Psycho Babble

Can Reading Be Unlearned?

Researchers have looked somewhere surprising for answers—hypnosis

By Jessica Love | January 10, 2013


Long-time users often find it challenging, both mentally and physically, to quit smoking or drinking, but they do so by essentially unlearning their behaviors. What about something like reading? Once we’ve taught ourselves to see letters where we once saw squiggles—and meaning where we once saw letters—can we ever go back?

It’s not a matter of simply trying not to read. Consider the Stroop Effect, named after the psychologist who first described the phenomenon in 1935. In a typical Stroop test, readers are presented with words printed in different colors of ink and asked to name the ink colors as quickly as possible. Give it a try:

Giraffe Progress Years Ball Rigs Book Pelican Glory Pill Girth Glow Yesterday.


Now, give it a whirl on this set of words:

Green Purple Yellow Blue Red Blue Purple Green Pink Gray Green Yellow.


What did you notice? Most people find naming ink colors more difficult in the second condition, where color words are presented in mismatching ink, because the color word participants see interferes with the color word they’re supposed to say. (The neutral words also interfere more than would a string of X’s, e.g., XXX XXX XXX, but they interfere to a lesser extent because they are unrelated to the target word.)

Participants’ extreme difficulty naming ink colors for mismatching color words is known as the Stroop effect. The effect would be eliminated if participants could ignore the content of the words they were reading. But the effect’s robustness—it is a staple of introductory psychology courses because it rarely fails to deliver—suggests that we cannot willfully prevent ourselves from seeing g-r-e-e-n and thinking “green.”

Or can we? McGill psychiatrist Amir Raz has looked at the role that suggestibility can play in reducing the Stroop effect.  Specifically, Raz and his colleagues have become interested in something once the province of sideshow quackery: hypnosis. For one study, published in 2007, the researchers examined the hypnotic susceptibility of 350 people. First, hypnosis was induced via techniques developed in the early 1960s (participants were asked to stare at a point on the wall, relax their body, and fall into a deeper and deeper sleep as the experimenter counted down from 20). Then participants were asked to respond to different prompts to test their susceptibility to hypnotic suggestion: Could they be convinced to regress to earlier ages, answer questions that had never been asked, and swat at imaginary mosquitoes?

From the pool of 350 participants, the 50 who revealed themselves as most susceptible were invited back for another session, at which point they were given (again while in a hypnotic state) the following instruction:

“Very soon you will be playing the computer game. When I clap my hands once, meaningless symbols will appear in the middle of the screen. They will feel like characters of a foreign language that you do not know, and you will not attempt to attribute any meaning to them. This gibberish will be printed in one of four ink colors: red, blue, green or yellow. Although you will only be able to attend to the symbols’ ink color, you will look straight at the scrambled signs and crisply see all of them. Your job is to quickly and accurately depress the key that corresponds to the ink color shown. You will find that you can play this game easily and effortlessly. When I clap my hands twice, you will be able to easily read what appears on the screen.”

Though they’d been instructed while under hypnosis, participants were awakened before beginning the Stroop task, which they completed twice, once after a single clap (the “meaningless symbols” condition) and once after a double clap (the normal reading condition). Half of the participants completed the “meaningless symbols” condition first, while the other half began with normal reading.

The researchers found that responses to both mismatching (e.g., red) and neutral (e.g., lot) words were faster when participants had received the hypnotic suggestion to see the words as meaningless symbols. For matching words, (e.g., blue), where reading the word should not interfere with a participant’s ability to name its ink color—and indeed often facilitates this ability—the “meaningless symbols” condition offered no such advantage.

Psychology has a long and, frankly, twisted literature on “the power of suggestion,” which I’ll delve into further next week. But for now let’s leave it at this: under hypnotic suggestion, these highly susceptible people (and others in similar studies) could prevent themselves from accessing a word’s meaning upon seeing it printed. They managed, at least briefly, at least to some extent, to unlearn how to read.

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