Peering Through Our Reading Window


There is a lot that goes into what seems like the "simple" act of reading. Our eyes need to see the print clearly, converge comfortably toward the page and accurately track across each line by making a series of quick eye movements as they go (saccades) not to mention retreat back to the left at the start of the next line. They do all this while the brain puts meaning into the words we are reading so that we comprehend the bigger picture of the passage, the page, the chapter, and eventually the book, or in this case, the huff po blog article.

Our brain realizes it has to make this whole process easier in any way it can so it has developed what scientists call a "perceptual span" or what I like to call a reading window. When we read left to right across a page we move our eyes across the page with a series of quick eye movements called saccades. Each saccade strings together points of fixation on each line. So if all goes well, we don't stop and pause our eyes to look at each individual word on the page but rather, we take in 17-19 characters or letter spaces at any given time and then move onto the next 17-19 characters. We sort of digest the words on a line in bites or chunks rather than nibbles. This perceptual span of 17-19 characters starts 3-4 letters to the left of our point of fixation and then extends 14-15 characters or letter spaces after the point of fixation. We then smoothly "hop" our eyes to the next point of fixation and so on.

Interestingly enough, since Hebrew is read right to left, scientists have found that the perceptual span of someone while reading Hebrew shifts with emphasis to the left of fixation rather than to the right. It seems the majority of the reading window or perceptual span actually favors the direction in which the reader is reading and it cares very little about the words or letters it has already moved past. Hey, whatever gets us to the last page faster, am I right?

It's no surprise to me we are always looking for a sneak peek at "what's next."