Background noise – like chatter in a coffee shop or the drone of passing cars – can slow down our reading speed, but according to a study of Russian readers, it doesn’t affect how well our brains understand text.
The study looked at the effects of auditory noise and visual distractions such as typos or poor handling. Surprisingly, researchers at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia found that they are struggling with the confusion of the word increasing rapidly reading, perhaps because we find the process very annoying and we want to finish reading as soon as possible.
For example, if you’re wondering if you should listen to podcasts or music while you work, this tutorial has some interesting points to make. In particular, it looked at how we can change our reading style to reflect auditory or visual noise.
“Overall, previous research has shown that auditory and visual noise impairs reading comprehension and comprehension, although the results have been mixed,” wrote linguist Nina Zdorova and her colleagues.
“Currently, there are no studies looking at the power of sound that they have measured in the process of language use theories.”
One of the language concepts that was analyzed was the noise process, which suggests that our brains deal with noise by looking at the meaning of single words and whole sentences. Then we use a little guesswork to figure out the overall meaning and relationships between the words.
The second theory is a good enough example; and when our brain is not analyzing every detail of the text but instead just taking enough words to ‘good enough’ to understand. With a little focus on correct spelling, our brain stores some mental information to cut through the noise.
To see how reading was affected by noise related to these models, the researchers conducted two tests: one on auditory noise (71 participants) and one on visual noise (70 participants). Visual aids were used to study reading fluency, with follow-up tests used to judge comprehension.
In fact, some of the sentences given to the volunteers were changed to make them less clear: that’s when the grammar is confusing or the punctuation marks mean that you need two or three to understand the meaning of the sentence.
When it came to noisy tests, background chatter from overlapping podcasts caused people to spend longer looking at the key part of the sentences before they finished reading. This additional time may return the noise, meaning that the comprehension of the sentence is not affected.
A measure of visual noise – created by placing some short words and phrases together with the sentences to be read – comprehension remained the same as reading speed increased. It’s a little surprising considering previous studies, but the researchers think that people just want to complete the task as quickly as possible, the noise appearing as an unpleasant distraction.
“In both experiments, we observed that longer reading times were associated with an increased number of ambiguous sentences,” the researchers wrote.
“This is predicted by a good algorithm and shows that good, semantically based processing is faster than algorithmic processing.”
There is a lot going on in this research, but all in all it is a great success for a well-rounded theory of language – and the demonstration that the sound and visual does not make us rely more or less on this way of understanding when we ‘re reading.
Regarding the impact of background noise on reading, this study is consistent with the past: in most cases, no difference in comprehension is observed, although certain types of noise (such as music that we don’t listen to often) can interfere in this case.
With so many variables to measure in terms of what is being read and what is being heard, further study is needed to learn more – especially about reading in different languages since the sounds are different. However, potential distractions may not interfere with your reading as much as you think.
“We were unable to confirm the prediction that noise increases reliance on semantics,” the researchers wrote. “This does not preclude a noisy method and good planning models, but it also calls for further research on this topic.”
Research has been published in PLOS ONE.