"A Cognitive Science Approach to Narrative Experiences"

Richard Gerrig


Cognitive scientists and literary theorists have often taken quite different approaches to the analysis of readers and texts. The goal of cognitive science research has generally been to provide a theory of text understanding that specifies the mental processes that allow readers to create mental representations. These theories have almost always been predicated on the strong (but often tacit) assumption that a single representation resides in each text. On this assumption, the adequacy of models could be judged with respect to their ability to reproduce that single resident representation. By contrast, in contemporary practice, literary theorists have quite often argued that texts, of necessity, give rise to a great variety of representations. That is, literary analysis has often focused on readers' contributions to their experiences of texts in ways that are quite foreign to the cognitive science enterprise.

The purpose of my research has been to infuse cognitive science models with a close consideration of readers' experiences of narratives. As such, I have analyzed a variety of phenomena that undermine standard assumptions about the balance of power between texts and readers. For example, text processing models in cognitive science have most often focused on the propositions "present" in a text (e.g., "The lion chased the nun") as well as the inferences to which these propositions give rise (e.g., "The nun must be scared"). The research carried out in my lab suggests that readers produce another category of mental contents that we call "participatory responses." Suppose the reader encounters "The lion chased the nun" as part of a scene in which the nun is running through a forest. If readers think "Try to jump up into a tree!" we would credit them with emitting a participatory response. We have demonstrated that the occurrences of such participatory responses have a broad impact on aspects of text processing. For example, we can predict the difficulty readers have verifying the outcomes of stories based on our hypotheses about the presence or absence of participatory responses. Results of this sort indicate the directions cognitive science research can take to capture the richness and variety of narrative experiences.

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