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Silent Reading, Inner Speech

* Vincent P. Brouwers, Christopher L. Heavey, Leiszle Lapping-Carr, Stefanie A. Moynihan, Jason M. Kelsey and Russell T. Hurlburt, ‘Pristine Inner Experience While Silent Reading: It’s Not Silent Speaking of the Text’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (2018), 29–54.
* B. Alderson-Day, M. Bernini, and C. Fernyhough, ‘Uncharted Features and Dynamics of Reading: Voices, Characters, and Crossing of Experiences’, Consciousness and Cognition, 49 (2017), 98–109.
* M. Caracciolo and R.T. Hurlburt, A Passion for Specificity: Confronting Inner Experience in Literature and Science (Ohio State University Press, 2016).

The first of these papers aims to be clear and categorical about what we do when we read. They say that we do quite a bit of inward ‘seeing imagery’ related to what we are reading; and there are ‘inner words’ as part of the reading experience; but there was hardly any ‘silent speaking of the text… where the text was directly experienced as spoken or heard while reading’. This is very different from some other results of this sort; it’s supposed to be counter-intuitive; is it? I honestly don’t know whether I think there is any ‘silent speaking of the text’ (poetry any different?), because once I start performing what-it’s-like-to-read, I wonder if I am actually a good witness on myself.
      I like the bit where they wonder whether there was something strange about their experiment. Did they have an anomalous set of participants? Did they used texts that stifled that inner voice? (It was Fitzgerald and Hemingway; nothing obvious to worry about there?) Maybe their experimental protocols ‘discouraged’ reports of inner speech? They think not, because the participants themselves expressed surprise that they weren’t reporting inner speech. Is it there but somehow ‘compressed’ out of range of conscious sampling, memory, and/or self-report? They don’t think that’s it.
      ‘Clearly there is much work to be done’, they conclude, and who can blame them? I’ve cited two of the sources they engage with, both important studies, one linked to the ‘Hearing Voices’ project that considers inner speech in a variety of rich contexts, and the other a collaboration between narratology and psychology that pushes the field in interesting directions. Sampling inner experience is very hard, but empirical studies of reading are currently pushing at new and very interesting ways of solving the problems.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Individual Differences

* Mohamed L. Seghier and Cathy J. Price, ‘Interpreting and Utilising Intersubject Variability in Brain Function’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 517-30.
* Daniela J. Palombo, Signy Sheldon, and Brian Levine, ‘Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 583-97.

These two essays both pose an interesting challenge to the habits of cognitive science. The first sets it out directly: what do we do with ‘between-subject variance in brain function’. Should it be treated as ‘data’ or as ‘noise’, that is, as something to tune out of your conclusions, which is the usual practice from scientists in pursuit of a generalisable conclusion? Seghier and Price are here to advocate the first course of action, because (for example) it seems that individual brains might differ in the networks of regions they recruit to particular activities. So, it might be interesting that everyone seems to use region A, but it might be a big mistake to omit that person X uses regions BCDE as well to a lesser extent, whereas person Y uses BCEF, person Z uses BCDG, and so on. Palombo et al. focus on the individual differences in autobiographical memory. This is partly a matter of superiority and deficiency, remembering more or less than usual. Do some people encode more, or forget less? They also acknowledge that it’s not just a matter of more or less.
      Our experience of literary minds often walks this line between the typical and the unique, I think. Some of their interest comes from things that are convincing because they resemble things we know or suspect of ourselves or others; but some of their interest comes from things that are challenging (and also, in another way, convincing) because they seem to be particular and strange, whether good or bad. I suppose the scientists may tend towards trying to understand the types of individual difference, which could look like a map of complex typicality rather than the full triumph of an interest in the individual (and who could blame them?). But overall this seems like an interesting turn to take.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Empathy and Replication

* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts’ (2016): http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000069.
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Reading Literary Fiction and Theory of Mind: Three Preregistered Replications and Extensions of Kidd and Castano (2013)’, Social and Personality Science (2018): http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550618775410.
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Panero et al. (2016): Failure to Replicate Methods Caused the Failure to Replicate Results’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112.3 (2017), e1-e4.
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘On Literary fiction and its Effects on Theory of Mind’, Scientific Study of Literature, 6 (2016), 42-58.
* Colin F. Camerer, Anna Dreber, Felix Holzmeister, Teck-Hua Ho, Jürgen Huber, Magnus Johannesson, Michael Kirchler, Gideon Nave, Brian A. Nosek, Thomas Pfeiffer, Adam Altmejd, Nick Buttrick, Taizan Chan, Yiling Chen, Eskil Forsell, Anup Gampa, Emma Heikensten, Lily Hummer, Taisuke Imai, Siri Isaksson, Dylan Manfredi, Julia Rose, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers and Hang Wu, ‘Evaluating the Replicability of Social Science Experiments in Nature and Science between 2010 and 2015′, Nature Human Behaviour (2018): http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0399-z.

The question of empathy has been a thread throughout the five years of this blog. Indeed the blog is pretty much the same age as the 2013 article by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano which is so often cited in discussions of the topic. How could a person in my line of work not take an interest in an argument that reading fiction makes you better at empathy (reading others’ feelings, rather than feeling them too) in the real world? — Even more specifically, that reading literary fiction, the good stuff prized in university courses, has the most beneficial effects on performance in something as concrete as the famous ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test? The last time I touched on this was in my very last post.
      Overall, though, my reaction has been a bit skittish. The headline claim — though often not the nuances — seems a bit overwhelming, in the scope of its terms and the apparent simplicity of causation. Although I recognise it as a very important concept in literary study, and that it’s often implicit when it’s not explicit, I haven’t really tangled very much with the idea of empathy in my work, so I haven’t felt I have to take a proper view on these conclusions. And so, I have observed the attempts to develop and refine, but also to replicate, and sometimes then to deny or refute, at arm’s length. Since I find the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology interesting (but sometimes alarming, and depressing) I’ve noted in the blog some moments where sharp eyes have been turned on Kidd and Castano 2013 and other key essays.
      Have I done the topic justice? Probably not — there isn’t time for everything. Have I made do with a few eyebrows-raised but wishful glances? Maybe so. So, without claiming to rectify either of these things, but keen to share such a key topic, I am passing on some references I was sent by Emanuele Castano, who noted my interest and wanted to point out that he and David Kidd had responded to the replicators in the first four of the essays cited above. (The fifth is a replicationarama, full of interest, especially if you also read the responses from those whose work is being reconsidered.) There’s a lot at stake in the debate, key terms to consider, and bridges to be built, between the people who are saying ‘this is why literature’ and the people who profess it all day long.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Empathy and Reading

* Anežka Kuzmičová, Anne Mangen, Hildegunn Støle, Anne Charlotte Begnum, ‘Literature and Readers’ Empathy: A Qualitative Text Manipulation Study’, Language and Literature, 26 (2017), 137–52.
* Anne Mangen, Anne Charlotte Begnum, Anežka Kuzmičová, Kersti Nilsson, Mette Steenberg, Hildegunn Støle, ‘Empathy and literary style: A theoretical and methodological exploration’, Orbis Litterarum, 73 (2018), 1–16.

In my last post I discussed a couple of essays I’d followed up after hearing Anežka Kuzmičová speak at the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities conference. Here are another couple of interesting items that resulted from that search. They both relate to the vexed question of empathy, and especially what literature might do for that human capacity. I’ll be coming back to this in my next post.
      The first essay, by Kuzmičová et al., aims to gain a richer understanding of the ‘positive correlation between literary reading and empathy’ shown in other studies. It focuses on ‘the literary nature of the stimuli… at a more detailed, stylistic level’. In order to do this, they took a short story and doctored it, creating a ‘non-literary’ version with less ‘stylistic foregrounding’. As I described in a post back here, this is something I think is both extremely interesting and, in practice, problematic. It is obviously hard to determine where the literariness of style resides, and what factors absent or present convey it. It may not, however, be prohibitively hard to produce something persuasive or provocative: I salute them for it.
      The results were interesting: they tested readers’ self-reports of their experiences of the story, and found that the ‘non-literary’ version elicited more ‘explicitly empathic responses’ than the original. This is not what other studies (on which, more, next time) have suggested. Kuzmičová et al. go on to develop interesting explanations as to why this might be the case. They suggest interesting things about the way that ‘aesthetically marked stimuli’ (i.e. moments of literary style) may create an element of distance in the response. They are thoughtfully critical of their own methods, and do not deny a link between empathy and literary quality that could be observed by other means.
      The second essay, by Mangen et al. also featured a manipulated text. Some participants read a version of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ shorn of metaphors and similes and other transmitters of literariness-in-style. They used means such as the famous ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test’, developed to explore the autism spectrum but also used more broadly as a test of empathy, to see what sort of effects these textual variations had on the empathy-outcomes — so the aim is similar that of the first essay.
      They too found indications that literary reading, especially in an educational setting, may have special properties. This ‘schooled’ reading seemed to be ‘more focused on identifying and interpreting literary or stylistic devices and tropes, rather than on emotional aspects related to personal engagement’. When reading less ‘literary’ texts, this set of techniques may not be engaged, and so a more straightforward kind of emotional engagement may be easier to achieve. They point to a potential problem in literature education, wherein ‘schooled’, distanced reading privileges feature-spotting over the sort of experiential engagement that is so important to literature outside the classroom, and which presumably leads to more enthusiastic readers.
      There are complex ideas entwined here: what the contribution of the type of text is; what the contribution of the reading environment is (as was emphasised in my last post); what the experimental manipulations and protocols create, wittingly or not; whether technical and empathetic reading need to be in opposition (I’d try to claim, for teaching and research, that in enhancing the former I am enhancing the latter, but of course there could be interference); what the goal of literary education should be (which reminds me of I read not long ago that made me think about what a practised, professional, questioning, ‘suspicious’ mode of critical reading might lose alongside its gains. Interesting stuff!

That is, The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, and Loving Literature by Deidre Shauna Lynch
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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.

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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.

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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]cam.ac.uk