How is it that readers can sense a direction, a possible future meaning, from a given sentence?
This is the basic question of the neuroscience of literature. David S. Maill, http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/ University of Wales, currently at the University of Alberta, CA,has studied in this area for decades.
“What are its causes, and what are the inferential processes that are initiated? How does the sense of a whole arise, and from what aspects of a text? And what is the relation between these two levels of response, the local and the global? These prospective aspects of response have not generally received much consideration from psychologists: models of response have proposed solutions drawn from non-literary fields (usually cognitive science) that underestimate the nature of the problem.
For example, the concept of macro-structure proposed by Kintsch and Van Dijk (1978) seems inadequate as a representation of the kinds of overall understanding at which readers of literary texts aim. Similarly, the discourse structure described by Hobbs (1990) takes no account of the poetic features of literary texts that delight and surprise their readers (see Beers  and Miall and Kuiken [1994a], for some critical discussion of theories of this kind). Moreover, studies in the cognitive tradition have also tended to blur distinctions between literary and non-literary texts, and have provided no purchase on the individual differences between readers or on the personal and often feeling-rich meanings evoked during literary reading (cf. Zwaan, 1993, p. 162-7).”
“We do not wait until reaching the end of a text before beginning to entertain ideas about what the text means!
Various aspects of the text, semantic, stylistic, and narrative, provide suggestions upon which a reader is likely to build his or her own anticipations.
This can be demonstrated by a brief analysis of the following passage, taken from the opening of a short story by Virginia Woolf, “Together and Apart” (Woolf, 1944/1982):
Mrs Dalloway introduced them, saying you will like him. The conversation began some minutes before anything was said, for both Mr Serle and Miss Anning looked at the sky and in both of their minds the sky went on pouring its meaning though very differently . . .
The narrative situation at the outset seems to involve a social gathering, such as a party. From the second phrase, “you will like him,” we are likely to infer, perhaps without noticing it, that there will be a bias towards the point of view of the female character (which is confirmed by the remaining part of the long second sentence that I have not quoted). The opening phrase of the next sentence, “The conversation began,” picks up an obvious expectation that the characters will begin talking, but then thwarts it by stating that nothing was said. What kind of non-verbal conversation are these characters holding? We may already be predicting something like rapport or sympathy, especially as we have been told that she “will like him.” In the next phrase we discover that the meeting appears to be out of doors, and for many readers the reference to the effect of the sky might momentarily evoke a romantic aura; however, the appended phrase, “though very differently,” could be taken to undermine this. So far, then, a narrative situation has been invoked, in which a woman meets a man with whom she may feel an immediate sympathy: already, readers may be anticipating a romantic scenario. The stylistic features can be construed to support this, given the metaphors of a conversation without words and the sky that “pours” meaning. At the same time, hints of a possible distance between the characters could also be read into the same metaphors, for which the phrase “very differently” provides evidence. Perhaps these are two characters who will in some way fail to relate to each other.”
“Within a few seconds a range of complementary but also contradictory responses has become possible. While some of the inferences that are made may be confirmed or not confirmed quickly (as happens with the inference of point of view), others may not be satisfied so soon: the reader may need to keep in play several possible meanings that will have a bearing not only on the outcome of the story (the narrative dimension) but also on what it means (the point of the story, or its theme). The reader must, in other words, assess the strength of the different implications, such as those presented in the second sentence, in the light of subsequent evidence, and decide which offer the best fit to the story as a whole. In fact, the failure of relationship is the implication that the story will emphasize. (A study of readers’ responses to this story found that readers tended to shift from a romantic interpretation at the beginning of the story to one involving isolation or inability to communicate: Miall, 1989a.)”
“Woolf’s story is not particularly unusual as a literary text in posing such problems, except perhaps in being unusually compact. The problem, from the perspective of reader response theory, is to account for the processes by which local details, of the kind we have been describing, project the larger meanings. In what form are such anticipations made, and what control processes do readers use to evaluate and monitor their anticipations?”
“Two reader response theorists who discuss the experience of reading in this way are Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser. In “Affective Stylistics” Fish (1980) argued persuasively for the significance of the experience of the reader during reading. The extraction of a “correct” final meaning for a text is not the only reading activity in which we should be interested. Fish pointed in particular to a range of syntactical devices by which readers are led to expect meanings that are then contradicted. At the sentence level, Fish would, for example, recognize the shift in meaning of “conversation” in Woolf’s second sentence as a significant strategy from the reader’s perspective. He proposed that “the temporary adoption of these inappropriate strategies is itself a response to the strategy of an author; and the resulting mistakes are part of the experience provided by that author’s language and therefore part of its meaning” (p. 47). Iser (1978) has offered a comparable account of reading, based primarily on concepts drawn from phenomenology and gestalt psychology. The “gaps” or “blanks” in a text (such as the possible contradiction we noticed in the Woolf passage) require readers’ acts of “ideation” and the building of a schema adequate to the text as a whole. Neither Fish nor Iser, however, have undertaken to develop their models in psychological terms; nor have they attempted to test them empirically with readers (and Fish has not continued to develop his model).”
“A part of Iser’s argument is the contention that fiction texts differ from expository texts in terms of the mental processes required for understanding them. An expository text refers to a given object, thus the range of possible meanings of each sentence must continually be narrowed down to make reference precise. During a fictional text “the very connectibility broken up by the blanks tends to become multifarious. It opens up an increasing number of possibilities, so that the combination of schemata entails selective decisions on the part of the reader.” (1978, p. 184). In effect, an expository text refers to an object that is specified with increasing precision; a fictional text refers forward to a schema that the reader must bring into being. The two reading processes may roughly be described as retrospective and prospective. An empirical comparison of readers’ activities during the reading of an essay or a fictional text by Olson, Mack, and Duffy (1981) showed that while few anticipations were made during the reading of essays, anticipations were characteristic of the response to stories. Readers of essays appear to be engaged in building a model of the text: “Each new element in the essay is related to earlier elements. There is little anticipation of what is coming up, except at the most general level.” In contrast, the reader of a story “is looking ahead, trying to anticipate where the story is going. Except at the beginning, where an overall hypothesis is being developed, the story reader tends to relate each sentence to the general hypotheses and predictions that have been developed” (p. 311).”
“The different orientations are described in the Olson et al. study as retrospective and prospective. Unlike this report, however, accounts of literary reading proposed by psychologists have more frequently tended to embody retrospective models, based on discourse theory or schema theory (e.g., Hobbs, 1990; Simon, 1994). While such theories have been notably successful in accounting for some of the processes of comprehension, given relatively simple prose or stories, the key role of the anticipatory processes of the kind required by literary texts is largely invisible to such models. The difficulty of studying the anticipatory aspects of reading, and the lack of constructive thought about this problem on the part of cognitive scientists, points to the strategy offered in this article. As a way of posing more explicitly and in more detail what specific problems face the literary reader in the anticipatory domain, and to enrich theoretical understanding of reader response, the present focus will be on a neuropsychological model of reading.”
“The focus of the discussion will thus be on anticipation, and its role in the constructive process by which a reader interprets details in a text and works towards an understanding of a text as a whole. However, several of the neuropsychological studies that will be mentioned point to the role of feelings and emotions in creating and supporting the anticipatory function. Feelings, it will be suggested, probably play the central role in initiating and directing the interpretive activities involved in such complex activities as reading. A glance at recent accounts by psychologists shows that the anticipatory role of feeling in this respect has not received much consideration (e.g., Frijda, 1986; Oatley, 1992; but see Aylwin, 1985, pp. 136-7), although it was recognized by various authors in the last two centuries, such as Coleridge and William James. This points to the need for a systematic investigation of what the neuropsychological research suggests, in order that the hypotheses it provides can be brought to the domains of both psychology and reader response studies for elaboration and testing.”
Dr. Maill enumerates several conclusions about the neuroscience of literature, and summarizes his thoughts as follows:
Discussions of literature are now enmeshed with related debates on political, social, and gender issues. The value of such debates is self-evident, because they draw attention to neglected influences in literature and on the way construe what is “literary”.
But I would also argue that we are in danger of overlooking functions that literature performs in human culture, especially its power to assist readers to reflect on and reshape their cultural identity (Miall, 1993).
Employing the principles of neuroscience, we may be in a better position to carry out empirical studies that will offer genuine advances in our understanding of what literary experience means.
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