Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “how the brain processes words”

This is Your Brain on Words Part Three: What the reader really sees on the page

“To see is to devour.”

― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Our Eyes Weren’t Designed for Reading

Evolutionarily speaking, eyes are a pretty big deal. Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker has even posited, in his Light Switch Theory, that the development of eyes set off an evolutionary arms race (what we now call the Cambrian Explosion). It makes sense – a predator who can see is going to make pretty short work of most of its blind prey. It’s going to do a hell of a lot better hunting (i.e., outcompete) other predators who are blind, too.

Making a long story (by which I mean hundreds of millions of years) short (this paragraph), light sensitive spots – which even plants have – grew and changed until animals that couldn’t see only survived if they lived where there wasn’t anything to see –underground, the bottom of the ocean, the Lifetime Movie Network, etc. Of those that can see, different animals have developed different eyes – the kind that work best for those particular animals. Dragonflies can see almost everything around them, they can see in both dark and light, and can see color. They can’t focus well enough to do something that requires seeing more than the outlines of shapes, though, and details within those shapes are indistinct. Which means no dragonfly could ever do something like read this blog. Boo dragonflies. Front-focusing, color-receiving, not particularly good at seeing in the dark eyes – like we have – predate humans being human. We share them with many primates and, interestingly, dolphins. So, yes, a dolphin could read my blog. Yay dolphins. Also, we can move our eyes without moving our heads. That doesn’t sound like that big a deal until you realize it’s more (in terms of sheer numbers, much, much, much more) the exception than the rule.

Spoiler alert, this is where this shit starts getting really cool

We didn’t develop our eyes for reading. We developed them, like everything else, to get food. Well, to get food and to get laid, but getting food was the focus, being both a prerequisite for and the ticket to the latter. So we’ve got these eyes that do a pretty good job of focusing on a specific animal we want to kill, and they also give us enough vision around that animal to know whether something else is hunting it (or us). Then every single ancestor you’ve had since your relatives were primates got laid and, hundreds of millions of years later, it’s time to read.

See, I told you the long story would be short.

How We Read With Hunters’ Eyes

You may think you are looking at a page on your monitor right now, but as soon as I mention it, I’ll bet you’ll agree that you are really just looking at one spot – like the word “spot” – and taking in the rest of this page as a progressively blurrier bunch of stuff. That small spot of clarity (and the relative clarity of what’s around it) is key to understanding how our eyes take in words.

The “sweet spot” in our retina, which is to say the spot that focuses most clearly, is called the fovea. It’s a depression in the retina, and it is what you point at the word you are reading at any given moment.


Reading takes place through a series of snapshots, called saccades, taken several times a second. During each snapshot, our fovea is focused on around four letters. We see a total of ten to twelve letters total – four to the left and seven or eight to the right of where we are focused. Assuming, that is, we are talking about Westerners, reading the left-to-right Western alphabet. If you were reading Hebrew or Arabic, for example, you still see seven or eight upcoming letters, but then they’re on the left (because their words read right-to-left). If you were reading Chinese, you would not focus on as many upcoming characters, because character density is completely different. You would, however, be fovially focused on the particular character you were reading, and looking (a bit, and not consciously) at what comes next.

In other words, reading looks like this:


Those saccades are important, because they are not a smooth roller gracefully moving from one word to the next, putting everything in the foveal sweet spot when its turn comes. Saccades happen through a jerky, fast process. During that process, our brain looks for every opportunity to take shortcuts and cheat. Once we’ve earned how to read and don’t have to sound out every word, we also stop “reading” every word. Because the brain is fast, and wants to get down to the story, it will grab the first few letters of an upcoming word while still focused on the previous word. If there’s a pretty good chance the next word is “the” or “its” or something it can assume it knows, the next saccade will shoot past that one, grabbing the last letter or two subconsciously as the fovea is brought to bear on the word after, using that trailing focus to confirm what the word was.

This is Where Our “Written Sounds” Really Shine

As we discussed in Part Two of this series, the base unit of human language is syllables. Letters are smaller, but we use letters solely for the purpose of forming syllables, which are something our brain can turn into word-sounds, and process as language.

Any guesses how many alphabetic characters are in a normal syllable? If you guessed “the same number we can shoot our foveal eye-lasers at” you are absolutely correct.


We are still (and always) glancing from sound to sound (syllable to syllable). When we see something coming into that foveal focus and think we know what it sounds like, we will skip it (like you probably just did with “it”) and move on to the next one, grabbing a little subconscious confirmation on the tail end. Among other things, this means that, long after we stopped “sounding out” words like we did when we were learning how to read, we’re still sounding out words. Every freaking time we see them.

That fact contradicts most of what neuroscientists thought about the issue for most of the past century. But modern studies have basically put the issue to bed – and did it in a way that surprised most researchers who formed hypotheses before we had the tools to really study this stuff scientifically.

Why Jane Doe, Fiction Writer, Should Give a Shit About Any of This

There are two key elements to how our (which is to say our readers’) eyes focus that can be enormously important to keep in mind when we’re writing. The first is that, to a fluent, adult reader, this process a subconscious. It is also extremely fast and efficient. So fast and efficient that most neuroscientists did not believe it (“sounding out” words) occurred in fluent readers for most of the time they’ve been studying it. The change came with advances in brain scanning technology, which confirms what used to be the minority view – we all still “say” every word as we read.

More importantly, when confronted with new (which is to say, unfamiliar sounding) words, we stop using the fast, efficient and subconscious approach. We basically revert to our basic, first grade version of “sounding out” words. Which sucks. This includes:

  • Circuitous lexicon proffered to elucidate our erudite palaver (i.e., snooty douchebag words that make us look smart).
  • Characters who speak with accents, requirin’ y’all to bees phone-etically spellin’ ert hissuns dialogue.
  • People, places and things in fantasy or sci fi (or anywhere else, for that matter). Thog’s Slayer is readable at a glance. The Glerphitities Schelphngbot of Xyphitites is just a pain in the ass.
  • Anything else that takes the reader away from the magic formula: Five letters or less make a sound, I know the sound those letters make, I can move on to the next sound without thinking about the letters.

Another key thought here is a play on (and important distinction from) the writing adage “never use two words when one will do.” I love that concept – keep your writing as clear, simple, and direct as possible – and it’s been stated in different forms by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King. But the truth may be more nuanced. It’s entirely possible that two one-syllable words achieves the goal of clear writing for the reader in a way that one, three, or four-syllable word never will.

Understanding that we read in syllables – sounds – can be a game changer. As writers, we tend to think (and talk) in terms of words – word count, words per sentence, how many words did you write today, per-word rate for freelance work, etc. The Buddha talked about words, Shakespeare talked about words, there is no doubt that words are a big deal. But it is important to realize that for more than 99% of our existence as a species, words were sounds and only sounds. As writers, we have a tendency to forget that fact, thinking of the word as a thing in itself, not as a sound or couple of sounds that represent an idea. At their core, is all words have ever been.

Brief Recap of the Your Brain on Words Series to Date

We’ve covered a few key concepts that converge at this point, so this is probably a good time for a brief summary:

1)    Humans communicated through sound almost exclusively for (depending on who you believe) about 2,000,000 years or 200,000 years before we ever tried writing.

2)    Our first writing consisted of ideograms, which were not based on sound. However, ideograms only lasted about 500 years – beginning to end – before phonetic alphabets replaced them. During those 500 years, a tiny fraction of the human population was capable of reading or writing, basically just a few kings and priests.

3)    From alphabetic use of hieroglyphs 2,700 years ago to today, human writing systems are all based on symbols that represent syllables (e.g., Chinese script) or letters (like these) that combine to form syllables.

4)    Through millennia of trial and error, we ended up with various writing systems that all share one thing in common. They each allow the human eye (which evolved to hunt and get laid, not to read) to most efficiently convert the system’s symbols into syllables (sounds) that the brain can process as sounds. You’re doing that right now.

5)    As a result, words that throw common sound combinations at us flow by smoothly for the reader. Even a made-up name, like “Scrooge” is processed in a nanosecond, because it is easily turned into a sound. Real words, like Otolaryngology stop that subconscious process cold. So do any other words that challenge our “letter-to-sound” process, including jargon, accents, and dialect.

6)    The big takeaway is that we need to seriously think about focusing not on how many words we use, but how smoothly our sounds flow for the reader. Striving for stating things in the “best and simplest way,” as Hemingway put it, is not limited to “the fewest possible words.” Two one syllable words are almost certainly better and simpler for your reader than one four syllable word.

Coming up next…

Next up in this series will be getting from sounds to meanings – how our brains turn syllable sounds into tangible ideas.

Next up on this blog (because these posts take a ton of research and I have a day job and shit) will be: (1) a takeaway from this post about why that spritz thing that is supposed to let you read a novel in 90 minutes should be called shitz because it’s a crappy idea that ignores what’s really happening when we read; and (2) a long overdue explanation of why I just fucking love to cuss.

Not, necessarily, in that order.

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