Monday, 30 May 2011


Midway through Isabel Allende’s “De Amor y de Sombra” (Of Love and Shadow), a schoolgirl comes home to an unexpected silence. She knows her parents are away, but what surprises her is that Rosa, the housekeeper, seems to be gone too. Neither the lights nor the heat have been turned on. The house is enveloped in silence. Allende amplifies the effect by letting us know what the girl would usually hear at return from school – sounds of the radio turned on for Rosa’s favorite 6pm radio novella. It is the absence of this one highly idiosyncratic but daily sound in the house that petrifies the girl. Then, the silence is broken by the faintest groan she hears coming from the servant’s wing of the house. Despite the dread, she walks toward the sound.

I’ll leave off the plot here, just as I had to while I was reading the book, to reflect that it all made sense – a lone girl in a house weighed by silence walking toward the faint groan in the unknown part of the house. The psychological sensibility of the scene contrasted with most horror films I have seen, where a similar situation appears to be set up – a protagonist, alone in a house with electricity and telephone lines cut off, hears suspicious sounds coming from the basement. The protagonist then, to my great irritation, decides the best thing to do is to go to the basement.

Reading Allende I realized that she, unlike horror-movie writers, managed to create a scene in which silence, that is, absence of sounds that nature and humans are so fond of making, is understood to be among the most psychologically difficult burdens to bear. The girl in the novel walks toward the groan, because the groan is an evidence of life, and any life, even dangerous and unknown life, appears to be psychologically preferred to the absence of it.

Given this ubiquitous aural phobia among humans, why is it then that existentialists think of silence as a good medicine we should be sure to take once in a while? A clue to the answer could be that there is actually no such thing as complete silence, at least not for any living thing. The girl in Allende’s book hears the beats of her heart pound away in her temples, she hears the sounds of her own body, her own life. The partial silence reveals the sounds of our own tenuous life – a heart-beat, a breath, thin threads looping and twisting, wearing themselves out, until they break.

Perhaps the two kinds of silences do not contrast, after all. Silence that is sought is a teacher of our own fragility, and the unsought silence presents us with fragility of others. One is a meditation on self-exploration, the other, a meditation on loss. And neither is to be faced without courage.

Allende, I. (1985). De amor y de sombra. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana.

Photo ‘Unknown Silence 2’ by asar123.
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Monday, 23 May 2011

Research Bulletin: Finding Matthew

It’s practically a truism that reading does wonders for one’s verbal ability. This idea is one of the major reasons why early literacy is stressed so heavily, long before children can read on their own. Children who are exposed to books at an early age are thought to develop better abilities that relate to reading (e.g., word recognition) and this in turn promotes a reading habit. Those who are better at reading are likely to do it more often, which in turn further improves their ability to read and so on. This circular or reciprocal causation is sometimes known as the “Matthew effect,” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the case of reading, those who read get better at reading and read more, whereas those who don’t read get worse at reading and read less. The Matthew effect originated in sociology and refers to this biblical passage:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
- Matthew 25:29

Keith Stanovich was the first to import this term from sociology into the field of education and reading. Dr. Stanovich is a long time colleague of Dr. Keith Oatley, one of our editors, and Dr. Stanovich has been a valuable influence for many of us here at

Recently, a wonderful meta-analysis summarizing the results of many previous studies was conducted by Drs. Suzanne Mol and Adriana Bus (Leiden University), examining how reading relates to verbal ability. Their analysis found ample evidence that reading is associated with better performance on a wealth of different verbal tasks, across the lifespan (from preschoolers, through grades 1 to 12, all the way to undergraduate and graduate school years). Moreover, these findings were based on a large number of studies (i.e., 99) which tested a great number of participants (i.e., 7,699). This, combined with the careful conduct of the meta-analysis, greatly increases our confidence in their conclusion that reading is a highly important activity when it comes to language development and perhaps even intelligence in general. Although the data available to them did not allow for a direct test of the Matthew effect, their findings were consistent with a “rich get richer” phenomenon for reading. Meta-analytic reviews such as this are very difficult to conduct, yet the provide the best picture available for what science can tell us about a particular topic. These authors are to be commended for their efforts, for we now know with a reasonable amount of certainty just how important reading is across the lifespan.

(As always, readers interested in a copy of this important paper are invited to contact me; e-mail available in profile.)

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 267-296.

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Monday, 16 May 2011


Tellingly, the word "emotion" never appears explicitly in the internet's current top comic strip, xkcd (A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language). "Fiction" appears rarely, as in the title of the analytical strip above: Fiction Rule of Thumb. Despite the unlikely focus for this publication on a text where "statistics" and "probability" are so much more common than emotion and fiction, I'd like to highlight xkcd's minimalist use of line and metaphor as remarkable illustrations of how little ink (if considerable skill) it takes to elicit significant emotion from readers.

Admittedly, Randall Munroe, xkcd's author, (and for full disclosure, I should admit that Munroe has the current distinction of being my youngest hero, and also that xkcd competes with OnFiction in my weekly reading -- not only for the comics, but also for the fantastic info graphics) has recently been drawing readers' sympathy with his poignant stick figure representations of medical worry (under the simultaneous ominous and innocuous heading of "probability"):

However, even when conveying less worrisome prospects, Munroe's stick figures are remarkably evocative -- and given the detailed analysis bestowed on most strips by Munroe's devoted and verbally fluent mathy fans, I hesitate to even make such a trollingly basic observation, but I suspect that many emotion and fiction readers may be likely to overlook the value of simple line illustrations.

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