Reading, postures, emotions: how the body helps us understand a text


On reading these first lines, your attention is fully focused on the content of the text. Your curiosity about the topic of the article – or simply discovering new information – makes you “cognitively” engaged in word processing.

Then, during the reading, this commitment will gradually diminish: your reading will accelerate, your eye fixations will be shorter and shorter, and you will perhaps go so far as to ignore certain words, yet essential for a good understanding of the text. At this time, the likelihood of recalling specific information from the text is severely restricted.

So, only important information, content that arouses an emotion, or even an incongruity in the speech, for example, can reactivate your cognitive engagement and bring you back to a full understanding and memorization of the text.

Understand a text

The few steps presented above schematically summarize the fluctuation of cognitive engagement in reading. Just as we find it hard to stay focused for long during a lecture or when watching a movie, our level of attention varies as we read. And as we will see, the reader’s posture is an unexpected marker of this.

But how can our body be involved in this highly intellectual activity of reading? What role do the emotions contained in a text play and to what extent is our body sensitive to it?

Reading is a complex enterprise of construction of meaning which mobilizes a number of skills, for example the grapheme / phoneme conversion (from writing to sound) and requires constantly making links between what has just been read and the knowledge stored. in long-term memory in order to build a mental representation of the text that is as coherent as possible.

The reading goal we have in mind sets standards for consistency . Thus, these are higher when we read for study purposes than when we read for pleasure or for entertainment. And we’re more likely to invest additional cognitive effort if the purpose of our reading is to learn something new.

The reading task therefore has an influence on our cognitive engagement: it plays a crucial role in the way we allocate our cognitive resources to encode textual information in our memory. Information that was the center of attention – therefore very active in working memory while reading – is more likely to be incorporated into the memorial representation of the text.

This is why cognitive engagement in reading is essential, especially in a learning situation. The more cognitively we are engaged in reading, the more effective comprehension and retention in memory.

Cognitive engagement

Cognitive engagement can be defined as a process in which the reader’s cognitive resources focus on the reading task and are reflected in the reader’s behavior . Cognitive resources are for example motivation, attention, memory and even emotions.

Cognitive engagement has been primarily studied in educational psychology to study student motivation and engagement using subjective self-report scales . In this case, the readers themselves assess how engaged they were in their reading task.

This subjective method of evaluation has two drawbacks: the first is that the readers evaluate their engagement a posteriori, after the reading task, and the second is that the reader is asked to make aware of an engagement or a disengagement which has not. not necessarily conscious while reading.

Objective qualitative methods have therefore been used to attempt to qualify cognitive engagement during learning and reading tasks . They are based on eye movements, which reveal that the longer a piece of information is fixed, the more deeply it is processed .

Recent studies have examined other means of measuring cognitive engagement during reading, in particular by coupling the oculometric technique – consisting in measuring eye movements – and the technique of capturing postural movements (motion capture).

Eye tracking allows, on the one hand, direct access to textual information processed by the reader, and on the other hand, motion capture offers the possibility of studying how people stand while reading, with millimeter precision.

The results showed that when readers went through particularly important passages related to a task that had been given to them beforehand, their postural movements were slowed down, almost frozen, in order to effectively integrate the information present in the text. Thus, it has been shown that postural stability can reflect the level of cognitive engagement of readers.

Influence of emotions

Emotional content is omnipresent in our daily lives, on television, on social networks, in the press and in books. They play a role in the decisions we make , and also, as we will see, in being engaged in reading a text.

Scientific studies seem to reach a consensus to consider affects according to a two – dimensional structure  :

  • emotional valence, which describes the extent to which the perceived feeling is pleasant or unpleasant, on a bipolar scale ranging from negative to positive;
  • the excitement or intensity of the sensation. Emotional stimuli have been shown to influence motivation, so they are likely to grab attention faster than neutral stimuli.

Researchers have examined the effect of valence on attention to words read and found an advantage for emotional words over neutral words, regardless of the valence polarity (pleasant or unpleasant).

A recent study explored the effect of emotional valence on cognitive engagement during a tablet reading task. The results showed that readers made significantly less movement when reading emotional texts (positive and negative) compared to neutral texts. Emotions therefore act as attention promoters when reading.

The study of human cognition tends to be described as being “embodied” , meaning that mental processes have an unwavering connection with the body they inhabit. As we have seen, body movements, like eye movements, can account for cognitive processes at work in reading tasks.

The idea of ​​an “embodied” reading indicates that the reader would then be engaged, immersed in the text and that his sensorimotor responses would be the reflection of this fruitful cooperation allowing intellectual and physical engagement in the text.

With the growing use of touch tablets, the physical distancing previously required by the remote computer screen is here abolished in favor of a portable screen “integral” with the reader. We are therefore moving towards new reading methods, especially in the classroom. Current studies will attempt to probe this influence of posture during learning, particularly reading and writing.

Author Bio: Ugo Ballenghein is a Lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC)