Monday, 23 November 2015

Research Bulletin: The Genre of Book Matters When It Comes to Complex Conversations Between Parent and Child During Joint-Reading

Book-sharing experiences provide a perfect opportunity for learning and communication between parents and children, allowing for conversations that may be more abstract, complex, and cognitively demanding. Nyhout and O’Neill (2012) examined how complex the conversations were around a book read jointly by mothers and their toddlers. Importantly, they looked at possible differences between reading a narrative book that told a story and a more didactic book that aimed to teach new words and concepts. The authors carefully controlled for other aspects of the books, such as book length, content, and amount of text. They then asked 25 mothers and their children to read a book together. The researchers recorded the conversations that occurred during joint-reading and measured the relative amount of the conversations that were more complex in nature. When reading the narrative, mothers tended to include more complex talk, such as a greater variety of tenses as well as more references to mental state (e.g., emotions, thoughts, beliefs). Mothers also seemed to encourage behaviors that adults engage in while reading, such as anticipating what will happen next and looking for patterns or similarities. The researchers suggest that reading narrative books may contribute to the child’s abstract thinking abilities, whereas didactic books may improve factual and vocabulary knowledge. This study illuminates how different genres should be considered when considering the impact of reading, even for young children reading with their parents. 

Nyhout, A., & O’Neill, D. K. (2013). Mothers’ complex talk when sharing books with their toddlers: Book genre matters. First Language, 33(2), 115–131. doi:10.1177/0142723713479438

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

Post by Tatiana Nichol.

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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Research Bulletin: Does TV Help Us Understand Others?

A number of studies have examined whether reading books is related to one’s ability to infer what other people are thinking and feeling. On the whole, both correlational and experimental work find that exposure to fiction literature predicts better abilities at inferring mental states (e.g., Kidd & Castano, 2013; Mar et al., 2006). But is this effect limited to the written word? Jessica Black and Dr. Jennifer Barnes (University of Oklahoma) decided to examine whether exposing people to award-winning television shows could prompt people to be more accurate at guessing what others are feeling. In their first study, people watched either a TV episode from a narrative fiction series (Mad Men or The West Wing), or as a control condition, and episode from a documentary TV series (Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back or How the Universe Works). Afterwards, both groups completed a measure of their mental inferencing abilities. What they found was that those who watched a piece of fiction exhibited better mental-inferencing abilities than those randomly assigned to watch the documentary TV episode. This was true even after controlling for gender and past reading habits. A second study replicated these results using different a different set of TV shows (Lost and The Good Wife for fiction, versus Through the Wormhole: Is Time Travel Possible? and NOVA: Colosseum: Roman Death Trap). These results provide a fascinating extension of work on how engagement with narrative fiction, in all its forms, might promote thinking about other people and their mental states. 

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

Black, J. & Barnes, J. L. (in press). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory-of-mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and
the Arts.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377–380.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., de la Paz, J., & Peterson, J. (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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Monday, 9 November 2015

Quick Hit: The Library Passport

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is one of the largest public library systems in North America and the world's busiest urban library. It’s not only large, but also one of the most diverse and creative libraries as well. Branches offer not only books and magazines, but also loan out DVDs, CDs, pedometers for measuring your steps, and even time on a 3D printer! A full suite of online services is also available, with library users able to borrow eBooks, online magazines, stream music and movies, and make use of free accounts for online learning sites like Expanding to the online realm hasn’t diminished the importance of the brick-and-mortar locations by any means, with physical branches providing important services like mortgage workshops and even the occasional speed-dating night. New branches continue to be built, with the system as a whole adapting well as new neighborhoods blossom across the city. With winter approaching, why not task yourself with visiting all 100 branches of the good old TPL as fun winter activity? Designer Noah Ortmann has created The Toronto Library Passport to help you find each branch and record your experiences. It’s a beautiful document, featuring gorgeous typography. It also contains useful information like opening hours for each branch to ensure that you don’t encounter shut doors, along with a map. This would make a wonderful present for any lover of books, libraries, or the city. It’s also such a great idea that it would be nice to see this expanded to other city library systems. If you’re a fan of the TPL, please also consider donating to their foundation to help support this vital part of our city. 

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Monday, 2 November 2015

Quick Hits: President Obama and Penny Books

President Obama
The U.S. president Barack Obama interviewed the novelist Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books. The first part of that interview was published a couple of weeks ago, but it is this second installment that has attracted a great deal of public press attention based on Mr. Obama’s statements regarding the importance of reading. More specifically, the importance of reading for fostering empathy and shaping his sense of what it means to be a proper citizen in society. The relevant quotes can be found in this article in the Guardian newspaper (quoted below) and dedicated readers of OnFiction should recognize these arguments as paralleling the themes of the research discussed on this site. 
when I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels…It has to do with empathy… It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
The audio of both parts can be found here.

Penny Books
Ever see a used book for sale for a penny on and wonder how it could be that the seller makes any money? The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article about this new industry of penny booksellers and how they operate. In brief, it involves a large volume of books and some rather complicated software.

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Monday, 26 October 2015

The Mind and the Text

What is our relationship to the texts of poems, novels, short stories? Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon say that for too long the assumption has been, in literary studies, that a text is a physical object, out there in the world, and that we as readers have unconstrained access to it. In a 2015 paper, they argue that this is completely wrong. Our relationship with a text depends on the kind of engagement we have with it, and by what we remember of it.

Bortolussi and Dixon report two experiments. Separate groups of participants were asked to read either an interesting story: the first 7432 words of Ann Rice’s Interview with a vampire, or a less interesting story: the first 7753 words of William Makepeace Thackeray’s The story of Pendennis. Texts were read one sentence at a time on a computer screen. After they read each sentence, participants pressed a keyboard space-bar to see the next sentence. At ten unpredictable locations, instead of the next sentence participants were given a mental state probe in the form of a question about whether they were fully comprehending the story or thinking about something else. They then rated their mental state on a line with points that ranged from “Definitely thinking of something else” to “Definitely comprehending.” A second experiment was the same except that the question in the probe was, “Do you feel like you’re experiencing the story as if you were there or are you just reading superficially?” For this question the rating line was labelled, “Definitely reading superficially” to “Definitely experiencing the story.” After reading the story, subjects were tested for their memory of material in the sentences that preceded each mental state probe.

Bortolussi and Dixon found in both experiments that the piece from Interview was remembered better than the piece from Pendennis. In the first experiment, of participants who read Interview, those who were more on-task were more accurate in their memories for the sentences that preceded the mental state probes. The effect was also found for Pendennis but it was smaller. In the second experiment, although Interview was remembered better than Pendennis, for each story there was no relationship between level of engagement and accuracy of memories for the sentences that preceded the mental state probes.

The researchers concluded that we process stories not so much in terms of a text as an immutable object, but in terms of how we interact with it. They say (p. 46) that, “aesthetic reaction is not to the text, but rather to readers’ mental representation” of it.

Bortolussi, M., & Dixon, P. (2015). Memory and mental states in the appreciation of literature. In P. F. Bundgaard & F. Stjernfelt (Eds.), Investigations into the phenomenology and the ontology of the work of art: What are artworks and how do we experience them? (pp. 31-49). Heidelberg: Springer.
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Monday, 19 October 2015

Phenological Anxiety and Abeyance

Last year at this time, I watched the leaves flame out with peculiar detachment: for the first time, I was leaving my temperate deciduous autumn during the brief interval between leaf fall and snow fall, dissociating the exhilarating experience of gorgeous foliage transformation from the anxious anticipation of winter. This year, I am attempting to channel that dissociation to mitigate the seemingly unavoidable resignation that comes with the end of warm season foliage.

Psychologically, part of what was interesting about trading in my usual excruciatingly cold winter for a cool southern hemisphere summer in Dunedin was that it did not feel quite like summer—it was much more like coasting in a pleasant autumn/spring holding pattern, the kind of seasonal dawn/dusk people in places like Florida and California must experience, complete with a full panoply of broadleaf evergreens whose home range just doesn’t extend quite this far. This in-between season is quite a contrast with the ominous gloaming of both the second half of autumn and the first half of spring in Minnesota, both of which twinkle with the starry brightness of long clear nights and the occasional crystalline sunny days of a winter too cold to snow but also stretch out with snow cover that one knows will last almost half of the year before the leaves flesh out again. Even if it might be t-shirt and swimming weather (like it is today!) while the leaves are crunchy on the beach in Minneapolis, one knows that the lake could freeze within the week, and this leads to a certain pinchedness that contrasts the relaxed abandon elicited by extended warmth in summer.

In a Dunedin kind of summer, any warm morning is almost certain to be followed by a stiff breeze off the cold ocean separating you from Antarctica, sucked in by the lifting warming of interior Otago. The short half-life of warmth prompts somewhat more structured adventure: one is motivated to get out into the promise of warmth but without the illusion of extended heat or the punishment of overheating. This is consistent with spring/fall activities of my prior experience, times when I have found it easiest to plan around the possibility of being outside, getting some sunshine and warmth in whatever time of day best allows it, and then retreating inside to get work done with the rest of the time—a rhythm that feels well balanced and measured, overextended into neither lassitude nor action.

The summer/winter rhythm, in contrast, often feels like one of allowing catch-up relaxation time contrasted with the holing up of cold months recognized to not be much good for fun. Everyday winter sports like biking or snowshoeing or skiing (even as a commute) are process-intensive enough with their bundling and equipment to feel laborious. And the cold is punishing enough to elicit a constant low-level vigilance. Even on days nice enough to lounge around outside if dressed warmly enough, for example, I’ve had police stop to make sure I wasn’t dead when trying to soak up some sun sitting against a tree in the park. Constant reminders of how not to be killed by the weather require a fair amount of the “hygge” coziness that has become a trendy aspiration of cold winter sojourns.

So as I watch orange, red, and yellow leaves stream off the trees today in the uncertain mid-autumn sunny warmth, I am compelled by ways to build up my measure of phenological equanimity in the face of oncoming winter. Phenology is the study of the signs of seasonal progression, and it was an unusual gift last year to be able to watch these signs without bracing for the onrush of seasonal symptoms one expects next (ice! snow! dryness crinkly with static, dark mornings, afternoons, and long nights and slippery roads). This year, I find myself poking at the edges of this anticipation in a more exploratory way, wondering how to build mitigation by other means than escape.

I remind myself that I already organize my daily commute around sun gathering, and that I own a reasonable trunkful of warm winter clothes. The walking and bike commute may soon be more difficult, but I have just discovered a bus route that stops within two blocks of my home and office. I am looking for some better sources of humidity, and spaces to be active and at ease without a lot of extra clothing this winter. If I could build into my schedule regular sessions working in community greenhouses, pleasant spaces, and sunny places to write, can those feel as ordinary, well-balanced, and un-emergency as staying out of the high sun in summer or keeping the garden weeded?

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Monday, 12 October 2015

Two Sharp Shakes

On Indigenous Peoples Day, being back on laundry feels mundane—but I am going to celebrate efforts to decolonize places by understanding the stories we use to shape those places, in the hopes that such efforts can help us shape them more equitably. 

Partly because of health problems, and arguably also because of class positioning and the effects that has on people's tolerance for disgust and their enthusiasm for demonstrating cleanliness, my mother taught me how to do laundry when I was quite young. And after twenty years living with my mate, one of the things I still often find myself trying to demonstrate persuasively is two sharp shakes of each laundered item as it goes from the basket onto the line or into the dryer. 

I have never liked ironing. (See also: learning to do laundry before being very good at controlling steaming metal appliances, or small ladder required to reach into washing machine, requiring climbing up and then down to the dryer for each piece of clothes...) Given my rather strong aversion, I've always thought of the two sharp shakes mainly as a way to prevent wrinkles. As I've tried to justify it in my demonstrations—and as I've learned more about the dynamics of laundering—I've realized it's not just about wrinkles (although the pre-emptive smoothing of the collar and placket and pockets does save me a lot of ironing). It also shakes off lint from the wash, pollen from the yard, and the various bits of leaf and insects that may be resting on the clothes. 

The pollen pieces (along with molds) aren't something I'd ever thought of before quite recently—and hence the justification felt quite ad hoc, even if it was legitimate. It made me notice, however, that I was adopting reasons that contributed to my feeling of doing laundry right. Noticing the distance between my ability to explain why and this definitive sense that two sharp shakes seemed to both serve some functions and also set the appropriate pacing for laundry hanging made me also notice than when I was too rushed to take the time for each garments' shakes (it turns out I shake them both before hanging and after), the need to shake them out lingers with the clothing, and I'll find myself wondering if it's legit to shake them in the bedroom, or if I need to shake any potential loitering spiders out on the porch, or out the window.

This is clearly a trivial case. However, it strikes me as a good example of the functions that lurk in practices, waiting to be explored. Exploration may provide insights into what makes these practices meaningful—not necessarily why they are persuasive or optimal, but perhaps why they have been made to feel right, perhaps through only dimly remembered instructions or modeled behaviors (it would not have been till years after my formative laundry learning that I regularly hung laundry outside with my mother and grandmother). And it reminds us that the way that we shape spaces to provide these instructions, often outside of explicit language, seems worth regularly exploring and reinvesting in.

Monday, 5 October 2015

A New Appreciation of What Pies Are For

I paid closer attention to the shape of my produce over the course of this last growing season. Partly because I’ve been working with a number of projects that are starting to figure out what it might be meaningful to measure in gardens, I’ve started thinking about how much food I collect, and what state it’s in. I had never really thought to account for how much of the food I produced was eaten by woodchucks or slugs – because I wasn’t eating it, I was just thinking of it not existing, effectively. But prompted by the wonderful Food Dignity project, I started to think differently about the produce that dried up on the stems because I hadn’t come to pick it (the dried beans and raspberries were delicious, and a handful would have been a pint fresh!), or the strawberries that would have been more edible if I had better air circulation, or the zucchinis I might have had if I could figure out how to distract the woodchuck.

None of this is to say that I feel like I must account for – and possess – all the production possible, but it also made me feel somewhat more successful, and to notice, furthermore, the different stages along the life cycle of a plant where it might be useful, something that had previously been tacit knowledge. For example, I live in a climate where fava beans don’t thrive, but they do well enough – and I can eat the greens if I don’t get enough beans. The purslane and sorrel that grow in my beds no matter what I do are likewise delicious, and reliable even when the rabbits eat whatever was more intentionally planted.

This attention to the stages and close relations of the produce I intended has also spilled over to the produce I find myself sorting as I prepare for winter. Sorting through a ten pound box of blueberries for freezing, for example, I found myself eating ones that might be too mushy to hold up well in my Individual Quick Freeze process – and also sorting out all the ones that seemed questionably ripe; it seemed like those might justify the high amounts of sugar called for in blueberry pie. And all of a sudden I gained a new appreciation of the function of pies!

Pies’ main function may be to deal with questionable fruit! This seems obvious enough in retrospect—although I’m not sure I’ve ever categorized pie as a holding tank for not-freezer-worthy fruit. And this categorization of such a basic staple has made me wonder what other functional food categories I’ve been overlooking at this time of needing to figure out how to squeeze more holding space out of my larder.

Hello, shrubs

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Monday, 28 September 2015

Mental Models

The ability to make mental models of other people is one of the most important for us as humans. Without such models we would be unable understand others, and be unable to cooperate with them. Nor would we know very well what to do when we were in conflict with them. Reading fiction, with its focus on people, their intentions, their actions, and the vicissitudes such actions encounter is, as we have often discussed in OnFiction, a good way of augmenting our ability to construct such models. In a recent paper, Demis Hassabis, Nathan Spreng, Andrei Rusu, Clifford Robbins, Raymond Mar, and Daniel Schachter (2014) have tracked down where, in the brain, such models are constructed.

In this study participants were first asked to imagine four people for whom they were given photographs and names. They were then asked to imagine (make mental models of) these people from 12 statements chosen to indicate whether each one was either high or low on the Big Five personality dimension of extraversion, and high or low on the Big Five dimension of agreeableness. An example statement for someone high on extraversion was: “Is outgoing, sociable;” for someone low on extraversion: “Is sometimes shy, inhibited.” A person high on agreeableness was described with statements like: “Likes to cooperate with others.” A person low in agreeableness was described with such statements as “Can be cold and aloof.” Then participants were asked to predict how each of the people they had imagined might behave when faced when faced with a certain vicissitude in a certain kind of place (for instance, a bar, a restaurant, a bank): for instance “In a bar—someone spills their drink—Dave.” Participants rated the vividness with which they were able to imagine the scene, and their confidence in portraying the individual accurately.

As the participants imagined the scenes, their brains were monitored using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), and analyses were performed. It was found that specific activations of the medial pre-frontal cortex were associated with imagining the people as they encountered events in different situations. The researchers say: “Our results also identified specific brain regions where personality models are coded, as well as where individual trait information is represented in the brain” (p. 1985). In the last paragraph of their paper they say: “It has been suggested that mental simulations bestow an adaptive advantage on humans by allowing them to prepare for upcoming situations… Planning for social situations by imagining the likely behavior of others may be especially critical for the success of a highly social species, such as humans“ (p. 1985).

Hassabis, D., Spreng, R. N., Rusu, A. A., Robbins, C. A., Mar, R. A., & Schachter, D. L. (2014). Imagine all the people: How the brain creates and uses personality models to predict behavior. Cerebral Cortex, 24, 1979-1987.  

Image: Person in an MRI machine.
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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Quick Hit: eBooks Show No Sign of Replacing Print Books

In case you missed it, the New York Times published an interesting article yesterday on how the sales of eBooks has begun to dip, whereas print sales remain steady. Bad news for all those who prognosticated the "Death of the Book" once eBooks and eReaders were developed. 

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Monday, 21 September 2015

Research Bulletin: There is more to Sad Books than Sadness

Many of us believe that we immerse ourselves in books and stories in order to gain pleasure and enjoyment. As a result, it is easy to assume that we would choose to read books that are cheerful or humorous. However, we know for a fact that many people also like to read sad books and stories. So why do we read sad books? More specifically, when reading sad books, do we seek a motive other than enjoyment or, perhaps, do we seek a different type of enjoyment? Emy Koopman (Erasmus University Rotterdam) conducted a study in order to answer the above questions.

Koopman suggested ten potential motives for reading sad books. These motives include meta-emotions, insight, empathy, identification, style, catharsis beliefs, downward social comparison, comfort, preparation, and personal growth (the first five motives listed can apply to any genre, whereas the rest of the motives only apply to sad stories). Each of these motivations is now explained in turn. Meta-emotions are the emotional reactions we have in response to a primary emotion. Insight is finding meaning in what we read. Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of the characters. Identification taps our ability to imagine ourselves as the characters. By style, Koopman refers to the importance of a book’s aesthetic quality. Belief in catharsis in this context refers to an assumption that that reading sad books will help us discharge sad emotions. Downward social comparison involves comparing our situation to the situation of those doing worse than us, such as characters within sad books, to make ourselves feel better. Comfort denotes the feelings of comfort we feel when we recognize our own problems within a sad book. Preparation refers to our belief that reading sad books will prepare us to face similar tragedies that the characters within the book experienced. And lastly, personal growth refers to our belief that we can find personal fulfillment within sad books and stories.

Koopman conducted an online survey in order to uncover which of the above motivations predict a preference for sad books. The survey was meant to target readers, so it was advertised on websites and social media pages related to Dutch libraries and reading organizations. The respondents (N=343) started the survey by providing an example of a sad book that impressed them, this was followed by a section measuring the various motives mentioned above, and finally they had to provide some basic demographic information (such as age and gender). Koopman discovered that meta-emotions, insight, and personal growth were the greatest predictors of a preference for sad books. In essence, this model suggests that when we read sad books we look for meaning within the book (insight) and then try to relate this meaning to their own lives in order to gain personal fulfillment (personal growth). In addition, although distressing situations in sad books may create unpleasant emotions, our capacity to feel these emotions will ultimately provide us with pleasure (meta-emotions). Interestingly, the study found that in addition to predicting a preference for sad books, insight predicted a preference for the poetry genre whereas meta-emotions predicted a preference for the thriller genre. Koopman believes that future research should focus on the extent to which insight, personal growth, and meta-emotions affect our preferences for different types of sad books. All in all, this study suggests that our preference for certain genres can likely be attributed to a multitude of complex motives. 

Koopman, E. M. E. (2015). Why do we read sad books? Eudaimonic motives and meta-emotions. Poetics, 52, 18-31.

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

Post and image by Amin Khajehnassiri

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Monday, 14 September 2015

Research Bulletin: How Children Make Sense of Impossible Events in Fiction

Oftentimes, fairytales consist of unrealistic or fantastical events. Although children understand that fantastical fiction differs from reality, it is unclear how they interpret these unrealistic events. A study by Julia Van de Vondervoort and Ori Friedman (University of Waterloo) indicates that children, like adults, use the impossible events to infer general rules about the fantasy world that allow them to predict what will happen in the story. 

In their first experiment, 78 children between the ages of 2 and 4 were randomly assigned to either watch the experimenter enact scenarios that demonstrate a rule or a control condition where no rule demonstration was given. In the demonstration condition, a cat behaved unrealistically by making the sound of the animal it was addressing instead of the expected "meow" sound. For example, the cat would address a sheep with "baa baa". The scenarios provided a fantasy rule that cats make the sound of the animal they are addressing. After children either received a rule demonstration or did not, they were asked to predict what sound the cat would make when it addressed a dog, a pig, a cow, and a snake. Children in the rule-demonstration condition were more likely to predict that the cat would make the sound of the animal being addressed than those in the no rule-demonstration condition. From this we can conclude that children are able to infer a fantasy rule and use it to predict future events.

The second experiment was designed to examine whether children formed a specific rule (i.e., that only cats make the sound of the animals they address) or a general rule (e.g., that all animals make the sound of the animals they address). 94 children were randomly assigned to two conditions. The first condition was identical to the rule-demonstration condition in the first experiment with the same questions asked afterwards regarding what sound a cat would make when addressing various other animals. The second condition was the same as the first condition except that following the demonstration, the children were asked to predict what sound a duck would make instead of a cat, when addressing the same four animals. What researchers observed was that children inferred the general rule that animals make the sound of the animals they addressed. 

If parents are ever worried that reading fairy tales may confuse children by exposing them to events or entities that do not exist in reality, this study indicates that children can easily infer general rules about fantasy worlds that help them make sense of fiction. 

Van de Vondervoort, J. W. & Friedman, O. (2014). Preschoolers can Infer General Rules Governing Fantastical Events in Fiction. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1594-1599.

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

Post by Guneet Daid

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