When Meaning Matters, Look but Don't Touch: The Effects of Posture on Reading

By Davoli, Christopher C.; Du, Feng et al. | Memory & Cognition, July 2010 | Go to article overview

When Meaning Matters, Look but Don't Touch: The Effects of Posture on Reading


Davoli, Christopher C., Du, Feng, Montana, Juan, Garverick, Susan, Abrams, Richard A., Memory & Cognition


Much of the reading that we do occurs near our hands. Previous research has revealed that spatial processing is enhanced near the hands, potentially benefiting several processes involved in reading; however, it is unknown whether semantic processing-another critical aspect of reading-is affected near the hands. While holding their hands either near to or far from a visual display, our subjects performed two tasks that drew on semantic processing: evaluation of the sensibleness of sentences, and the Stroop color-word interference task. We found evidence for impoverished semantic processing near the hands in both tasks. These results suggest a trade-off between spatial processing and semantic processing for the visual space around the hands. Readers are encouraged to be aware of this trade-off when choosing how to read a text, since both kinds of processing can be beneficial for reading.

Thanks to the Internet, we have access to virtually unlimited quantities of reading material. We bounce back and forth among the news, blogs, product reviews, and e-mail, all with a couple of clicks of the mouse. And yet, when it comes time to really read an electronic document (i.e., one of importance that we truly want to absorb), many people would rather print it out to read than read it in its electronic form. There are, of course, functional advantages to a hard copy: It is portable, and it can be written on. Yet in our informal polling, these advantages are rarely invoked to justify the preference. Rather, a common response seems to be, "I just like to hold it," as if having the text in one's hands somehow fundamentally alters the way in which it is read.

There is indeed good reason to suspect that visual processes that do not inherently involve the hands (e.g., reading) could nevertheless be affected by the hands. Several studies have shown that the actions we perform with our hands can influence how we see (e.g., Bekkering & Neggers, 2002; Fagioli, Hommel, & Schubotz, 2007; Vishton et al., 2007; Wohlschläger, 2000) and how we perform complex visual transformations like mental rotations (e.g., Wexler, Kosslyn, & Berthoz, 1998; Wohlschläger & Wohlschläger, 1998). These studies have revealed an intimate relationship between perception and action- in particular, the capacity for the latter to affect the former. Furthermore, there are known interactions between the hands and language processing, as can be observed through gesturing in prelinguistic children (Iverson & Goldin-Meadow, 2005) and through sign language (Goldin- Meadow, 2006). Finally, comprehension of action language may rely on the activation of the comprehender's own motor system (Fischer & Zwaan, 2008; Holt & Beilock, 2006). Not only can hand actions affect what we see, therefore; they may also play a key role in language acquisition, comprehension, and communication.

Recent research has also revealed a more direct manner in which the hands may alter the visual processing of objects that are nearby, such as handheld material that is being read. In particular, several results have suggested that visual processing may be biased toward the space around the hands. For example, Schendel and Robertson (2004) described a patient with considerable left visual field loss (a probe-detection rate of approximately 15%) who was able to substantially improve his detection of probes in the damaged field simply by holding his hand near the left side of the display. Reed, Grubb, and Steele (2006) showed a similar enhancement in detection of stimuli near an outstretched hand in non-neurologically compromised individuals. In their study, subjects performed a basic covert visual attention task. On each trial, one of two boxes flanking either side of a central fixation cross was cued. On most trials (i.e., noncatch trials), a target subsequently appeared in either the cued or the uncued box (70% cue validity), and subjects were to respond via mousepress as quickly as possible once they detected the target.

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When Meaning Matters, Look but Don't Touch: The Effects of Posture on Reading
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