Quiet you
March 26, 2010 8:18 PM   Subscribe

How do I read without talking to myself?

When I read, I hear my own voice as if I am reading to someone else. I have to read, then hear those words internally, then I am able to process what is being said. I assume this type of internal dialogue is the default mode of explaining and navigating the world for most, but I'm sure others experience the world differently... more directly.

I'm interested in tips from those who have found a way to cut through the clutter and arrive at conclusions without the dialogue (if that's even possible).

This also applies to when I think - but I assume the advice would be to meditate and perceieve the world intuitively. Right?

Annnnnd... I am not crazy. I just hear my own voice :)
posted by simplesharps to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The question, perhaps, is: is this that much different than what other people experience.

I find myself hearing my own voice when I read, when I type, when I think.... we need a frame of reference for language, why not our own voice.

I would be interested in the experience of those that operate from a different mode...
posted by HuronBob at 8:26 PM on March 26, 2010

I'm sure you do it without knowing it. If you really did require language per every thought, you'd hardly get out of bed before the day was over! I like tothink everyone hears their own voice while reading. I do, if I want to remember/comprehend what I read. Just try reading fast or without having to comprehend it.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 8:26 PM on March 26, 2010

I broke this by learning to speed read. Basically you read while reciting something in your head. I do the standard "repeat A E I O U" in your head while you read. It will be very frustrating at first, but after that you get used to it and just read at the pace of your eyes, which is much faster, and don't have to repeat anything in your head.

I'm not a speed reader at all, flipping pages every few seconds is ludicrous to me, but I read at the pace of my eyes now, which is much faster than I can talk.
posted by sanka at 8:26 PM on March 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Great. Now I can't read the question without hearing my own voice. So thanks for that. :-)

In reality, I think everyone does this in a sense. It's just quieter for some. It's how you read, I reckon... do you mouth the words out? I'm having a great deal of difficulty figuring out if I read this way or if it's problematic for me because of the confirmation bias from the question itself... gah!
posted by disillusioned at 8:27 PM on March 26, 2010

do you mouth the words out?

Nah. I'm not that bad.
posted by simplesharps at 8:37 PM on March 26, 2010

Just FYI, start with books you've already read. It's the same thing as watching re-runs while you fall asleep. No surprises, you aren't missing anything, you can just do it. Just work on it. It is a quick transformation though, I went from slow to fast in about a month, but I used to read a lot.
posted by sanka at 8:41 PM on March 26, 2010

i seem to recall that in my speed reading class, people who moved their lips, etc, used to read with a finger on their lips. that enabled them to get a different sensory message about the lipreading.
posted by lester at 8:56 PM on March 26, 2010

Also... is it possible to think without the internal dialogue? That one is a bit trickier.
posted by simplesharps at 9:04 PM on March 26, 2010

It seems to me, and I think I remember seeing a few news headlines about this, that the brain concludes a thought before it puts it into words, which is how the brain makes such good split-second decisions.
posted by rebent at 9:15 PM on March 26, 2010

The whole point of speed reading is breaking this habit, actually, so like sanka said I would look into some speed reading techniques online.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:18 PM on March 26, 2010

Anecdote about a deaf person in a speed reading class:

. . . On average, most people read about 250 words per minute, or about as fast as we talk, as we sound the words in our head as we read. This [deaf] kid came in at 1,500 words per minute.
The instructor was telling the rest of the “normal” people in the room to try to stop reading the words and to just look at the them and trust their brains to do the rest.

The deaf student, reading his lips, start furiously writing down on a piece of paper, “Do you mean to tell me that people who can hear actually sound out the words in their heads when they’re reading?”

The instructor nodded.

The deaf student then wrote this:


There are techniques on that page for how to improve your reading speed.
posted by CathyG at 9:38 PM on March 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Everybody's more or less saying similar things, but if you want another way to think about it ('it' being decoupling sound and text), my reading speed increases a great deal when I'm reading for something -- looking for something, the point, a reference to a particular character I care about, the plot (as opposed to description of setting), the point (in academic writing, often separable from the long, inane exposition of the point). Instead of reading every word and making a sentence (like let's say listening to a song, where you have to listen to all the information in order), treat the page like a painting and look for what interests you.

Also, don't feel bad about reading slowly: it's a skill in and of itself. You can't imagine how many poetry classes I've attended/taught where at some point, someone has to be reminded to focus on the sound of a passage, to treat it like language and not code. Even outside of poetry, I think that something measurable is lost when reading speed increases -- fast reading is good for a lot of contexts, but not all of them.
posted by Valet at 10:08 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never taken a speed-reading class, or deliberately practiced reading quickly, but the only times I ever hear the individual words in my head are when I'm really tired or when the material is really dense and takes a long time to parse. I've occasionally wondered what I do to go faster, but I've never been able to figure it out, because I'm either slogging along hearing every blasted word or I'm just not, and there's no inbetween.

For what it's worth, the way I can sometimes trick my tired brain into getting back up to speed is to give up on understanding the meaning of what I'm reading and just concentrate on, well, going fast. Eventually my brain will transition into the other way of reading without my noticing when it happens or what I'm doing differently. So you might try reading like that periodically (for speed and not meaning) and see if you can trick your brain into a different gear too.

p.s. Also... is it possible to think without the internal dialogue?

Yes. I have three different ways of thinking about a problem or a question. The first is to do some deliberate research and then verbally try to sort out the answer either to myself or with someone else. The second is to sit down and write about it long-hand, because the answers that come out of my pen frequently surprise me and often seem to come out of nowhere. The final way is to go about my business and wait for my brain to eventually present me with a fully-formed answer. I use each of those methods equally--except as a student in discussion-oriented classes, where 90% of my answers or questions simply surfaced out of the deep--

Given my methods, I would say that fully two-thirds of the ways that I think do not involve the kind of internal dialogue that you're talking about.
posted by colfax at 11:00 PM on March 26, 2010

In reality, I think everyone does this in a sense. It's just quieter for some.

I absolutely don't hear my own voice at all when reading and now I've found another way I'm weird.

As far as I recall I never did hear my own voice, although I must have started that way when I was a kid. The words just go straight from vision to thought with nothing audio-ish happening in between. Sometimes I run into a section of dialog and I'll switch to a slower, audio version of reading to imagine the words being said. But this is rare.

I first realized my brain works this way in 3rd grade. I was reading a Doctor Doolittle book. The doctor had a pet bird named "Polynesia". Someone asked me about it later and I realized I'd read the whole thing without realizing I had no idea how to pronounce that name.

I'm faster than average but not a speed reader.

Also... is it possible to think without the internal dialogue? That one is a bit trickier.

I have tons of "internal dialogue" most of the time, but there are situations when I don't. Reading is one. But you probably share some of the others--when you're playing chess, or drawing, or driving, or playing a video game, are you always thinking "if I move here he'll move there" or "maybe this line should be darker" or "I'll push down on the brake pedal now"? I suspect most of the time you are thinking in a more abstract, intuitive sense when you do something you're really absorbed in.
posted by mmoncur at 3:07 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is kind of fascinating to me, as the only time I actually read as slow as I can talk is when I'm studying something fiendishly difficult for school, so that the double repetition (visual and audio) will help it sink in better. I've never taken any kind of speed-reading class. I'm just weird, I guess.

The internal dialogue only happens when I'm exhausted or drunk, and I have to remind myself to not do ridiculous things. It also tends to happen in very posh RP tones, which I find vastly entertaining.
posted by elizardbits at 4:58 AM on March 27, 2010

As I'm reading this post and all the answers I am, of course, hearing it all in my head. However, I think that normally this is not so. I read faster, and have better reading comprehension than most of my classmates (it's actually a joke in class because I finish tests in a fraction of the time it takes everyone else. Each time they expect that I missed something, but not so.) Anyway, I can't be sure 'cuz I don't remember noticing my own voice in my head before, but I don't think that I am those times; unless there's a question I don't understand and I am trying to hash it out before answering.
Also, I have always heard my voice in my head while writing (and sometimes I even mutter things aloud) but I don't know how much of that is because I used to fancy myself a talented writer, so I spend time worrying about "craft".
posted by purpletangerine at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's part of the development of reading fluency; it's not only speed readers who don't hear their voice in their head. Children begin reading by 1) following the words with their finger and sounding it out, then by 2) reading aloud, then by 3) removing the finger, then by 4) reading silently but mouthing the words (sometimes these two are flipped, finger and silence), then by 5) reading silently but hearing the words, then by 6) reading silently and directly processing without needing to translate into mental sounds.

Ideally you should be reading in this final way by the time you finish high school, but generally if you stop at stage 5, nobody does anything about it as long as you're smart and getting good grades, because we stop really teaching READING skills and start working on comprehension skills at a certain point, so most children move from 5 to 6 on their own with time and practice ... or they don't. (Go look up reading instruction -- you'll learn all about whole language and phonics (beginning reading teaching methods) and there's almost nothing about advancing reading fluency beyond, oh, 6th grade competence. We just let you keep practicing then and hope it happens on its own.)

Speed-reading classes do typically focus on helping you eliminate subvocalizing, and this will improve speed in many people, but it isn't necessary to do, and you may learn to stop subvocalizing just by reading a lot for pleasure.

In terms of reading, I don't experience reading more directly when not subvocalizing; I just do it considerably faster. The subvocalizing slows me down quite a bit, but it doesn't hurt anything and it may help with comprehension of difficult passages. I see my college students mouthing words and even whispering out loud to themselves when reading particularly difficult philosophy texts. The harder the material is, the more steps back on the fluency chart we go! It helps us master the material, I suppose by engaging more of the brain in it or something like that. You will even notice that if you learn a second language, it's very common to follow the reading with your finger at the beginning, which seems obvious unnecessary for someone with tons of practice following words on a page, but seems to help the brain deal with the new, difficult reading in a new language.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

My wife is a VERY fast reader, and it's because she does *not* hear the words in her head when she reads. She's never taken a speed-reading course, this is just the way she's always read since childhood. She also thinks very quickly on her feet (which is annoying when we're arguing), and I imagine it's for the same reason.

I wonder if teaching phonics and encouraging kids to "sound it out" actually inhibits the ability to read and process information quickly?

I've been looking for a way to break my "hearing the words" habit to increase my reading speed but haven't had much luck. That said, I haven't really put in the time.

It takes a serious, conscious, prolonged effort to change ANY habit. Since the habit you're looking to change is how you think, I'm sure there's no quick and easy fix. I imagine your best bet would be to do some research on speed-reading programs, choose one, and just dive in. Discipline yourself to really do the work and practice diligently, knowing that you're essentially "rewiring" a major part of your brain.

I would look for a program that has a progressive series of lessons and some kind of practice routine built-in (as opposed to a "learn overnight!" or "here's how to do it, now go practice. the end" techniques).

If you find something that works, please let us know.
posted by Alabaster at 7:24 AM on March 27, 2010

(Of course those steps are pretty normative and not everyone moves in the same way ... the finger, in particular, may stick around longer for students with dyslexia or with undiagnosed eye problems or things like that, where following the words on the page is unusually difficult.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 AM on March 27, 2010

It depends what you're reading, but if you're reading fiction or narrative, then try to visualize things. Make an effort to become immersed in the events that are taking place. For non-narrative, the same thing can be done but in a different manner: try to entertain concepts as you read them and relate them to other concepts you understand. This will reduce internal chatter as well as really help your comprehension of the material.
posted by tybeet at 8:30 AM on March 27, 2010

There is another aspect to reading: do you generate images of what you read, or do you just process the concepts? For example, Bertrand Russell was someone who did not imagine anything he read - like, say, reading "elephant" he didn't conjure up a picture of an elephant, he'd merely process the concept of "elephant", know what it is and move on. However, a lot of people do imagine the elephant. I switch between these modes, and I find that if I'm reading without imaging, it's a lot faster and my comprehension is actually better. I employ different modes depending on the material. When I'd read philosophy, I would almost never form images, but when I'd read a James Bond novel, I'd imagine things like in a film.
posted by VikingSword at 9:23 AM on March 27, 2010

This phenomenon is called Subvocalization. I have the same problem, but there are lots of methods (many listed here) to overcome it.
posted by AtomicBee at 1:45 PM on March 27, 2010

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