Monday, October 31, 2011

Why Do We Read Literature?

The question of why people read literature continues to perplex. The usual assumption is that people read for pleasure and, of course, reading is pleasurable. But does this mean it's like eating chocolate? That doesn't seem quite the right idea.

Don Kuiken (2008) has proposed that the deeper kind of reading is expressive. He means that reading literary texts enables us to understand in ways that are not afforded by non-literary texts. In expressive reading we can focus on our emotions, as we express them mentally: reflect on them, clarify them, understand them more deeply, and reconfigure them within an altered understanding of our own and others' lives. As Kuiken puts it, reading of this kind: "requires articulation of how feeling expression unfolds over time, has the character of disclosure, and simultaneously brings feelings and their intentional objects to presence" (p. 49).

In a recently published article, Shelley Sikora, Don Kuiken and David Miall (2011) have studied, very fruitfully, how people read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The rime of the ancient mariner," to see whether and how people might read expressively.

Thirty women and eleven men were asked to read "The ancient mariner" at home, then read it a second time and mark five passages they found particularly striking or evocative, then describe, using an audio recorder, their experience of each one of these passages in turn, in as much detail as possible. The researchers looked for distinct expressions of personal meaning and identified what kind of meaning these were. Here's an example: "It reminds me of times when I felt despair and end up with nothing good in my life." Each such meaning was called a constituent, in this instance labelled: "Reminded of a generic autobiographical event." All 196 commentaries were analyzed in terms of whether or not they contained each of 48 such constituents.

Using the statistical procedure of cluster analysis, Sikora, Kuiken and Miall found six clusters of response. The one in which they were particularly interested, which they identified as indicating expressive reading, involved (a) metaphoric and quasi-metaphoric engagement with sensory imagery from the poem, or (b) progressive transformation of an emergent affective theme, or (c) metaphoric blurring of boundaries between the reader’s and narrator’s perspectives. Constituents in this cluster were found to occur in reading Coleridge's poem, and they contrasted with constituents in the other five clusters found in propels responses, which were: allegorical connection for instance a thought about how the killing the albatross referred to the biblical idea of "the fall," aesthetic feeling in which a reader noted sensory imagery in the poem, autobiographical assimilation in which the reader connected an event in the poem to an event in his or her own life, autobiographical diversion in which a reader took off on a piece of autobiography that had nothing much to do with the poem, and non-engagement which was the absence of any of the other modes but was about something rather different from the poem. Participants who were English majors offered examples of expressive reading more often than did people who were not English majors.

Here are lines 446 to 451 of the poem:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread ...
And here is part of commentary to these lines (marked by a reader as evocative):
Knowing that there’s nothing you can do about it, keeping on walking and pretending it’s not happening, just because there’s no other way to cope with it, you can’t run from it. All you can do is hope that somehow or other it magically just disappears and leaves you alone (p. 264).
As Sikora et al. point out, in this example of expressive reading, the poem's narrator and the reader seem almost to have merged, as if Coleridge had been able to articulate in words a feeling that the reader has had, and struggled with and was then, as a result of reading, able to depict in this response.

Sikora et al.'s paper is an important one. It puts into words what many of us feel about literary reading, that in a deep way it can be about an articulation of what we feel which, without the literary text, we may not previously have been able consciously to recognize. Making-of-meaning is something we do all the time in life, but literary reading can augment it, and enable us make sense of aspects of our experience that were previously insubstantial or insensate.

In the participant's commentary on "The ancient mariner" passage (above) about walking in fear and dread, the reader constructs and offers his or her own words. It's in this way that the expressive, enacted, reading takes place. I used to think, as a novelist, that my job as author was to contribute 50% of a piece of fiction and the reader would contribute the other 50%. I now think that the writer contributes 30% and the reader 70%.

Kuiken, D. (2008). A theory of expressive reading. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 49-68). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Sikora, S., Kuiken, D., & Miall, D. S. (2011). Expressive reading. A phenomenological study of readers' experience of Coleridge's The rime of he ancient mariner. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 258-268.

Image: Statue of the Ancient Mariner, Watchet, Somerset; Wikipedia. (It was in and around the little harbour town of Watchet that Coleridge wrote "The rime of the ancient mariner." I visited there last year, and found this statue to be surprisingly moving.)

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Quick Hit: Art, Science and the Brain

I'll be participating in a conference that may be of interest to OnFiction readers. What follows is their example blog post, generously provided so that I don't have to write my own:

At the end of the month/beginning of next month I’ll be taking part in a conference that is being put on by ArtsSmarts and Social Innovation Generation at the MaRS Discovery District (SiG@MaRS) – Art, Science and the Brain: New Models of Learning for the 21st Century. It’s a two-day affair (Monday, October 31st – Tuesday, November 1st) that promises to be very interesting: 21 sessions, and 80+ innovators from across North America whose expertise includes education, neuroscience, art and technology. We’ll be putting together interactive sessions with the goal of letting participants collaborate to reimagine the education system. If you would like more information you can take a look at the website.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

#Occupy OnFiction

In the past few weeks, I have been closely watching, and also participating in, the Occupy movement. After a rather dry decade in terms of both street activism and also any evidence of concern on the part of the general populace about the dramatic gains being made both within countries and also globally in the distance between rich and poor, I have been struck by the remarkable cogency of the message being delivered by protestors (despite all defensive attempts to deny the movement coherence): they would like more social equality.

Enough opportunities have been opened by this movement to explain why that I can skip ahead to a brief discussion of #Occupy narrative. (Although I will say that I have perhaps never as much appreciated the validating nature of being on the side of a dominant culture narrative--along with its accompanying epistemological danger: if everyone agrees with me, I must be right! In addition, if you haven't been following any of the various Occupations, I'll exhort you to read up on them, particularly in the indie press; they're making good points salient to most people.)

As I have also been exhorting my classes (especially my course on globalization, more or less abstracted here in the links in this post) for years, the targets being taken on by various Occupy protests are large and obvious enough that the narrative thread is fairly available: the economic activities of the free market, despite all the attractive imagery of trickle-down economics and the tide rising all boats that was supposed to follow from that has not worked; instead it has dammed ever-larger proportions of world wealth in ever-smaller pockets of circulation. Even if some laggards have fallen behind on this message and insist that they really ARE part of the 1%, despite all indications to the contrary (particularly amusing in this and related schoolings), most people who are paying attention are understanding the basic message that power needs to be wrested away from the small cluster of financial giants controlling the world economy -- enough that a wide range of personal testimonials, succinct expressions of anger, and kind of random signs are all building a movement that, if you hadn't been paying attention to the financial sector taking over, would seem almost implausibly coherent.

No less than George Lakoff has weighed in on this coherence* (having impressively waited, first, though, a decent interval to allow the movement to express itself without people perceiving messaging "help" from corners like his): "From what I have seen of most members of OWS, your individual concerns all flow from one moral focus."

OWS is a moral and patriotic movement. It sees Democracy as flowing from citizens caring about one another as well as themselves, and acting with both personal and social responsibility. Democratic governance is about The Public, and the liberty that The Public provides for a thriving Private Sphere. From such a democracy flows fairness, which is incompatible with a hugely disproportionate distribution of wealth. And from the sense of care implicit in such a democracy flows a commitment to the preservation of nature.

To allow you, dear readers, some time to catch up on all these interesting analyses, I will keep my comments brief. However, having been mulling I have been curious about the cognitive processes that have gone into the development of the #Occupy narratives. Has the opportunity to read and hear about so many others' narratives about their own experience of being down and out, despite their best efforts, due to systemic barriers helped to transform a muddy set of complex financial arrangements into a personal experience people can identify with? Has something about the narrativization of the current financial crisis transformed it from an analysis people didn't want to hear about from social scientists like me into something people cannot wait to share the latest tidbit about on their facebook pages? For those of us interested in maintaining the momentum of this engagement with important progressive politics, it will be important to understand what enables different people to tell their stories of current experience and future vision in ways that engage with difficult politics (even the 99% in Canada and the U.S., for example, are still mostly in the world 1%, and the political implications of that probably come with enough cognitive dissonance reduction to sink the most agentic and fun-seeming promotional campaign possible). But while people are paying attention and trying to figure out what to do, this seems like an excellent moment to read some signs, listen to your local protestors, and figure out how implausibly aspirational change narratives that are usually relegated to the realm of fictional utopias become real for people.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is Fiction Misconceived?

In the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) of 2 September, Gregory Currie wrote an article entitled "Let's pretend" in which he argues that serious fiction affords no insight into the human condition and doesn't enable us to learn about ourselves.

Currie's first reason for doubting the value of literature is that it draws on people's ordinary understandings, known as "folk psychology," in which we think we know why we act as we do. But, says Currie, in the psychology laboratory there have been many demonstrations that we don't always know why we act, and that motives can differ from any that folk psychology would suggest. One of his examples is that, "if you hold a hot cup of coffee; you will probably judge them [other people about whom you are thinking] to have 'warmer' personalities" (p. 14). Currie is right. Experimentation of this kind has shown that we don't necessarily have introspective access to why we act or speak in a particular way, and also that we are not always good at imagining emotional effects in the future. Currie concludes that if you want to understand why people act as they do you shouldn't rely on folk psychology or imagination, as you must if you read fiction. You should read Nature Neuroscience rather than Middlemarch.

Currie's second reason for doubting that we can learn anything useful from fiction is that fiction writers often suffer from serious mental illness. There is, says Currie, "a mid-1990s study of creative groups which found that only one in fifty writers (Maupassant) was free of psychopathology." (The article, which Currie doesn't cite, is by Felix Post, 1994, who reports on diagnoses based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM, of the American Psychiatric Association, that he made of 291 famous men, derived from biographies he read of them.) In this study, Post found that 48% writers had severe psychopathology, whereas among scientists, statesmen, thinkers, artists and composers, percentages who had severe psychopathology were lower. So, says Currie:
to the extent that creative writers are subject to the emotional distortions we associate with bipolar disorder, we can expect that they, on balance, will be more prone than the rest of us to misjudge the emotional impact of imagined scenarios (p. 15). 
Currie implies that we can't expect to learn anything useful from people who are as crazy as many writers seem to be.

Should one accept these arguments? Folk psychology is the ordinary-language way in which we think about and communicate our intentions, beliefs, and emotions, to others. Yes, fiction is based in folk psychology, and psychological researchers have shown, in certain restricted situations, that folk psychological understandings can be wrong. But psychologists also know that when we say we will do something, for instance write a piece on the psychology of fiction, we are telling someone of an intention that we can then carry out. If our folk-psychology had no relation to our actual goals and plans of action, Greg Currie could not have arranged to write an article for the TLS, and I wouldn't know why I wrote this reply. As to Currie's proposal that writers of fiction have higher-than-normal levels of psychopathology, he makes no comparison with levels in the ordinary community. The best recent study of psychiatric conditions in the community, based on DSM diagnoses, is by Terrie Moffitt et al. (2010), who found that the proportion of people who had suffered an anxiety disorder during their lives was 49.5%, the proportion who had suffered from depression was 41.4%, and the proportion who had experienced alcohol dependence was 31.8% (a substantial number of people had more than one disorder). So it's not clear how different the fiction writers in Post's study were in their rates of disorder from members of the ordinary population. I would suggest that the lesson of research on the mental disorders of creative writers isn't that anything that emotionally disordered writers write is wrong, but that fiction writers who suffer from disorders can sometimes invite us to reflect on circumstances that we may suffer ourselves, or on circumstances we haven't encountered, which we may usefully imagine ourselves into. Most mental disorders (anxiety and depression being the most common) don't start because something has gone wrong in people's brains. They start because something has gone wrong in people's lives.

Currie ends his piece with "a suggestion about how to read the literary canon." He suggests we should read it as pretense, not real, and says: "when we engage with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, clarified emotions, or deeper human sympathies" (p. 15).

I disagree. Fiction writers such as Marcel Proust (diagnosed by Post as having severe psychopathology) and Henry James (diagnosed by Post as having marked psychopathology) whom Currie offers as examples of canonical authors, don't say: "here is what you should believe about the emotional impact of this situation." They say: "Here's a situation. Imagine yourself into it. How do you feel about this?"  

Fictional literature isn't empirical description of human behaviour, as Currie assumes. It is simulation of selves in the social world (click here). As evidence that fiction-as-simulation is reliable and valid about understanding interactions with others, I would cite our laboratory findings (e.g. Mar et al. 2006; 2009) that reading fiction is associated not with worse understandings—as Currie would predict—but with better understandings of others (click here).

Currie, G. (2011). Let's pretend: Literature and the psychology lab. Times Literary Supplement, September 2, pp. 14-15.

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.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 34, 407-428.

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Taylor, A., Kokaua, J., Milne, B. J., Polanczyk, G., et al. (2010). How common are common mental disorders? Evidence that lifetime prevalence rates are doubled by prospective versus retrospective ascertainment. Psychological Medicine, 40, 899-909.

Post, F. (1994). Creativity and psychopathology: A study of 291 famous men. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 22-34. 

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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Language of Deception in Autobiography

What kinds of linguistic differences are there between autobiographical narratives that are meant to present the self as the speaker believes it to be and those intended to deceive? This question was recently addressed by an empirical study (Bedwell, Gallagher, Whitten & Fiore, 2011) in which 44 undergraduate students produced oral autobiographies under two conditions (non-deceptive and intentionally deceptive) and in response to two questions, one asking for a description of the immediate family during childhood and the participant’s relationship with family members, and the other asking about the participant’s personality during high school and situations that might illustrate this personality. Using linguistic analysis software, the authors discovered that non-deceptive stories, compared to the intentionally deceptive ones, were more difficult to read, used more anaphorical references (e.g., pronouns used to replace earlier-mentioned persons, objects or ideas), more stem overlap (i.e., a measure of cohesion of the passage in which one morphological root is used in different forms in two or more sentences: “Catherine felt obliged to help the woman who had taken little notice of her own predicament. Her husband rarely challenged this sense of obligation.”) and more relatively rare words. Deceptive narratives, on the other hand, contained more (but shorter) sentences, more sentence syntax similarity (a measure of similarity of structural complexity between sentences), and more explicit action verb content than the non-deceptive stories.

The authors interpret these findings in the context of narrative distancing: there is a greater distance between the self that narrates and the self who is the object of the narration in the intentional deception condition. On this view, narrators tend to describe their own past in the deception condition using Bruner’s (1986) “landscape of action” and not through the “landscape of consciousness.” The authors note that much research comparing intentionally deceptive as compared to non-deceptive narratives has found similar results but that their study is one of the few to treat autobiographical narratives, in which cognitive facility in handling pretense in the production of the deceptive narrative would be required. This would involve first imagining someone else doing something, then noting that it was not oneself who did it, then nevertheless identifying that act with the self for the purpose of producing the narrative. The authors add that this added cognitive complexity presents an alternative interpretation of their data and that this way of looking at the results might suggest that the narrative distancing explanation is an artifact of the cognitive exigencies of the task. Results are further qualified by the authors: absence of an authentic motivation for deception could alter the kinds of language used and the brevity of these narratives might not reveal non-sentential syntactical relationships among the elements of the narratives.

Bedwell, J. S., Gallagher, S., Whitten, S. N., & Fiore, S. M. (2011). Linguistic correlates of self in deceptive oral autobiographical narratives. Consciousness and Cognition, 20, 547-555.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Research Bulletin: Neuroscience of Narrative Emotions

We are only now beginning to understand how it is that the brain acts to comprehend the content of stories. One interesting aspect of comprehension is the evocation of emotions that occurs when we read, hear, or watch a narrative. Emotions are an integral part of the narrative experience and likely one of the main reasons why stories appear to have such universal appeal. Although emotions have long been a topic of neuroscience investigations, the study of narrative emotions specifically has only now been broached. Mikkel Wallentin (Aarhus University; also, like Keith Oatley, a published fiction author) and his collaborators took an audio recording of The Ugly Duckling and had one group of students rate the valence (positive or negative) and intensity (high or low) of their emotional experience for each sentence, creating a rich profile of their emotional response. An entirely separate group of individuals listened to the story while in an MRI scanner, which recorded neural responses. Heart-rate measures were also taken, simultaneously. What the researchers found was that the emotional intensity profiles of the first group were associated with changes in heart-rate in the second group. Moreover, these heart-rate changes had been associated with emotional responses in previous research. These emotional response profiles also predicted neural responses in the brain, in areas previously associated with emotional reactions to very simple stimuli. These areas included the amygdala, part of the thalamus, and large parts of the lateral temporal cortices. The convergence of results across these three different emotional measures (intensity profiles from one group, heart-rate and neural response from another) indicate that some meaningful shared emotional response occurs across individuals, and that emotions experienced in a narrative context bear some resemblance to emotional responses to very simple stimuli. It is certainly very encouraging to see this kind of innovative narrative research being conducted and published, particularly in highly influential peer-reviewed journals.

Wallentin, M., Nielsen, A. H., Vuust, P., Dohn, A., Roepstorff, A., and Lund, T. E. (2011). Amygdala and heart rate variability responses from listening to emotionally intense parts of a story. NeuroImage, 58, 963-973.

(For a copy of this article, please contact RM [e-mail in profile])

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