bottom. Therefore, when we read about a powerful person or event that is described at the bottom of the page (or screen), or about a person or event that lacks power but is described at the top of the page, it might take longer to process and understand the information. It might also influence how powerful or powerless we perceive a person to be.

Body blows -- the force of metaphors

Interestingly, sometimes just reading a tactile word is enough to provoke the corresponding bodily reaction. Writers often use metaphors to animate text and help readers understand abstract concepts. In an interesting recent study conducted by Simon Lacey of Emory University and his colleagues they chose sentences that contained tactile metaphors--such as "She had a rough day"--and paired them with sentences with the same meaning but without the metaphors, such as "She had a bad day." Participants lay in an fMRI scanner and listened to the various sentences. The researchers found that the brain regions that were activated when the participants heard sentences with texture metaphors were the same brain regions that are activated when people sense texture through touch. However those same brain regions were not activated when participants heard comparable sentences that lacked metaphors. Thus the use of metaphors packs visceral power that can enhance the reading experience. For example the sentence, "He was terribly scared upon encountering the loud bear" is less powerful than a sentence like "His skin prickled and his hair went electric at the ear-splitting roar of the bear."

Runaway from red

A study conducted by Andrew Elliot of University of Rochester and Markus Maier of University of Munich and their colleagues, showed that red type on a page or a red cover adversely influences our performance in tests. In other words, red arouses avoidance behavior. To show this they divided participants into several groups and gave them verbal and mathematical tests. The only difference between the groups was the color of the participant number appearing at the top of each page. For one group, the number was written in red while for the other group the number was written in another color (such as green or black). The results were astonishing; those whose tests had a red participant number performed significantly worse than those who had a green or a black number.

Amazingly, another recent study conducted by Elliot and Maier and their colleagues showed that you don't even have to see the actual color red to influence your performance on a test, simply viewing the word 'red' is enough. So when designing a test or engaging your readers in a cognitive task, avoid the color red as it may undermine cognitive performance.

Fast food, fast reading

Numerous factors influence your pace of reading, such as the difficulty of the text, your interest in the text and how tired you are. A fascinating, "out of left field" finding is that exposure to fast food logos actually quickens your reading speed.

Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe of University of Toronto subliminally exposed one group to split-second logo images of six fast-food chains on a computer screen, with the other group exposed to blank squares for the same length of time. Participants were then asked to read a paragraph. Those who were exposed to the fast-food logos read significantly faster than others who were exposed merely to blank squares.

So be aware that when reading in a fast food place, or sitting somewhere in view of a fast food logo, your reading speed may quicken. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on what you have to read!

These studies and others demonstrate that there are multiple physical factors, beyond word meaning and sentence structure--like text size, placement, color and even specific environmental cues--that influence the reading experience in ways we could not have imagined. These studies are all part of a relatively new field in social science called "embodied cognition" which investigates how our physical sensations influence our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and judgment all without our awareness.

So before we rush off to create Sensory Fiction vests and other reading enhancement devices, we should explore the tools we already have on hand as writers to create vivid and influential experiences in our readers. There are more ways than we even know about yet!

Thalma Lobel, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized psychologist and a professor at the School of Psychological Science at Tel Aviv University and the author of Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster; Hardcover, April 29, 2014).