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What Is Subvocalization?

By Jessica Reed
Updated May 23, 2024
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Subvocalization is a form of silent speech that occurs when a person is reading silently yet still hearing the words in her head as she reads. Though it can appear in the form of the person moving her lips without making any noise while reading a book, more often the person does not appear to be moving her lips at all. Despite the appearance, small movements are actually occurring, yet because they are so minuscule, it takes the advanced technology of a machine with sensors attached to the person to pick up on these tiny movements.

As the brain reads a sentence, it prepares to say each word aloud. Even if the reader never actually says the word, the tongue and vocal cords still make small movements in preparation for reciting the word. This occurs because people learn words first by sound and then by sight. Thus, seeing a word on a piece of paper automatically brings to mind the way it sounds and how to pronounce it. Scientists believe that subvocalization increases memory and that without it, it would be much harder to interpret and remember what is being read.

The field of speed reading claims to increase a person's reading speed by eliminating the process of subvocalization. Much debate exists over whether or not it can, in fact, be eliminated. Though speed readers, who often skim pages instead of reading word for word, do show lower levels of subvocalization, it still seems to be present. Studies suggest that attempting to eliminate subvocalization, if possible, might actually lower the amount of material the person remembers.

Modern technology can detect the small movements made during subvocalization by monitoring electrical impulses. As of 2011, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is working on technology to detect these forms of silent speech. By reading these faint electrical impulses that occur during the process of subvocalization, machines could appear to read a person's mind and respond seemingly without the person saying anything. All the person would need to do is clearly think the command he wants the machine to carry out.

Research into the detection and use of silent speech for controlling technology opens the door for several new scientific fields of study. It could help those with speech problems communicate through the use of a machine. It has many medical uses and also uses for entertainment purposes. A video game could be controlled using this form of subvocalization recognition, allowing the player to appear to control the game with his mind. Though the concept is not advanced, its applications may lead the way to an entirely new form of interacting with technology.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Dec 20, 2013

@Mor - I don't know if it's that involuntary, or if you have to really be thinking hard about something in order for it to work. So you get subvocalization while reading, but not while just thinking idly about something.

I know I tend to start whispering under my breath when I'm concentrating on something. The less you concentrate, maybe the less you vocalize it.

By Mor — On Dec 19, 2013

@clintflint - That's one of the reasons I think being able to record sub-vocalization is going to be fairly dangerous. Not because I think people shouldn't use insight into themselves. That could be pretty interesting.

But because it seems like just a short step away from having genuine thought police. What if you were half thinking about killing your boss or something? You would never actually do it, or even think seriously about it, but your unconscious doesn't necessarily know that. And if you subvocalized the thought at work you could be in major trouble.

And that's not even going into how the government might use an application like this. Imagine being able to put this kind of technology on potential suspects. Now imagine that potential suspect is you and you watch a lot of thrillers. Is it out of the question that you might sub-vocalize something you don't mean to, which makes you look guilty?

I think the whole idea is a scary one.

By clintflint — On Dec 18, 2013

I read a science fiction book a long time ago where people used subvocal speech as a way of typing into a computer at ultra fast speeds. It was actually really a cool idea, because not only did the author explore the way this could be used to help people, he also showed how it might go wrong. After all, this is a process which we don't have conscious control over, so we might end up seeing strange things come out of our minds if we could see everything that is being sub-vocalized. What would you learn about yourself if everything that you were half thinking was typed up as you thought it? The results might surprise people.

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