Three Reasons Why We May "Hear" During Silent Reading

Our brains may be hard-wired to perceive cadence

Posted Jan 02, 2017

Whenever anyone remarks that a paragraph sounds "choppy" or comments that it reads as though a ten year-old wrote it, we are actually hearing a verdict on cadence. Cadence is the most subtle element of writing, that elusive feature of our sentences that telegraph to readers whether we're reading masterful prose, hastily thrown-together paragraphs, or  lines from a writer who struggles to string simple sentences together.

Why do we hear cadence at all, since we nearly always read silently? Few studies have examined cadence in the unimpaired human brain, and still fewer have focused on the interplay between cadence and perceived sophistication in writing. So, for present, our best explanation lies in three potential causes.

First, our speech, auditory, and visual systems fire together—more or less. Researchers have discovered increased blood flow during silent reading to areas previously believed to be dedicated solely to the physical or motor side of speaking in the supplementary motor area and the cerebellum. In the same study, participants further experienced increased blood flow to the lingual gyrus, associated with visual processing of letters. However, the participants also experienced increased blood flow to Broca's area, previously believed to be responsible only for understanding and forming spoken words.

Second, our visual, speech, and auditory centers are hard-wired together. A band of fibers called the arcuate fasciculus link Broca's area—which gives us our ability to perceive and form rhythm, affect, and syntax—with Wernicke's area, which gives us our ability to form and perceive words and grasp meaning. Furthermore, the other part of the brain central to using and perceiving language, the angular gyrus, exists at the junction of the occipital (visual) and temporal (auditory) lobes.

Third, neuroplasticity from simply learning to read and write may have wired our visual, speech, and auditory centers together. Just as our brains rely on neuroplasticity to address neural deficits, neuroplasticity may account for our ability to perceive the sound of words on the page. In studies of Braille readers, even those born blind experience increased blood flow to their visual reading areas, despite these readers relying entirely on their sense of touch to read.

In my next post, I'll examine strategies for conveying a sophisticated grasp of cadence in your sentences via three simple principles.