My main research interests currently hover somewhere between cognitive literary studies and the health humanities, in particular in the relationships between mental health and literary reading.
My latest papers explore the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic effects of reading, taking eating disorders as a case study.
‘Literary reading and eating disorders: Survey evidence of therapeutic help and harm’ (Journal of Eating Disorders)
‘Fiction-reading for good or ill: Eating disorders, interpretation, and the case for creative-bibliotherapy research’ (Medical Humanities)
The most important finding from this research project is clear and counterintuitive: for people with an eating disorder, reading fiction about eating disorders is usually perceived as strongly detrimental to health on all the dimensions reported (mood, self-esteem, feelings about your body, and diet and exercise habits). Reading one’s preferred type of other fiction, by contrast, was reported to be mostly neutral or positive, especially for mood. This has important implications for theories of ‘bibliotherapy’, as well as for our understanding of ‘triggering’ and other adverse effects of engaging with textual material.
You can also read short pieces on this project:
- ‘How do your reading habits shape your health—and vice versa?’ (Medium)
- ‘New research explores how reading affects eating disorder – for good or ill’ (The Conversation)
- ‘Artistic licence: Why a book might not save your life’ (Oxford University Arts Blog, by Francesca Moll)
Background: How my research ended up where it is now
Cognitive literary studies
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.
The concept of cognitive realism, and the simple framework it opens up for studying relationships between texts and minds, still strikes me as potentially useful to the cog lit field. Here’s the definition I give in a 2012 paper on memory in Madame Bovary:
‘Cognitive realism’ denotes the capacity of a text to tap in directly to some aspect of a reader’s cognitive faculties, by evoking this faculty in a cognitively accurate way. A text that is cognitively realistic corresponds to how we really remember, or see, or feel, and may therefore induce a particularly effortless imaginative response on the reader’s part.
You can read more on cognitive realism here.
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 (here’s the full text in the German original and in a translation by Ian Johnston). 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‘, funded by a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship at TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. In the six months of our formal partnership 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 to a not-at-all-short-or-simple questionnaire), and the rich data sure respondents generated have led to an empirical paper outlining the core survey findings (in the Journal of Eating Disorders), a theoretical paper on ‘creative bibliotherapy’ for eating disorders (in Medical Humanities), a book chapter on feedback loops in reading and disordered eating (abstract here), and a chapter on experiences of ‘immersion’ and their therapeutic relevance (preprint here).
My current research activity builds on these preliminary findings by asking new versions of questions about how specific aspects of textuality affect 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. I am currently approaching these broad questions via two routes:
- a collaboration with Rocío Riestra Camacho, a PhD student at the University of Oviedo, who is running an experiment testing readers’ responses to two young adult sports fiction novels, with or without a specially designed reading guide;
- a collaboration with James Carney, Wellcome Fellow in Medical Humanities at Brunel University, London, on the realtime dynamics of textual reception and creation of pro-eating disorder content on Twitter.
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.