Monday, 30 July 2012

Research Bulletin: IGEL 2012 Conference

In early July, the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media held its 13th Biennial meeting. Originally named in German as Internationale Gesellschaft für Empirische Literaturwissenschaft, the society take IGEL as its acronym, which means hedgehog in German. IGEL has long been at the forefront of promoting empirical psychological research into literature and fiction more broadly, and it recently launched its own peer-reviewed journal, Scientific Studies of Literature, edited by Willie van Peer. A number of fascinating presentations took place at IGEL 2012, and here we summarize just a few highlights to give readers a “first taste” of new research that is often on the cusp of entering the published literature. 

Jonathan Leavitt, who published a fascinating study last year on spoilers (covered in this OnFiction post), presented a new series of studies demonstrating that although readers often cannot distinguish between fiction and nonfiction (based solely on the text), they respond differently to these two genres with respect to preferences and liking. 

OnFiction’s own Maja Djikic (University of Toronto), presented a study demonstrating that reading a short-story produces an increase in self-reported cognitive empathy, but reading a short essay has no such effect. This effect, however, only occurred for individuals who had little appreciation for aesthetics and art. 

Paul Sopcak (University of Alberta), examined how different readers respond to passages from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and found that a subset of readers express deep engagement with the existential themes of these passages. 

Keith Oatley (University of Toronto), a founder and editor of OnFiction, presented new data on how literature can change how we see ourselves, showing that it is the artistic qualities of the text that determine this possibility for self-transformation, rather than the genres of fiction or nonfiction per se.

Based at the Medical University of Vienna, Benedikt Till presented fascinating data showing that watching a censored version of a film depicting capital punishment, where the execution scene has been omitted, actually produces stronger negative reactions against the death penalty compared to watching a film that presents this execution in a graphic manner.

Lastly, Katrina Fong (York University) examined whether how exposure to different literary genres is related to one’s ability to infer what other people are thinking and feeling. Perhaps surprisingly, after controlling for various factors, only two genres were related to interpersonal sensitivity: romance and suspense/thriller. 

There were so many fascinating presentations made at this conference, and this is just a small taste of the work on display. A copy of the full program can be found here, and we are all very much looking forward to the next conference in 2014.

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Monday, 23 July 2012


A central issue for understanding how readers engage in fiction is resonance: what themes in a story resonate with a particular reader or audience member? Putting that the other way round, how do writers generate stories with which others can resonate? This issue recurs in the reading group of which I have been a member for 20 years, in which the resonances for particular members, and the occasional complete lack of resonance for others, of  novels we read is frequently striking and thought-provoking. Putting this more generally, why do some people like thrillers, others like adventure stories, others like intrigues, other like family dramas, others like love stories, and so on?

I have been having discussions with several people on these issues recently. I don't feel I have got to the bottom of this, but have reached the following tentative hypothesis. Each of us has a number, perhaps a small number, of themes with which we are most able to resonate in print fiction, plays, and movies so that we can be fully engaged and moved by the story. An exemplar theme is the detective story of the English kind in which (as I heard explained by P.D. James many years ago at an Edinburgh Festival) a crime has been committed that rends the fabric of society. The reader finds this disturbing and can engage in a story in which a somewhat other-worldly detective discovers the culprit, so that people can get back to living harmoniously with each other. In this kind of story, justice and trust are the warp and weft of the societal fabric. It's these that are damaged, and these that are mended by the end of the story. This kind of story appeals most (according to this hypothesis) to those who, perhaps as children, experienced injustice and perhaps loss of trust in a sibling or a parent in ways that were very disturbing. A murder is of course striking. And the trail of clues needs to be, of course, interesting. But murder is a trope that stands for the damage to society. The trail of clues is the grammar of the plot. The idea that the detective enables us to see the world in non-obvious ways is part of the issue, but the soul of the matter is the sense of damage that needs be put right. Without that we wouldn't read stories of this kind. We would do crossword puzzles.

Thinking about the resonances I have experienced in my reading and writing, I have become aware that one very activating theme for me is a protagonist coming to recognize another person in a way that enables a meeting of minds, and thereby enables the protagonist to love that person. The novel that I remember being most moved by as an adolescent was George Orwell's Nineteen-eighty-four, not for the political aspects (though these were of course interesting), but for the love in unpropitious circumstances between Winston and Julia, which ended for them in the tragedy of separation. I am also very affected by love stories in which there is a separation and a reunion, and stories in which a love is discovered that echoes a previous love.
The essential nature of experiences of this kind, and their personal meanings, would not necessarily be discovered in psychoanalytic therapy because, in such therapy, although aspects of previous relationships may be recognized in one's relationship the therapist, the theme-like structure of event-leading-to-event, and the way in which such events resonate with selfhood, may not easily become visible. So here is the thought. Might it be that if one is a reader one could take, say, a dozen novels or short stories, or movies, that have especially affected one, and discern in them a common theme (or perhaps several recurring themes)? From these one might not only recognize something deep about oneself, but be able to choose what books to read, what plays to see, what films to watch, to explore these formative issues further?

Orwell, G. (1949). Ninetten eighty-four. London: Secker and Warburg.

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Monday, 16 July 2012

Deep Acting and Surface Acting

At an international conference on emotion regulation at the University of Limerick, Stina Bergman Blix of the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University presented a study of how actors tend to approach the depiction of emotions on the stage in two different ways. The first of these she calls deep acting when, during rehearsal, the actors recall and relive their own previous experiences of emotions of the kind that are called for by the script. Deep acting relies on what Nico Frijda has called modes of action readiness, and these guide expression without manipulation. The second kind of acting she calls surface acting, in which emotional expression is created deliberately and behaviorally, from a repertoire acquired in training. It's not derived from any inner emotional experience, and it's not accompanied by any such experience.  

When I asked Bergman Blix about her research, I found myself recalling particularly striking experiences of emotion as a playgoer. I said I could remember, for instance, sitting in what now seems to me to have been the fourth row, in a London theatre, when Laurence Olivier played Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer. Archie Rice is a music-hall comedian on the edge of being past it. The play, I said to Bergman Blix, is very much about the emptiness of this comedian; he's cynical and contemptuous, largely absent within. I told her Olivier was utterly superb in the role. He made the comedian's emptiness very vivid to me.

"Ah," said Bergman Blix. "You see Olivier was very much a surface actor."

In her paper Bergman Blix argued that during rehearsals, as actors come to inhabit their characters, emotional expressions become habitual whether they derive from deep or surface layers, and they attain a settled physicality in the play and in relation to the roles played by other actors. They become what she called "body memories." So in rehearsal, the actors are not just firmly remembering the words of the script and making these words parts of themselves, they are also making their body memories of the emotions parts of themselves. As these body memories are set up as habits, the expressions of emotion in each subsequent rehearsal become less reliant on how they were initially elicited, from deep or surface layers, and this is liberating for the actors, who become able to enter their roles, as they pass through each episode in the play and each relationship with the other stage characters. If one thinks of Stanislavski, the most famous advocate of deep acting, one may recall that his advice to actors to draw on their own emotional experience concerned rehearsal only, not actual performances. By casting emotions into body memories the actors professionalize them. This makes their repetition easier, and makes the transitions into and out of emotional states on the stage less strenuous, so that during performances the actors can concentrate on their relationships with the other actors and on their relationships with the audience.

One may wonder from this kind of research whether actors, like frequent readers of fiction (as found by Raymond Mar et al.), become generally more empathetic and socially skilled than members of the normal public. And one may wonder, too, whether there are differences in this regard between deep actors and surface actors.
Bergman Blix, S. (2012). Professionalization of the experience and expression of emotion: Theoretical implications from a study of stage actors. Paper presented at the conference on Regulating emotions: Contemporary understandings and interdisciplinary perspectives, University of Limerick, 1 May.
Frijda, N. H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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.
Osborne, J. (1957). The entertainer. London; Faber & Faber.
Stanislavski, C. (1936). An actor prepares (E. R. Habgood, Trans.). New York: Routledge.
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Monday, 9 July 2012

Wired For Story

Lisa Cron, a reader of OnFiction, has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton and more recently as a TV producer and screenwriting consultant. Her informally-written book, called Wired For Story, is unusual in that it offers advice about writing stories that draws on modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience. As you may gather from her subtitle The writer's guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence, Lisa Cron's idea is an ambitious one.

The research literature on which Cron draws will probably be familiar to readers of OnFiction. It includes work by Brian Boyd, Michael Gazzaniga, Steven Pinker, Antonio Damasio, Jamie Pennebaker, and even members of the OnFiction team. Cron's basic idea is that although story is an indigenous mode of thinking for us human beings, writers have to work hard to engage this mode fully in potential readers. Writers will be successful, she argues, by knowing some principles of cognitive psychology and brain science. Each chapter opens with the announcement of what Cron calls a "Cognitive Secret" and a "Story Secret." For chapter 1 these are, respectively: "We think in story which allows us to envision the future," and "From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next." For chapter 2 the Cognitive Secret is "When the brain focuses its full attention on something, it filters out all unnecessary information" and the Story Secret is "To hold the brain's attention, everything must be there on a need-to-know basis." For chapter 3, the Cognitive Secret is "Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we're not feeling we're not conscious," and the Story Secret is "All story is emotion based—if we're not feeling we're not reading." After its opening announcements,  each chapter is then devoted to drawing on the relevant research, unpacking the concepts, and to showing how they can be applied to the craft of writing.

In my own fiction writing I certainly use what I know of cognitive psychology and brain science, so to me it makes sense to offer a book that gives writers relevant ideas in these areas. Some of the issues that are covered, for instance the importance of re-writing, are familiar to readers of how-to books on writing, but Cron comes at issues from an angle that is fresh and different from that of most such books. One feature I particularly like is a check-list in most of the chapters. Chapter 9 is entitled "What can go wrong must go wrong, and then some," and its Cognitive Secret is: "The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future." One of the points in the checklist for this chapter is: "Have you exposed your protagonist's … most guarded flaws?" Now there's an interesting question for a writer of a novel or screenplay.

This book is informative, thought-provoking, and helpful.

Lisa Cron (2012). Wired for story: The writer's guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. Berkeley, CA. Ten Speed Press.
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Monday, 2 July 2012

Movies Mimic Real-Life Attention

Psychologists have often stressed the artificiality of the movies, based as they are on apparent motion (rather than real motion) and on successions between shots (views) that could not occur in real life because we cannot move instantaneously from one position to another.

But there's another way to think about it, which is in terms of attention. Tim Smith, Daniel Levin, and James Cutting (2012) have recently presented results on film editing in what they call the Hollywood style, also called continuity editing. They argue that this kind of editing as it has developed in the last hundred years has come close to the ways in which people direct their attention to events and actions in everyday life. If we follow their argument, we can see how viewers of movies made in the Hollywood style seem to see something like reality, or at least what they would have seen had they been there in the world of the story.

In ordinary visual perception we sample the world from a sequence of fixations. At each fixation only data in the visual field from an area about the size of a nickel or a five eurocents piece held at arm's length are seen in high acuity. About 50% of the optic nerve and 50% of the visual system is given over to processing input from these areas of high acuity. Between fixations the eyes change position in a movement called a saccade, during which no new information is registered from the retina. One reason we change our fixation is to pay attention to a movement. To do this, we make a saccade to the point of movement. Film editors insert cuts in the same manner, for instance when a character moves a hand or turns his or her head. These are called "match-action" cuts. Cuts of this kind therefore correspond to when there is a natural cut by means of a saccade. Smith et al. have performed an experiment in which they had participants register the occurrence of cuts in a movie. People were good at noticing cuts at the end of an action, when the act was completed; about 90% of such cuts were noticed. By contrast only about 70% of match-action cuts were noticed by viewers, and the authors argue that this lesser rate of recognition is because match-action cuts correspond to attention switches during saccades.

Smith et al also found similarities in people's distribution of attention to scenes in which actions began, continued, and ended both in ordinary life and in movies. In other words, actions are natural units in our perception of the world, and movie-makers follow this same pattern. When watching a movie, distinctive fMRI activation occurred at the end of an action, whereas when viewpoint simply changed within a scene, this same kind of fMRI activation did not occur.

It seems that we parse the social world into agents and actions. This may not be surprising, but Smith and his colleagues have shown that the idea scales down to fairly small actions such as a glance, picking up an object, a slight change of expression.
The image is from Smith et al.'s paper. It shows how the eye fixations of 19 viewers are closely grouped within a shot seen during a movie clip. Yellow spots are for viewers who saw the clip with audio, and pink spots are of viewers who saw the clip without audio.
Smith, T. J., Levin, D., & Cutting, J. E. (2012). A window on reality: Perceiving edited moving images. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 107-113.

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