Academic journal article Style

Narratology and Cognitive Science: A Problematic Relation

Academic journal article Style

Narratology and Cognitive Science: A Problematic Relation

Article excerpt

At first sight my title may seem sacrilegious, or at least totally ignorant of recent trends. Isn't cognition--that is, the mind--one of the hottest and fastest-developing areas of scientific inquiry? Isn't narrative widely recognized as an activity--or as an artifact, if you prefer--that puts into play cognitive mechanism of the highest importance, a way to give meaning to our being-in-the-world, to our interpersonal relations, and to the temporality of our existence? Isn't a scientific, and more particularly a "cognitivist" approach "the next big thing" in the beleaguered field of literature, as an article in the New York Times tells us (Cohen)?

But despite this widespread interest for what narrative means for the life of the mind, the concrete contributions of the cognitive sciences to narratology are far from enjoying the same consensus. To demonstrate the problematic nature of the relations between these two fields, I would like to focus on an article published by the service of public relations of Washington University in Saint Louis in February 2009. A journalist, Gerry Everding, wrote the article and its purpose is to publicize the research of the faculty of Washington University. It is titled "Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest."

Here are some of the most striking claims of the article:

A new brain-imaging study is shedding light on what it means to "get lost" in a good book suggesting that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.

"Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story," said Jeffrey M. Zacks, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and of radiology in the School of Medicine, director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology and a co-author of the study.

Nicole Speer, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensations are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.

This is what was found: Changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., "pulled a light cord") were associated with increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions.

Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went through the front door into the kitchen") were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activated when people view pictures of spatial scenes (Everding).

My first reaction when I read this article was the kind of satisfaction that people (especially mothers) express through the phrase "I told you so." I have dealt with the phenomenon of immersion in my book Narrative as Virtual Reality, and, to describe and explain this phenomenon of immersion, I borrowed from cognitive psychology the concept of mental simulation (Oatley). This notion of mental simulation can be associated with another concept, proposed by the psychologist Rolf Zwaan, namely the concept of situation model. It refers to the idea that the readers or spectators of narrative build a mental model of the narrative world, and constantly update this model to take into account the changes described by the text, but without losing sight of the preceding states of this world. To put this more concisely, to process a story is to build a history of the world in which it takes place. …

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