My current research hovers somewhere between cognitive literary studies and the medical humanities, investigating the relationships between mental health and literary reading.
How my research ended up where it is now
My academic background is in literary studies: I read French and German for my BA, and moved on to a Masters in European Literature and a DPhil (PhD) in German Literature. Between the Masters and the doctorate I had something of a crisis of confidence: did I really want to do the complicated project on ‘Concepts and constructions of space in German modernist literature (1880-1930)’ for which the Arts & Humanities Research Council had agreed to give me money? Did I really care about whether the competition between rhetorical and philosophical traditions was playing out in the tension between realist and anti-realist aesthetics around the turn of the 20th century? I realised that no, I didn’t.
What to do about it? My resolutely scientific parents asked me: Is there a question you really want to know the answer to? If so, what is it? If not, maybe think twice about committing 3+ years of your life to this. I found that there was a question: What makes Kafka’s writing so weird and wonderful? And I gradually worked out that this was really a question about readers’ responses to Kafka, and that if I was to have any chance of answering it, I would therefore need to learn something about how readers’ minds work. Also that space was a red herring and perception (including of fictional spaces, or worlds) was the key. So I started trying to teach myself all I could about how vision and the visual imagination (or mental imagery) work, and found myself venturing out into the science of emotion too.
I had something of an epiphany when I came across Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noe’s 2001 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, ‘A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness’ (full text here), which proposed a radically anti-representationalist view of vision, and seemed to make immediate sense of everything about Kafka’s descriptive style. Of course, that turned out to be a bit of an overstatement, but it set the course for what would become an account of why Kafka’s writing is ‘cognitively realistic’ in perceptual and emotional terms, and what the effects of that might be. The thesis turned into a book, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism, and into several articles on Kafka’s poetics from a cognitive-scientific perspective. I went on to apply similar methods to the investigation of memory in the work of Flaubert and Proust. You can find out more about all these publications here.
Since then, my way of doing what I later discovered is called cognitive literary studies has shifted in two main respects. First, I’ve started trying to make the science-humanities interaction more of a two-way exchange than a grateful receiving of the wisdom of Science for the benefit of the humble humanities. The idea of ‘giving back to the sciences’ really began with my 2013 paper ‘Reading imaginatively: The imagination in cognitive science and cognitive literary studies’ (full text here), and it grew into a major co-edited volume, Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition (Google Books preview here). In this book, my colleague Michael Burke and I proposed the concept of cognitive literary science to denote the kind of cog-lit approach that assumes a fundamental reciprocity between scientific and humanities insights and methods.
Second, because my academic life was long shaped by mental illness, and since my recovery from anorexia has been shaped by the determination both to stay personally well and to do what I can to help other people avoid or escape from eating disorders, I’ve begun to investigate a specific facet of readers’ responses to literature: their clinical relevance. This started, as all my new ideas seem to, with Kafka, and in particular his short story ‘A Hunger Artist’, about a man who fasts for other people’s entertainment. I realised on the nth rereading that I’d never noticed before that though this man is a hunger artist, he is never once described as feeling hungry. Both the absence and the not-noticing seemed interesting enough to merit closer investigation, and an article arose which brought my own history explicitly into my academic writing for the first time (preprint here).
Out of this arose a desire to find out about how mental health and literary reading might interact beyond my own experience. This led to a collaboration with the UK eating-disorder charity Beat called ‘Eating disorders and real-life reading‘, in which we ran a major online survey asking people about the links between their mental health (with a focus on eating disorders) and what they read. The response was phenomenal (with nearly 900 respondents), and the rich data thus generated have led to publications on feedback loops in reading and disordered eating (abstract here), experiences of ‘immersion’ and their therapeutic relevance (preprint here), and to an account of the core survey findings (forthcoming in the Journal of Eating Disorders) and a theoretical paper on ‘creative bibliotherapy’ for eating disorders (forthcoming in Medical Humanities).
I hope to build on these preliminary findings by gathering more systematic data on the effects of specific aspects of textuality on clinically relevant dimensions of response, as well as the flipside of the same question: how a history of mental illness affects the dynamics of literary interpretation. Whether this happens by a formal experimental route or via other channels, like the anorexia recovery app I am developing, remains to be seen.
Thanks for your interest in my research, and please get in touch via the contact form if anything here resonates with you and you have questions or comments.