Zoek in de site...

What happens in our mind while reading a fictional story?

Dr. Roel Willems, Associate professor in Communication and Information Studies

One of the research strands concerned with language processing and cognition focuses on stories. In a quest to understand how people understand language, Dr. Roel Willems and his colleagues started out by studying words and sentences in isolation. Their current research is strongly influenced by the discovery that people mentally simulate the words they read. When reading action words such as kick or throw, for example, people perform the described actions in their mind without physically executing them. Such mental simulations play an important role in readers’ understanding of language. This finding gave rise to questions about the occurrence and nature of these simulations in the processing of longer stretches of discourse.taalonderzoek

Literary stories
Willems, “In our current work, we examine processes of simulation and imagination within the context of literary stories. What happens in the mind of a person while reading a fictional story? How do people experience stories? And how is this experience shaped by the linguistic and stylistic features of stories?”

In a recent study, CLS researchers asked people to read fictional stories written in the first person (stories with an “I”-character) and stories written in the third person (stories with a “he/she”-character). They measured readers’ skin conductance to assess their arousal and used questionnaires to assess their immersion into the stories, that is: the degree to which they became absorbed by the story during reading. The results showed that readers were more immersed in first person stories, but slightly more aroused by third person stories. This shows that the linguistic features of stories affect the way stories are experienced by readers.

The main advantage of studying language in the context of stories is the possibility to examine how people process and understand linguistic utterances they could potentially encounter in real life, rather than artificial utterances in isolation. “The power of the context has not always been acknowledged in studies on language processing, but it is central to the research we carry out here at the CLS,” says Willems.

Research outdoors
The researchers gather data not only in the lab, but also ‘in the wild’. In 2017, for example, people visiting the Nijmegen Four Days Marches and the Music Meeting Festival participated in a study on their aesthetic appreciation of poetry. “A major advantage of this approach is the variety of the participants and the large amounts of data that can be gathered in a relatively short amount of time. It can be challenging, at the same time, not in the least because of substantial individual differences between participants which are even greater if they differ in age and social background,” says Willems.

Roel WillemsThe researchers have found ways to turn these challenges into opportunities. Willems, “Individual differences are often neglected or overlooked in literature, while they play a crucial role in processing and understanding language. By taking these differences into account, we are able to answer new questions, for example: do people differ in their susceptibility to how frequently a word is used in everyday life, or their susceptibility to variations in the grammatical makeup of a sentence? Do people from different backgrounds and different preferences appreciate poems differently? And how is this appreciation influenced by their imagination?”

Societal impact
The research group’s future goals are structured around the increasing awareness that stories are important for people’s well-being. Understanding the processes responsible for this impact is a matter of major scientific as well as societal relevance. “In the recent past, neurocognitive research on stories has been gaining momentum. Within this paradigm, it is our ambition to provide answers to fundamental questions about language processing in context. We aim to use this knowledge to benefit society, for example by improving literature education,” says Willems.