Readers Report Hearing Characters’ Voices

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A new study of readers suggests that fictional characters shape our personalities, alter our speech and sometimes even talk to us.

Just a typical reader, being visited by an otherworldly presence.

If British novelist Edward Docx (no relation to Microsoft) was correct in his assertion to the Guardian that “all fiction is a form of madness,” then it won’t come as too great a surprise that avid readers may just be a little mad.

According to a recent study, 48% of readers experience frequent “visual or other sensory [activity] during reading.” That is, they basically hallucinate. (Call it imagination, if you want. We know the truth.) Even more interestingly, 19% of those surveyed claimed that fictional characters “stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts — or even speaking to them directly.” For example, an avid Hemingway reader might find him or herself compelled to think about the war while slugging wine at a bullfight. And, should he or she feel the need to speak at all, it’s quite possible only strong, athletic verbs would emerge.

The survey was performed by researchers from the University of Durham, in conjunction with the Guardian, at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Over 1,500 readers participated. Charles Fernyhough, one of the study’s co-authers and a psychologist, calls the sensation “experiential crossing,” accounting for the confluence of fictional and physical stimuli within the reader’s consciousness. He wrote, for instance, that one respondent “described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway — hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks.” The study was focused on the general reading experience and did not hone in on specific genres, books or authors, leaving several lines of inquiry open for future research. What would happen, for example, if a reader of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick were in a Starbucks, imagining Kraus’ fictional alter ego in a Starbucks, when suddenly IRL Chris Kraus enters that very same Starbucks and orders a latte? What then? These are the questions scientists must now answer.

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