An evolutionary approach to literary reading

Theory and predictions

David S. Miall
University of Alberta

© 1998 David S. Miall

A revised extract from "Towards a psychology of neoformalism: Empirical studies of literary response," presented at the University of California at Santa Barbara, October 20, 1998 in the Evolutionary and Behavioral Social Sciences Speaker Series.

Literary experience, whether oral or written, seems ubiquitous: it appears in every culture across the world, and as far back in time as records survive. Thus it seems worthwhile asking whether literature fulfills some long-standing function (or set of functions) that has evolved in the human species. While postmodern accounts of literature (e.g., Stanley Fish, 1989) have denied the distinctiveness once attributed to literary experience, literary texts continue to be written and read in almost every part of the world; moreover, modern literary texts show a continuity with the oral, sharing such features as special phonetic devices, metrical and figurative resources, and narrative form (cf. Finnegan, 1992). In this perspective I propose that literary experience has adaptive value. By placing it within an evolutionary framework it becomes possible to generate specific hypotheses that can be tested against the evidence of actual reading events. An evolutionary view, in other words, helps to promote the empirical study of literary response while providing a foundation for a reconceptualized theory of literature.

Far from being exempt from the evolutionary laws that have shaped our psychology and permeate our culture, I believe it will be found that literature makes distinctive and effective use of those laws. The extraordinary range of literary culture both within a given tradition (English literature, for example), and between cultures across the world, is a sign of the ubiquity of the laws that help to generate it. My interest lies in asking what is invariant about such laws. In other words, an evolutionary-based approach is concerned primarily with the formal properties of literature and the processes it appears to initiate, rather than with the more commonly studied questions posed by literary content.

This proposal can be illustrated by an analogy. Literature invokes processes in the reader somewhat as a migrating bird depends on its navigational system. The bird does not set out with a fixed goal that it aims to reach: its orientation is guided by reference to such environmental signals as geographical landmarks, terrestrial magnetism, the sun, and stars, all of which provide the bird with a goal-tracking system (Bowlby, 1974, p. 73). It is this content-knowledge that modulates the migratory process of the bird, but in order to understand that process we need to know not what the bird understands about magnetism or the sun but how its systematic use of this information creates a guidance system. Similarly, the literary reader, while knowing that there is a goal to be reached (i.e., an interpretation of a text that is appropriate for that reader), cannot set out knowing in advance what that goal is, in the way that the reader of a repair manual or a chemistry textbook can be goal-oriented. Literary reading is guided, like the migrating bird, by an array of navigational markers, such as the palette of phonetic features, significant figurative structures, and invitations to empathy, and it is these that enable the reader to reach her goal. No conscious awareness of such markers is needed: a reader, for example, does not need knowledge of phonetic tone colours, or even need to be aware of their role during reading; despite this, the phonemic response promotes the process of literary reading. The literary reader, in other words, deploys a set of "content-sensitive" processes (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, p. 34) endowed on her by evolution, but fulfils these in ways peculiar to her own needs and historical context.

Central to the arguments of evolutionary psychology is the claim that whatever psychological mechanisms the human race exhibits now were developed in response to our prehistorical existence as hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene epoch. Our adaptedness as a species is a reflection of our environment across some two million years, a context that must be considered in attempting to understand any significant human capacity -- including that for literature. Thus literature as a response process cannot primarily be understood in terms of recent cultural developments, let alone as something entirely new, as some postmodern theorists have suggested ("We are poised at the brink of what may prove to be a kind of species mutation," claims Jay David Bolter, referring to the impact of hypermedia on reading: 1992, p. 31). As Bowlby (1974) remarks, we must be attentive to "the fact that not a single feature of a species' morphology, physiology, or behaviour can be understood or even discussed intelligently except in relation to that species' environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (p. 64). Literary reading, in this perspective, must be understood as a response to the ancestral environment and the cognitive, emotional, and social challenges that it posed.

So what kind of adaptation is literary response? How might it promote the inclusive fitness of those early humans who adopted its practice? I will argue that it confers a number of benefits, but that each can be understood in terms of a theory of dehabituation. Response to literature promotes an offline tuning of emotional and cognitive schemata, with a particular focus on resetting the individual's readiness for appropriate action. Our central observation is that literature facilitates this process through the array of formal features that it presents, thus our account can be seen as a neoformalist theory. But there are also several other associated hypotheses that we are concerned to explore (one, as I suggest below, points to the increased risk of those engaged in the creation of literary works). The main components of the theory are outlined on the following figure, which attempts to capture the logic of an empirical research programme as suggested by David Buss (1995).

Dehabituation theory figure

I will now briefly indicate the studies that have been done that offer tests of the various predictions shown here. What follows is no more than a sketch, but further details of several of the studies mentioned can be found in the literature cited, including our published papers; I also mention other studies still in progress, where publication will follow when we have completed additional work (including replications of certain studies).

Hypothesis 1: Attentional framing devices in literature (i.e., processes based on activation of the orienting response: Sokolov, 1975). Empirical stylistics forms the first phase of examining this hypothesis.

Prediction 1: Foregrounding lengthens reading time. Segments of short stories were coded for foregrounding (such stylistic features as alliteration, ellipsis, or metaphor); readers read the stories online while we collected reading times per segment. A strong correlation of foregrounding and reading times was obtained in every study (6 literary stories, several replications), e.g., in "The Trout", partial correlation, r(82) = .423, p < .001. This finding occurs whether readers have much or little literary education, so we believe that it may be independent of education or exposure to literature. For details see Miall and Kuiken (1994).

Prediction 2: Increased amplitude in N400. Cf. Johann Hoorn's (1996) electrophysiological study of semantic and phonetic deviation at verse endings. Hoorn presented participants with verses with manipulated last words. An example test verse was:

Wandering among tombs and stones
Verwey lived among raven and rook.
In the flowerbed his limbs and bones
He rested, and, thus wrote his final _____.

Alternative endings supplied were: book / verse / hook / heart. These either fulfilled expectations, or provided deviations at either the phonetic or semantic level, or both. EEG measures show an increased N400 amplitude with the unexpected semantic or phonetic endings.

Prediction 3: Foregrounded features correlate with increased reader uncertainty. In several studies with literary stories, foreground coding has predicted higher ratings for uncertainty, suggesting the effect of foregrounding in unsettling the schemata supplied by readers (Miall, 1989). This appears to be the subjective result of the orienting response, downstream from the N400 effect shown by Hoorn.

Hypothesis 1 will also require work on the influence of narrative components on reading, e.g., what is literary that is captured (or not) by discourse processing approaches, such as the situation model theory of Zwaan, et al. (1995). In comparative studies we have pointed to the limitations of this model in accounting for the literary component of response (Miall and Kuiken, in press). We have also begun exploring alternative paradigms (e.g., Corrêa et al. (1998), in which we study subjectivization in response to culturally proximal or remote narrative settings).

Hypothesis 2: Increase in stylistic novelty over time

Prediction 1: Increased primary process thought, as measured by the Regressive Imagery Dictionary (e.g., Martindale, 1975). Martindale and his colleagues have provided much evidence for this hypothesis: in brief, it suggests that once a literary style has been established (e.g., at the beginning of the British Romantic period) writers must work harder to create novelty that will attract and hold the attention of readers; they do so by shifting increasingly to the use of primary process thought in their writing. But this proposal also creates a difficulty by suggesting that readers habituate to earlier styles, since it is clear that current readers of earlier literary works do not lose their defamiliarizing responses. The stylistic climate for writers and readers may differ in important respects.

Hypothesis 3: Facilitate mental module permeability (cf. Mithen, 1996, pp. 58-60)

Prediction 1: Extended figurative structures in literary vs. non-literary discourse. There may be more metaphor in Manchester than in Marvell, as Eagleton claims (1983, p. 6), but literary texts appear to be distinctive for their extended figurative structures. This claim has yet to be demonstrated empirically, as far as I know, although there is plenty of critical writing that suggests it (e.g., imagery patterns in Shakespeare's plays). The work of Lakoff and Turner (e.g., 1989) and their colleagues may offer a helpful way of framing such a study.

Prediction 2: Influence of phonetic contrasts -- a specific example of cross-module permeation. For example, a front-back ordering of vowels was used to produce a weighting of segments of literary stories: reading times for "The Trout" by Sean O'Faolain correlated, r(82) = .335, p < .01 (longer reading times correlated with narrow front vowels); in contrast, with "The Wrong House" by Katherine Mansfield, readers were more attentive to open back vowels, r(84) = -.423, p <.01. This suggests an iconic role for phonemes, with the module for phonetic decoding serving to create an underlying figurative framework for response to the story ("The Trout" centres in particular on narrow, constricted spaces in a garden; "The Wrong House" focuses on a possible funeral).

Hypothesis 4: Decentering the self through narrative empathy, that is, dehabituation of the familiar, self-centered perspective, or the "me first" focus, as linguists have put it.

Prediction 1: Recall is coincident with point of view. Several studies have shown that taking the perspective of a character in a story increases memory for information available to that character (e.g., Anderson & Pichert. 1978; Wegner & Giuliano, 1983). There would appear to be adaptive value in being able to relocate oneself within the perspective of another person; literary reading provides an effective training in this facility.

Prediction 2: Current concerns promote enactive reading. That is, recognition of a concern in a text facilitates merging of the identities of reader and protagonist during literary reading. A study we carried out with readers of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has begun to show this (Sikora, Kuiken, & Miall, 1998). In a related study, Klinger (1978) found that readers were particularly attentive to goals of characters that resonated with their own.

Prediction 3: Processing of negative emotions (which we might term catharsis). There may be adaptive value in attending to negative emotions that tend to be repressed in the familiar social settings for self-expression (cf. Nesse & Lloyd, 1992). We (Corrêa, Miall, & Kuiken, 1998) carried out a study with repertory grid technique, with grids elicited for familiar environments, and environments in two literary texts (some of the same constructs were used in both grids), a foreign text by the Brazilian writer Ramos and an Alberta-based text by Wilson. Most constructs exhibit a valency, having a preferred (positive) pole. In comparison with the first environment grid, a marked shift towards the negative pole of constructs occurred in the literary grids: from 34% to 43% for Ramos readers, t(29)=3.709, p < .001; and from 38% to 52% for Wilson readers, t(29)=4.625, p < .001. The negative score was also significantly greater for the literary grids of the Wilson readers compared with the Ramos readers, t(58)=3.537, p < .001, a finding that may point to these readers' greater familiarity with the negative implications of the Wilson story environment and its characters. Since the negative emotions recognized in the text are being placed in a literary perspective that may recontextualize them, this could be held to accord with cartharsis theory, if we see this as a process of clarification or understanding of such emotions.

Hypothesis 5: Marginal social status of writer. Since the writer deals with dehabituation, this is likely to cut across prevailing social norms.

Prediction 1: Greater incidence of psycho-pathology in writers. This is suggested by the studies reported in Robert A. Prentky, Creativity and Psychopathology: A Neurocognitive Perspective (1980), Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993), and Ludwig M. Arnold, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy (1995). Such findings could be explained either as writers with existing conditions being attracted to creative writing to express their novel vision; or writers who engage in dehabituation being more prone to mental disorder on account of the social tensions they encounter as a result.

Hypothesis 6: Gender difference in reader preferences. This is an inference from the gender-based differences reported by investigators such as Buss (1995), such as the superior memory for object-location of women, vs. the superior spatial-rotation processing of men. If this suggests a foraging/hunting gender difference, then we might expect a differential adaptation to what literary reading affords:

Prediction 1: Female preference for romances, male for adventure. This is partly confirmed by data we collected, based on our Current Reading Questionnaire, which asked respondents to rate a series of leisure activities for time spent on them. For example, in a sample of female readers (126 respondents) compared with male readers (102), females reported spending significantly more time reading romances and literary novels; males spent more time watching TV and participating in sport. We had no data specifically on adventure fictions (e.g., westerns, exploration, etc.).

I should add that our research has not focused except marginally on Hypotheses 5 or 6. However, supporting studies, as this summary shows, provide confirmation of each of the predictions shown in the figure except for Hypothesis 3, Prediction 1.

In addition to the studies I have already mentioned, I might add that we have also investigated bodily correlates of literary response, which we see falling within the scope of the framing devices hypothesis, since responses in specific bodily areas coincided with the occurrence of foregrounding. We have also studied the responses of bereaved participants to reading, where we have found signs of therapeutic interest; this study can be seen as a form of decentering of the self with some cathartic benefit.

In summary, the process underlying each aspect of the literary domain that I have described is that of dehabituation: this includes, but is more extensive than, the defamiliarizing process noted by authors from Shelley through Shklovsky to Brecht. In evolutionary terms the dehabituating properties of literary texts serve to "tune" or modify our cognitive and affective frames; in more familiar terms, literary reading enables us to overcome our customary, economical habits of feeling or perception. The veridicality of perception emphasised by Tooby and Cosmides (1992, p. 70-72) is obviously of central importance to survival: it perhaps constitutes "those first-born affinities that fit / Our new existence to existing things" (Prelude, i.583-4), as Wordsworth puts it. Neuropsychological research has identified a number of finely tuned mechanisms for solving the computational problems of vision, for example, and we are now aware of others that address the problem of hearing, such as phonetic decoding. At the same time, these very mechanisms may also "lock" us into a stereotyped set of perceptions: literary response has evolved in particular as a way of unsettling the stereotypical. In particular, literature enables us to "recalibrate" our emotional responses.

Why the literary mechanism represents an effective solution to human adaptive problems can also be understood in terms of identity, both social and individual. As I noted earlier, literary response may represent a solution to constraints on the expression of emotion (Nesse & Lloyd, 1992), and, in the context of the awareness of contingency, change, and death that first emerged with our ancestors, it may offer a medium for reflecting on and reshaping communal identity. In this respect, literature is to be distinguished from ordinary discourse. If the primary function of discourse is to instantiate standard interpretive schemata, for which emotional response and self-awareness arise only incidentally and are generally stereotypical, literary experience, in contrast, facilitates changes in perception and feeling that can be shared communally, thus enhancing the survival and reproductive ability of the group. This external factor alone may have been sufficient to favour the selection and perpetuation of the capacity for literature, but literature can also be seen as a solution to an endogenous adaptive problem, that of social constraint, repression, and pathology. What began as a communal experience, especially shared narratives, dramas, and literary components of play or ritual (Dissanayake, 1992, p. 48), may over time have evolved in part to address the singular internal needs of individuals. Literature evolved in particular, perhaps, because it spoke to what was individual in the individual. As Dissanayake has shown, every culture appears to promote what we might call a "defamiliarizing" mode of mind, a "making special" (p. 50), which prepared the individual for recognizing and participating in an unusual experience: developed at first, perhaps, for encountering the sacred and the rituals that developed around it, literary experience may subsequently have incorporated linguistic and narrative cues to alert the hearer to adopt a special mode of attention. Dissanayake notes that many cultures make use of specific devices to signal poetic utterance, such as a special tone of voice (p. 113-6). Internalized in the texture of language as foregrounding it is these cues, in part, that we now recognize as giving literature its distinctiveness as a medium.

As Tooby and Cosmides have pointed out, progress in the sciences arose when researchers located "the level of analysis appropriate for describing and investigating their particular subject: when researchers discover the level where invariance emerges, the level of underlying order. What is confusion, noise, or random variation at one level resolves itself into systematic patterns upon the discovery of the level of analysis suited to the phenomena under study" (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, p. 63). In our approach, at least two principal sets of invariants we have investigated are foregrounding and some key components of narrative, and we show that in these domains are to be found a systematic set of patterns underlying the variations apparent in readers' responses. Although the empirical science of literature has been pursued by very few scholars in comparison with the considerable number currently pursuing conventional theoretical and interpretive studies, we believe that this pattern of invariants within the framework of dehabituation theory has the power to offer a foundation for literary studies overall. This will enable literary study to contribute to the integration of the the behavioral and social studies for which Tooby and Cosmides have called. Thus in the view of it proposed here, empirical literary study is potentially paradigmatic and unifying.


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Document created November 8th 1998