Situated Reading

* Anežka Kuzmičová, Patrícia Dias, Ana Vogrinčič Čepič, Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund, André Casado, Marina Kotrla Topić, Xavier Mínguez López, Skans Kersti Nilsson, and Inês Teixeira-Botelho, ‘Reading and Company: Embodiment and Social Space in Silent Reading Practices’, Literacy, 52 (2018), 70-7.
* Anežka Kuzmičová, ‘Does it Matter Where You Read? Situating Narrative in Physical Environment’, Communication Theory, 26 (2016) 290–308.

I mentioned the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Conference (back in July) in my last post, and in this one (and the next) I’ll be featuring the work of another scholar I heard there: Anežka Kuzmičová, whose homepage is here. In this post I cover two papers in which she and her collaborators consider the importance of location to the experience of reading.


The first, from the journal Literacy, reports findings about readers’ interactions with their environments, and especially the presence of other people and the nature of their ‘concurrent activity’. The researchers were interested in whether subjects chose their reading matter (‘text type, purpose, device’) and the location of that reading, in relation to one another. What emerged was ‘varied, and partly surprising’ sensitivity to the social nature of the reading space and the company therein. I like the emphasis on what they call the ‘daily efforts to align body with mind for reading’, and the idea that there is often a degree of ‘conscious curation’ (i.e. we think about the suitability of space for book, and book for space).
      The subjects of the experiments were young adults, and this leads to various possible implications. For example, they suggest that classroom environments may affect and suit some more than others, and that libraries seem to be a ‘vital type of social space for study reading’ which should survive the digital revolution. In general the idea is that understanding these younger readers requires an awareness of specific social spaces and individuals’ responses to them. However, it made me think a bit about the more professionalised sort of reading that literary study at all levels tends to build on and assume. Perhaps this is just a part of adult reading, which is more abstracted from social life, but perhaps this professional reading has its own forms of environmental awareness, which could also be considered.


The piece in Communication Theory also discusses the situated nature of reading. It opens with a good point that in general the idea that language interacts with its environment is accepted, but ‘narrative reading… is primarily regarded as a means of decoupling one’s consciousness from the environment’. Traditionally, stimuli from the environment around the reader have been thought of as distractions, but Kuzmičová adds two further contributions that the environment can make to the reading experience: it can act as (i) ‘a prop for mental imagery’, and (ii) ‘a locus of pleasure more generally’. The point is, we draw on the places we are in to help support and supplement and fill out what’s created between mind and body and text.
      Kuzmičová draws two conclusions from this. First, our understanding of reading needs to bear in mind that environments matter. Second — a subset of the first but with particular pointedness — experiments on reading need to address the environments in which their subjects perform reading. Perhaps the formal laboratory setting cannot replicate the consequences of reading in typically richer situations; indeed, ‘the most natural consequence of adopting an environmentally situated approach to reading would be to move the experiment outside controlled settings altogether’. From where I sit, discipline-wise, this might validate a micro-historicist approach to reading, an attempt to reconstruct the social and physical contexts in which specific books were held and looked at, by specific readers we choose to prioritise. That’s quite a daunting task, not easy to do well. (I am thinking of interactive museum-type-things here, with rudimentary animatronics and authentic smells…)
      Next post: more good stuff from Anežka Kuzmičová! But further down the line, I expect to come back to this issue of individuals and particulars in cognition more generally, as well as in reading. In criticism and in science the turn to the general (what humans do, what ‘readers’ do) is so important, and yet when we know how these interactions between unique humans and unique settings can affect the reading process, it looks like a fraught step.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Two Books

* Vera Tobin, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press, 2018)
* Bradley Irish, Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (Northwestern University Press, 2018)

Before my summer abdication from blog duties, I briefly mentioned the Cognitive Futures event (info here), and one of the papers I enjoyed there was by Vera Tobin, whose book on surprise in fiction I have now finished. Around the same time, I heard from Bradley Irish, who had come across my blog post about the poet John Skelton and the way he works with disgust. He pointed me towards his new book, which looks at the writings of the Tudor court in the light of modern theories of emotions. I think these are both excellent, with many impressive qualities, but in this post I just want to pick out one feature of each.
      Tobin brings a constructive and positive attitude to things that are sometimes disparaged. Surprises may seem like a rather cheap trick for authors to play on readers, but they can of course be handled in extremely subtle and sophisticated ways. In parallel, the cognitive biases that Tobin discusses are not treated, as they sometimes are, as ‘a form of moral weakness and failure’. Rather than seeing the short-cuts that can leave us open to deceptions and illusions as comic and/or culpable, she accepts them as functional, helping all that cognitive work get done without it becoming too much. So the interaction between surprise and the mind is not a set of gleeful but belittling exposures — how foolish we are, how exploitative literature is, how easily fiction’s features are explained, etc. — Tobin gives credit on all sides, takes things seriously, and still manages to write an entertaining study.
      The achievement I’d pick out in Irish’s book is the way he makes historical circumstances and cognitive perspectives interact so productively. I have often seen people worry that it’s not really feasible to illuminate the intricacies of life in the past with the findings of modern laboratories. For my part, I have felt that one can be attentive to the differences in past mental worlds, while also believing that there are qualities of human cognition that cross over chronological boundaries. Irish manages, I think, to make his 21st-century understanding of disgust, for example, more than plausible as a means of generating insights into the satirical writing of Henry VIII’s reign (including Skelton). Taking a cognitive turn might make one an even better observer of history.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

New Angles on Mind-Wandering

* Paul Seli, Michael J. Kane, Jonathan Smallwood, Daniel L. Schacter, David Maillet, Jonathan W. Schooler, and Daniel Smile, ‘Mind-Wandering as a Natural Kind: A Family-Resemblances View’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 479-90.
* Mladen Sormaza, Charlotte Murphy, Hao-ting Wang, Mark Hymers, Theodoros Karapanagiotidis, Giulia Poerio, Daniel S. Margulies, Elizabeth Jefferies, and Jonathan Smallwood, ‘Default Mode Network Can Support the Level of Detail in Experience During Active Task States’, PNAS,

Back from a summer recess to take note of two papers on mind-wandering, which has been such a favourite topic on this blog. It was the subject of my British Academy Shakespeare Lecture back in May. I recently realised that you can get the audio of that event right here. It was only bearable for me to listen to about six seconds of the talk, from which I conclude that either I or the audio sound a bit soupy, and whatever sentence I was uttering had neither shape nor sense — but that is actually quite a positive response from me, and the listening-in didn’t ruin my happy memories of the evening.
      In the lecture, I say that I think that the modern science of mind-wandering has things to tell us about Shakespeare’s plays, and also that we can see in return that Shakespeare knows things about mind-wandering, and makes use of it. There will be a written version published next year, and it will definitely take account of the exciting essays cited above, which both include as author Jonathan Smallwood, who kindly spoke to me before the lecture and helped me past a few misconceptions (though he cannot be blamed for any that remain).


The first, by Seli et al., proposes that if we want to understand the various kinds of mental process that gather under the umbrella of ‘mind-wandering’, we should take a ‘family resemblances’ approach, which means ‘treating it as a graded, heterogeneous construct’, with a view to achieving ‘a more nuanced and precise understanding of the many varieties of mind-wandering’. This might be better than taking ‘task-unrelated thought’ as a necessary and sufficient definition, and it might be better than rigorous taxonomies that devote energy to saying what should not, as well as what should, count as mind-wandering. This all sounds very sensible to me, and it seems to fit with the emphasis on networks, interactions, and complexity in brain functions, that I keep reading about.


The other paper has a more concrete proposition to make, but it is also an attempt to broaden our understanding of the mind-wandering field. A group of brain regions known as the ‘default mode network’ (DMN), as has been discussed on this blog before, and in my lecture linked to above, has often been seen as crucial contributor. It has seemed to be important in ‘task-unrelated thought’, in a positive and constructive way: ‘it plays an integrative role in cognition that emerges from its location at the top of a cortical hierarchy and its relative isolation from systems directly involved in perception and action’. However, the findings discussed in this paper point towards an expanded understanding.
      By combining brain-scanning and subjects’ self-reporting (of… ‘dimensions of thought that describe levels of detail, the relationship to a task, the modality of thought, and its emotional qualities’), the authors found a link between the DMN and the level of detail in on-task thought. Thus they maintain that ‘activity within the DMN encodes information associated with ongoing cognition that goes beyond whether attention is directed to the task, including detailed experiences during active task states’. So it’s important that this network isn’t only associated with the wandering mind, but then again it’s also important that this network that encodes information (and detail) is active when off-task. General detail-maintenance is an interesting item to add (with an asterisk) to the list of things associated with mind-wandering and the DMN (e.g. in the Corballis book I noted back here).

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Two Systems? and Summer Shut-Down

* David E. Melnikoff and John A. Bargh, ‘The Mythical Number Two’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 280-93.

Around this time of the year, I usually think ‘I need to have fewer things on my things-to-do list!’, and pause the blog for a while. I then restart when I have read enough interesting articles that the inspiration starts to overflow. A month or so? Maybe two?
      Next week I will be attending the ‘Cognitive Futures in the Humanities’ conference in Kent. I’ll be on ‘we’ business (still rolling on this track). The programme can be found hereabouts. I am sure this will mean I pick up lots of good ideas and reading suggestions. And of course I’ll be catching up on several months of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Before signing off, I will say a brief something about the Melnikoff and Bargh essay cited above. There’s a link here with the topic of my previous, brief post. There the worry from the psychologists was that their terminology overlapped too much with everyday usage. Here the worry is also about simplification and popularisation, in the form of ‘two types of psychological processes: one that is intentional, controllable, conscious, and inefficient, and another that is unintentional, uncontrollable, unconscious, and efficient’.
      The argument is that the ‘two systems’ approach lacks empirical support; it’s a ‘convenient and seductive’ approach’, they say. One target, for example, is a dual-system theory of memory. They cite by Shanks and Berry that doubts the distinction between implicit and explicit memory that was at the heart of about half of my book Memory and Intertextuality in Renaissance Literature (2016). (Don’t worry: I am sure I hedged my bets about the absolute final rectitude of the science I was citing there; I usually do. It’s a gift and a curse.) Another target is the ‘fast and slow thinking’ described by Daniel Kahneman. The big worry is that two-systems approaches are taken as definitive by organisations outside psychology (‘like the World Bank and Institute of Medicine’) and turned into practical policies.
      Here’s their key analogy, which I found both helpful and not helpful:

We say that there are two types of cars, convertibles and hard-tops. No debate there. But now we say: there are two types of cars, automatic and manual transmission. Yes, those are certainly two different types of cars. And still further: there are two types of cars, gasoline and electric motors. Or: foreign and domestic. The point is that all of these are different types of cars. But we all know that there are not just two types of cars overall: convertibles that all have manual transmission, gasoline engines, and are manufactured overseas; and hardtops that all have automatic transmission, electric engines, and are made in our own country. All around us we see counterexamples, automobiles that are some other combination of these basic features.

I suppose, yes, that this gets across that when this two-systems model draws in different qualities of cognition to divide whole minds into two types, there are risks involved. However, in cars at least, the localised binaries can tell us things. There are hybrid cars of course, and being electric or not doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a car is environmentally excellent. But still there are times and ways that discerning this kind from that kind can enable some insights. That’s probably true of minds too; but as on previous occasions I’m thinking in quite a literary-critical way here, welcoming dynamic, provisional tensions that offer a new way of seeing the world — but not things that necessarily aim to converge on a true big picture.


I’ll leave you with a song. Not really day-appropriate at the time of posting. But very good, I think. I actually couldn’t see how this collaboration (two of my favourite artists working with a special song) would work well, and didn’t listen to it for a while. But then I did, and it’s an understated treat.

‘Are there multiple memory systems? Tests of models of implicit and explicit memory’, Q. J. Exp. Psychol., 65, 1449–1474.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Finding the Right Words

Olivia Goldhill, ‘Psychology will fail if it keeps using ancient words like “attention” and “memory”‘,
Russ Poldrack, ‘How folksy is psychology? The linguistic history of cognitive ontologies’,

A very quick post, this one, owing to (stop complaining Raphael!) a very busy time at work. I’ve been sitting on these two blog-type salvoes for a while, wondering what I think about them. They’re saying… psychology is using words like memory and attention which are (i) old, and (ii) folky. So the discipline is using the same language it used in its infancy, and it’s using words that are polluted by a set of loose and general associations.
      Well, this is interesting. On the one hand, yes, technical refinement probably should go along with a language that is technical and refined. On the other hand, psychology is often talking about things that regular people recognise in their everyday experience, whereas quantum physics isn’t, and that should perhaps be reflected in its terminology. And I would prefer to read things that are trying to speak to me, as an interested person, than ones that are not. But then again, I have myself in these very virtual pages complained at times about loose use of familiar words (mostly when they are being used in ways that are unnaturally narrow), and worried about the way that some popular psychology books attract the attention of general readers by (perhaps) overstating the real-life relevance of experimental findings.
      I find myself undecided, of course. But also I’m thinking that this debate helps a words-person like me see that psychology is pushed and pulled in interesting disciplinary and interdisciplinary directions.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]