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I frequently experience the phenomenon of turning a page in a book or flipping a slide in a slideshow, and my eyes catching a single word on the page without me consciously knowing where the word is -- only the word itself occurs to me. I often then skim the page/slide to find out whether I just imagined it, and I'm always surprised to find it. A lot of our vision is processed subconsciously and peripherally, so this isn't that mysterious, yet I've never heard anyone mention having had a similar sensation in the context of reading.

Is there a word for this? If I were to name it myself, I'd call it déjà lu, but this doesn't seem like the right search term.

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  • Are you looking for a word for the action or its sensation?
    – Joachim
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 20:16
  • @Joachim Good question! I intended the sensation ("Huh? Why did this word pop into my head? Is it on this page?"), but in a way this is related to the action of "subconscious reading". Otherwise, it'd just be "reading".
    – Mew
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 15:04

3 Answers 3

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subliminal reading

Another method is to focus on the white spaces between the lines rather than on the lines themselves. This is called subliminal reading or reading for concept (reading between the lines) to let the mind, rather than your eyes, gather information in larger chunks. Rita Wirtz; Reading Champs (2014)

Some people (including me) generate visual markers without actual visualization. The symptomatic of subliminal reading is very interesting.
...
Do not strive for subliminal reading or photoreading: it is notoriously unreliable and you could get any result. However if you follow keytostudy methodology, get the expected results, and cannot remember your visualizations – probably this means you created the markers subliminally and should be happy with that. Lev Goldentouch; "Subliminal reading" (2015)


subliminal (adj.)

Existing or functioning below the threshold of consciousness

the subliminal mind
subliminal advertising m-w

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I understand this one. The obvious answer is that you caught a glimpse, but it is more than that. I sometimes see it as a superpower when one of my mates is zooming through their text messages and I manage to read a whole text, despite it only being in my sight for a microsecond.

It definitely goes beyond our brains reading power, its probably more to do with a physiological aspect of our eyes. What I'm about to suggest is just a hypothesis, I haven't done any actual research on this.

A known fact is that our eyes do not track smoothly. If you take a video of your eyes and try to move them smoothly from left to right (without focusing on an object), it will fail. And you will notice that our eyes actually jump from focus point to focus point. This jump is called a saccade. Our eyes actually rotate at a peak angular velocity of 700°/s. Such a fast rotation causes our vision to be significantly blurred during this phase. My theory is: if you're scrolling really fast on your phone, or flipping pages of a book really fast, while your eyes are in a saccade movement - completely randomly your eyes reach a focal point with the blur on the screen or blur on the pages whizzing past. And our eyes take in this information and hold it for a bit longer because there is nothing else to focus on. Similar to when you hold your hand in front of your eyes in a well-lit room and then turn off the lights, and still see your hands.

Anyway, this is a confusing one. I am almost definitely wrong so don't take my word for it, but doesn't hurt to think.

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  • You indeed understand the phenomenon I was describing; I recently had the same thing happen with a thread of scrolling text messages. I don't think that it's comparable to seeing a ghost image of your hand, however: the text lingers in the mind rather than in sight.
    – Mew
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 15:09
  • @Mew Good point. But those could be two distinct steps of the situation you're meaning to find the word for. The text might be legible only after that saccade ghost image has been processed. In effect you read an after-image. And only then the sensation of realizing you read an after-image comes into play :)
    – Joachim
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 17:42
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I'd propose this as a case of déjà lu (already read). If you feel this is more about thinking rather than reading, then there's déjà pensé. You can see the full list of these conditions here.

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