In the Brain, Silent Reading Is the Same As Talking to Yourself

By Carl Engelking | January 26, 2015 2:46 pm

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It’s a well-known fact that kids learn to read by speaking words aloud, and only later are they able to channel that brain activity into a silent internal monologue. But in terms of what goes on in our brains when we read silently, not much has been known.

Now a group of Italian researchers have discovered that our brain carries over the same tactics from reading aloud to read silently. As you read this article, your brain is behaving as if you’re speaking the words aloud to yourself — a discovery that highlights the important role sound plays in language.

The Sound of Silence

In order to get access to the inner workings of the brain, researchers recruited 12 men and 4 women who were set to undergo surgery for malignant brain tumors. During neurosurgery, researchers attached electrodes to each participant’s Broca’s area — the part of the brain responsible for speech production — to monitor its activity during a series of tests. Participants were fully conscious during the tests, and surgery was performed using local anesthesia.

In the first part of the test, participants read Italian words and phrases out loud while researchers measured both the sound waves of the speech and electrical signals in the brain. In the second part of the test, participants silently read the same words and phrases that they had just spoken.

An interesting pattern emerged. When reading aloud, patients showed activity in Broca’s area that corresponded to the sound frequencies of the words. And when reading silently, their brains also mimicked the sound frequencies of each phrase. At an anatomical level, then, reading silently is the brain internally speaking to itself.

Researchers published the results of their study Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hearing is Knowing

The authors suggest that this knowledge could be useful, for instance, in designing new strategies for treating people with language disorders such as aphasia, which is caused by damage to the brain’s language areas.

At a more foundational level, the results underscore the fundamental role sound plays in the formulation of language. As the authors write: “Our results suggest that in normal hearing people, sound representation is at the heart of language and not simply a vehicle for expressing some otherwise mysterious symbolic activity of our brain.” Something to think about next time you participate in the brain wizardry that is silently reading an article to yourself.

 

Photo credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24970097
    DOI: 10.1093/brain/awu168. October 2014
    “These data [direct cortical stimulation] challenge classical theories of brain organization (e.g. Broca’s area as speech output region)”

    http://www.talkingbrains.org/2014/10/brocas-area-doesnt-care-what-you-do.html
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.22682/abstract DOI: 10.1002/hbm.22682
    There’s your problem.

    As you read this article, your brain is behaving as if you’re speaking the words aloud to yourself” In fact, no, not at any useful reading rate. it does not account for synesthesia, either. The researchers have touched sound with blurred vision.

    Management rewarded for enforcing process and counting beans knows little about productivity (and tolerates it less – insubordination).

  • TLongmire

    Reading is by far one of the most peculiar aspects of the human experience in my humble opinion.

  • CarlM

    I’m curious what differences there might be for speed reading.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    You censored refereed literature from the past two years that empirically falsifies your agenda. Restore my post.

  • Eric Parkins

    So is reading ‘automatically’ to one’s conscious self a bit like talking to one’s conscious self but not knowing that it’s one’s unconscious self that’s doing the talking??

    See:

    https://www.academia.edu/5981321/Creativity_Emotional_Expression_Mental_Health_and_Mental_Illness_imagination_primary_process_thinking_and_dream_sleep_as_controlled_and_uncontrolled_information_flow_from_the_unconscious_brain_

  • Eric Parkins

    If reading silently is the brain speaking to itself – which brain is doing the speaking and which is doing the listening ? does that need two brains ?? Is it the cerebellum talking to the cerebrum?

  • agnes debinski

    If you can hear your voice uttering those words in your mind that you are reading (which is just like talking to yourself – e.g. about something you are currently learning, which is used as a learning technique), then that is quite a learning experience. It´s just as good as watching something educative on TV or documentaries online, because in all of these cases your brain perceives that you are hearing and seeing something (especially as books are written in a descriptive manner so that pictures are produced in human minds). Therefore science has been able to suggest, what all of us already knew on some level, namely that reading really is highly effective in regard to learning procedures. And so there is no need to replace book by movies. One does not learn more that way. I presume it´s interesting to note that all of this is true for e-books too – as well as for powerpoint presentations. I reckon this discovery is highly significant to learning psychologists and educators.

  • David Bley

    I seem to read in 2 modes. There is that reading when I am conscious of the process and it is reading silently. Then there is that mode, which I don’t seem to enter as much, which I can only describe as being in ‘Flow’, where I experience the book without consciously reading. Wonder if that affects in the same manner?

  • Guest

    Except during rare moments (induced by such things as a
    stroke or deep meditation), your awareness does not experiencing the external world, it experiences an internal simulation of the world (your “story” about the world, or in the clunky terminology of neuroscience, the Default Mode Network). Since this has been repeatedly confirmed regarding visual stimuli, it should not come as a surprise when it is confirmed with audible stimuli, as in this Italian study.

  • Richard H Barker

    Except during rare moments (induced by such things as a
    stroke or deep meditation), your awareness does not experience the external world, it experiences an internal simulation of the world (your “story” about the world, or in the clunky terminology of neuroscience, the Default Mode Network). Since this has been repeatedly confirmed regarding visual stimuli, it should not come as a surprise when it is confirmed with audible stimuli, as in this Italian study.

  • Jane Beckman

    One would wonder how this differs with deaf people who learn to read, or with people who read braille?

  • ECarpenter

    One can’t legitimately draw sweeping conclusions from a study of 16 people. The study is accurate for those 16 – but I’m sure there are much greater variations in brain activity during silent reading that a larger study would reveal. There are almost certainly cultural differences as well as individual differences.

  • Anna

    I thinks this subject is very connected to remembering words (reading out loud or silently) and sentences and also with photographic memory. Interesting way to redo this article.

  • marc

    Not sure for all .Try to learn another language ,only by mind, without speaking it aloud many time, your accent will be really a special one !

  • Alida Rahmalia

    Hello Carl, This is a great article! I always have this thing on my mind where our brain actually detects automatically what we want to say. Which correlates to the role sound plays in language like you mentioned. With this I believe, reading is a great way for learning isn’t it? Because our brain keeps on practicing and it will affect a lot through our pronunciation and even comprehension. You have gathered interesting findings! I would love to know more if you have facts regarding speed reading. Will it affect to our brain as well?

    Thank you,
    Alida

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