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Eating Disorders and Real-Life Reading

This collaborative and interdisciplinary medical-humanities project is designed to fill significant gaps in the cognitive study of literature and the study of eating disorders.

From 2014-15 I held a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), during which I established a partnership with the UK's leading eating-disorders charity, Beat. Our collaboration was the first step towards exploring and empirically testing the hypothesis that in the context of mental health (here specifically disordered eating), readers' histories shape their reading of literature, and conversely that their reading shapes their personal futures. This involves investigating both recreational and professional/critical reading, drawing on my past experience of anorexia and my research profile in cognitive literary studies, together with Beat's public and professional infrastructure and connections, to derive two-way benefits for the study of literature and the study and treatment of eating disorders. During the fellowship, we carried out a large-scale survey to establish whether people perceive connections between their reading and their mental health, and if so of what kind. The next step will be to conduct empirical work to test the nature of the interactions between real texts and readers. To this end, I plan to adapti and develop measures of both literary appreciation and self-orientated perception and appraisal, and to combine qualitative and quantitative methods.

Eating disorders are an increasingly prevalent pathology in today's world, and the evidence base for therapeutic interventions for anorexia in particular is notoriously weak. The negative effects of mass-media representations of emaciation are relatively well researched, and Beat recently conducted a survey confirming the negative effects of such images on people with a history of eating disorders. By contrast, there is little research on narrative fiction, which may well behave very differently from advertising or online news journalism, given its employment of a wider range of more sophisticated cues (narrative perspective, complex metaphor, descriptive detail, etc.) to invite readers to engage cognitively with the minds and bodies of the depicted characters. In this project, TORCH and Beat together began a long-overdue investigation of how fiction affects and is affected by readers' mental health, using eating disorders as a case study.

 

This academic year, together with colleagues from a range of departments at Oxford, I am running a reading group called 'Books, Minds, and Bodies', to learn more about the effects of reading fiction on mental health and wellbeing may be affected by a group context. For more details, see our page on the website of our funder, the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute.

 

Junior Research Fellowship (2010-14): Cognitive Realisms in Literature

(See Writing and Publications for details of my doctoral thesis)

I am currently investigating how cognitive science can enrich literary criticism, investigating different forms of ‘cognitive realism’ in a selection of French and German texts from the Realist and Modernist periods. In particular, I explore the evocations in fictional texts of cognitive faculties such as memory, attention, agency, and emotion, and how these evocations determine the connections which are established with the reader’s mind, by corresponding with and/or deviating from how these faculties actually operate in the real world. Brief and extended outlines of my postdoctoral research can be found below. My latest project has now begun to incorporate an ethical dimension, and to connect up my thinking on anorexia and on literature, by exploring the ways in which recent 'second-generation' or '4E' cognitive science can enrich both literary-critical and clinical approaches to eating disorders, by taking the embodied realities of cognition seriously.

In tandem with my theoretical research, I am collaborating with Dr Karin Kukkonen and Professor Kate Nation on a project entitled Eye Movements in Literary Reading, in which we use eye-tracking measures to investigate readers’ responses to certain common devices in literary texts by Virginia Woolf and Ian Fleming. I am also developing other experimental methodologies to try to get at the tricky question of what real readers actually experience when they read fiction, and why.

 

1. Brief research outline:

How do words on a page trigger our imaginations? Does a more ‘realistic’ text do so more effectively? My research into the ‘Kafkaesque’ reading experience has yielded an approach to literary criticism that seeks to provide precise and generalisable answers to these questions. In particular, my research has yielded the insight that whereas traditional nineteenth-century literary Realism assumes we build up detailed mental ‘pictures’ of the world around us, and hence that texts which evoke fictional worlds can best do so by means of verbally painted pictures, cognitive science has shown that this is not so. Texts that do not provide such pictorial detail, such as Kafka’s, are therefore more ‘cognitively realistic’ in a perceptual sense. The term ‘cognitive realism’ can be broadened to denote how a text directly engages any number of specific cognitive processes of the reader, and provides a framework within which to explore aspects of cognition as evoked in the fiction and engaged in the reader. These include vision and imagination, memory, attention, agency, and emotion. I will study the connections between text and cognition in a selection of French and German literary texts, each of which is generally categorised within one or other of the contrastive and chronologically juxtaposed ‘movements’ of Realism and Modernism. I will seek to establish what forms of cognitive realism are manifested by Realist and by Modernist prose fiction. I will also carry out complementary empirical work to deepen our understanding of how real readers respond to ‘Realist’ and ‘Modernist’ works of fiction, as they exemplify different sorts of cognitive realism. I propose thus to apply our most advanced understanding of perception and cognition directly to great examples of literary fiction, taking the fundaments of science and literature and building them into a new discipline that employs and enriches both.

 

2. Extended research description:

What makes a text ‘realistic’? We tend to think that the most realistic narratives are those which most accurately and comprehensively imitate the fluid linearity of our experience of the external world, causing us vividly to imagine, and powerfully to feel, the fictional world. But perceptual experience is not linear, cumulative, more or less complete. There is no single ‘stream of consciousness’ (Blackmore, 2003; Dennett, 1991; James, 1890). Seeing is not a process of constructing internal representations of the world, any more than imagining is a process of constructing pictures in the head (Pylyshyn, 2003). Seeing and imagining are fundamentally enactive processes (O’Regan and Noë, 2001; Thomas, 1999); neither consists in linear, cumulative progress towards a representational endpoint.

Realism, then, should not be about painting maximally detailed verbal pictures of a perceptible fictional world, although this is the basic principle by which the literary tradition of Realism generally operates (Bucher et al., 1975; Plumpe, 2003). A more cognitively orientated realism is achieved by texts that challenge the illusions of narrative linearity which we retrospectively impose on experience (Jaynes, 1976), and which instead tap into the fundamental processes by which we see and imagine: enactive, non-pictorial processes of ongoing skilful exploration (Noë, 2006). When a fictional world is evoked through the perceptual enaction of it (Noë, 2004) the character sees, and we fluidly imagine, a world that is never given all at once, but always emerges when looked for, just in time (Rensink, 2000).

A scientifically informed exploration of how vision, imagination, and consciousness are involved in the reading process therefore yields a new way of discussing the ‘realism’ of fictional texts. In my thesis I focused on the enactive continuum between vision and imagination, touching on questions of consciousness; I will now expand my investigation of consciousness studies and cognitive science to find what sorts of ‘cognitive realism’ are manifested by texts in the ‘Realist’ tradition (approximately 1830-1900) and from the period generally characterised as ‘Modernist’ (approximately 1900-1940).

In this research project, I will broaden my focus from the German tradition to include also French literature, using a selection of modern fictional prose texts by canonical authors. This will permit my research to make claims about ‘European’ Realism and Modernism that would not be sustainable on the basis of the idiosyncrasies of the German tradition alone. Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert in the French tradition, and Büchner, Storm, and Fontane in the German will represent Realism (including German ‘Poetic Realism’); Modernism will be represented by Proust, Gide, and Beckett, and Thomas Mann, Benn, and Hesse. In parallel with close reading of prose texts by these authors, I will investigate how changing understanding of imagination and cognition contemporary to these authors’ writing may influence or correlate with their methods of literary evocation and readers’ reception of them. I will consider, further, how trends in critical reception of these authors can be illuminated and complemented by exploration of the texts’ various forms of cognitive realism. Thus I will seek fuller understanding of the many factors that combine to determine and vary the perceptual, imaginal, cognitive, and emotional experience of reading. I will ultimately draw conclusions about the contrasting or comparable ways in which literature currently classified as Realist or Modernist cognitively engages its readers.

Vision research and consciousness studies are currently burgeoning disciplines, in which insights from psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind are furthering our understanding of what it means to experience the world around us (Thomas, 1999; 2003). In the first year, I will investigate specific areas within the discipline of consciousness studies, such as attention (Pashler, 1998; Wright and Ward, 2008), memory (Baddeley, 1999 and 2007), and agency (Claxton, 1986; Libet, 1985, 1999; Wegner, 2002), and including the history of inquiry into these areas. I will relate these to the processes of reading and imagining induced by specific elements of the texts in question. This investigation will be informed by preliminary close reading of a selection of texts by the chosen authors, and critical reception of them, yielding a checklist of different evocations of various aspects of perception, cognition, and emotion. The psychology of mindfulness, as it enriches cognitive science (Austin, 1998; Claxton (ed.), 1986; Pickering, 1997; Varela et al., 1991), will guide further exploration of the nature of first-person experience, and how sensory and imaginative experience interact.

Emotional response is fundamental to the reading experience, but is a notoriously elusive object of theoretical and empirical investigation. My research will also ask precisely how literary texts emotionally engage us, basing my inquiry (in the second year) on evidence from the selected primary texts in conjunction with research into the psychology of emotion (Frijda, 1986), discourse processing (Hogan, 2003; van den Broek et al., 1996, 1999), and affective cognition (Burke, 2008). This will help further illuminate readers’ subjective responses to fictional texts, in particular their emotional engagement with fictional characters’ experiences. Finally, the ‘psychology of reading’ (Underwood and Batt, 1996), which builds on research into the visual text-processing aspects of reading to explore wider cognitive and emotional responses, will help ground reading experiences in the specifics of text-processing. This could result in revealing and precise conclusions regarding cause and effect in reading.

Scientifically informed literary criticism can offer psychologically sensitive interpretations of texts, and also permits of progress towards experimental corroboration or falsification: it yields testable hypotheses about how words on the page affect readers’ experiences of fictional worlds. My revealing preliminary study of readers’ responses to Kafka’s writing has suggested possibilities for a more ambitious programme of empirical reader-response research, possibly comparing two authors explored in theoretical terms, one from each ‘movement’. This detailed inquiry, in the third year, into how readers really respond to texts, building on empirical work in the emergent discipline of cognitive literary studies (Gerrig; Goetz and Sadoski; Miall and Kuiken), will derive from and in turn revise or refine the theoretical insights. The project lends itself to the publication of journal articles on each of the connected but self-sufficient areas of inquiry.

My starting point is that how a text engages a reader’s cognitive processes determines how the reader experiences the reality evoked by the text. Exploring, defining, and testing the nature and implications of the cognitive realisms of ‘Realist’ literature in combination and contrast to those of ‘Modernist’ literature will be the goal of my research.

 

 

 

 

 

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