Miall, 2001

Miall, David S. "An Evolutionary Framework for Literary Reading." The Psychology and Sociology of Literature: In Honour of Elrud Ibsch. Eds. Gerard Steen and Dick Schram. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. 407-419.
Miall argues that literature has evolutionary significance for humankind (407-08). Because literary discourse contains many foregrounded features, and foregrounding has a dehabituating or defamiliarizing effect, it challenges and modifies existing understandings. As a result, one's self is developed, and the flexibility of one's functioning with regard to others and the environment is increased. This contributes to the survival chances of the human species.  
Besides figurative structures and narrative forms, foregrounding is one of the aspects that makes a text literary (409-10). Empirical studies show that text passages that contain many foregrounded features, such as phonetic variation and metrical effects, evoke different kinds of responses than less foregrounded passages do: the former take longer to read, are found to be more striking, evoke more feeling, and are considered to have a more ambiguous role in the unfolding meaning of the text (410-11). In contrast to the assertions of the cultural relativists Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, results from empirical research suggest that this increased attentiveness is not induced pedagogically: no difference in reading behavior between more or less experienced readers of literature was found (411). That responsiveness to foregrounding is innate is also emphasized in findings of developmental studies. Babies, while they are still pre-linguistic, direct their attention to their mother when she uses language that contains many foregrounded features. Also, spontaneous speech of older infants appears to be highly foregrounded (411-12).  
What is the evolutionary function of foregrounding? By means of specific features attention is captured and something familiar is made special (414-15). In the early stages of a human's life (infancy and childhood), this contributes to the development of the self-other distinction, the other being another person, the content of the text, or some other aspect of the environment (412). Furthermore, by making something special, the possibility is created of re-evaluating something familiar, leading either to new or changed understandings (414). This dehabituating role of literature has evolutionary implications, for it enhances the flexibility of human functioning by increasing one's capability to deal with different situations and individuals. As such, it strengthens chances for survival (415-17). This mechanism has come up, for instance, in studies in which bereaved participants read Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The reading generated new meanings which facilitated coping with the emotional distress brought about by the bereavement (Miall and Kuiken, "Reading").  
By means of the phenomenon of dehabituation, Miall provides a very plausible explanation for the evolutionary origin and function of literary processing. Literature (both oral and written), however, is by no means the only thing that can bring about the enhancement of the flexibility of one's functioning. Other (semi-)aesthetic experiences such as ritual and haute cuisine, but also (non-aesthetic) (un)expected occurrences such as life threatening situations dehabituate as well. Therefore, we need to wonder why there is still room and even need for literary discourse if there are so many other phenomena that facilitate dehabituation's flexibility-effect, often perhaps in a more effective way. What is the additional value of literature? Unfortunately, Miall does not provide an answer to these questions.  
The solution to this problem may have to do with the fact that in literary discourse language is the primary stimulus, language being the ultimate and perhaps, in spite of its many deficiencies, most refined means to communicate and, as some might argue, to facilitate understanding of emotional and physical experiences. To make language special is to re-create one's main tool to express oneself to others (and, in some cases, to one's self). The instrument that is usually employed to effectuate understanding is now changed in such a way that it challenges understandings. As such, within literature, the means to express and the disruption of understanding are fused in a most intimate fashion.  
The implications of this unique intimacy are far reaching. For instance, it is possible that the ways in which literary discourse challenges existing schemata may be more subtle and sophisticated than other types of experiences. That is, because literature's main material, language, is (one of) the most automatized aspects of human existence, it is also (one of) the most important carriers of meanings. By re-designing (aspects of) the house of meanings, the latter are put in a different light and may appear to deviate from that which they were originally considered to be. As such, defamiliarized language takes place in the final domain that precedes the communication of (new) meanings. To challenge meaning in language and by means of language is to confront understandings in a very direct way. This does not mean, however, that the dehabituating effect is necessarily brought about through verbal expression. What's more, it may very well be that the modifying effect of reading is above all non-verbal (see, for instance, Miall and Kuiken, "Feeling"). This notion raises questions about the suitability of the two research-instruments most used within the empirical studies of literary reading, questionnaires and interviews, for they are predominantly linguistically-based. Research-designs in which both these traditional instruments and physiological instruments, such as MRI-scans, are employed could provide a solution to this problem.  
This literary fusion of understanding and disruption may be the very reason why literature stands apart from experiences in which this connection is less intimate, that is, the non-literary, the alternative aesthetic, and the non-aesthetic experience. Dehabituation as brought about by foregrounding, figurative structures, and narrative forms, is plausible as an explanation for the function of literature, but only when we think of literature as a manifestation of one and the same dehabituation phenomenon. However, this does not do justice to the possible uniqueness of literary processing, for it may very well be that the dehabituation-effect of literature is different from that of other dehabituating experiences. Its deviation may be the very reason why literature has "survived." In other words, more distinctions need to be made within the experience-category that has dehabituation as an effect. For instance, there may be a difference between those dehabituating experiences that are effectuated through created stimuli and those which are brought about by natural stimuli, that is, stimuli which have a human creator and those which do not. This division corresponds, for instance, to the distinction between, on the one hand, the poetic, gothic, and tragic sublime and, on the other hand, the natural sublime. Furthermore, because the literary experience evolves around language, it may occupy a unique position within the domain of the created stimuli. Finally, another fruitful approach to further differentiation of dehabituation-processes may be the stereoscopic perspective of the old and the new in the dehabituating experience. It may very well be that within the aesthetic the familiar is related to the un-familiar in a different way than is the case in the non-aesthetic. For instance, in an aesthetic experience, old and new meanings merge, whereas in a non-aesthetic experience, the old and the new remain two distinct categories.  
Overall, Miall's suggestion that empirical research should be employed to "specify dehabituation theory in relation to hypotheses that predict specific aspects of the relationship between literary texts and readers' behavior" (20) is very valuable, especially if this endeavor encompasses comparisons with the effects of other kinds of dehabituating experiences. As such, more insight may be gained in the extent to which the literary can be viewed as a unique kind of discourse and experience that has contributed to humans' evolutionary adaptability.  

Miall, D. S., and D. Kuiken. "Reading Expressively through 'Tears of Light'." IGEL Conference. Toronto. July 31-August 4. 2000.

---. "A Feeling for Fiction: Becoming What We Behold." Poetics 30 (2002): 221-241.

Document created April 21st 2005