What was the main question in your dissertation?
I investigated what people “see” when they read stories. A lot of readers experience that they form pictures in their head when they are reading a good book or story. Sometimes, that picture can be so strong that readers are disappointed when they see a film adaptation of a book that does not match their mental picture. I wanted to know what these mental pictures are exactly, how they influence the reading process, and how they are related to reading experiences (for example, do readers who form strong mental pictures during reading, like the stories they read more than other readers?).
Can you explain the (theoretical) background a bit more?
This was a multidisciplinary project, meaning that there are multiple angles to the theoretical background of my research questions. Here, I will focus on the language perspective. I wanted to know what portions of a story elicit these “pictures in the head”, and how this works exactly. There has been a lot of debate about whether certain words or descriptions are “mapped onto” our own bodies. On the one hand, some researchers suggest that language can ultimately be traced back to our bodies: as children, we feel, hear, smell and see things, and we eventually give words to those experiences. The meaning of those words is stored in our brain alongside the bodily experiences. On the other hand, others suggest that the body is not necessary for language: instead, language consists of abstract symbols that have nothing to do with our bodies or with our daily life experiences. In that view, the meaning of words is independent of bodily experiences. In this dissertation, I looked at the envisioning of elements of stories – and then specifically those elements that can be related to (sensory) experiences from daily life. For example, if a story features a soft, red scarf, do people envision that scarf while reading? If so, one would expect to see brain activity during reading that can also be seen when feeling and seeing that soft, red scarf.
Why is it important to answer this question?
I think the importance of this research lies in reading and literature education. Children read less, and literacy seems to be on the decrease as well. There are many theories about how to get people to read (more), and there are some methods focusing on mental imagery (forming pictures in your head). If we know more about these mental pictures, and how they relate to reading enjoyment, this might help researchers and teachers who want to develop these methods.
Can you tell us about one particular project?
In two of my experiments I let participants read stories as they normally would, and observed what happened. In the first experiment I asked people to read stories from a computer screen while I followed their eye movements with an eye-tracker. In the second experiment I again followed the reader’s eye movements, but this time they were reading while lying in an MRI scanner so I could also look at their brain activity. I looked at three types of descriptions that might elicit mental pictures: descriptions of actions, descriptions of what things look like (for example, characters, objects, or the environment), and descriptions of thoughts and emotions.
I found that, on average, people read faster when they read descriptions of actions, and slower when they read descriptions of what things look like, or of thoughts and emotions. The reader’s brain activity showed that reading different types of descriptions activated different brain areas. Reading descriptions of actions activated brain areas involved in perceiving and planning, reading descriptions of what things look like activated areas involved in perceiving objects, and reading about thoughts and emotions activated areas involved in mentalizing (understanding what is going on in other people).
Strikingly, the effects found in eye movements and brain activity varied between individuals: some people responded much more strongly to descriptive language than others. I find this difference between people interesting. It is possible that there are quite a few differences between people in how much they envision during reading. In any case, it is possible to envision events in stories, but not necessary – people can also read stories without envisioning anything.
What are the implications of this finding?
The individual differences I found are particularly important in the light of reading promotion. Some people seem to form mental pictures during reading much more than others, and how people come to like a story also differs between individuals. Since reading motivation is a consequence of positive reading experiences, it is important that people read the books and stories they personally enjoy from an early age. In teaching literature, therefore, it is important to accommodate these individual differences: having everyone read the same book will be demotivating for many students. On the contrary, it is important that everyone reads books that fit their personal preferences and ways of language processing. The occurrence of positive reading experiences will then be more likely, which often results in a higher motivation to read more, with all its positive consequences.
What do you want to do next?
My dream is to expand this research to children. I think children use their imagination more than adults, and are possibly forming more mental pictures during reading (or listening to) stories than adults. In my dissertation I studied university students, and I wonder whether my findings would translate to children, and how that would influence my conclusions regarding reading promotion.
Interview: Caitlyn Decuyper
Editor: Christina Papoutsi
Final editing: Sophie Slaats
Translation: Lynn Eekhof & Bianca Thomsen