Monday 26 October 2015

The Mind and the Text

What is our relationship to the texts of poems, novels, short stories? Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon say that for too long the assumption has been, in literary studies, that a text is a physical object, out there in the world, and that we as readers have unconstrained access to it. In a 2015 paper, they argue that this is completely wrong. Our relationship with a text depends on the kind of engagement we have with it, and by what we remember of it.

Bortolussi and Dixon report two experiments. Separate groups of participants were asked to read either an interesting story: the first 7432 words of Ann Rice’s Interview with a vampire, or a less interesting story: the first 7753 words of William Makepeace Thackeray’s The story of Pendennis. Texts were read one sentence at a time on a computer screen. After they read each sentence, participants pressed a keyboard space-bar to see the next sentence. At ten unpredictable locations, instead of the next sentence participants were given a mental state probe in the form of a question about whether they were fully comprehending the story or thinking about something else. They then rated their mental state on a line with points that ranged from “Definitely thinking of something else” to “Definitely comprehending.” A second experiment was the same except that the question in the probe was, “Do you feel like you’re experiencing the story as if you were there or are you just reading superficially?” For this question the rating line was labelled, “Definitely reading superficially” to “Definitely experiencing the story.” After reading the story, subjects were tested for their memory of material in the sentences that preceded each mental state probe.

Bortolussi and Dixon found in both experiments that the piece from Interview was remembered better than the piece from Pendennis. In the first experiment, of participants who read Interview, those who were more on-task were more accurate in their memories for the sentences that preceded the mental state probes. The effect was also found for Pendennis but it was smaller. In the second experiment, although Interview was remembered better than Pendennis, for each story there was no relationship between level of engagement and accuracy of memories for the sentences that preceded the mental state probes.

The researchers concluded that we process stories not so much in terms of a text as an immutable object, but in terms of how we interact with it. They say (p. 46) that, “aesthetic reaction is not to the text, but rather to readers’ mental representation” of it.

Bortolussi, M., & Dixon, P. (2015). Memory and mental states in the appreciation of literature. In P. F. Bundgaard & F. Stjernfelt (Eds.), Investigations into the phenomenology and the ontology of the work of art: What are artworks and how do we experience them? (pp. 31-49). Heidelberg: Springer.
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