Monday, July 27, 2015

Some relation to her

One of Anton Chekhov's favourite stories was the very short piece he called “The student.” The story is simple. It’s about how, on a cold night, round a fire, a theological student tells a story to an old woman, Vasilisa, and her daughter, who are both widows. He then notices that Vasilisa is in tears. The student thinks that there was something in the story which “had some relation to her.” 

Was Chekhov personally fond of his short story, “The student,” because he thought the experience of Vasilisa is central to literature?

Ed Vessel, Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin (2013) had people in an fMRI scanner look at images of art works that were unfamiliar to them. The researchers monitored activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is part of the default mode network, a system in the brain that is active when a person is at rest, rather than attending to events in the outside world. Activation of this network is associated, too, with inwardness, and also when a person does something, or thinks about something, that involves the self.  

The people in the fMRI machine were given the task of rating how they themselves were moved by each artwork they saw. Activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, in the default mode network, suggested that occasionally an artwork was so well-matched to the unique makeup of an individual that it obtained access to the neural processes of the default mode network: processes that are concerned with the self. Ordinarily, external objects do not gain access to this network. 

The researchers conclude that they were picking up signs of certain kind of experience that produced a sense of being “moved,” or being “touched from within.” 

There seems here a close parallel to what happened to Vasilisa in Chekhov’s story.

Chekhov, A. (1894). “The student” in Stories by Anton Chekhov (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.) pp. 263-266.  New York: Bantam (2000)).

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2013). Art reaches within: Aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7, 258. doi: org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00258

Image: Anton Chekhov

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Monday, July 20, 2015

IGEL Conference on Literature and Empathy

I recently participated in a fantastic workshop sponsored by the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (its acronym comes from its original German name, which also means "hedgehog," hence the logo). Organized by Drs. Berenike Hermann and Gerhard Lauer (University of Göttingen), it featured an impressive line-up of researchers all doing excellent empirical work on this topic. Although a great deal of fascinating findings were presented, the general consensus was that there is much work left to do. Thankfully, there are a great many researchers up to this challenge including an exciting cohort of young scientist! The organizers of this conference have been generous enough to post all of the abstracts from the speakers and I would greatly encourage readers of this site to take a look. All talks were also recorded and hopefully these will also be available over the next couple of weeks. A full list of speakers appears below. Right now you can also see some photos and comments from participants on Twitter (#IGEL2015). It is exciting indeed to see so much work being done on this topic! 
Also, if you are a researcher, please consider becoming a member of IGEL. They are a lovely group of people.  

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Research Bulletin: Imagining versus actually meeting a person with schizophrenia

Reading is a way for us to imagine experiences we might never have, but do these imagined experiences affect us in a similar way to real experiences? One way to reduce prejudice is to meet people from other social groups. But what about imagining similar interactions? Is this as effective as actually meeting someone?

Researchers at La Trobe University in Australia (Michael Giacobbe, Arthur Stukas, and John Farhall) decided to ask this question with respect to individuals with schizophrenia. Participants were randomly assigned to have either a real or imagined interaction with an individual diagnosed with schizophrenia, or a well-matched control person without schizophrenia. For the imagined conditions, participants listened to scripts based on actual interactions from the in-person conditions and then imagined as best they could the rest of the experience. Interactions in each condition lasted approximately 15 minutes.

After the imagined or actual experiences, researchers measured whether participant attitudes toward individuals with schizophrenia changed. Those who interacted with the schizophrenic individual exhibited more positive attitudes towards people with schizophrenia compared to those who interacted with the control confederate. Most importantly, the imagined and in-person interactions appeared to be equally effective in improving attitudes.

This study offers preliminary evidence that imagining an interaction can reduce prejudice toward stigmatized groups just as effectively as actual in-person interactions. In light of this, narrative fiction and the structured imagination it provides might be a helpful tool for combatting prejudice. Finally, this study raises additional questions regarding the effect of imagined interactions on reducing prejudice. How long do the effects last? Can these effects be strengthened through repeated imagined contact? What kinds of people might benefit the most from imagined contact? The fascinating results of this study will hopefully inspire further work along these lines.

Giacobbe, M. R., Stukas, A. A., & Farhall, J. (2013). The effects of imagined versus actual contact with a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Basic and Applied Social Psychology,
35(3), 265-271. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2013.785403

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Post by Graham McCreath

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Research Bulletin: Do Reviews Change Our Evaluation of What We Are About to Read or Have Already Read?

As active readers we are constantly evaluating what we are reading in order to form our own opinions. Making personal evaluations based on what we have read is a fundamental aspect of the reading experience. However, we may also look to the opinions of our peers and professional critics for guidance. Sometimes we seek out a review prior to reading a piece of literature in order to decide whether or not to read it. At other times we might read a review after we have read something to find out what others think about it. Do these reviews affect how we see a piece of literature? Moreover, does the source of the review or whether it is read before or after we read something influence our personal evaluation? Do negative reviews have a different effect than positive reviews? Peter Dixon (University of Alberta), Marisa Bortolussi (University of Alberta), and Paul Sopčak (MacEwan University) conducted a study to answer these questions. 

These researchers hypothesized that reading the review first would lead the reader to focus more on particular aspects of the text that were mentioned in the review. In contrast, reading the review after the piece would influence the reader’s evaluation to fall more in line with the views of the reviewer. In order to test their ideas, participants either read a review and then a piece of literature (N = 56), or read the literature first and then read the review (N = 48). In both conditions the participants had to read the first two pages from four novels, all of which were accompanied by either a positive expert review, a negative expert review, a positive peer review, or a negative peer review. It should be noted that the participants were not forced to read the reviews. After participants in both conditions read a booklet containing the pieces of literature and reviews, they evaluated the stories.

When the review was read after the piece, positive peer reviews had a larger impact than negative peer reviews, shifting opinions to be more positive. Both types of peer reviews were also more impactful than reviews from professional critics. When the review was read before the piece, only negative reviews by an expert had an effect on reader evaluations, shifting opinions to be more negative. These results are interesting because not only do they establish that reviews affect readers’ evaluations, but they also indicate that when a review is read affects how much a reader likes a text.

Dixon, P., Bortolussi, M., & Sopčák, P. (2015). Extratextual effects on the evaluation of narrative texts. Poetics, 48, 42–54. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2014.12.00

* For a copy of this article, please e-mail R. Mar (e-mail in 'About' section).

Posted by Amin Khajehnassiri

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Research Bulletin: Fiction Writers’ Perspective-taking is No Better than Others

In a striking recent article Theanna Bischoff and Joan Peskin (2014) asked whether writers of fiction have better abilities of perspective taking—inferring the mental states of others (theory-of-mind)—than people who are not writers. In a survey, the researchers found that the general public did believe that fiction writers were better than average at perspective taking. When the issue was put to the test on writers and non-writers, however, no such superiority was found. Bischoff and Peskin studied 20 people who had a book of fiction published by an independent publishing house (established writers), 20 people who were enrolled in a fiction writing course, or who had published in a magazine, or who had self-published (intermediate writers), and 20 people who didn’t write fiction (the control group). Three outcome measures were used: the Mind in the Eyes test, in which people looked at 36 photographs of people’s eyes, as if seen through a letter box, and chose from four adjectives what the photographed person was thinking or feeling; the Interpersonal Perception Task in which people viewed 15 video clips of people in interaction, and for each clip answered a question about what was going on; and the Levels of Embedded Mental StatesTask, in which people read two vignettes and answered a series of true/false questions about the embedded mental states of the characters in the vignettes. The researchers also asked their participants to provide sample pieces of fiction, and had these rated for quality by independent expert assessors. 

Bischoff and Peskin found no difference between established writers, intermediate writers, and the control group in their performance on any of the outcome measures. Nor was there any relationship between participants’ performance in the perspective taking tasks and the expertly rated quality of the writing they supplied.

This result came a surprise to the researchers. There is now good evidence that reading fiction promotes better perspective taking in readers. Bischoff and Peskin review these results. So the difference between the current experiment on writers and the previous data on readers of fiction prompts a question. Are writing and reading fiction different, and if so, in what ways?

Bischoff and Peskin suggest that their finding can be explained by perspective taking being very specific to context. I think this may be right. The way I see it is that, first, in reading fiction one can sample across a wide variety of societies, personality types, and circumstances so that reading extends the range of one’s experience of others, and second that in reading fiction, particularly artistic fiction, one has to make inferences about what characters might be thinking, feeling, and wanting. It seems likely that these factors contribute to the better perspective-taking abilities of people who read a lot of fiction. In contrast, as Djikic, Oatley and Peterson (2006) have shown, fiction writers tend to be preoccupied with negative emotions, and these no doubt are their own emotions. In their fiction, writers typically explore implications of such emotions. Hence although writers often depict particular kinds of circumstance, they are not extending their experience of a range of circumstances in the way that people can do when reading. Because fiction writers tend to project themselves into their writing, it may be that the skills of writing don’t involve any more perspective-taking than occurs for everyone in day-to-day life.

It will be fascinating to see how the similarities and differences between writing and reading fiction, which Bischoff and Peskin have uncovered, will be uncovered in further research.

Bischoff, T., & Peskin, J. (2014). Do fiction writers have superior perspective taking ability? Scientific Study of Literature, 4, 125-149. 

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. (2006). The bitter-sweet labor of emoting:  The linguistic comparison of writers and physicists. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 191-197.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Research Bulletin: How Other People Influence Our Experience of Reading

Reading a critic’s review of a movie or asking a friend their opinion before you read a book shapes your expectations more than you may think. A recent study by Dr. Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker and colleagues (2011) investigated how a peer’s evaluation influenced readers’ enjoyment and engagement in a story, known as transportation.  Participants were required to read the short story Sunday in the Park by Bel Kaufman, with the influence of peer reviews examined in two different studies.
In the first experiment, 106 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to read reviews of the text that were either favourable or unfavourable, before they read the story themselves. After reading the story, the participants were asked to also write a review. Not surprisingly, those who read positive reviews expected the story to be better than those that read negative reviews. Participants who read positive reviews also wrote more positive comments compared to those who read negative comments. Since the nature of the review was randomly determined, it appears that reviews do influence our perception of a text.
In the second experiment, 163 participants were told by the experimenters that they were the last group in a three group experiment. They were asked to read the evaluations of the text by both the previous groups before reading the story themselves. Reading favourable evaluations made participants focus on the positive attributes of the story. In contrast, reading unfavourable evaluations made them criticize the same things that were criticized in the reviews they had read. When there were inconsistent evaluations (e.g., one negative and one positive) the reader paid closer attention to the story. This led to increased engagement with the story, presumably to try and resolve the inconsistency between the two evaluations.

This pair of studies shows how peer evaluations can influence how we see a story, shaping our own opinions and attention in complex ways. Not only are we swayed by positive and negative reviews, but contradictory reviews can also make us more attentive to a story and its various aspects. 

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., DeLuca, H., & Arkin, R. (2011). The Social Experience of Entertainment Media: Effects of others’ evaluations on our experience. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 23, 111-121.

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Posted by Guneet Daid.

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