Systematic studies of experiences of reading are few and far between. In 2014, Hearing the Voice researchers collaborated with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Guardian in order to investigate how readers hear (or don’t hear) the voices of characters when they read.
Over 1560 people participated in the study, which involved completing an online survey probing their experience of characters’ voices, their inner speech and their proneness to hallucination-like experiences.
Of these participants, 413 wrote us a more detailed description of their experiences when reading
The study’s findings are now available to read freely online in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Very briefly:
- Of the 1566 people who participated in the study, 1 in 7 reported having vivid auditory experiences of hearing voices while reading (similar to hearing someone talking in the same room).
- Of the 413 who provided more detailed information, 1 in 5 reported experiences (in different sensory modalities) of characters being present even outside the context of reading. We called these experiences ‘experiential crossings’.
To our knowledge, ours is the first systematic study directly targeting reading experiences in the general population. Our study is also distinctive in involving an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from psychology and literary studies, a national newspaper and an international book festival.
The reading experience has sometimes been described as almost hallucinatory. (See for example Ruvanee Vilhauer’s recent study of ‘inner reading voices’ and this article in the BPS Research Digest.) Our results suggest that this is an oversimplification, but that many people have lots of involuntary and persistent experiences of characters when they get involved in a book.
Our study of readers’ experiences parallels our research into voice-hearing, which shows that hearing voices is not just about hearing sounds, but also about feeling the presence of characters, agents and unusual entities.
Anyone who would like further information about the study is welcome to download the full paper here:
Ben Alderson-Day, Marco Bernini and Charles Fernyhough , ‘Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters, and crossing of experiences’, Consciousness and Cognition, 2017.
And for media coverage and more information, please see:
‘Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds‘, The Guardian, February 2017.
‘Fictional characters influence us in real life, study reveals‘, The Independent, February 2017.
‘Actors, narrators and total silence: How you hear voices when you read’, The Guardian, September 2014.
Angela Woods, Nev Jones, Ben Alderson-Day, Felicity Callard and Charles Fernyhough, ‘‘Experiences of hearing voices: Analysis of a novel phenomenological survey’’, The Lancet Psychiatry, March 2015.