Friday, 15 February 2019

People who read books live longer



Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade, and Becca Levy write in the abstract of their paper of 2016: “This study examined whether those who read books have a survival advantage over those who do not read books and over those who read other types of materials.” The authors conducted a 12-year follow-up in a Health and Retirement Study; 3635 people reported on habits of reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Information was also gathered about participants' age, sex, race, education, health care, wealth, marital status and depression.As compared with people those who did not do so, people who read books lived 23 months longer. 

The difference remained substantial even when factors such as education, wealth, and so on, had been subtracted out. The researchers had not been able to include a measure of cognitive ability, such as IQ.

In a series of studies, Stanovich and colleagues (e.g. Stanovich et al., 1995) have found that the amount people read predicts cognitive outcomes such as vocabulary, skills of reasoning, and general knowledge, even when such factors as IQ and level of education have been subtracted out. In a follow-up study, Mar and Rain (2015) found that by far the largest effect on such outcomes came from the reading of fiction. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts indicated that 87% of book readers read fiction. Putting these studies together one may infer that it is likely that it was the reading of books of fiction that had the largest effect on longevity for the people in the study by Bavishi et al.

Bavishi, A., Slade, M. D., & Levy, B. R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science and Medicine, 164, 44-48. 

Mar, R. A., & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19, 419-433.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Harrison, M. R. (1995). Knowledge growth and maintenance across the life span: The role of print exposure. Developmental Psychology, 31, 811-826.

Image: Postcard from Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, in Paris, illustration by Miles Hyman.
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Thursday, 7 February 2019

Marguerite Duras The Lover


Marguerite Duras’s novel, The Lover, is able to reach, in a paragraph, to the heart of who we are, in ourselves and with other people. How can a book reach us, in this kind of way? Here are four ideas.

A first idea was suggested by John Ruskin and Marcel Proust. It is that books are friends. But when we take up with a book rather than with a person, we don’t have to worry: “What did she or he think of me?” Whereas, in ordinary life, the people we meet depend on circumstance, with books we are not restricted. We can choose from across time, and from all over the world. The idea of book-as-friend is a metaphor. But it’s more than that. A novel or short story offers a kind of invitation, in the way that a person might. So a book might say: “Please engage with me, maybe just for a short time.“ And, in the same way as some people affront us with something like: “Look at me, I’m far better than you,” so a book may issue a challenge. Other books, like some people, affect indifference.

A second idea is that we human beings construct mental understandings of each other. Without doing so, we could not interact, could not make arrangements with each other. We can often understand fictional characters better than many people we know. Sometimes, too, we can apply that understanding to our own selves. Then we can carry this kind of improved understanding into our day-to-day lives. 

A third idea is that novels and short stories have to do with consciousness. Human consciousness is imagination, of words and images in which one aspect is what we know from our past, episodes of experience, skills, and knowledge. The second aspect is our understanding of the current social situation. The third aspect is of ongoing plans for ourselves and with others. Narrative has this very same structure: evocations of what’s remembered, circumstances and the emotions that are elicited in them, plans about what to do. A novel or short story, then, is a piece of consciousness that the author has constructed to exist on its own out there, with the possibility of it being taken up, and taken in, to become a reader’s own. With some books, though, an individual reader may not want to take in the piece of consciousness.

A fourth idea concerns resonance: whether a story evokes aspects of one’s idiosyncratic past, or of one’s culture, or both. When this happens, there can be a sense of recognition; we can also understand hints and nuances. But that doesn’t mean we can only successfully read about our own culture. If one could only take in books from one’s own culture, men could never enjoy writers who are women nor women enjoy writers who are men.

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 and grew up near Saigon, in Vietnam, third child and only daughter of a married couple from France who took jobs in this French colony. Her father was a professor of mathematics in a school there, but Marguerite scarcely knew him because, soon after she was born, he became ill, moved back to France, and died there when she was five. She had two brothers: the elder four years older than her, and the younger, who was a bit developmentally delayed, two years older than her. She remembers her elder brother as cruel. He would beat up the younger brother, and terrorize his sister. He was the only one of her three children who was loved by their mother, who was also a teacher. Marguerite remembers her mother as proud that her daughter was clever, but says that her mother was hard on her, and sometimes beat her. Marguerite and the younger brother did love each other and this occurs, too, with the narrator and the younger brother of the novel. Also, as in the novel, Marguerite began an affair with a Chinese lover, who was aged 27 when she was fifteen-and-a-half. When she was 17, she went to Paris to go to the Sorbonne, starting in mathematics. Then she moved to political science, then law. In the War she was in the Resistance and became a member of the Communist Party.

The Lover, written by Duras when she was 70, is a book about a lover and a family. It’s both an autobiography and a novel in which, at a young age, the narrator finds that she can be loved. The first evocations of this are tender and moving. But in the middle of the book comes a paragraph that is shocking. It starts like this, on page 46: “I tell him to come over to me, tell him he must possess me again. He comes over.” Then we read this: “He … says he knew right away, when we were crossing the river, that I’d love love, he says he knows now that I’ll deceive him and deceive all the men I’m ever with …” Then this: “He calls me a whore, a slut, he says I’m his only love … nothing’s wasted, the waste’s covered over in the torrent, in the force of desire.” In English, the words “whore,” and “slut” have no male equivalents (perhaps it’s the same in French). What do we make of that? This calling of names is followed, on page 97, by what the narrator’s mother says, when she finds out about the affair. She accuses her daughter of “blatant prostitution,” and calls her a “little white tart.” 

The paragraph that starts on page 46 is an indication, I think, of how the narrator feels, when she is loved by her lover … so that, at the same time, she also despises herself in a way that, during her childhood, her mother has made her feel despised. What do we make of how we can carry forward feelings of our earliest relationships into our later love-relationships?

Among reasons for the derogatory words used by the lover, and later by the mother, are that, although the narrator is French and a white person, her lover is Chinese. So, for her mother and for French society at that place and time, what the narrator does must absolutely not be done. It’s far worse than having an affair while still at school.

The book is written in the first person, and ranges from the time in the 1930s when the narrator lived near Saigon, when she crossed the Mekong River and first met her lover, to later times, in Paris, when she has a child and when she is in the middle of World War II. Part of what makes Duras’s writing so engaging, I suggest, is that she writes in paragraphs and short sections, in the kind of way that consciousness works, thinking this, then that, sometimes coming to wonder, sometimes feeling delight, sometimes reaching no conclusion.

The family dynamics in The Lover are dreadful. When a child grows up knowing that a sibling is cared about far more than they are, this tends to have a life-long negative effect. For both Marguerite herself, and for the narrator of the novel, this combines with the absence of a father, and with the experience of being hated by her elder brother. Perhaps the fact of being left alone by her husband was a factor in the mother loving her older son. This boy grows up to be repellant, a layabout, never interacting with others except to say or do something malicious, stealing from his mother to buy drugs and to gamble, so that even though the mother and the family live in poverty, he further impoverishes them. Later on, in the novel, during the war, the narrator says: “I see war time and the reign of my elder brother as one … I see the war as like him, spreading everywhere, breaking in everywhere, stealing, imprisoning ... (p.67).”

In terms of the four ideas, this novel came to me with an invitation, as a friend. I became able to understand the character of the narrator, her lover, and to some extent her mother and her elder brother. It seemed also, to me, an engaging piece of consciousness that I wanted to take in and make my own. And, quite strongly, I experienced several kinds of resonance. 

Marguerite Duras (1986) The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray) London: Flamingo (original publication of L’Amant, in France, 1984).

Marcel Proust &  John Ruskin (2011). On reading, Sesame and lilies 1: Of kings' treasuries (translated by Damion Searls). London: Hesperus.
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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Toni Morrison's Jazz


The 1992 novel, Jazz, by Toni Morrison, is original and engaging. In Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, Virginia Woolf accomplished a novel of inwardness. In Jazz, Toni Morrison accomplished a further step: a novel of relationship. She did this by basing her book on a form of music—jazz—in which a theme is introduced and then, as in some pieces of classical music for instance by Bach, variations are offered. In this novel, the variations suggest ways in which different people experience a certain event (which one may think of as a theme) and, with this, their relationships change. 

Jazz is a kind of love story, a mode that’s virtually a human universal. But this one is different, because it is not just a love story but a story of other kinds of relating as well. Following this novel, books in which relationship has come to the centre seem to be more frequent. So, for instance, in 2007, Katy Roiphe published Uncommon Arrangements, a biography not of a person but of relationships in marriage. Then came the novels of Elena Ferrante. The first, My Brilliant Friend, published in English in 2012, is not really about the friend as such, but about the narrator’s relationship with the friend when they were young. Then, in subsequent novels, Ferrante has written about how the relationship developed into adulthood.

Morrison states the theme of her novel at the book’s beginning. The fifty-year-old Joe is in love with an eighteen-year-old, Dorcas. At a party, he shoots her. As Morrison writes in the fourth and fifth line of the novel, he did this “just to keep the feeling going.”  No-one sees the shooting, and Joe is not arrested. He is married to Violet, but they’re not much in touch with each other. At Dorcas’s funeral, Violet stabs the dead girl with a knife, and wonders how she might take on some of the characteristics of Dorcas, so that Joe will love her.

Morrison’s suggestion in her novel is that being black in America gives one not just the legacy of slavery, but continuing oppression, so that achievement becomes difficult, and for many people almost impossible. But the human spirit is not suppressed. In the kind of society that has resulted, the focus has come to be on relationship. Jazz is a form of music that arose in this society, a form based on the relationships among the players, that depicts sadness (as in the blues), suffering, sometimes violence but, at the same time, progress.

By starting with a theme, and progressing through a sequence of chord structures, the musical form of jazz is based on improvisation in which the players of different instruments, and sometimes a singer, improvise in relation to each other. This is the kind of structure that Morrison uses in her novel. 

The events with which the novel starts occur at the beginning of 1926. As the narrator says, after World War I: “Armistice was seven years old when Violet disrupted the funeral” (p. 9). Both Violet and Joe had been married for many years and had come from the rural South, to live in Harlem which, in the novel, is called “The City.” They had been getting along with each other, in a way, but not so well. They had no children together and this too, becomes a theme. Both realize that they did not really choose each other. Thinking back to when they met Violet says: “from the very beginning I was a substitute. And so was he” (p. 97). It’s many years later that Joe does make a choice: he come to love Dorcas. On page 135 he says, as if he were speaking to her: “I chose you. Nobody gave you to me. Nobody said that’s the one for you. I picked you out … I didn’t fall in love. I rose in it.”

Part of the performance of jazz music involves solos by players of particular instruments. In the book this is mirrored by stories told by Violet and Joe about their early lives in the South. Later in the book other characters enter as well. They include Malvonne Edwards, from whom Joe rents a room for a few hours a week, in the building in which he lives, so that he and Dorcas can meet there to have sex. Then there is Alice Manfred, who took Dorcas on when her mother (Alice’s sister) was killed in the anti-black race riots of St Louis in 1917, in which many people died.

There’s some wonderfully lyrical writing in this novel. Here’s an example.
A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone, and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve … Do what you please in the City. It is there to back and frame you no matter what you do… Hospitality is gold in this City. You have to be clever to figure out how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. When to love something and when to quit (pp. 8-9). 

After Dorcas’s death, Violet comes to know and relate to both Alice Manfred and Malvonne Edwards. Then, later as well, Dorcas’s best friend Felice enters the story, as does a young man called Acton, whom all the young women want to be with. Dorcas manages to catch him, and starts to have sex with him. Joe realizes this. And that is the reason—well, one of the reasons—he shoots Dorcas. What happens, then, in the relationship between Violet and Joe? To find out, you need to read the novel.  

At the end of her book, Morrison adds the loveliest coda, in which the novel’s narrator speaks to the author. By means of what she says, in a Proustian way, she speaks to us, the readers, engaging us also in relationship with the novel’s characters and events, as well as with the narrator … and the author.

Elena Ferrante (2012). My brilliant friend (A. Goldstein, Trans.). New York: Europa Editions.

Toni Morrison (1992). Jazz. New York: Knopf. Page numbers are from the 2004 paperback edition, with a new Foreword by the author, published by Vintage International.

Katy Roiphe (2007). Uncommon arrangements: Seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939. New York: Virago.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Bulletin: Do Stories Satisfy Core Human Motives?



Stories, and transmission of information through stories, is one of the most universal aspects of human communication. But what role does it play in our lives and how does it relate to our core motivations? In this brief theoretical article, Costabile, Shedlosky-Shoemaker, and Austin (2018) set out to demonstrate how stories promote social and psychological wellbeing by satisfying core motivations. As a starting point, the authors adopt Susan Fiske’s (2010) five core social motivations: belonging, understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trust. These are essential social needs that each person desires in order to feel complete. Costabile and her colleagues argue that stories, both autobiographical stories and entertainment narratives, satisfy all five core motivations. The article is broken up into sections for each of the core motives, and in each section empirical evidence is presented to support the relationship between stories and the core motive in question.  
In conclusion, the authors propose that this article helps bring together research on narrative with more traditional social psychological research. Moreover, they believe that narrative approaches can be of use in other areas of social psychological research, such as intergroup relationships and overcoming resistance to persuasion. 

References

Costabile, K. A., Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., & Austin, A. B. (2018). Universal stories: How narratives satisfy core motives. Self and Identity, 17(4), 418-431.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in Social Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Post by Connor LaForge.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Leïla Slimani Chanson Douce

With Chanson Douce, Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016. The novel has been translated into English by Sam Taylor; published in England as Lullaby in 2018, and in North America as The Perfect Nanny. At the end of last year, the New York Times said it was one of the ten best books of 2018. Here’s a quote, from what was said, there: “Slimani writes devastating character studies, and also raises painful themes: the forbidden desires parents project onto their nannies, racial and class tensions” (New York Times, Book Review Section, 5 December 2018, p. 10).

Slimani was born into a Muslim family in 1981, and grew up in Rabat, Morocco. At the age of 17 she moved to Paris, where she lives now with her husband of ten years, who is a banker. Six years ago she got the idea for this, her second novel, from reading in Paris Match about a nanny in New York who killed two children who were in her care. At that time Slimani was herself starting to look for a nanny for her six-month-old son because she wanted to get back to work.

Throughout Slimani's childhood she was looked after by a live-in nanny, whom she remembers as strict but very affectionate. Her father was an economist and had been successful. Before she was born, for two years, he had been a Minister of the Economy in Morocco. Then, when Slimani was twelve years old, he was fired from his position as CEO of a bank, and sent to prison on charges of corruption. The family fell apart, and the nanny was let go. Slimani’s mother supported her and her two sisters by working as an otolaryngologist. A bit more than ten years later her father died, supposedly of lung-cancer. Slimani thinks he died of grief. Posthumously, he was acquitted.

Lullaby starts with a horrible jolt. Its first two-and-a-half pages are about the death of two young children whom their nanny kills. This makes it impossible for some people to read on; if you think you may be one of these, please read no further here. 

In a fundamental way, however, this killing is not what this novel is about. What it’s really about is how and why a person who is employed in an intimate position in a family as a nanny, and does absolutely everything for this family, first feels useful and very worthwhile, but then starts to experience the parents’ disdain and distrust of her and, in utmost despair, behaves in such a destructive way.  

In the novel, Myriam Charfa is the mother of the two young children: Mila, a toddler, and Adam, a baby. She is married to Paul Massé. They live in Paris, in the Tenth Arrondissement (at the center of which is the Gare du Nord). In her training as a lawyer Myriam has been brilliant. Then, after being very absorbed with her babies, she starts to feel trapped, and becomes very bitter towards Paul. Then, Pascal, who had been a student whom she knew in law school, encourages Myriam to come and work with him in a firm he has just started. She is excited at the prospect. So she and her husband look for a nanny. They find Louise, who has an excellent reference from a former employer. 

Louise comes to work for the  family. She does everything for the children. She loves them. She looks after them in the warmest way, cares for them, plays with them affectionately. She also does everything for Myriam and Paul: tidies up, mends clothes, cooks meals, stays overnight when necessary. She could not be better. She becomes indispensable. 

On page 89 of Lullaby, we read that one afternoon Louise has been playing with Mila, and has put lipstick and make-up on her, painted her finger nails and toe-nails with nail varnish. The little girl loves it. When her father comes home early from work, she says  “Look, Papa … Look what Louise did!”


Then we read this:
He had been so pleased to get home early, so happy to see his children, but now he feels sick. He has the feeling that he has walked in on something sordid or abnormal. His daughter, his little girl, looks like a transvestite, like a ruined old drag queen. He can’t believe it. He is furious, out of control. He hates Louise for having done this. Mila, his angel, his little blue dragonfly, is as ugly as a circus freak, as ridiculous as a dog dressed up for a walk by its hysterical old lady owner.

In an interview with Lauren Collins (in the New Yorker on 1 January 2018), Slimani said “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter … It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” 

Slimani is fascinated by how people can devote themselves fully to a particular activity. Whereas Louise devotes herself to her job as a nanny, the protagonist of Slimani’s first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Garden of the Ogre) to be published in English this year with the title Adèle, is a woman who devotes herself to sex. She wants to be wanted. Slimani said to Collins: “There are people who give themselves over to their sexuality, there are people who lose themselves in it, but, for me, sex is something very painful, very melancholy, because one sees oneself.”

Among themes to reflect on in Lullaby (The Perfect Nanny) are these.

The first is that Slimani enables us to know her protagonist, Louise, and the circumstances of her life. Of course, you might say, that’s the novelist’s job. But here it’s significant in more than the usual way. We read how Louise’s husband had abused her, then died, leaving her in the most terrible financial mess. She is no longer in touch with her grown-up daughter. Now she lives in a sleazy one-room apartment, and her landlord terrorizes her. She makes her job as a nanny into her whole life. So, then, we may ask ourselves: “Who are we?” “To what do we devote our selves?” And, in this life, whom do we come to know? We can sometimes come to understand a literary character, such as Louise, better than most actual people in our day-to-day lives. Slimani is astute at letting us readers know that Myriam and Paul have no idea who Louise is. The extent of their care for her is zero. At the same time they have her look after their children, in one of the most intimate and important relationships one can ever have. 

A second theme is that Louise’s care for the children of Myriam and Paul enables both of them to thrive in their careers. They both earn good incomes, but the amount they pay Louise is so little that she can scarcely afford to live. They come to think they are entitled to what she does for them, and they exploit her. In an article (on p. 69 of the New Yorker of 20 August 2018) Adam Gopnik wrote, “of the truth that we always resent most those to whom we owe most.” On page 130 of Lullaby, we read that because of the hopeless financial situation in which Louise’s former husband left her, Paul received a letter from the Income Tax people, who were trying to trace her. The letter says that Louise owes back taxes. Paul speaks to Louise in a malicious way. He says: “we are very upset by what we learned. There are certain things that cannot be tolerated.” Myriam and Paul become fed up with Louise, and think about how to fire her. In turn, Louise becomes despairing. She comes to think that she will no longer be able to love. 

A third theme is based on how Myriam Charfa is an immigrant. In contrast, Louise is not an immigrant, and she is white. Slimani said to Lauren Collins, that Louise is “a white woman doing an immigrant’s job, which is extremely demeaning.” Myriam is a non-white woman, from North Africa, as Slimani is herself. By means of these contrasts, Slimani invites us to think, perhaps in some new ways, of our relationships with people we employ. Among the issues are both social class and ethnicity. How far do we know people we employ who are from different social strata than ourselves? How far do we know people we meet who are different from us, in the work-place, or anywhere? How far do we want to?

Leïla Slimani (2018). Lullaby (Sam Taylor, Trans.). London: Faber & Faber. (In North America the title of the translation is The Perfect Nanny, Penguin Random House).





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Monday, 3 December 2018

Research Bulletin: Stories and Race Perception

The notable rise of multiracialism in Western countries has made it crucial for society to develop tools that facilitate the understanding of individuals who are different from us. One such tool is narrative fiction, which can induce story-consistent behaviour and reduce out-group mentality by challenging our underlying beliefs and assumptions. Johnson, Huffman and Jasper (2014) examined this possibility by conducting a study that examined whether reading narrative fiction could affect racial boundary perceptions (i.e., the boundary at which a mixed-race face is perceived as belonging to one race or another).

In their first experiment, individuals were randomly assigned to either the narrative condition or the synopsis condition. In the narrative condition, the participants read an excerpt of Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah, which is about a courageous Muslim woman who stands up to a series of religious attacks and racial slurs. In the synopsis condition, participants read a summary of the same excerpt that was devoid of its original narrative qualities. After exposure to either of the two conditions, all participants viewed mixed-race Arab-Caucasian faces and were asked to categorize them as mixed-race, Arab, or Causcasian. Their second experiment was very similar, but with an additional control condition in which people read a brief history of the automobile. Also different in this second study, was that all of the faces were expressing low to moderate levels of anger.

In support of their hypotheses, for the first experiment individuals in the full narrative condition saw the two races as more similar and were more likely to perceive the faces as being mixed-race as opposed to strictly Arab or Caucasian.  In the second experiment, participants in the full narrative condition were less likely to disproportionately categorize moderately angry faces as Arab. Based on these results, it seems that stories about race might have a positive effect on racial perception.

References

Johnson, D. R., Huffman, B., & Jasper, D. (2014). Changing race boundary perception by reading narrative fiction. Basic and Applied Social Psychology36, 83-90.

Post by Alma Rahimi

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).
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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Lowbrow Status of Science Fiction

In trying to find out what makes a piece of fiction ‘literary’, Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University dove into papers from literary criticism and psychology that each proposed different definitions of ‘literariness’. Among the various definitions they came across, they found one that suggested that a text’s literariness might depend on how much it encouraged the reader to infer what characters are thinking or feeling (Kidd & Castano, 2013), an ability known as theory-of-mind. Gavaler and Johnson seized on this idea, hypothesizing that a literary text might contain the fewer explanations of a character’s state of mind, forcing the reader to make more inferences. These researchers were also interested in how this idea might interact with genre fiction, specifically the genre of science fiction. So they devised an experiment with four conditions. Participants would read a brief passage of science fiction or a realistic story, with or without explanations of the character’s state of mind. The authors would then measure readers’ ratings of literary merit, comprehension of the text, and inferencing effort. 

The researchers found that those who read a text with explanations of a character’s state of mind understood the text better and rated the text as having greater literary merit, compared to those who read texts without these explanations. This was regardless of whether the text was science fiction or not. Those who read a science fiction passage rated it as having less literary merit than did those who read a realistic passage. They also did not understand the text as well and made less of an effort to infer the character’s state of mind. This was the case whether or not the passage included explanations of the character’s state of mind. 

A subsequent experiment built on this research to examine the reader’s construction of a world’s physical and social rules, as well as their efforts to understand the plot. The results were similar to those of the first experiment. Interestingly, readers of science fiction exerted more effort in understanding the world of the narrative, yet did not understand the world as well as those who had read a text that was more realistic. Those who read science fiction also put in as much effort to understand the plot as did those who read a realistic passage, yet did not understand the plot as well. 

Long story short, it appears that the science fiction genre prompts a style of reading that is less attentive to characters, more attentive to the world of the narrative, and yet results in poorer overall comprehension. These experiments also show that the perception of literary merit seems to be tied to the inclusion of explanations of a character’s thoughts and feelings, and not the absence of such explanations, as the authors initially thought. 

References

Gavaler, C., & Johnson, D. R. (2017). The genre effect. A science fiction (vs. realism) 
manipulation decreases inference effort, reading comprehension, and perceptions of 
literary merit. Scientific Study of Literature, 7(1), 79-108. doi:10.1075/ssol.7.1.04gav

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science,
342, 377–380. doi: 10.1126/science.1239918

Post by Krithika Sukumar

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Extreme Music and the Processing of Anger

Extreme music, such as punk or heavy metal, is associated with anger and arousal due to its chaotic instrumentation, fast tempo, negative lyrical themes, and emotional vocals. Two opposing viewpoints in the literature suggest that extreme music either (1) elicits anger through arousal or (2) allows the listener to process existing anger through arousal. Sharman and Dingle (2015) set out to examine how listeners of extreme music process anger in an experimental design.

People who enjoy listening to extreme music (N = 39) were first induced to feel angry and then assigned to one of two possible conditions, either sitting in silence or listening to extreme music of their own choice for 10 minutes. Physiological arousal was measured in each condition and self-reports of emotional state were gathered before and after the anger induction. In the music condition, the researchers found that participants had a higher mean heart rate than participants who sat in silence, suggesting that extreme music sustained the arousal created by the anger induction. This view was also supported by participants’ own reports, with 79% of participants reporting that they listen to music to fully experience anger when angry. However, self-report ratings of relaxation did not differ by condition and 69% of participants also reported listening to music to calm down when angry. These findings are consistent with the idea that listeners of extreme music use it to match their emotions and emotion-regulation goals. 

There were also some interesting results outside of those related to anger. Ratings of inspiration were higher in the music condition compared to the silence condition, for example. Participants also reported a variety of positive emotional effects for music and all chose to listen to extreme music of their own accord during the music condition. For the often misunderstood genre of extreme music, these findings would seem to support a less negative and stigmatizing view of extreme music fans. This study has provided interesting insight into the emotional processes of extreme music fans and more research should be conducted on the nature of emotional processing and musical preferences.

Reference:
Sharman, L., & Dingle, G. A. (2015). Extreme metal music and anger processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience9, 272.

Post by Shayan Asadi.

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Monday, 5 February 2018

Can Children's Storybooks Teach Morality?

Although storybooks have long been used to teach moral messages to children, most research suggests that young children do not actually extract the intended meaning of these stories. However, a new paper by Walker and Lombrozo (2017) found that children may be more capable of extracting the moral from a story than previously thought. The researchers conducted two studies to see if children are better able to discern the moral of a story if they are asked questions throughout the reading process. The idea is that children need help directing their attention, so guidance from an adult may help them better comprehend the important aspects of a story. 

To test this idea, 5 and 6 year-old children were read stories that had a moral. As the story was read, children were either asked to recall surface details (e.g., "was Jocko sad?"), asked to explain an event (e.g., "why was Jocko sad"), or were simply told the lesson (e.g., "Jocko was sad because…"). Afterwards, the children were asked what the moral of the story was, and if they could name other stories with similar moral lessons. Children who were asked to explain the events of the story were better able to extract the story's moral. In the second study, the children asked to explain the story were also better able to apply the lessons to a real life example.

These two studies suggest that children can extract moral lessons from stories at much earlier ages than previously thought, but that they may need a little help. A key insight is that parents may be able to aid their children by asking questions about the story that direct their attention to important plot points, such as character motivation. Although more research is necessary to understand why these kinds of questions help children, these studies highlight the importance of interactive learning and provide promising evidence that storybooks may be more educational than previously thought.

Walker, C. M., & Lombrozo, T. (2017). Explaining the moral of the story. Cognition, 167, 266-281. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.11.007

Post by Joseph Hoyda.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail). 




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Monday, 22 January 2018

Writing Character

Imagine you are given this photograph, and asked to write a fictional character sketch of the man depicted here. This is the task that Marta Maslej, Raymond Mar, and I, gave to participants, in a study published last year. What would there be in your habits and traits that would influence what you write, and how you write it?

In our study we asked 207 participants each to write a fictional character sketch of the man in this photo. We asked them, too, about their habits of writing and reading, and gave them questions about traits of personality, empathy, and engagement in fantasy. Then, to a different group of people, 144 in number, we gave the character sketches that the first group of participants had produced and asked them to rate the sketches as to how likeable, interesting, and complex, each character was.

We found that habits of writing fiction, and of writing and reading poetry, were associated with producing character sketches that were rated as more interesting and complex. In terms of personality traits of Extraversion, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Openness, and Conscientiousness, only Openness was associated with sketches of characters who were interesting and complex. Higher levels of empathetic concern, and of engagement in fantasy, had similar effects. No habits or traits were associated with writing sketches of characters who were more likeable.

We found it surprising that reading more poetry had an effect on people’s abilities to create characters who were interesting and complex, although habits of reading more prose fiction and non-fiction did not. Perhaps reading poetry involves an interest in language and emotion, which are also helpful in verbal depiction of characters. Perhaps the lack of effect from reading more prose is similar to how listening to a lot of music does not necessarily contribute much to becoming a musician.

Some people are drawn to writing fiction. It seems that they are more likely to be among those who seek out challenges of intellectual and aesthetic kinds (the trait of Openness), as well as being higher in empathy for others, and more likely to engage in fantasy. We can imagine that it’s people with these habits and character traits who go on to become authors of novels and short stories that are published.

Maslej, M. M., Oatley, K., & Mar, R. A. (2017). Creating fictional characters: The role of experience, personality, and social processes. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 487-499. 

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Monday, 9 October 2017

Effects of leisure reading


What psychological effects are there of reading short stories and novels? By now there has been a substantial amount of research to answer this question. The consensus seems to be that reading fiction as an individual pursuit can enable people to improve their empathy and to understand others better. The method known as meta-analysis involves collecting a number of studies on an issue such as this, and statistically estimating the size of effects. In this way "seems to be" can become "is." In a study published earlier this year, Micah Mumper and Richard Gerrig conducted a meta-analysis of studies of associations of lifetime leisure reading with social cognitive measures. The main measure of lifetime reading was the modification made by Mar et al. (2006) of the Author Recognition Test, to distinguish reading of fiction from non-fiction.

Analyses were performed for effects on empathy with data from 22 studies. The most frequently used outcome measure was the Interpersonal Reactivity Index of Davis (1983). Analyses were also performed on data from ten studies for effects on theory-of-mind (understanding others). For these, the most frequently used outcome measure was the Mind-in-the-Eyes test of Baron-Cohen et al. (2001).

To estimate the size of this effect, the Mumper and Gerrig aggregated results for empathy and theory of mind. The result was that an association was found for reading of fiction with empathy and theory of mind, which was small but significant. Reading non-fiction did not have this effect. At least one other meta-analysis, as yet unpublished, has been performed on experiments in which people were given different kinds of material to read, and short-term and medium term effects were measured. It comes to a similar conclusion.

Mumper and Gerrig say that although the effect is small it is important because of "the potential interpersonal and societal benefits of greater empathy and theory of mind" (p. 118).

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test Revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 241-251.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.

Mumper, M. J., & Gerrig, R. J. (2017). Leisure reading and social cognition: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 109-120.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

In the Mind of Another

One of the lovely aspects of fiction is to be able to enter other minds, and this occurs in an especially touching way when the character in whose mind one finds oneself lives in a society different from one's own.

For Western readers, a novel by the Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami has this effect. The novel is translated as Strange Weather in Tokyo. It's about a woman, Tsukiko, who at the start of the story is age 37, who works in an office. Although she has had boyfriends, they seem not to have lasted long, and she doesn't seem to have close women friends. One evening she is in a bar, near the station, and happens to see, there, a man who is perhaps in his seventies, who recognizes her. He was her teacher of Japanese in secondary school. They keep running into each other, in this bar, and they chat. She calls him Sensei, "Teacher." They don't seem to have much in common. He remembers that, at school, she wasn't very good at Japanese. She remembers, too, that she wasn't very interested in it.

Sensei is a widower. After the meet several times in the bar, he invites her, after a good deal of sake drinking, to his home, which is nearby. Although reluctant, she goes along. The house is cluttered. It's full of things that other people would have thrown away. He gives her something to drink, and some crackers to eat.

Then Sensei starts to read a newspaper. It's not that day's newspaper, but one that has been discarded, which he has picked up from somewhere. He seems to have forgotten that Tsukiko is there. She speaks to him, and he replies: "Would you like to read the newspaper?" he asks.

Sensei goes into the next room and brings back some things: several old clay tea-pots that he has saved from railway take-out meals he had bought many years previously, and a collection of electric batteries that have long since lost their charge. He talks about them a bit. The chapter ends with him reciting three lines of a poem, and with him closing his eyes, nodding off, perhaps asleep. In the pale light of the moon, Tsukiko gazes at the batteries.

An effect the book had on me is that which one is supposed to attain though mindfulness. I would read a chapter—the chapters are short—then look up, and notice what I saw. On one occasion it was a pepper pot, which had been left on a wooden table. I looked at the small glass pot, which was octagonal, and had a silver-coloured metal top, pierced with thirteen small holes in a star pattern. I noticed the relation of the pot to the table, and to the window sill, and to the top of a straight-back chair, the seat of which was under the table. I saw the relation of these objects to each other.

Is this, I thought, a Japanese way? A way of being able to see and experience such spatial layouts and arrangements. A nineteenth-century Western way is quite different. The essayist and art critic John Ruskin, for instance, might have recommended that I look at the salt-cellar, and reflect that someone who had a training in art had drawn it, that someone else had made a model of it, someone else had arranged for it to be moulded in glass, and for the metal lid, with its holes in it, to be manufactured. Each of these people would have got up in the morning, eaten something for breakfast, gone to work, chatted with their work mates, as they made these things for us to use.

Kawakami's book continues with Tsukiko and Sensei getting along with one another, then falling out because he likes the Giants baseball team, whereas she does not. This is followed by a period when they notice each other but refuse to talk. Then they start to talk again. They go on expeditions of several kinds. They chat, sometimes quite a bit, sometimes not much at all. As readers we are within Tsukiko's mind. It is a mind that is uncertain, thoughtful but confused, wondering, lonely. And, as one may imagine, the novel is a love story.

Kawakami, H. (2012). Strange Weather in Tokyo (A. M. Powell, Trans.). London: Portobello Books.


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