Background noise like chatter in a coffee shop or the hum of passing traffic might slow down our reading speed, but according to a study of Russian readers, it doesn’t affect how well our brains understand written text.
The study looked at the effects of auditory noise and visual distractions such as typos or poor formatting. Curiously, researchers at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia have found that coping with a word scramble increases reading speed, perhaps because we find the process more irritating and want to finish reading quickly.
For example, if you’re wondering whether you should listen to podcasts or music while you work, the study has some interesting points to make. Specifically, it looked at how we might change our reading style to compensate for auditory or visual noise.
“Overall, previous studies have reported a detrimental effect of both auditory and visual noise on reading fluency and comprehension, although their results varied,” write linguistics researcher Nina Zdorova and colleagues.
“So far, none of the studies exploring the influence of noise have evaluated it within the framework of language processing theories.”
One of the theories of language processing examined was the noisy channel model, according to which our brain deals with noise by looking more at the meaning of single words and less of whole sentences. We then use some clever guesswork to deduce the general meaning and relationships between words.
The second theory is the good enough model; that’s when our brains don’t analyze every single detail of a text, but just grasp enough words for a “good enough” understanding. By focusing less on precise syntax, our brains conserve some cognitive resources to deal with the noise.
To see how reading was affected by noise compared to these models, the researchers conducted two experiments: one on auditory noise (71 participants) and one on visual noise (70 participants). Eye tracking devices were used to study reading fluency, with follow-up tests used to judge comprehension.
Basically, some of the target sentences given to the volunteers were tweaked to be more semantically implausible – this is where wonky and confusing grammar or punctuation means you need two or three takes to actually figure out what a sentence means.
When it came to the auditory noise test, the background chatter from the overlapping podcasts caused people to spend more time looking at the key section of sentences before completing the reading. This extra time could compensate for the noise, meaning that sentence comprehension isn’t affected.
In the test of the visual noise created by combining the sentences to be read with other words and short sentences, comprehension remained the same while reading speed increased. This is a bit disconcerting considering previous studies, but the researchers think people just wanted to finish the task quickly, with the visual noise an uncomfortable distraction.
“In both experiments, we observed that a longer total reading time was associated with increased accuracy for implausible sentences,” the researchers write.
“This is predicted by the good enough processing model and indicates that good enough, semantic-based processing is faster than syntax-based algorithmic processing.”
There’s a lot going into this study, but overall it’s a bigger win for pretty good language processing theory and an indication that auditory and visual noise doesn’t make us rely more or less on this particular method of understanding while we are reading.
In terms of how background noise affects reading, this study matches previous ones: most of the time no differences in understanding are observed, although some types of noise (such as music we don’t usually listen to) can distract in this context.
With so many variables to measure in terms of what is being read and what the accompanying noise is, more study is needed to learn more, especially about reading in different languages as the syntax varies. However, potential distractions may not interrupt your reading as much as you think.
‘We failed to confirm predictions that noise increases semantic dependency,’ the researchers write. “This does not invalidate the noisy channel and good-enough processing models, and rather requires further research on this topic.”
The research was published in PLOS ONE.
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