Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Every Day I Hear the Book

By Tim Hannan

Some readers “hear” characters speaking to them, even when the book is finished.

Those who love literature often describe one of the joys of reading as the experience of being fully absorbed in the words and actions of a particular character, who seems to express the reader’s own thoughts, feelings or views of the world. A recent study by a team of British researchers found that some readers even experience the voices of fictional characters as a quasi-hallucinatory phenomenon, claiming to “hear” the words of fictional characters even when not reading.

Prior investigations have demonstrated that both individual and textual variables affect the experience of reading. Readers are known to adjust the pace of their reading to accommodate more difficult text or prose rich in imagery. Some of these processes are detectable by examining scans of brain activity: when a character is “speaking” in a text, specific regions of the auditory cortex are more active than when the character’s actions are described in prose. These and other findings have suggested that the enjoyment of reading in part reflects our ability to use visual and auditory mechanisms to more fully imagine the setting of the novel, as well as the activities and personality of its characters.

In the recent study published in Cognition and Consciousness, the researchers sought to learn more about the nature and frequency of occasions in which readers are engrossed in characters’ lives and voices. They surveyed more than 1500 readers, many of whom were attendees at a large book festival in Scotland.

The researchers found that most survey respondents reported hearing characters’ voices when reading at least part of the time, with more than half noting this occurring all or almost all of the time. Many stated that they “heard” the accent or dialect of the character, or a specific pitch, tone or rate of speech they associated with the character as he or she was imagined to speak.

Visual imagery was common for around 14% of participants, with some describing reading as a kind of cinematic experience. A few reported tactile experiences, such as a character’s whisper being “felt” on their neck.

As many as one-fifth of respondents reported that at times they “heard” characters’ voices outside of the immediate reading experience. One of these described their experience in this way: “Whenever I’m reading a novel I always hear the characters talking even while not reading. They continue a life between bouts of reading.”

One theory proposed to explain these findings is that the experience of reading about the words and actions of well-described characters produces an overlay on the reader’s thoughts and feelings. That is, if a reader becomes engrossed in a character’s life, or is emotionally affected by their speech or behaviour, the reader may adopt their words, phrases and styles of speech as a pattern when responding to others. This could occur only for a brief time while reading the book, or persist for a longer period on occasions where the reader is deeply moved.

As one respondent to the survey put it: “If I read a book written in the first person, my everyday thoughts are often influenced by the style, tone and vocabulary of the written work. It’s as if the character has started to narrate my world”. The researchers termed this “experiential crossing”: the thought and speech patterns of the character have crossed over from the text to influence the behaviour and speech of the reader.

The researchers also noted that the vividness of the reading experience was associated with responses to a questionnaire measuring proneness to auditory hallucinations. They noted that this is not to imply that readers are hallucinating while imagining characters’ voices, but simply that some people are more disposed than others to immersing themselves in a fictional world.

Experiential crossing has also been noted by readers of non-fiction books, though it’s most commonly reported when reading fictional works in which the author has created vividly detailed characters whose words and actions resonate with the personal histories and experiences of the reader.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.