Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What to Read 2

With this post, I have placed in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction nominations of three further novels and a short story that offer insights into the lives of selves and their relations with other people, in terms of four categories that we have tentatively proposed. The new nominations are Marcel Proust (1913-1927) À la recherche du temps perdu, Anton Chekhov (1899) "The lady with the little dog," Virginia Woolf (1925) Mrs Dalloway, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) Crime and punishment.

The micro-reviews that accompany these nominatons focus on the works' psychological qualities. The Chekhov short story, for instance, is one we have used in our research, and found that people who read it undergo small, but measureable, changes in personality.

In David Miall's post on Literariness (of 15 October 2008 on this site) and in our post on the Myrifield Manifesto (of 29 September 2008) there are references to a movement that is underway in the interdisciplinary study of literature to shift the centre of gravity of discussion from interpretation of literary works towards the issue of experience of these works. For our research group, interpretation of fiction continues to be of interest. The issue is not to replace it, but rather to establish alongside it questions of the psychology of literary works. These questions include: What is it about plays, films, novels, and short stories, that engages readers psychologically? And, if works affect people psychologically: What are the effects? And: How do such effects occur? It is with questions such as this in mind that our suggestions of significant pieces of fiction are offered. You can see our suggestions and micro-reviews by clicking here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Kieslowski's Film Blue

Together with his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewiczc, Krzysztof Kieslowski has created one of the great psychological films of modern times. It is portrait of grief. The film is about Julie (played by the brilliant Juliette Binoche) the wife of a composer in the process of writing a piece of music called "Song for the Unification of Europe." There is a car accident in which Julie's husband and seven-year-old daughter die. Julie is immobilized in grief, tries to commit suicide but cannot do it. To deal with her loss, she gives up every single piece of her former life, and tries to live purely physically: eating, sleeping, swimming ...

The film is extraordinary not only in its psychological theme, but in the way it succeeds in prompting a kind of inwardness that we expect in the best novels and short stories, but which seems to be much more difficult to accomplish in film.

Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic have written a long review of this film (click here to access it). In the review, we discuss not only the emotions that we experience as viewers, but the film's distinctive language and tropes that make them possible. Many of the modes of this film are familiar in literary theory. One is metaphor. A recurring metaphor in the film is the surface of a swimming pool as the border between life above and death beneath, of consciousness above and the unconscious below. A second mode is metonymy: close-ups of Julie's expressionless face—a part for the whole of her being—with cuts to what she is looking at. Then there is the use of a very accomplished music line (composed by Zbigniew Preisner) to represent and prompt in the audience a sequence of emotions in counterpoint with the plot-line of events and conversation. Then there is a theme of the gradual internalization of others, who come to exist for Julie as integral parts of her mind despite her attempts to exclude other people. These internalizations are depicted by filmic memory images.

This is a film of transformation, in which despite Julie's best efforts to live only a physical life, chance encounters start to bring people into her internal world. It is a film that moves us, extends us, transforms us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Conference: Reading and Watching

The Dutch Reading Foundation (Stichting Lezen) is hosting a one day international conference entitled "Reading and Watching: What does the written word have that images don't?" It is on Friday November 21st, at De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam. You can find details about the conference, including the program in English, here.
Here is a brief outline of the conference:

Gyögy Konrád

Adriana Bus
About Heavenly Bliss and Virtual Tours

Klaus Maiwald
Lost at Sea? Reading and Reading Promotion in a Pictorial Culture

Raymond A. Mar
Empirical Studies on the Cognitive and Social Outcomes of Reading

Jakob Lothe
Verbal Narrative and Visual Image: Reading and viewing Conrad, Coppola and Sebald

Joyce Goggin
Literature and Games

A forum discussion among the speakers, chaired by Rachel van Riel, will end the conference.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Research Bulletin: Entertainment as Play

Although art and entertainment differ in critical ways, art does have to entertain, that is to say: it must engage us. What is the basis for this engagement? In a recent article, Ed Tan (2008) has put forward a convincing hypothesis, which applies both to art and entertainment. It has two parts.

The first part of Tan's suggestion is that entertainment is a form of play, an extension of the pretend play of childhood. Thus, says Tan, if you see children playing a chase game, you may wonder why they are doing it. It is evidently enjoyable, but there is expenditure of effort that seems to make no sense. What happens in entertainment, says Tan, is related. How many films involve people running at full tilt along the sidewalk in pursuit of, or in the attempt to escape, someone else? How many involve car chases, detectives pursuing criminals, lovers pursuing loved ones? One would think that the predictability of this theme (and others like it) would make it tedious. In the same way one would expect that the limited scope of childhood chasing games would quickly make them tiresome. But these modes are enjoyable: they are forms of play. Play is one of the characteristics of being a mammal, not shared by other creatures.

The second part of Tan's suggestion is that we need to separate proximal (that is to say immediate) from distal (that is to say evolutionarily adaptive) causes. An explanation at the distal level might be that there have been selective advantages to populations that have engaged in the pretend play of chase games and the like, because they will have practiced social skills, come to understand at a practical level and perhaps at a metaphorical level what it is to pursue and to be pursued, come to understand the different roles and become able to enter into the minds of those in the other role. Tan argues that once we have separated proximal and distal causes, we can see that what links the proximal and the distal are emotions, which are immediate as well as being among the means by which genes pass on certain forms of motivation. In terms of immediacy, to engage emotionally in play is enjoyable. Just as all mammals play, all have a repertoire of social emotions. So the proximal cause for play is to take part vicariously in emotional activities such as chasing and being chased. All play is in a sense vicarious. Thus what movies do, what novels do, and—should I say it?—what plays do, is to extend this vicarious property. For children to play, adults often provide props such as school playgrounds. For adults, the props are the novel or the movie. As Tan puts it: "The entertainment experience is an episode of emotions in response to an ongoing guided imagination." The distal cause of this play might be to learn about, to obtain experience of, to undergo training in, to attune oneself to, the social world. We are the most social of all mammals, so perhaps it is natural that we should spend a good deal of time at pretend play, and not just during childhood.

Ed Tan (2008). Entertainment is emotion: The functional architecture of the entertainment experience. Media Psychology, 11, 28-51.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How Books Can Ruin Your Life

As a counterpoint to the previous post, Lee Siegal has written a very funny essay in the New York Times this Sunday (19 October), entitled "Unsafe at Any Read." He puts forth the proposal that reading is a very dangerous activity: "If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble."
You can find it here. (Link has been fixed.)

What to Read

Last week, in our post entitled Who to Read, we promised to start introducing works of fiction that we thought might be especially useful to help extend social abilities, or to encourage development of personality. Today, we start our suggestions of What to Read.

Our research is still at an early stage, but we do receive requests for recommendations as to what to read. Our suggestions come with the caution that we make no strong claims about the ability of these works for self-improvement. The recommendations have a theoretical rather than an empirical basis. We tentatively identify the following themes as relevant:

• Understanding the minds of others,
• Understanding relationships,
• The dynamics of interactions in social groups,
• The problematics of selfhood in the social world.

We have created a new page in our Archive section called Psychologically Significant Fiction, and you can see our first four recommendations of novels, one on each of the above themes, along with micro-reviews by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


In our conception of literariness (Miall & Kuiken), defamiliarization has been a central construct. For example, how an object is described in a poem may oblige us to discard our customary concept for it, and to see it in a new light; or some aspect of the object may be described in ways that we have not considered before. In this way we may either be made to see something novel, or made to see something we already knew but had forgotten (a truth “so true that it lies bedridden in the dormitory of the soul,” as Coleridge puts it). This approach has several interesting consequences.

First, if a figurative or another poetic type of language (metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, metre, etc.) is employed, it must play a role in the meaning of the text; we must be able to feel some significance in it, even if (as is usually the case) we would have some difficulty spelling out what that significance may be. (Metaphors in a newspaper article are usually found to be an intrusion, as Steen found).

Second, what is defamiliarizing is also likely to arouse feeling, especially if our customary concepts are found inadequate: in other words, feeling provides the main vehicle for developing a sense of significance. In this context, many types of feelings have been found: bodily feelings, feelings from a remembered experience, feelings of empathy for a character, and the like. While reading a literary text, however, such feeling guides the reconceptualization of the object or event being described, hence the freshness of feeling that is often part of the literary experience.

Literariness, in this perspective, characterizes the experience of literature, not its possible interpretations; it is a way of regarding the text and its effects in itself, not in relation to some external reference to political, historical, or other issues (interesting though these may be).

We have also tried to conceptualize literariness, following the above insights, in relation to the reader’s response. While there are a number of different ways to read a literary text, we have described one style of reading in particular, expressive enactment, in which the reader identifies a personal theme in the text, to which he or she returns several times during reading, elaborating and deepening its expression. It is this type of reading that, from our empirical observations, seems the most responsive to the literary features and structures of the text.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Who to Read

A question that comes up with our findings of beneficial effects of reading fiction, is this: Who are the writers to read?

We have not yet done a systematic study, but clues may be available from the method used by Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson (2006; you can access this paper by clicking here). To find out who were readers of fiction, we adapted Stanovich and West’s Author Recognition Test (known to be a good proxy for the amount of reading people do) by making a mixed list of names of authors of fiction, authors of non-fiction, and non-authors. We estimated that people who recognized more names of fiction writers read more fiction, and those who recognized more names of non-fiction writers read more non-fiction. It was the people who predominantly read fiction who had better theory of mind and social understanding.

Among authors on our fiction list were:
Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, P.D. James, Judith Krantz, John Le Carré, Ursula Le Guin, Thomas Mann. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rohinton Mistry, Yukio Mishima, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, José Saramago, Sidney Sheldon, Carol Shields, Amy Tan, John Updike.
Theorists who have tried to identify fiction that is psychologically worth reading include Jon Elster in Alchemies of the mind. For him George Eliot is in, and Charles Dickens is out. In her book, Why we read fiction, Lisa Zunshine argues that our enjoyment of fiction derives largely from the exercise of our theory-of-mind faculties; writers she identifies include Virginia Woolf. In his book The uncommon reader, Alan Bennett has Queen Elizabeth II become, as a result of reading Henry James, aware for the first time of the feelings of her servants.

We think that the kinds of fiction that have beneficial effects may involve these themes:
• Understanding the minds of others,
• Understanding relationships,
• The dynamics of social groups,
• The problematics of selfhood in the social world.

In our group (Valentine Cadieux, Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley), the eminent authors of literary prose fiction, who wrote before 1940, whom at least one of us has read, and who seem primarily concerned with one or more of these themes include:
Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf.
Among writers active since 1940 whom we would nominate in the same kind of way are:
James Baldwin, Pat Barker, Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee, Anita Desai, Margaret Forster, William Golding, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Frank O'Connor, Brian Moore, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yukio Mishima, Alice Munro, Kenzaburo Oe, Philip Roth, Georges Simenon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Wallace Stegner.
These lists are just a start. We hope that readers will make comments, and add to, or amend them. In a week's time we will offer some micro-reviews of novels that we think are particularly good on the four themes that we suggest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Research Bulletin: Social Influence of TV Characters

The issue of anthropomorphization is a key one for the study of the psychology of fiction. To what degree do we imbue fictional characters with human-like attributes? To what extent do we see Mrs. Dalloway, or Dr. House, as real persons and treat them as such? The journal Social Cognition recently published a special issue devoted to this topic, and it includes a very interesting article by Wendi Gardner and Megan Knowles (2008). These researchers were specifically interested in favourite television characters, and conducted two studies to examine both what makes us see these characters as real people, and what one outcome of this perception might be. As a control, they examine nonfavourite characters from the same show, which were presumed to be just as familiar to the participants. In their first study, participants perceived their favourite television character to be more real than a nonfavourite character, and this appears to be largely a function of their liking for that character (controlling for perceived similarity between the participant and that character). Their second study used a very intriguing paradigm to demonstrate that the influence of fictional persons on our behaviour parallels that of real persons. Gardner and Knowles capitalized on a social psychological phenomenon known as social facilitation, in which the presence of others leads us to perform better on tasks or actions that we know well, but do worse on things that we are less familiar with (Bond & Titus, 1983). Thus, if you are excellent at shooting a basketball, having other people around will make you shoot the ball better, but if you’re not very good at hoops, the presence of others will actually make you play worse. The researchers brought people into the lab and had them perform either a familiar task (i.e., copying words with their dominant hand) or a novel one (i.e., copying words with their nondominant hand). Participants did this while in the presence of either their favourite TV character, or a nonfavourite TV character, using a very clever bit of deception in which some “media researchers” ostensibly left their materials lying around the lab. What they found was that the typical social faciliation effect occurred when people were in the same room with their favourite television character, but not a nonfavourite character. In essence, the favourite character was treated as a real person would be, but the nonfavourite character was not treated in the same way. This is a fascinating finding that demonstrates how fictional persons can have a real impact on our real-world behaviour, but also the boundary conditions of this effect: these fictional characters have to be perceived as real. Garnder and Knowles open their article with a quote from Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, with which I will close:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you…, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
If anyone would like a copy of this paper, please feel free to contact me to request one.

Bond, C. F. & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: A meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 265–292.

Gardner, W. L. & Knowles, M. L. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26, 156–168.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Inner Library

We continue to add book titles accompanied by micro-reviews to our list of books on the psychology of fiction, which you can access by clicking here. Recent additions include Margaret Anne Doody (1997). The true story of the novel. London: HarperCollins, and Alvin Goldman (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.

The latest addition to our list is Pierre Bayard's brilliant book on how you don't need to read books in their entirety (full title and micro-review below, and in our list). Bayard points out that even books we have read are retained in our memory only as fragments in what he aptly calls our inner library, which is entirely idiosyncratic. In our library, items seldom coincide exactly with items in the inner libraries of other people. So it is the fragments, and their inter-relationships, that are the matters to concentrate on. I was delighted to find that Bayard used, as examples, the fine scene in Graham Greene's The third man, (reissued 2005, London: Vintage) in which Holly Martins, author of pulp Westerns mistaken for a highbrow writer called Martins, has to give a talk at a literary gathering held in post-War Vienna, on the future of the novel (a topic he has never thought about), as well as a wonderful paper by the anthropologist Laura Bohannan (1966, Shakespeare in the bush. Natural History, Aug / Sept, 1-6, which I did not know existed in anyone's inner library but my own) in which she tries to explain to a group of the Tiv in Africa the story of Hamlet. The Tiv are interested in stories, and the group is very pleased when Bohannan offers to recount a story from her culture, but although they remain appreciative of her efforts, at every juncture they tell her she has it wrong: dead people do not reappear, the young Hamlet should not worry about affairs of state which should be left to elders, it is not wrong, but imperative, for a woman recently bereaved to marry again as quickly as possible, and so on. Bayard follows these episodes with scenes from David Lodge's Changing places, in which is introduced the game of Humiliation: in a group of literary people, you have to admit to not having read a famous book. Steppenwolf, anybody? Oliver Twist? Hamlet? Bayard's book gets even better as it goes along, and becomes a literary version of Bartlett's (1932, see our list of books by clicking here) theory of memory and understanding as based on personal and cultural schemas that are partial, ever active, and ever changing. Towards the end of the book (pp. 182-183) Bayard says: "Who can deny ... that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art. Just think of all the skills it calls into play—listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions."

Reference and micro-review
Pierre Bayard (2007). How to talk about books you haven't read (J. Mehlman, Trans.). London: Bloomsbury.

Professor of French literature and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, explains how to talk and think about books without reading them. In doing so he proposes a theory of reading and imagination: a rather good theory, about how we can come to know what various books say amid the otherwise all-too-formidable infinity of published material. He introduces an elegant notation for the books he discusses: SB to mean "book I have skimmed," HB to mean "book I have heard of," and FB, to mean "book I have forgotten." He offers as persons to admire the librarian in Robert Musil's Man without qualities (SB) who doesn't want to read any of the books in his library, but only to know how they relate to each other, and Paul Valéry (SB and HB) who advocated that we should avoid reading books because we too easily get lost in their details, or even have them overwhelm us. Bayard goes on to point out that what we remember of books, including those we have written ourselves (FB), in our inner library, is a collection of fragments, much like those from books we have skimmed or heard about. Bayard's book is so witty and engaging that I am sorry to say I read the whole of it, but at least I wrote this micro-review before I was half-way through.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Metonymy Story

As mentioned previously, we occasionally write short pieces of fiction as a group along some predetermined guideline. The following is a story written with the intent of demonstrating metonomy.

It hung there, both perfect and chaotic, a smooth circle of blue ink marred by angry tendrils crawling through the tiny creases of his skin. It hung there at the base of his wrist, the dark impetuous stare of an eye on a moth’s dirty wing. His gentle snoring eased as she brushed some stray hairs from her face, her finger slowly travelling from her temple to her ear, down her jaw, then resting between her lips. Just outside their curtain the first hints of morning were beginning to reveal themselves, the bedroom not quite freed from the grip of night. She exhaled slowly, feeling her measured breath press against her fingertip, her eyes locked on the offending blot. Alastair insisted on writing with a fountain pen, and not just any fountain pen either. It was an ancient piece. Heavy, dark and mechanical, its barrel perpetually sticky with dried and drying indigo. Ever since George had known him, this beast had left its mark on her husband and oft times in the strangest of places. Behind his ear. A dot below the left corner of his lip. Once she had even found a dark purplish smudge across the small of his back. Although she admonished him often about the pen, his carelessness, and the ink that inevitably stained his person and his clothes, he seemed helpless against this blue tide. Alastair’s efforts to please his wife meant that the small ceramic sink in his study saw plenty of use, but still not a week went by without the presence of a trespasser. George rolled from her side to her back, her hands pulling down the thin sheet from her chest until it rolled to a rest on her belly. Staring up at the freshly painted ceiling she thought back to a vacation they had taken long ago, to the beach. It was not quite Summer then, but they both preferred to visit when there weren’t many people about. Despite the crash of the surf, and persistent winds, George found it calming to lie on her beach blanket, in pants and a sweater, with her head and book propped up just so. Alastair spent much of his time reading as well, when he wasn’t walking up and down the sand dunes, poking at driftwood and other odd things that washed ashore. She recalled once, a few days after they had arrived, looking over at her husband, his fingers locked in his sandy hair as he dozed beside her, and spotting a tiny spot of ink squatting on the very tip of his elbow. Alastair hadn’t written in days, and George suddenly felt as if a very heavy stone, round and cold, had been placed in the centre of her chest.
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