A trio of researchers at the MIT Media Lab have taken sensory reading a step further. Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault have developed “Sensory Fiction.” Sensory Fiction is a vest that hooks up to an e-book and enhances our reading experiences by actually adjusting the light we see, the sounds we hear, the temperature we feel, and even our heart rate while we are reading the story. It’s just a prototype but it’s a great example of how our sensory perception plays a huge role in our reading experience.
Factors such as font size, word location, print color and page texture are all factors in how we process information that we read. They can influence our perception of characters and events, the readability of the book, our own test performance, and the speed with which we read. For instance, studies conducted by Thomas Schubert of University of Jena have shown that we automatically and unconsciously associate power with vertical positioning, where ‘up’ means powerful and ‘down’ means powerless. We hear this association expressed in numerous metaphors such as “She looks up to him” or “He thinks very highly of her” but researchers are now discovering that the mere position of the word on the page reinforces the idea in our brains.
In one study, participants were shown word pairs representing power-imbalanced relationships on a computer screen–like employer vs. employee, army officer vs. private, master vs. slave. The pairings were presented vertically, with one word appearing at the top of the screen and the other at the bottom. The researchers asked the participants to identify as fast as possible both the word with the powerful meaning and the word powerless meaning. It took longer to identify powerful individuals when they appeared at the bottom of the screen. Likewise, it took longer to identify powerless individuals when they were positioned at the top of the screen.
Another experiment conducted by Thomas Schubert together with Kiki Zanolie and Steffen Giessner of Erasmus University Rotterdam and her colleagues found that when subjects saw words that represented powerful groups, their attention shifted to the top of a computer screen they were watching. When viewing words representing powerless groups, their attention shifted to the bottom. Therefore, when we read about a powerful person or event that is described at the bottom of the page (or screen), or about a person or event that lacks power but is described at the top of the page, it might take longer to process and understand the information. It might also influence how powerful or powerless we perceive a person to be.