Monday, 24 September 2012

What Autism Research Can Do for Fiction Research

Much has been written in the last seventy years or so on the specific social and communicative impairments present in individuals with autism, particularly concerning the deficit in the ability to see the world from the perspective of another person, or theory of mind. Much has also been written on fiction and how it is somehow connected in a deep and pervasive way with humans’ exceptional social cognitive capacities. Recently, novelist and developmental psychologist Jennifer L. Barnes (2012) has explored what the reading preferences of individuals with autism could reveal about fiction and the way in which it is processed in those not affected with this condition. She discusses why fiction researchers should be interested in autism, reviews studies on narrative production, story comprehension, pretend play, and imagination in autism, and presents an empirical study she conducted to explore the connection between fiction processing and autistic impairments. 

Autism, she claims, may provide an ideal test case for current hypotheses concerning how and why humans process fiction in the ways they do. Because this disorder inhibits attention to social and mental content in interpersonal contexts, finding either that persons with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) attend to such content in fiction or finding that, as in interpersonal contexts, they do not, could further understanding of both the condition and the fiction-reading process.  More specifically, she inquires whether the variability in cognitive capacities within the autism spectrum and correspondingly differing profiles of fiction reading might not provide a valuable framework for understanding and contextualizing preferences in fiction more globally. She further notes for the benefit of others interested in this area that there is a large extant set of data collected from ASC participants in which fictional narratives were the stimuli and which could and should be reconsidered in terms of cognitive reception of fiction. 
In the empirical study presented in the article, Barnes hypothesizes that (1) typically developing undergraduates will be more interested in stories that contain social content over those that are focused on objects, and that fiction or non-fiction status of reading material will not affect reading preference; (2) that ASC individuals will prefer true stories over fictional ones; and (3) that ASC individuals will be less interested in social content than non-ASC individuals (the other type of summary of narrative was about objects). In line with her hypotheses, typically-developing undergraduates preferred descriptions of narratives about people, but didn’t prefer descriptions of fictional narratives over descriptions of nonfictional narratives; and the ASC group showed no such preference for people over objects in the descriptions. The ASC group also preferred nonfictional to fictional narrative descriptions per one main effect, but this effect was rendered uninterpretable in the presence of the significant interaction between fictionality and the content variable. The most that one could say, it seems, is that the ASC group preferred nonfiction about objects to fiction about objects. We can’t know then if fictionality made a reliable difference in this study.

Notwithstanding the strength of the original suggestions for research, the strong literature review, and the originality of the hypotheses themselves, in addition to this inconclusive finding, I found the empirical study somewhat weak. The ASC group was sampled through an autism research centre participant base in the UK, while the typically developing sample was drawn from an American university. The groups represented males and females equally, but the ASC group was older than the control group; we do not learn by how much. Further, to assess whether readers would prefer fictional or nonfictional, and person or object content, short descriptions of the narratives were presented. I’m not sure whether there is any data out there concerning readers’ ability to predict with any accuracy what they will actually enjoy reading based, for example, on the blurb on a book cover, but I would suspect that summaries and actual narratives would elicit quite different levels of anticipated engagement.  (Participants were asked to rank the summaries from 1 “the narrative they would most like to read” [Barnes, p.309] to 4 “the narrative they would least like to read”). More worrying is the conversion of the (inter-item dependent) rankings into reverse-scored values which are then used in a repeated measures analysis of variance. While I would hope to see a more ecologically valid set of fictional texts presented to ASC readers, and a more conservative approach to the assumptions of the statistical tests used to assess effects in studies of this kind, I find exciting and original Barnes’ proposition to examine extant databases on fictional narratives created for particular experiments to examine various ASC skills, and more generally her proposition to rigorously explore how research on ASC might enhance understanding of fiction processing. 

Barnes, J. L. (2012). Fiction, imagination, and social cognition: Insights from autism. Poetics, 40: 299-316.

Image: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

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Monday, 17 September 2012

Research Bulletin: The Puzzle of Fiction

We have often discussed the idea of “transportation” in OnFiction, which refers to our tendency to become deeply immersed into the world of a particular story. Richard Gerrig (1993) invoked this metaphor to describe how our encounters with fiction lead us to be transported from the here-and-now into the world of the narrative, where the events and characters influence us much like events and peers in our real life. Transportation has become an essential concept in the world of fiction research, with the focus of many now turning to how this idea can better be measured and understood. Some have begun to look into whether some people are more likely to become transported into a piece of fiction than others. We all know people who are heavily influenced by whatever they happen to be reading or watching, crying at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, there are those who seem to have no difficulty withdrawing from a narrative world, seemingly unfazed by sad films and scary books. One interesting avenue of work has found that those who are intrigued by puzzles and enjoy complicated problem-solving--a trait known as “need for cognition”--are also more likely to be deeply engaged with a story. This has been demonstrated to be true for written texts in at least two different studies (Green et al., 2008; Appel & Richter, 2010). And recently, in the forthcoming issue of the Scientific Study of Literature, it has also been shown to be the case for film (specifically, the film Memento, Owen & Riggs, 2012). In other words, the complexities of a narrative appear to be just another puzzle that some people enjoy unlocking. 

Appel, M., & Richter, T. (2010). Transportation and need for aff ct in narrative persuasion: A mediated moderation model. Media Psychology, 13, 101–135.

Gerrig, R. J.  (1993).  Experiencing narrative worlds.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Green, M. C., Kass, S., Carrey, J., Herzig, B., Feeney, R., & Sabini, J. (2008). Transportation across media: Repeated exposure to print and film. Media Psychology, 11, 512–539.

Owen, B. & Riggs, M. (2012). Transportation, need for cognition, and affective disposition as factors in enjoyment of film narratives. Scientific Study of Literature, 2, 128–150.

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Monday, 10 September 2012

Travelogue: Viking Mystery

In the medieval history of Europe, we think of the Vikings as people who came from what is now Scandinavia, who had ships and swords, who raided the coasts of northern Europe, settled down and founded towns with names like Grimsby (Grim's Village), did dairy farming so that they could make Jarlsberg cheese, and had blonde-haired children called Anderson, Ericson, Johnson, and so on.

I am writing this during a visit to Iceland which, we are told, was settled by the Vikings in the ninth century. Today, the country has a population of just 320,000. All of them, I am told, consider themselves descendants either of the original Viking settlers, or—if they are a bit more dissident—of Celtic slaves the Vikings brought with them. An Icelander, Leif Ericson, was the first European to discover the Americas (not the tardy Columbus, 500 years later). The Icelandic Sagas are episodic prose stories, written between about 1200 and 1400. The language has changed little since then, so the Sagas can be read in the original by speakers of modern Icelandic. They are the source of much of what is known about medieval Viking society. They depict family conflicts, and the exploits of prominent men who often combined raiding and farming who lived two or three hundred years before the Sagas were written down.

Icelanders look to the Sagas in the same way that Italians look to Dante, and the English look to Shakespeare. Egil's Saga was recommended to me, so I have been dipping into it. Egil is good at seeing how things may turn out in the future. He can be both kind and breathtakingly cruel. "Very human," said my informant!

I am trying to formulate my idea of the prototypical Icelandic male. He's five-foot-ten and burly. He draws on the idea of the Vikings, so he wears an anorak and he has a beard. One style of beard displayed by the younger men is a six-day stubble while the other, which gives an impression of permanence, is trimmed to about a half-an-inch in length, grizzled with a whitish patch on the chin. This prototypical man gives the sense that he's not to be put upon. I imagine him having a sword stashed away somewhere at home in a wardrobe.

The prototypical female wears a woolly jumper and three-inch heels, not of the slender variety but chunky so that they can be marched on. My initial theory was that the function of these heels was to enable the wearer to have her eyes at the same level as those of any male she might meet without the annoying effect of sexual dimorphism. But when I asked some women about this, they agreed that the chunky heels were characteristic but they laughed and said, "It's nothing to do with being at the same height as men."

Among my duties on this visit was to give some lectures at the University of Iceland, one of which was on the emotions. "It's a novel topic for us," said one of the women who invited me, "because we Icelanders don't have emotions or, if we do, we certainly don't talk about them." When I asked someone else whether it was true that Icelanders don't have emotions, he said "Yes, it's perfectly true. Instead, we have sheep."

Although Iceland is ringed with volcanoes and glaciers it does have sheep, one-and-a-half for every Icelander, so that may explain the prevalence of woolly jumpers.

The books say that around the year 1000 Christianity came to Iceland. When I talked with people about this I said that it wasn't clear what Icelanders made of it, since they seemed to prefer the Sagas. "That's right," they said. "We're still not sure what to make of it. If you want Christianity, you have to go to Norway."

I'm not quite sure whether I'm on the right track, but perhaps I've made a start on the Icelandic personality: friendly, humorous, not as politically correct as the Swedes, not quite as jokey as the English, independent-minded.

Although Iceland has abundant electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, and although most heating is provided from hot water which is conveniently provided just under the ground, I've read that there are almost no natural resources and hardly any manufacturing. But there's an abundance of cars from Germany and Japan, of furniture from Sweden, of computers from America, and so on. I kept asking people to explain how, despite ups and downs, Iceland remains so prosperous. They've been unanimous in their replies. "It's a mystery," they said.

Image: Egil, from a seventeenth-century manuscript
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Monday, 3 September 2012

Yearning for Dante's Hell

I wonder if we should worry that when we die we’ll go to hell populated with all of our least noble desires – like a giant shopping mall with AC and fluorescent light that throws unflattering light on all different kinds of sweaters and socks, pods and pads, that used to promise something and now taunt us by indifference. And we, the cursed shoppers, will meander up and down the corridors and escalators, sickened by the chill and the light and the gaudy displays. Or rather, I worry that before we die we’ll be in hell populated by…well, you know. I worry that we might not deserve Dante’s hell.
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