Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

"Mind, Brain and Narrative" by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott (CUP, 2012)


This book "examines the psychological and neuroscientific evidence for the mechanisms which underlie narrative comprehension". Chapters have introductions and summaries, and there are suggestions on fruitful areas of research. There's a 10 page index and 34 pages of references. The authors keep to the theme of narrative - there's not much about metaphor and blending, though there's quite a lot about suspense. The kind of issues they address are like these - "when a narrator makes use of the pronoun you, it may create a greater sense of involvement. What does 'a greater sense of involvement' mean and can it be demonstrated empirically? ... For centuries it has been thought that direct speech ... is somehow more vivid that the indirect", p.7. As they point out, the many experiments they report upon (some as recent as 2012) often use simple texts, but the results are interesting all the same.

The book is based on a framework they call "Rhetorical Processing Framework. It encompasses three main strands: Fundamental Scenario-Mapping Theory ... The Rhetorical Focussing Principle ... and ... Experientiality: the importance of embodiment and emotion as a basis for experiencing narrative", p.6. Throughout the attempt to understand a narrative, the minimum of processing is done - in "good-enough representation ... The basic idea is that processing may only occur to the extent or degree of detail that is needed for comprehension in a particular situation", p.104. This can lead readers astray, in exploitable ways.

Scenario-Mapping Theory

"The strongest processing assumption of the Scenario-Mapping Theory is that the reader automatically seeks out a known situation (scenario) to which a text is referring .... leading to basic understanding", p.20. So when readers see "Martin crossed the busy road without looking both ways. The ambulance was too late to save his life.", (p.11) they construct a typical accident scenario after the first sentence, forming assumptions which makes it easy to connect the second sentence to the first and create a story. "world knowledge is not only utilized very rapidly, its recruitment can occur even more rapidly than a local semantic analysis of a sentence", p.25. They say that

  • "Unless readers realize the causal relation, the sentences will not form a coherent whole. Understanding such relations between different propositions has been a key goal in Artificial Intelligence. The quest after a systematic way of thinking about the problem has led to a huge literature on the notion of coherence", p.11.
  • "inferences involve the reader in using knowledge of the world in order to fill in gaps left by the text. Some inferences simply have to be made in order to understand most aspects of a message, in line with the discussion of RST [Rhetoric Structure Theory], and are for this reason generally known as necessary inferences ... These contrast with ... elaborative inferences", p.12.

Some inferences are quickly, almost automatically made. Others require guesswork and calculation. When reading, people don't do a complete low-level scan before assembling higher-level concepts. They quickly develop high-level hypotheses that inform the depth and thoroughness of subsequent processing. "A core idea behind this theory is that understanding does not occur through combining the meanings of individual words to derive sentential meaning, but that understanding requires at least some recognition of a situation or situations that constitute the basis for what is written", p.21. "while multiple sources of information (syntax, case assignments, local semantics) are used by the reader for interpretation, not all of these interpretations are completed", p.29.

If subsequent detail can't be accommodated into the assumed scenario, "secondary processing occurs and takes many forms. The main ones are: Accessing a new scenario ... carrying out other ad-hoc operation to accommodate the input ... Putting unresolvable input on a 'wait and see' list", p.38. Also "defamiliarization may ensue and cause a reader to look more thoughtfully and/or with amusement", p.39.

Scenarios can be unreal - "a counterfactual world ... is readily developed ... although it takes a few sentences for such items to become fully acceptable. This is a significant finding, since immersion in a narrative world is such a major element of reading many texts", p.48.

Rhetorical Focussing Principle

They quote Rabinowitz, who writes "we read with the prior understanding that we are more expected to account for a detail that is stressed ... than for a detail that is not". Following Leech and Short, they point out that foregrounding exists at multiple linguistic levels - use of italics, unusual punctuation, sonic effects, unusual words and metaphors, cleft constructions, etc (essentially any deviation from norms). They also have a section on "Inadvertent foregrounding, inappropriate usage and poor style". They write - "The Rhetorical Focussing Principle proposes that the familiar ideas of ease of anaphoric reference and strength of representation in memory have to be extended through the modulation of the depth of processing, a proposal that is central to this book ... The experiments presented in Chapters 4 and 5 showed that the foregrounding devices do indeed modulate depth of processing. Depth of processing is an important concept because it provides a general way of accounting for the relationship between devices in writing and the processing consequences that they have, in terms of tractable psychological ideas", p.267.

An awareness of the use of literary devices may provoke defamiliarization which "entails removing the automaticity of everyday processing, resulting, we suggest, in increased depth of processing. .... under the appropriate circumstances, a text that induces less fluent reading should result in deeper processing", p.112. This seems so when typeface complexity is increased but not for increased syntactic complexity.


We've already seen that readers extrapolate way beyond what the bare words say, and also that they don't give all the words equal attention. They are not machines - their bodies affect the way they process. The authors write that "There are many situations where pictorial representations induce brain activity normally associated with seeing the objects themselves, or using them", p.137, adding that "Since the mid-1990s, as part of the embodied understanding movement, there has been a growth in experiments showing an involvement of motor and perceptual activity in the understanding of linguistic depictions of events and actions. The strong version of the account claims that understanding is embodied ... even when abstract language is used", p.141. Damasio suggests that "when we see an entity such as a bear, our body reacts, and then we subsequently feel scared due to our experience of the body's response".

Bodies may influence cognition even if they're not always involved. "The idea of facial feedback seems counter-intuitive since it involves the facial expression causing (or inhibiting) the emotion, rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, there is substantial scientific evidence for this", p.194. They mention the pen-in-the-mouth induction technique that "involves holding a pen in the mouth using only the teeth to induce upward-turned lips, which in turn brings about positive affect in the person doing it .... In contrast, holding the pen only in the lips induces a frown, which in turn gives rise to negative affect", p.202.


Other non-objective factors affect readers' processing, and the impact a text will have on a reader.

"In order to create empathy for a character, a writer will generally need first to communicate information about that character's emotional state ... One issue that has particularly concerned researchers in literary studies is that of whether a reader's ability to empathize is facilitated by sharing the characteristics of the character [gender, race, etc] ... moral judgement is important in determining whether empathy will occur ... A second issue is the way we respond to good and bad characters ... A third issue of interest is the possible moral consequences of empathizing with characters. Empathy researchers ... suggest that we tend to feel greater empathy for individuals who are close to us", p.211-212.

"Recent evidence suggests that morally based judgements during reading occur very rapidly, and are automatic ... results show that moral stance affects processing very rapidly", p.213-215. "The evidence strongly supports the idea that when we read of someone doing something that would be typically judged as bad, we immediately attempt to discern their knowledge and motivation", p.215.

Direct and Indirect speech

"The intuition that direct forms are somehow more 'vivid' than indirect forms finds support and explanation in experiments", p.190. "Continued use of free direct speech ... might potentially appear to readers to be even more vivid than direct speech", p.187. "One would anticipate that written descriptions of pain being inflicted, or emotional reactions to noxious situations, would elicit generally stronger sensory-related effects for you descriptions than would external perspective third person descriptions, though this remains to be established empirically", p.179.

Fiction and mental health

Are there connections between mental health and literature?

  • "The results showed a positive correlation between exposure to narrative fiction and performance-based measures of social ability ... Furthermore, there was a negative correlation between exposure to non-fiction and social ability", p.259.
  • "Pennebaker and colleagues['s] studies show that predictors of health are ... (1) high levels of positive emotion words, and moderate levels (not high or low levels) of negative words ... (2) increases in the use of causal words ... (3) switches in the use of different pronouns", p.262.

Conclusions for writers

Nothing very surprising, though experimental confirmation is comforting

  • The authors give hints on where and how to hide details (in subclauses, etc) - "the technique of downplaying information to prompt later surprize is a key aspect of many types of narrative", p.93. They show the effect of point-of-view, and the factors that contribute to the sense of immersion. For the readers to generate effective scenerios, writers needn't aim for accuracy per se. They can trigger a scenario then individualise it by adding "reality effect" detail.
  • "One potential problem with free direct speech is that the lack of reporting clauses may require readers to do extra processing to infer the identity of the speakers... For free direct thought, one might again expect the free form to have more impact. However, without the reporting clause ... there can sometimes be a problem of distinguishing whether a sentence is to be interpreted as speech, thought, or main narrative", p.187.
  • "One of the skills in writing ... is to make such passages sufficiently detailed for the reader to engage with them, but not so specific that readers feel that the you address cannot or does not relate to them personally", p.175.
  • "There is a balance here between the enjoyment of unusual events and the enjoyment of familiarity", p.269.

I enjoyed reading how experiments can be constructed to test hypotheses using reaction times, EEG (spatial resolution poor) and fMRI (temporal resolution poor). The experiments often using the "N400 effect" (there's a larger negative EEG voltage peak about 400 ms after a word is presented that does not fit a context well) to measure surprize. More can be inferred than I'd have expected.

One of their conclusions is that "All in all, a greater connection between psychological and neuroscience studies of empathy in general, and how writers might manipulate this in texts, must be in the sights of front-line future research", p.269. I think a focus on poetry might lead to some quick results. The experiments relating to scenario formation, foregrounding, and depth of processing use texts that are artificially short in a fiction context, but operate at a scale that poets exploit. Poetry has gaps, and scenario-revision is rife. Secondary processing is common, and minimum processing isn't the usual reading strategy. Foregrounding and defamiliarisation are the norm.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this rare review of the book. I'm looking for the best psychological research in narratology in response for Turkle "Reclaiming Discourse"