Background noise does not interfere with reading comprehension, but it can slow down reading speed. This conclusion was made by researchers from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia. They studied the effects of auditory and visual noise on reading fluency and text comprehension. The results showed that dealing with word clutter increases reading speed, perhaps because we find the process more annoying and want to finish reading faster.
The noise channel model the researchers looked at states that our brains handle noise by paying more attention to the meaning of individual words and less to whole sentences. We then use a bit of clever guesswork to infer the overall meaning and relationships between words. The second theory suggests that our brains don’t analyze every detail of a text, but instead only grasp enough words for “good enough” comprehension. By focusing less on precise syntax, our brains retain some cognitive resources to deal with the noise.
To test these theories, researchers conducted two experiments, one with auditory noise and one with visual noise. Gaze tracking devices were used to study reading fluency, and follow-up tests were used to assess comprehension. Some of the target sentences given to the volunteers were altered to make them more semantically implausible.
In the auditory noise experiment, background chatter from overlapping podcasts caused people to spend more time looking at the key sentence section before completing their reading. This extra time could compensate for the noise, which meant that sentence comprehension did not suffer. In an experiment with visual noise created by adding other short words and phrases next to the reading sentences, comprehension remained the same and reading speed increased.
The researchers believe that the people in the visual noise experiment simply wanted to finish the task quickly, and the visual noise distracted them. In both experiments, the increase in overall reading time was associated with increased accuracy of implausible sentences.
Thus, background noise does not interfere with text comprehension, but it can slow down reading speed. Working with word clutter increases reading speed, and increased reading time can compensate for the effects of noise. Although the study was conducted on a small sample, it gives us a better understanding of how our brains process information when reading in noise.