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When reading books I sometimes have trouble concentrating on the book and I can't visualize it. I'm often sitting and reading a book, and while there are details in the book, I can't seem to focus on the book. Instead, it feels fuzzy, and then I can't remember what I was reading a few minutes later. I then have to reread it several times to be able to remember the book.

I've tried going to sleep earlier and removing distractions from around me, but that's still not helped.

What are some techniques for concentrating on a book?

  • "I sometimes have trouble concentrating on the book and I can't visualize it." Could you be more specific? I would recommend describing what you've tried so far in detail, as well as describing why you've found it difficult in detail. – user111 Oct 16 '17 at 9:50
  • Alright, I've edited, Hamlet. – Captain Jack Sparrow Oct 16 '17 at 10:11
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As an undergrad who has to walk the line between reading books quickly and understanding them in depth I find that quietly reading aloud is surprisingly helpful.

By reading aloud you are forced to slow down and focus on the individual words of the text, preventing you from lazily skipping sections or phasing out. I've found this encourages more critical and meaningful interaction with texts, as you are forced to think about what you reading.

Furthermore, reading aloud may more easily reveal the cadence and metre of texts (as someone primarily interested in poetry this is useful for me, but reading some prose such as The Great Gatsby aloud reveals rhythms I may not otherwise have noticed).

In addition, reading aloud is in many ways more enjoyable; although it may seem childish there is something deeply satisfying about slightly changing your voice for different characters, and may reveal (particularly in drama) a truer portrayal of speech.

This is not just me recommending this, at my institution at least, all Literature students are encouraged to read their set texts aloud. While I understand this may be tiring over long periods or inappropriate if you read in public, I hope that this technique might help to revitalize your reading somewhat.

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I don’t have any suggestions for helping you visualise, but I would suggest that you have a think about whether you need to visualise.

Not everyone is that kind of reader.

I read a lot and I only visualise if it is clear that the author is explaining something where the physical look or position of things is actually essential to a plot point that I need to understand. In those situations I have to take myself out of the story and build up the picture like I’m building flatpack furniture; ‘the instructions say that this was to the left, so where does that go?’. Then once I’ve built that model I’m off again, but that part is a different skill and experience from the rest of my reading, much more conscious and deliberate where the rest is just absorption. I’m not alone in this, if this Reddit thread is anything to go by.

Although people often default to an assumption that human comprehension and memory is all picture and text based, that isn’t universally the case. In my experience you can hold concepts in your mind without words or images, even if you might need words or images to communicate them to someone else.

In the course of looking for supporting articles for this answer I have discovered that I may, to a degree at least, have what is called ‘aphantasia’, as per this article in The Guardian newspaper. But note, the article says

“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.” (my emphasis)

I pretty much always skip over descriptive paragraphs, or lightly skim them, as they bore me to tears, but are generally not particularly essential to the plot. If I force myself to read them, I won't remember the detail of them later.

Lack of habitual visualising has never impacted on my ability to do the 3D questions in IQ tests (the which shape does this unfolded box make questions), or stopped me having a career as a landscape designer. I can design without it being a process of transcribing something I’ve pictured, and I can understand a plan someone else has drawn without it transporting me to a mental model of the site. If our brains can create structures the way this article describes it can be no surprise that there are more ways than just by pictures and words for our minds to hold ideas.

Although there are sites which will tell you that visualisation is essential to reading and comprehension, I know that if I had come across teachers who pushed this idea when I was in school it would have greatly deterred me from reading, and reading has been one of the great joys of my life.

I note that you have added some more to the question about fuzziness and lack or recall since I drafted this. I can't speak to that aspect other than to suggest that you have a think about whether other areas of life are affected the same way, and don't be shy of seeking a medical opinion if this is a change in your ability to read effectively, as there are conditions, stress, thyroid function or even a need for new glasses etc which can cause what sufferers often term 'mental fog'.

I'd still recommend that you not stress about lack of visualisation, unless of course that is something you have always previously been able to do.

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I agree with the leading suggestion: reading aloud. But in a situation that does not permit reading aloud, I find it helpful to listen to an audio recording of the book while reading a paper copy. This might be a good plan while trying to read on a bus, for example; and it also might appeal to readers who get frustrated with texts (like Shakespeare) that contain many strange words. It obviously requires a book for which you can find an audio recording, but that list is long. There are many free downloads, for example at LibraVox. Amazon has audio books for Kindle, some of these free; and then there's Audible. And public libraries carry many books on CD. If you are reading for pleasure, you could start with the list of available audio books, and choosing from that list get the accompanying paper copy.

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  • Out of curiosity, if this something you have tried yourself? – Spagirl Oct 17 '17 at 10:46
  • @Spagirl. Yes. In the period of my life when I was frequently on public transit, I could squeeze several hours of reading into each week that otherwise were pretty useless, as I would look up repeatedly as noises, movements of passengers or even the movement of the bus distracted me. I have also found that I understand Shakespeare better listening to actors reading as I read along; years ago I had a "Recorded Books" recording of Frank Muller reading Hamlet, and I listened many times. – Chaim Oct 17 '17 at 11:43
  • @Spagirl Incidentally, I'm not sure that I know what "visualizing" means. I know that some readers think that it's important that a book guide us to understand what all of the action looks like. Edmund Wilson slammed The Hobbit for many sins including the book's failure to help him understand what the characters looked like. I liked that book, and I seem to be indifferent to that problem precisely. So I'm just responding generally to trouble concentrating, understanding and enjoying books. – Chaim Oct 17 '17 at 11:46
  • To me 'visualising' would mean conjuring up images in the 'minds eye'. A couple of the links in my answer suggest that for many people this is very literal, people describe reading as being like watching a film in their head. That isn't what reading is like for me at all, so if I have to picture something to follow the text then that is a separate 'not reading' exercise. What I am not sure of is how much this is a real difference and how much it is a difference in how people understand and express their individual experience. – Spagirl Oct 17 '17 at 13:12
  • I think I'd personally find it difficult to read and listen to the same text, but again, personal experiences clearly vary. I know that with subtitles I certainly read faster than actors speak, but when I've taken a Shakespeare text along to a play I've found that, not only would I rather be watching than reading, but that actors can speak Shakespeare far faster than I can read it. (Especially the Illyria outdoor company who deliver full-text shakespeares in a 2 hour running time.) – Spagirl Oct 17 '17 at 13:16

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