Cognitive Humanities Bibliography

The bibliography is organised by topics, including ‘cognitive’ ones like sensory perception or predictive coding, as well as some ‘crossover’ ones like aesthetic response and interpretation. Under each heading you will find a selection of discussions from the cognitive sciences, cognitive literary studies, and cognitive classics. There is a separate page on cognitive-literary empirical research methods. Alongside the full reference for each article or chapter, we provide a short summary of the argument and evidence it presents.

Compiled by Emily Troscianko. Last updated November 2020.

Hidden Accordion
Aesthetic experience

Broadly speaking, aesthetic experience is the experience of engaging with works of art. In practice, the study of visual art has tended to dominate scientific inquiry, and brain-based approaches have, as everywhere else, grown rapidly in popularity. The discussions listed here are, however, chosen for their relevance specifically to literary art.

Scientific discussions 

Brown, S., and Dissanayake, E. (2009). The arts are more than aesthetics: Neuroaesthetics as narrow aesthetics. In M. Skov and O. Vartanian, Neuroaesthetics (pp. 43-57). New York: Baywood. (full text)

A critical take on empirical aesthetics, including discussion of the functions of art. The basic idea is that we should think of arts not as objects but as things people do (think of art-related ritual, for example), with an emphasis on the connections between art and appraisal-driven emotion (and some discussion of their neural correlates). The piece concludes with the need to take into account the four emotional focal points (outcome, object, agency, and social interaction) in thinking about aesthetic response, and proposes a new name for the field: ‘neuroartsology’.

Cinzia, D. D., and Gallese, V. (2009). Neuroaesthetics: A review. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19, 682-87. (full text)

An outline of the field, with sections on neural correlates, the reward system, visuomotor processing, embodiment, and emotion.

Augustin, M. D., and Wagemans, J. (2012). Empirical aesthetics, the beautiful challenge: An introduction to the special issue on art and perception. i-Perception, 3(7), 455-458. (full text for all articles in issue)

An introduction to a special issue containing wide-ranging discussions of topics in the empirical aesthetics of visual art, including the dynamics of aesthetic appreciation, components of aesthetic experience (fascination, appraisal, and emotion), feelings of presence in engagement with film, and experimental methodologies including eye tracking and measures of emotion and bodily posture. The introduction reflects briefly on some of the history and challenges of conducting experimental work on responses to (visual) art.

Cupchik, G. C. (2014). Theoretical foundations for an empirical aesthetics. In P. P. L. Tinio and J. K. Smith (Eds), The Cambridge handbook of the psychology of aesthetics and the arts (pp. 60-85). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (paywall), (partial preview)

The chapter begins with reflections on why aesthetic reception matters to psychology, and goes on to consider the differences between (behavioural) information theory and Gestalt psychology, including their implications for emotional response, and how they seem to conflict but are in fact complementary. The chapter also deals with how to define an aesthetic experience (including through a combination of engagement and distance); reactive and reflective modes of aesthetic engagement; the motivations of pleasure and interest; temporal dynamics and long-term recollection; the search for meaning; and the historical roots of empirical aesthetics. (The book also contains a chapter on literature which is somewhat over-poeticised—though it does offer some helpful tips for further reading. There’s also an introduction to neuroaesthetics, plus chapters on emotion and aesthetic experience, unusual aesthetic states, and personality and aesthetic experience.)

Marin, M. M. (2015). Crossing boundaries: Toward a general model of neuroaesthetics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 443. (full text)

An overview of the current state of the field, addressing definitional questions and suggesting the need for a more inclusive approach that broadens out from the emphasis on vision and considers multimodal forms of engagement, as well as systematically comparing different object classes. In conclusion, the author makes the case for more humanities researchers to get involved in neuroaesthetics work.

 Jacobs, A. M. (2017). Quantifying the beauty of words: a neurocognitive poetics perspective. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience11, 622. (full text)

Develops a computational model for predicting the subjective beauty of words, including eight features: number of syllables, sonority score, word length surprisal, orthographic neighbourhood density, word similarity, valence, and aesthetic potential.


Cognitive humanities discussions

Consoli, G. (2012). A cognitive theory of the aesthetic experience. Contemporary Aesthetics, 10. (full text)

An attempt to naturalise the aesthetic experience using cognitive-scientific insights into relevant modes of enactive experience (e.g. transparency versus activity) and attitude activation modes (automatic versus deliberate) in relation to the interplay of attention and consciousness, modularity and integration, and imagination and knowledge. In evolutionary terms, the paper argues that the aesthetic experience is a cross-cultural predisposition that is both a result of mental flexibility and cultural creativity and a basic feature of the human brain that improves flexibility and allows creativity to proliferate.

Michelson, D. (2014). Personality and the varieties of fictional experience. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 48(2), 64-85. (paywall)

Counters the common assumption that differences in identity influence what, how, and why we read with the claim that literature affects personality. The central example explored is the fact that the kinds of literary experiences valued by literary scholars—deep meditative reading, introspection, sensuous aesthetic apperception, and identity development—are not typical of general adult reading experiences, and are preferentially sought and successfully developed in individuals moderately high in the heritable personality dimension of Openness to experience. The possibility that these personality-related preferences are trained by reading itself has pedagogical as well as theoretical implications for how we think about literature in its cognitive and evolutionary context.

Burke, M. (2015). The neuroaesthetics of prose fiction: pitfalls, parameters and prospects. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience9, 442. (full text)

An overview of neuroaesthetics for literary experience, exploring why there’s much less on literature than on visual art, music, or dance; reviewing the work that does exist; and sketching out routes to better integration with the wider field, including via cognitive poetics and the study of rhetoric.

Verheyen, L. (2015). The aesthetic experience of the literary artwork. A matter of form and content? Aesthetic Investigations, 1(1), 23-32. (full text)

Argues that formalist approaches to literary aesthetic experience (and in particular the idea that ordinary readers are interested in stories but not how they are told) make the mistake of assuming we can separate form from content and meaning from experience; in fact, it is the connection between form and content that makes the emotional aspects of aesthetic response possible. The paper proposes that formal elements alone cannot define a work of literature because those elements have no intrinsic aesthetic value other than through the aesthetic effects they create in the act of reading. It concludes with reference to Semir Zeki’s work on the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of mathematical formulations in mathematicians versus non-mathematicians, interpreting the results as indicating that an appreciation of both meaning and form are required for an experience of beauty.

See also: Otty, L., & Roberts, A. M. (2013) ‘Dim-conceived glories of the brain’: On ambiguity in literature and science. In Ambiguity.

Agency and free will

The question of whether or not we have free will, long investigated by philosophers, has now become an important question in psychology. Here the focus is often less on whether or not we have free will, or agency (the capacity to act), but instead on what makes us feel like we have it or don’t, with ‘freedom’ typically treated as a scalar rather than an absolute.

Scientific discussions

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-539. (paywall)

A highly controversial classic in the study of consciousness and agency, investigating the temporal relationships between brain activity, ‘conscious will’, and voluntary action: the neural readiness potential comes first, but a causal role for consciousness is preserved in the form of the ‘conscious veto’, or what the psychologist Richard Gregory later called ‘free won’t’. (See also detailed discussion of the findings, implications, responses, and follow-ups in Blackmore and Troscianko 2018, pp. 228-235:

Wegner, D. (2003). The mind’s best trick: How we experience conscious will. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2), 65-69. (full text) 

Dismisses the idea that a feeling of consciously willing our actions means that they are indeed caused by consciousness, and proposes that this feeling be understood instead as resulting from the mind’s inferences about likely causality—which are guided by the principles of consistency, priority, and exclusivity in the relation of thought to action.  

Tsakiris, M., Schütz-Bosbach, S., & Gallagher, S. (2007). On agency and body-ownership: Phenomenological and neurocognitive reflections. Consciousness and Cognition, 16, 645-660. (full text)

Discusses how the sense of agency affects that of body-ownership, and suggests that both depend on the integration of efferent and afferent information in action contexts—the former determining the content of bodily experience and the latter its structure. 

Haggard, P. (2008). Human volition: Towards a neuroscience of will? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 934-946. (full text) 

The neuroscience of voluntary action (whether to act, what action to perform, and when to perform it) speaks both to the neural correlates and the distinctive conscious experience of intending and controlling one’s own actions, and so can inform philosophical debates about individual responsibility. 

Schnauder, L. (2009). Free will and determinism: A philosophical introduction. In L. Schnauder, Free will and determinism in Joseph Conrad’s major novels (pp. 9-41). Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi. (preview of all but two pages) 

A detailed introduction to the history and current state of philosophical thought about free will, including the key theories (libertarianism, hard determinism, and soft determinism), and the arguments for and against determinism and indeterminism. (The rest of the book applies these ideas in analyses of Conrad’s texts, but without the kind of philosophical detail presented in the introduction.) 

Sarkissian, H., Chatterjee, A., De Brigard, F., Knobe, J., Nichols, S., & Sirker, S. (2010). Is belief in free will a cultural universal?. Mind & Language25(3), 346-358. (full text)

Investigates how widespread belief in free will is across cultures, finding that a majority of respondents in the United States, Hong Kong, India, and Colombia believe that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.

Brass, M., Lynn, M. T., Demanet, J., & Rigoni, D. (2013). Imaging volition: what the brain can tell us about the will. Experimental Brain Research229(3), 301-312. (paywall) 

Connects social psychological concepts of volition to the functional neuroanatomy of intentional action, and distinguishes between the whatwhen, and whether aspects of intentional choice. 

Miles, J. B. (2013). ‘Irresponsible and a disservice’: The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52(2), 205-218. (full text) 

Argues that the incoherence of many philosophers’ and psychologists’ positions on free will is actually helping keep our world unequal and unjust, and includes criticism of ‘free will illusionism’ (understanding that free will does not exist but openly misleading the public over its nonexistence) and the conflation of determinism and fatalism.

Lynn, M. T., Muhle-Karbe, P. S., Aarts, H., & Brass, M. (2014). Priming determinist beliefs diminishes implicit (but not explicit) components of self-agency. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1483. (full text) 

Suggests that when people are induced to disbelieve in free will, low-level sensorimotor effects can take place even if people’s explicit ratings of sense of agency are unchanged. These include changes in intentional binding (perceptions of how close in time an action seems to its effects), post-error slowing, action-cancellation, and motor preparation for action.

Olson, J. A., Landy, M., Appourchaux, K., & Raz, A. (2016). Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency through deception and magic. Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 11-26. (full text)

Describes experiments in which participants are told that a neuroimaging machine can either read or influence their thoughts. They report feeling less voluntary control over their decisions, as well as making slower decisions, in the mind-influencing condition.

Blackmore, S., & Troscianko, E. T. (2018). ‘Agency and free will. In S. Blackmore & E. T. Troscianko, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 218-246). Abingdon: Routledge (3rd ed.). (partial preview) 

Reviews the neuroanatomy of volition, Libet’s famous ‘half-second delay in consciousness’ and subsequent research on the relation between consciousness and will, and evidence on the beliefs in free will or its absence, and their consequences.


Cognitive humanities discussions 

Newton, K. M. (2012). George Eliot, Kant, and free will. Philosophy and Literature, 36(2), 441-456. (paywall) 

Discusses the conflict between Eliot’s determinism and her moral judgements of her fictional characters, and reflects on her conclusion that free will is a necessary fiction. The paper draws on Kant and Bergson in outlining a version of free will linked to rationality, personality, and self. 

Evans, David H. (2012). ‘The chains of not choosing’: Free will and faith in William James and David Foster Wallace. In M. Boswell and S. J. Burn (Eds), A companion to David Foster Wallace studies (pp. 171-190). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (paywall)

Draws on Foster Wallace’s fondness for William James to illuminate the connections between ideas of choice and (in)action expressed by the two writers (with particular reference to the novel Infinite Jest), as well as their respective attitudes to religious belief.

White, H. (2014). ‘Insanity without insanity’: Epilepsy and the absence of free will in Dostoyevsky’s novels. Toronto Slavic Quarterly, 48, 230-268. (full text) 

Dostoyevsky suffered from what would now be called temporal lobe epilepsy. This article argues that his treatment of the epileptic personality (in texts like Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov) offers a way to understand his conceptions of will and agency, including five main categories that were of concern to Dostoyevsky: free will, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, randomness and indeterminism, and freedom of action. The paper treats questions of society and religion in their connection to free will and moral action.

See also: Bernini, M. (2014). Supersizing narrative theory: On intention, material agency, and extended mind-workers. In ‘4E’.



Ambiguity is a feature of all our perceptual interactions with the world, and of all the languages—verbal and nonverbal—by which we represent or refer to it. Tolerance of ambiguity is also a Personality variable with interesting correlations to other measures.

Scientific discussions

Wasow, T., Perfors, A., and Beaver, D. (2005). The puzzle of ambiguity. In C. O. Orgun and P. Sells (Eds), Morphology and the web of grammar: Essays in memory of Steven G. Lapointe (pp. 265-282). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications. (preprint full text)

Argues for the importance of ambiguity as a common characteristic of natural (as opposed to formal) language. The paper distinguishes between ambiguity and vagueness, identifies distinct types of ambiguity, and suggests that the fact that language has not evolved to reduce ambiguity is evidence against the assumption that ambiguity impedes communication. It summarises various potential positive functions for ambiguity—as a memory-saving function, aiding communication between different speech communities, allowing different interpretations to be implied to different audiences—and considers the hypothesis that it is a byproduct of some other evolved feature of language (e.g. the tendency towards shorter morphemes). In conclusion, the authors take first steps towards an explicit model of language evolution, modelling the ambiguity-related changes to which simple ‘languages’ are subject in the presence of relevant linguistic and environmental parameters.

Mamassian, P. (2008). Ambiguities and conventions in the perception of visual art. Vision Research, 48(20), 2143-2153. (full text)

The ambiguities inherent to visual perception are often resolved thanks to prior constraints derived from the statistics of natural scenes. Visual art plays with this ambiguity through features like perspective, movement, and illumination and colour, and resolves them (or not) through conventions that either have origins directly in perceptual qualities or manifest interesting divergences from perceptual priors.

Piantadosi, S. T., Tily, H., and Gibson, E. (2012). The communicative function of ambiguity in language. Cognition, 122(3), 280-291. (full text)

Presents an information-theoretic argument that all efficient communication systems will be ambiguous, assuming the context is informative about meaning, because ambiguity allows information units to be re-used and so makes processing easier. Predictions from the theory—relating to homophony, polysemy, and ease of syllable processing—are tested (and supported) in English, German, and Dutch, and the paper concludes with reflections on the cost and avoidance of ambiguity.

Furnham, A., and Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, 4(9), 717-728. (full text)

Reviews findings on tolerance of ambiguity (TA) as a personality measure, distinguishing it from related concepts like uncertainty avoidance and (in)tolerance of uncertainty, and charting historical shifts in its definition (in relation to concepts like risk and decision-making), connotations (e.g. authoritarianism and prejudice), and research locus (from social to clinical psychology). The paper presents results on the correlations of TA and other factors from observational and a few experimental studies, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of various TA self-report measures and their dimensions (including situational factors like novelty, complexity, and insolubility); and personality traits like valuing diverse others, change, challenging perspectives, and unfamiliarity.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Otty, L., & Roberts, A. M. (2013) ‘Dim-conceived glories of the brain’: On ambiguity in literature and science. Culture, Theory and Critique, 54(1), 37-55. (full text)

Charts a scientific and literary history of ambiguity in relation to aesthetic autonomy, from Romantic and Modernist aesthetics through Empson and I.A. Richards to neuro and empirical aesthetics and conceptual blending.

Helms, N. R. (2012). Conceiving ambiguity: Dynamic mindreading in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Philosophy and Literature, 36(1), 122-135. (paywall)

Combines theories of mindreading and conceptual blending in a temporally dynamic, simulation-based model of the processing of literary character that takes into account ambiguity, surprise, and dramatic shifts in understanding, and their connections with perception, empathic imagination, and social knowledge. Mindreading is conceived as a blend of three input spaces (mental representation of the target, homeostatic representation of oneself, and theoretical knowledge of the other), and the paper discusses the limits of ambiguity in the social context (of staged character) as opposed to the textual one.

Lenz, B. (2014). Narrative fiction, experience-taking, and progressive male standpoints. Mosaic, 47(3), 141-157. (paywall)

Argues (with reference to Carter’s The Passion of New Eve and Fowles’s The Magus) that certain narrative strategies (e.g. ambiguous narrative perspective, inconclusive endings) which increase complexity and ambiguity encourage responses on the spectrum from empathy to identification, while also deterring such ‘immersed’ responses and placing the onus on readers to engage in more independent processes of interrogation and sense-making.


‘Every one knows what attention is’, William James once said. But despite the number of theories of attention that have proliferated over the decades—from spotlight or filter theories to premotor, perceptual-load, and biased-competition accounts—and the gathering of a great deal of empirical data, there is still little consensus on what attention is, how it works, how it relates to other psychological entities (notably consciousness), or whether it even exists.

Scientific discussions

James, W. (1890). Attention. In W. James, The principles of psychology (pp. 402-458). London: Macmillan. (full text)

A classic discussion of what we think is obvious about attention, taking in different kinds of attention, and a treatment of the still live question of whether attention is a cause or an effect. James ultimately comes down on the side of cause, but for ethical rather than scientific reasons: when the available evidence is inconclusive, ‘one can leave the question open whilst waiting for light, or one can do what most speculative minds do, that is, look to one’s general philosophy to incline the beam. The believers in mechanism do so without hesitation, and they ought not to refuse a similar privilege to the believers in a spiritual force.’

Roessler, J. (2005). Joint attention and the problem of other minds. In N. Eilan, C. Hoerl, and J. Roessler (Eds), Joint attention: Communication and other minds: Issues in philosophy and psychology (pp. 230-259). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Suggests that our capacity for joint attention (attending to something in concert with someone else) is foundational in our understanding of other minds, because it provides a natural context in which we find ourselves in the same situation as another person, and a way of thinking about how experiences might be shared ‘from the inside’ without a need for a theoretically problematic notion of simulation. Focuses in particular on the development of joint attention in infants and children as it illuminates the adult case, with implications for knowledge and communication.

Lavie, N., Beck, D. M., and Konstantinou, N. (2007). Blinded by the load: Attention, awareness and the role of perceptual load. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 36920130205. (full text)

An attempt to connect attention with awareness using a processing load model: existing findings are reviewed and a new study presented.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., and Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163-169. (full text)

An overview of focused and open meditation as contrasting forms of attentional and emotional training.

Anderson, B. (2011). There is no such thing as attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 246. (full text)

We know much less about attention than we think we do, and we need to radically revise our assumptions about it, most importantly by recognising attention as a set of effects rather than a single cause.

Stazicker, J. (2011). Attention, visual consciousness and indeterminacy. Mind & Language, 26(2), 156-184. (paywall), (preprint full text)

Sets out problems with empirical investigations attempting to distinguish between (visual) consciousness and attention, including in relation to the indeterminacy of vision and the status of self-report.

Watzl, S. (2011). The nature of attention. Philosophy Compass, 6(11), 842-853. (paywall)

Discusses connections and divergences amongst intuitive (folk-psychological), philosophical, and scientific ideas about attention. A companion piece, ‘The philosophical significance of attention’ (pp. 722-733), sets out attention’s links with other philosophical topics like consciousness, agency, and epistemology. (paywall)

Callard, F., Smallwood, J., Golchert, J., & Margulies, D. S. (2013). The era of the wandering mind? Twenty-first century research on self-generated mental activity. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 891.

A retrospective of the first decade of intensive research on mind-wandering, including changes in terminology, focus, and disciplinary approach. (full text)

Mole, C. (2013). Attention. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition). (full text)

A detailed account of the history of philosophical inquiry into attention, current theories of attention, and its potential roles in relation to other phenomena including consciousness, other minds, knowledge, and voluntary action.

Webb, T. W., and Graziano, M.S.A. (2015). The attention schema theory: A mechanistic account of subjective awareness. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 500. (full text)

Proposes a theory of consciousness in which awareness is the internal model of attention, which evolved as a way of modelling and controlling attention: top-down control is improved when the brain can use a simplified model of attention itself.

Blackmore, S., and Troscianko, E.T. (2018). ‘Attention.’ In S. Blackmore and E.T. Troscianko, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 159-185). (partial preview)

An overview of theories and types of attention, setting out five possible interactions between attention and consciousness. Also includes discussion of meditation and mindfulness as attention training, including effects on the ‘default mode network’.

Seli, P., Kane, M. J., Smallwood, J., Schacter, D. L., Maillet, D., Schooler, J. W., & Smilek, D. (2018). Mind-wandering as a natural kind: A family-resemblances view. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(6), 479-490. (full text)

Makes the case for a conception of ‘mind-wandering’ that is graded and heterogeneous.

For a sceptical take on attention, see:

Cognitive humanities discussions

Sanford, A. J. S., Sanford, A. J., Molle, J., and Emmott, C. (2006). Shallow processing and attention capture in written and spoken discourse. Discourse Processes, 42(2), 109-130. (paywall)

Offers a tentative list of ‘attention-capturing devices’ at different linguistic levels from syntax and semantics to prosody and punctuation, equating increased attention capture with greater ‘depth of processing’ and a finer ‘grain’ of semantic specification. Using an experimental change-blindness paradigm, the authors report findings that both use of italics (in written text) and word stress as affected by breadth of discourse focus (in spoken text) can increase change detection by readers/listeners.

Van Peer, W., Hakemulder, J., and Zyngier, S. (2007). Lines on feeling: Foregrounding, aesthetics and meaning. Language and Literature, 16(2), 197-213. (full text)

Foregrounding (or deviation from ordinary language use, drawing attention to how something is formulated instead of what) has elements of novelty and complexity that both modern empirical aesthetics research and the precepts of classical rhetoric predict should heighten readers’ aesthetic appreciation as well as guide interpretation. An experiment involving manipulations of level of foregrounding in a line of poetry tested whether foregrounding affected readers’ attention, perception of aesthetic structure, depth of interpretation, emotional response, attitude change, and/or awareness of the social context (or ‘prestige’) of literature (all measured by rating scale), with effects found for aesthetic structure and depth of interpretation.

Wood, M. (2009). Distraction theory: How to read while thinking of something else. Michigan Quarterly Review, 48(4), 577. (paywall) 

Argues that distraction is an important and positive complement to attention in reading experiences, including in the processing of puns, genre, and excessive style.

Gurton-Wachter, L. (2013). ‘Ever on the watch’: Wordsworth’s attention. Studies in Romanticism, 52(4), 511-535. (paywall)

Connects Wordsworth’s poetics, and Romanticism more generally, with the history of scientific and philosophical thought on attention and distraction. Includes reflections on poetic rhythms, the act of keeping watch, and the witnessing of history.

Polvinen, M. (2013). Affect and artifice in cognitive literary theory. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(2), 165-180. (paywall)

Argues against the conventional opposition between emotional immersion and rational distance in engagement with fiction, and for a model based on joint attention that emphasises the rhetorical qualities of literature as well as the back-and-forth movements in our engagement with imagined worlds, concluding that self-reflection can be an integral part of engagement. The textual case study is Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which combines emotion and artifice, and foregrounds the attempt to grasp readers’ attention.

Phillips, N. (2014). The art of attention: Navigating distraction and rhythms of focus in eighteenth-century poetry. In K. Parker and C. Weiss Smith, Eighteenth-century poetry and the rise of the novel reconsidered (pp. 187-206). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press. (partial preview)

Argues that the usual way of thinking about novel-reading, as rapt immersed attention, should be complemented by consideration of how 18th-century authors worried about distracted audiences with shortening attention spans. The chapter discusses the power of literary forms to shape focus, particularly through the intricate cognitive dynamics of poetry-reading. It goes on to connect 18th-century metaphors for attention (unifocal or multifocal) to a present-day rhythmic model of attending (dynamic attending theory), and to argue for the relevance of 18th-century verse to brain-imaging studies of rhythm and attention.

Raby, M. (2014). The phenomenology of attention in Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love. Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 26(4), 347-367. (paywall)

Uses the history of thought about attention, with an emphasis on phenomenology (particularly Heidegger and Husserl), to analyse the richness of phenomenological description in 14th-century Julian of Norwich’s attention to her own attentiveness. Includes sections on beseeching and beholding as forms of attention, and the limits of attention in bodily pain.

Lyne, R. (2020). Shakespeare and the wandering mind. Journal of the British Academy, 8, 1-27. (full text)

Discusses how Shakespeare exploits the potential for productive mind-wandering in characters and audiences, specifically in relation to memory, planning, and self.


We divide the world into categories in order to make sense of it and act capably in it. This process of categorisation is manifested both cognitively and linguistically.

Scientific discussions

Rosch, E. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch and B. B. Lloyd (Eds), Cognition and categorization (pp. 2-48). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. (full text)

An influential account of how and why categorisation is underpinned by the principles of ‘cognitive economy’ and ‘perceived world structure’. These have systematic consequences for levels of abstraction in categorisation (incorporating a primary ‘basic’ level, e.g. chair rather than the less detailed furniture or the more detailed kitchen chair) and for the internal structure of categories (including prototypes, e.g. chair or table rather than lamp, and fuzzy boundaries). This framework has implications for the study of imagery, perception, development, and language, although the assumption throughout is that the categories to be explained are found in a culture and coded in the language of that culture at a particular time—rather than, say, offering a childhood developmental account or a psychological account of adult category-processing.

Torralba, A., & Oliva, A. (2003). Statistics of natural image categories. Network: Computation in Neural systems14(3), 391-412. (full text)

Not only objects but also natural images depicting environmental scenes can be classified into basic-level categories: we assign semantic categories to neural data originating from looking at a natural image, and these can be understood in terms of “prototype images”, or “natural image categories”, of visual scenes, such as a face, a car, a street; a close-up or far-away pedestrian in an urban scene; etc. (Torralba and Oliva 2003, 391–92). This paper shows how the statistical properties of natural images (including on dimensions such as naturalness and openness) correlate with image categories, and how scene categorisation contributes to early visual processing, including in predicting presence or absence of features before fuller perceptual exploration begins.

Cohen, H., and Lefebvre, C. (2005). Bridging the category divide. In H. Cohen and C. Lefebvre (Eds), Handbook of categorization. Summer institute in cognitive sciences on categorization (pp. 1-15). Amsterdam: Elsevier. (full preview)

An overview of the handbook’s contributions, including discussion of some of the key questions they address, such as: what categories actually are (in relation to e.g. concepts or the process of categorisation), the characteristics of categories (e.g. discrete/mixed, overlapping or not), whether categories manifest modality effects (e.g. via language or sensory experience), and whether there are universal or innate categories. The introduction also highlights some of the disciplinary differences amongst linguists, philosophers, and cognitive anthropologists, and maps out the most important links to other fields of study.

Harnad, S. (2005). To cognize is to categorize: Cognition is categorization. In H. Cohen and C. Lefebvre (Eds), Handbook of categorization. Summer institute in cognitive sciences on categorization (pp. 20-45). Amsterdam: Elsevier. (full text)

The author’s abstract can’t really be improved on: ‘We organisms are sensorimotor systems. The things in the world come in contact with our sensory surfaces, and we interact with them based on what that sensorimotor contact “affords”. All of our categories consist in ways we behave differently toward different kinds of things—things we do or don’t eat, mate-with, or flee-from, or the things that we describe, through our language, as prime numbers, affordances, absolute discriminables, or truths. That is all that cognition is for, and about.’ All kinds of example are given, including from Borges’s story ‘Funes the Memorious’, and an Appendix provides a critique of Rosch’s account.

Oliva, A., & Torralba, A. (2006). Building the gist of a scene: The role of global image features in recognition. Progress in Brain Research155, 23-36. (paywall)

Builds on the earlier (2003) paper to explore the mechanisms by which we are able to perceive the gist of an unfamiliar image in a single glance regardless of complexity, via scene-centred not object-centred feature recognition. This may act as a parallel processing pathway to guide local feature analysis and enhance object identification, especially in cluttered scenes.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Hanauer, D. (1996). Integration of phonetic and graphic features in poetic text categorization judgements. Poetics, 23, 363-380. (full text)

An empirical investigation of the roles of graphic and phonetic information as mediated by readers’ literary educational background in the categorisation of texts as poetic or otherwise (using manipulated sections of two poems by James Joyce). The study was designed to adjudicate between the traditional (formalist) and the radical conventionalist positions on this question. Both factors played a role, with expert literary readers accepting a wider variety of formal textual features as characteristic of poetic texts (on a scale from ‘not a poem at all’ to ‘clearly a poem’).

Steen, G. (1999). Genres of discourse and the definition of literature. Discourse Processes, 28(2), 109-120. (full text)

Starting from the question ‘what kind of discourse is literature?’, this chapter takes a prototype-categorisation approach to classifying types of literary discourse, in a taxonomy from the subordinate to the basic and superordinate levels, showing how this way of proceeding is preferable to alternative classificatory systems.

Stockwell, P. (2002). Prototypes and reading. In P. Stockwell, Cognitive poetics: An introduction (pp. 27-40). London: Routledge. (partial preview)

Sets out the basics of cognitive categorisation since the rise of embodied cognition, and explains its relevance to some of the linguistic details of literary language, and to how we categorise literature itself. The chapter covers prototypes and fuzzy boundaries, family resemblances, categories (including the privileged ‘basic level’) and context-dependence, how we recognise categories (holistically and then through decomposition—a process analogous to literary interpretation), and how categories and their interrelations combine into ‘idealised cognitive models’ and these in turn into shared ‘cultural models’. Ideas are given for how to apply these concepts together with literary ones.

Sinding, M. (2003). Prototype structure of the genre of Menippean satire. In M. Sinding, The mind’s kinds: Cognitive rhetoric, literary genre, and Menippean satire (pp. 36-53). Doctoral thesis, McMaster University. (full text)

Suggests that the history of Menippean satire can be thought of as a series of exemplars, with earlier instances influencing later ones to produce a set of variant forms linked by ‘family resemblance’, with primary and secondary, or central and noncentral, members. This chapter analyses Mennipean satire as an ‘idealised cognitive model’, asking how its prototypical exemplars relate to the overall model, how its genre features relate to centrality, how those features can be defined in conceptual terms, what kinds of variations define the primary extensions of the model, and what all this might tell us about other genre categories.

See also: Troscianko, E. T. (2014). Reading Kafka enactively. In ‘4E’.


Cognitive biases

The human mind takes shortcuts where it can, and bias is often the price of efficiency. See also Memory, where accuracy is far from the mind’s highest priority.

Scientific discussions

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-107. (paywall)

The original exposition of the classic theory of cognitive dissonance: the idea that if we know things that are inconsistent with each other, we will use all kinds of strategies to make them more consistent in order to reduce the discomfort that arises from dissonance. The paper gives examples from decision-making, lying, and resisting temptation.

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54(3), 182-203. (full text)

The seven basic sins (or sources of fallibility) are: transience, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.

Krueger, J. I., and Funder, D. C. (2004). Towards a balanced social psychology: Causes, consequences, and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(3), 313-376. (full text)

Suggests that doing psychology through a normative lens is unhelpful when it comes to attributing beliefs and actions to cognitive ‘errors’ and ‘biases’, and that a broader perspective on the range of human behaviour and judgement would make social psychology both more optimistic and more accurate.

Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., and Andrews, P. W. (2005). The evolution of cognitive bias. In D. M. Buss, The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 724-746). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (full text)

How cognitive biases may be evolutionarily adaptive, for example by being heuristically efficient or offering means of error management.

Leboe, J. P., and Ansons, T. L. (2006). On misattributing good remembering to a happy past: An investigation into the cognitive roots of nostalgia. Emotion, 6(4), 596-610. (full text)

Presents evidence that when we experience nostalgia for the past, what we may be responding to is less a pleasant past than the simple fact of having successfully remembered something rich in meaning.

Jing-Schmidt, Z. (2007). Negativity bias in language: A cognitive-affective model of emotional intensifiers. Cognitive Linguistics, 18(3), 417-443. (full text)

The negativity bias denotes our tendency to pay more attention to unpleasant than pleasant information. This article discusses the role of emotion in the negativity bias, and suggests that the Pollyanna effect (the finding that positive words are used more frequently and easily than negative ones) is motivated by avoidance of the negative—talking about the bright side of life isn’t the same as looking on the bright side. It provides evidence of how this cognitive pattern is manifested linguistically, specifically in the use of emotional intensifiers in descriptions of threat-related emotions (fear, disgust, and anger). Finally, the paper explains how metaphorical and metonymic mappings mediate between the domains of emotional experience and linguistic emotion-intensification, supporting the notion of a dynamical body of cognition cutting across brain-body-world divisions.

Rosset, E. (2008). It’s no accident: Our bias for intentional explanations. Cognition, 108, 771-780. (full text)

Describes three studies which indicate that we have a bias towards interpreting all descriptions of actions (e.g. ‘He set the house on fire’) as denoting intentional rather than accidental acts, even with prototypically accidental actions like ‘She broke the vase’. Intentional readings seem to be the default, and deciding that something is unintentional requires more processing.

Hertel, P. T., & Mathews, A. (2011). Cognitive bias modification: Past perspectives, current findings, and future applications. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(6), 521-536. (full text)

Describes how cognitive bias modification (CBM) can change emotional processing, giving examples of biases and their retraining the realms of attention, interpretation, and memory, many of them verbally mediated. The paper also offers an overview of how CBM relates to other learning paradigms including associative learning and cognitive behaviour therapy.

McGrath, A. (2017). Dealing with dissonance: A review of cognitive dissonance reduction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(12), e12362. (paywall)

A review of the extensive cognitive dissonance literature, offering useful summaries of the most important dissonance reduction strategies and the factors affecting which strategy is employed.

Korteling, J. E., Brouwer, A. M., & Toet, A. (2018). A neural network framework for cognitive bias. Frontiers in Psychology9, 1561. (full text)

Proposes a neural network framework for cognitive biases, to explain why we tend to default to simplified heuristics for decision-making. The authors argue that many cognitive biases arise from intrinsic brain mechanisms fundamental to the working of biological neural networks, including four basic neural network principles: association (associating and combining [unrelated] information), compatibility (prioritising information compatible with our present state of knowledge, expectations, values, etc.), retainment (retaining information that would sometimes be better ignored), and focus (focusing on dominant information while ignoring relevant information that isn’t directly activated). These principles can be understood as inherent to all neural networks that were originally optimized to perform concrete biological, perceptual, and motor functions rather than to align with laws of logic or probability.

Cooper, J. (2019). Cognitive dissonance: Where we’ve been and where we’re going. International Review of Social Psychology, 32(1). (full text)

An overview of the past, present, and future of cognitive dissonance research.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Sizemore, C. (1977). Anxiety in Kafka: A function of cognitive dissonance. Journal of Modern Literature, 6(3), 380-388. (paywall)

Suggests that the unsettling effects of Kafka’s fictions can be explained in part with reference to cognitive dissonance. The uneasiness created by the two irreconcilable interpretations of reality—the reader’s own familiar world, and Kafka’s persuasive one—makes the reader try to resolve the dissonance by looking for clues that say it was all just made up, but these are never quite forthcoming.

Tobin, V. (2009). Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise. Language and Literature, 18(2), 155-172. (full text)

The ‘curse of knowledge’ is a cognitive bias that makes it hard for us to imagine not knowing something once we know it. The paper argues that this bias plays a major role in narrative structure, by helping authors engineer satisfying twists that surprise readers without feeling implausible. By exposing us at length to specific characters’ perspectives, texts can encourage us to align ourselves so much with these perspectives that we fail to discount this knowledge when imagining from other perspectives; we are then nicely surprised when a twist contradicts the information whose availability we have overgeneralised, but are also inclined to see the revelation as inevitable once it is made. This provides new insights into literary communication and verisimilitude.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). The cognitive realism of memory in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Modern Language Review, 107(3), 772-795. (full text)

Argues that Emma Bovary’s psychology, and its effects on readers’ responses, can be understood better by taking into account the effects that cognitive dissonance has on memory. Emma’s pivotal life decision—marrying Charles—can be seen as the trigger for a series of dissonance-reducing strategies that profoundly alter her relationship with her own past, present, and future. In this respect the text can be seen as cognitively realistic, in that it corresponds to what we know about cognitive dissonance, constructive memory, and the biases they involve. Predictions about the unsettling effects of this cognitive realism on readers are borne out in many of the critical responses to Emma as a character. The article concludes with reflections on the text’s connection to 19th-century Realism as it relates to readerly expectations and responses.

Tobin, V. (2018). Elements of surprise: Our mental limits and the satisfactions of plot. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (partial preview)

Uses a cognitive bias called the ‘curse of knowledge’ (the difficulty of imagining not having the knowledge one has) as a framework for investigating surprise, suspense, and the phenomenon in which as soon as a mystery is resolved, the solution seems obvious. More generally, the case is made for readers’ cognitive biases as integral to the workings of literary texts. There’s also material on free indirect discourse and unreliable narration in connection with social cognition and cognitive linguistics. 

See also an excellent review of the book by Karin Kukkonen here: (paywall)

Consciousness and the unconscious

‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery’, wrote Daniel Dennett in 1991: that is, we don’t even know how to think about it yet. For all our advances in brain imaging and despite thousands of fascinating experiments that speak to one or other aspect of the mystery, why we have subjective experience at all (why it isn’t ‘dark inside’; why we aren’t philosophical zombies) remains the ultimate ‘hard problem’. This question is connected (and often confused) with the question of what it means to be conscious as opposed to unconscious (e.g. in medical contexts). Both also relate to the question of whether it makes sense to create a dividing line between consciousness and the unconscious, subconscious, preconscious, or nonconscious.

Scientific discussions 

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. (partial preview) 

See in particular Chapter Two for an account of the mystery of consciousness and the problems of dualism, and Chapter Five for an introduction to the Cartesian Theatre and Dennett’s multiple drafts theory of consciousness. 

Chalmers, D. (1995). The puzzle of conscious experience. Scientific American, 273, 80-86. (full text)

One of Chalmers’ first articulations of the famous ‘hard problem’ of why we have conscious experience at all. 

Wegner, D. (2005). Who is the controller of the controlled processes? In R. R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, and J. A. Bargh, The new unconscious (pp. 19-36). New York: Oxford University Press. (full preview) 

If as a counterpart to the automatic processes of the unconscious we posit processes that are under ‘conscious control’, we end up also having to posit some inner agent (e.g. ‘consciousness’) as a cause of thought or behaviour. Given that this is infeasible, we should understand the operation of ‘controlled’ processes not as starting with a controller, but as resulting in (the illusion of) one. 

Blackmore, S. (2011). Zen and the art of consciousness. London: Oneworld. (excerpts and discussion)

Brings Zen meditation into dialogue with scientific training in describing the experience of sitting with ten koans, from ‘Am I conscious now?’ to ‘When are you?’ and ‘Who is asking the question?’. 

Blackmore, S., and Troscianko, E.T. (2018). What’s the problem? In S. Blackmore and E. T. Troscianko, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 11-31). Abingdon: Routledge. (full preview); see also

Explains why consciousness is so baffling, including philosophical and psychological perspectives and an overview of the ‘hard problem’. See also the introduction and front matter here: and the companion website here:

Humphrey, N. (2020). The invention of consciousness. Topoi, 39(1), 13-21. (full text)

Proposes that consciousness is an invention in two senses: a new device or process developed by experimentation, designed to fulfil a practical purpose (in this case an evolved cognitive faculty to help us function in the world), and a mental fabrication or falsehood designed to please or persuade (in this case a brain fantasy designed to make us place more value on existence). Includes discussion of qualia, illusionism, and whether consciousness has an adaptive function.


Cognitive humanities discussions 

Lodge, D. (2002). ‘Consciousness & the novel’. In D. Lodge, Consciousness & the novel: Connected essays (pp. Harvard University Press. (partial preview) 

An early foray into the connections between literature and consciousness, outlining some of the similarities and differences between scientific/philosophical and literary discourses about consciousness. 

Gerrig, R. J. (2011). Conscious and unconscious processes in readers’ narrative experiences. Current Trends in Narratology27, 37-60. (partial preview) 

Proposes a ‘dual coding’ account of literary reading involving interplay between conscious (reflective) and unconscious (intuitive) processes. Includes some material on prototypes and cognitive-linguistic categorisation. 

Caracciolo, M. (2012). Fictional consciousnesses: A reader’s manual. Style, 46(1), 42-65. (paywall) 

Argues that consciousness cannot be represented in texts, only had (in the first person) or attributed (in the third person). We attribute consciousness (e.g. to textual characters) on the basis of external signs like gesture or language that are taken as expressive of consciousness, regardless of fictionality. And sometimes literature does something special: it invites us to do consciousness enactment, which involves enacting/performing the experience we simultaneously attribute to a character. The interplay of the two is discussed using the opening of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which helps show that the reader can experience the storyworld even if no character does. Consciousness enactment is argued to involve a merging of the reader’s consciousness with the consciousness attributed to a fictional character. This has implications for narratological questions relating to experientiality and focalisation.

Hogan, P. C. (2013). Parallel processing and the human mind: Re-understanding con-sciousness with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(2), 149-164. (paywall) 

Sets out the consequences for fiction and fictional analysis of the fact that although neural processing is massively parallel, speech and writing are serial. In particular, the paper shows how this discrepancy has led critics to assume that the ‘stream of consciousness’ must have a serial structure in real minds as it tends to in fiction. Joyce’s Ulysses is presented as an example of how spatiotemporal and cognitive parallelism can be conveyed in language, and hence helps us understand the mind as well as literature. The article includes sections on working memory, semantic processing across the two hemispheres, and the distinction between interior monologue and stream of consciousness. 

Caracciolo, M. (2014). Punctuating minds: Non-verbal cues for consciousness representation in literary narrative. Journal of Literary Semantics, 43(1), 43-69. (full text) 

Suggests that non-verbal cues like punctuation and typographic marks (capitalisation, indenting, spacing) can help to represent features of consciousness that can’t easily be conveyed in words (on analogy with qualities or accompaniments of spoken language such as volume, tone, rhythm, and gesture). They can also create disruptions that may evoke altered, non-ordinary, or unfamiliar states of consciousness such as bizarre dreams, experiences of impossible spaces, or an autistic state of mind. Overall, the paper advances the notion that verbal meaning, paralinguistic cues, and communicative context (e.g. literary narrative) all contribute to guiding reader’s interpretations of the storyworld and the characters within it. 

Vermeule, B. (2015). The new unconscious: A literary guided tour. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 463-482). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview), (paywall)

Outlines the differences between the contemporary understanding of the unconscious and the psychoanalytic dynamic unconscious, and reflects on the appeal of neuro-explanations, and the challenges and rewards of leaving psychoanalysis behind. The chapter offers some rough literary equivalents for various experimentally demonstrated features of the unconscious: a visual illusion called the flash lag effect (temporal breakdown in Paradise Lost), heuristics and biases (in Austen’s Emma), and automatic processing (in The Canterbury Tales).

Maziarczyk, G., & Teske, J. K. (2017). Explorations of Consciousness in Contemporary Fiction. Brill: Rodopi. (partial preview)

A volume concerned with the postmodern novel’s inquiries into human consciousness, including an overview of all the chapters’ contributions in the introduction.


Dreams and altered states

With the waning of behaviourism has come a new—if not complete—legitimacy for the scientific study of ‘altered states of consciousness’ and other experiences that used to be thought of as fringe phenomena, including dreaming and spiritual experience. These phenomena can be studied in their own right or as means to finding out about human consciousness or mental functioning more broadly. See also Consciousness.

Scientific discussions

Revonsuo, A., Kallio, S., and Sikka, P. (2009). What is an altered state of consciousness? Philosophical Psychology, 22(2), 187-204. (full text)

Argues that ‘altered states of consciousness’ are not alterations of consciousness per se, but alterations in the informational or representational relationships between consciousness and the world, i.e. where there is an increased tendency to produce ‘misrepresentations’ like hallucinations, delusions, and memory distortions.

Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(2), 88-100. (full text)

Provides evidence from neurophysiology, imaging, and brain lesion studies to address open questions about the nature of dreaming, and argues that dreaming is more similar to imagination (being driven by top-down intentions and predictions) than to sensory perception (driven in a bottom-up fashion by environmental percepts).

Wamsley, E. J., & Stickgold, R. (2011). Memory, sleep, and dreaming: Experiencing consolidation. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 6(1), 97-108. (full text) 

There is growing evidence that sleep plays an important role in reactivating and consolidating new memories, suggesting that the content and structure of dreams reflect these processes. This paper reviews the evidence that learning experiences during the day directly affect the content of subsequent dreams, whether the learning is verbal, spatial, procedural, or emotional.

Hobson, J. A., & Friston, K. J. (2012). Waking and dreaming consciousness: neurobiological and functional considerations. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 82-98. (full text)

Working with a free-energy framework, the authors propose that during sleep, the brain’s ‘virtual reality generator’ simplifies its model of the waking world, improving our ability to make reliable predictions. This leads to conclusions including the idea that we are incapable of surprise in dreams because what we experience is the result of top-down predictions in the thalamocortical system. On this model, the brain is propelled in both sleeping and waking to infer the causes of its sensory sampling, like scientists driven to test their hypotheses.

Metzinger, T. (2013). Why are dreams interesting for philosophers? The example of minimal phenomenal selfhood, plus an agenda for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 746. (full text)

Suggests that the study of dreams (and of related phenomena like out-of-body experiences and mind wandering) can help us isolate the properties of the simplest form of self-consciousness, ‘minimal phenomenal selfhood’.

Pace-Schott, E. F. (2013). Dreaming as a story-telling instinct. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 159. (full text)

Through comparison with other forms of narrative production, this paper considers the neurophysiological and functional/activational evidence for dreaming as an example of the brain’s ‘hardwired’ tendency to represent reality in the form of narrative, i.e. for a storytelling instinct or module.

Zink, N., and Pietrowsky, R. (2015). Theories of dreaming and lucid dreaming: An integrative review towards sleep, dreaming and consciousness. International Journal of Dream Research, 8(1), 35-53. (full text)

Reviews current theories of what dreams are and why we dream, with a focus on which account does best at explaining lucid dreaming (where the dreamer knows (s)he is dreaming).

Blackmore, S., and Troscianko, E.T. (2018). Altered states of consciousness. In S. Blackmore, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 343-371). Abingdon: Routledge. (partial preview); see also

How phenomena like drug-induced altered states and meditative experiences can be studied scientifically, and what they tell us about consciousness, including the question of what an ‘altered state’ is and what to compare it with.

Blackmore, S., and Troscianko, E.T. (2018). Dreaming and beyond. In S. Blackmore, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 398-432). Abingdon: Routledge. (access as above) 

Investigates dreaming, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and near-death experiences, asking how to think about each, and what they can teach us about conscious experience more generally.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Oatley, K. (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3(2), 101-117. (full text)

Proposes two alternative metaphors for the construction of fiction, and the mental life in general: dreaming and simulation. Both emphasise a constructive rather than correspondence-based form of truth, which has implications for thinking about realism and about the personal connections narrative can make. The article includes a section on emotional involvement in Greek tragedy, and distinguishes between identification, sympathy, and autobiographical memory, and their relations to the achievement of insight.

Mishara, A. (2010). Kafka, paranoiac doubles and the brain: Hypnagogic vs. hyper-reflexive models of disrupted self in neuropsychiatric disorders and anomalous conscious states. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, 5(13). (full text)

Connects Kafka’s documented experience of hallucinations during sleep-deprived writing with the qualities of his texts. In hypnagogic hallucinations (between sleep and waking) the self may project an imaginary double of itself (autoscopy). Kafka’s writing can help us understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying this phenomenon; examples are given of how his language evokes the gap between self and other, and the social processing that occurs during loneliness. The intimacy with which literature can document effects of this kind (labyrinthine structures, rebirth and doublings of the self) is contrasted with common methods in neuroscience and psychiatric diagnosis, specifically with regard to claims about reflective and pre-reflective self-awareness and the nature of self as process rather than object.

Walsh, R. (2010). Dreaming and narrative theory. In: Aldama, Frederick Luis, (ed.) Toward a cognitive theory of narrative acts. Cognitive approaches to literature and culture series (pp. 141-157). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (full text)

Argues that dreams are narratives, and that accepting this would have important implications for narrative theory. The argument takes in considerations about the relations amongst dreams, percepts, and memories, and about fictionality, representation, and authorship, as well as what difference lucidity (metacognitive awareness of the dream as a dream) versus immersion makes.

See also Walsh’s entry on ‘Dreaming and narration’ in the living handbook of narratology:

Landy, J. (2015). Mental calisthenics and self-reflexive fiction. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 559-580). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (partial preview), (paywall)

Suggests that self-reflexive fictions (with Fellini’s The Good Life as a prime example) can contribute to cognitive flourishing by encouraging viewers/readers to practise treating illusions as illusions, or cultivate our capacity for conscious self-deception. This is possible because of informational encapsulation (modular specialisations within a massively parallel neural structure): we’re quite good at holding two conflicting attitudes at once, including when we’re aware of the conflict. (See also cognitive dissonance, in Cognitive biases.) The mirror box (which gives amputees relief from phantom pain) provides evidence that illusions can be beneficial, even when we know they’re illusions; and lucid dreaming (in which the dreamer knows (s)he is dreaming) makes clear that we can continue to let our senses deceive us even when we know they are. We can undergo effective mental training through mechanisms like priming effects—and fiction can be a great venue for such training. All fictions place us in a doubled state of mind, but self-reflexive fictions make that doubling more conspicuous, and therefore potentially uncomfortable but also positively challenging.

‘4E’ (embodied, embedded, enactive, extended) cognition

‘‘First-generation’ cognitive science can be caricatured as understanding cognition to consist of computational manipulation of abstract symbolic representations, occurring solely in the brain. This has (for some) given way to the ‘second generation’, in which mental representation has become a fraught concept, and research has focused increasingly on the way cognition is constituted by the whole body in interaction with its environment. This brings with it a greater attention to experience, which has made cognitive science more open to interdisciplinary connections with the humanities. The number and identity of the Es remains in flux; others include emotional, ecologically shaped, and emergent, as well as some that don’t begin with e, like situated (more or less the same as embedded), distributed (similar to extended), and sensorimotor (similar to enactive). But ‘4E’ has become one of the common catchwords for this broad collection of research programmes.

Scientific discussions

O’Regan, K., and Noë, A. (2001). A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(5), 939-973. (full text) 

A radical break with the long-held view that mental or neural representation accounts for visual experience, proposing instead that seeing is a particular way of exploring the environment, with implications for how we understand perceptual experience in both vision and visual imagery as embodied and enacted. Includes numerous peer commentaries and the authors’ responses.

Shapiro, L. (2014). The Routledge handbook of embodied cognition. New York: Routledge. (full preview of introduction) 

A wide-ranging introduction to all the key concepts, contexts, and implications—including the ten commandments of ecological psychology, dynamical systems versus modularity in neuroscience, and autonomy of organisms from environments in enactivist psychology. The introduction (pp. 1-6) provides a helpful summary.

Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9(4), 625-636. (full text)

A clear outline of different strengths of claim that can be made about how exactly cognition is embodied.

Wallis, C., and Wright, W. (2009). Enactivism’s vision: Neurocognitive basis or neurocognitively baseless? In J. Bickle (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy and neuroscience (pp. 251-308). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (paywall)

A critical take on the tenets of enactivism, suggesting that its revolutionising claims are as yet unfounded, and that it faces serious empirical and conceptual hurdles and has also been ignoring some highly relevant areas of neuroscience.

Clark, A. (2011). ‘Material symbols.’ In A. Clark, Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension (pp. 44-60). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

‘Where does language fit into our emerging picture of the plastic, environmentally exploitative, ecologically efficient agent? One useful way to approach this question is to consider language itself as a form of mind-transforming cognitive scaffolding: a persisting, though never stationary, symbolic edifice whose critical role in promoting thought and reason remains surprisingly ill understood.’ Outlines three functions of the linguistic scaffold: as support for discovery of abstract natural patterns, as developmental aid, and as tool for self-reflection and cognitive self-control.

Goldinger, S. D., Papesh, M. H., Barnhart, A. S., Hansen, W. A., & Hout, M. C. (2016). The poverty of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(4), 959-978. (full text)

Another critical view, using thought exercises to ask whether there is logical or empirical support for embodied cognition in classic topics from cognitive sciences, including sentence processing, concepts and prototypes, serial recall, mental rotation, face recognition, priming and memory phenomena. The authors ask whether classic findings are better explained from the embodied cognition perspective than they can be by standard cognitive models—and in almost all cases conclude that they are not.

Tschentscher, N. (2017). Embodied semantics: Embodied cognition in neuroscience. German Life and Letters, 70(4), 423-429. (full text)

Asks whether processing of abstract concepts (words, numbers, mathematical concepts) relies on basic mechanisms of perception and motor action, and concludes that the evidence is inconsistent, but that a dimensional and contextual framework may be more appropriate than a universal yes/no approach to embodied semantic processing. Part of a special issue on ‘embodied cognition around 1800’:

Cognitive humanities discussions 

Tribble, E. B. (2005). Distributing cognition in the globe. Shakespeare Quarterly, 56(2), 135-155. (full text) 

Employs the principles of distributed cognition to help explain the cognitive feats achieved by Shakespeare’s actors, embracing the interactions between individual actors’ parts, the overall plot, the physical environment, and the protocols of the theatrical company. The article focuses in particular on how these features create frameworks for memory, as part of how individual performances are constrained by the broader system in which they occur.

Herman, D. (2011). Re-minding modernism. In D. Herman (Ed.), The emergence of mind: Representations of consciousness in narrative discourse in English (pp. 243-272). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. (partial preview) 

Argues that Modernist innovations which can be thought of in terms of a shift of focus from fictional worlds to fictional-worlds-as-experienced need to be distinguished from the often-invoked ‘turn inwards’ or a probing of psychological depths, because they in fact illustrate an increased embedding of minds in contexts for action and interaction. Instead of grouping representations of consciousness on a continuum from the mind ‘inside’ to the world ‘outside’, we might posit a spectrum of tighter to looser coupling between an agent and its environment. Enactivist principles and Uexküll’s notion of ‘Umwelt’ guide the analysis of passages from Joyce and Woolf. 

Sutton, J., and Tribble, E. (2011). Cognitive ecology as a framework for Shakespearean studies. Shakespeare Studies, 39, 94-103. (full text) 

Cognitive ecologies—the multidimensional contexts in which we think, act, and generally exist—are used as a framework for integrating various approaches to cultural cognition. The paper draws on the principles of distributed cognition to show the relevance of the cognitive ecology to thinking about early-modern theatrical history (with a focus on attention, in actors and audiences) and the history of ‘things’ (with reference to the notion of ‘affordances’ and their temporal/historical implications). 

Kukkonen, K. (2013). Space, time, and causality in graphic narratives: An embodied approach. In D. Stein and J.-N. Thon (Eds), From comic strips to graphic novels: Contributions to the theory and history of graphic narrative, 37, 49. (partial preview)

Investigates the interrelations of bodies in comics from an embodied perspective, treating time, space, and causality as emergent properties and outlining how they contribute to configuring the conceptual shape of graphic narratives’ storyworlds.

Bernini, M. (2014). Supersizing narrative theory: On intention, material agency, and extended mind-workers. Style, 48(3), 349-366. (paywall)

Suggests that cognitive approaches have the advantage of allowing us to talk again about intention, and about communication between author and reader. The paper draws on the theory of extended mind (in which the mind and the world beyond the body are linked in a coupled system) to address the problem of authorial intention in narrative world-making, proposing a distributed account of agency during the writing process. The author’s mind can be understood as working in material interaction with language as well as the physical props of writing. Conceiving of writing as thought in action opens up the potential for exploring the effects of writing on thought, including as mediated by mental imagery, and for distinguishing between agency and ownership. Intentions may be better thought of as emerging in writing rather than being recovered from a text, and the gap between author and reader should be complemented by the notion of their interpretive proximity. 

Kukkonen, K. (2014). Presence and prediction: The embodied reader’s cascades of cognition. Style, 48(3), 367-384. (paywall) 

Uses Iser’s ‘implied reader’ as a shorthand for models of reader response that sideline embodiment—a shorthand which is contrasted with the ‘embodied reader’. What might the two types of reader learn from the other? Drawing on an excerpt from an 18th-century novel by Tobias Smollett, the paper first discusses the kinesic effects of an embodied description of emotion, in terms of enactive or sensorimotor perception, mirror neurons, and motor resonance. It goes on to develop a model of action-orientated predictive processing that acts at the levels of reader, storyworld, and character through interactions between embodied experience, error prediction, and probabilistic causal structures. Reading can be thought of as a process of learning and discovery—about the fictional world and about oneself. 

Troscianko, E. T. (2014). Reading Kafka enactively. Paragraph, 37(1), 37-51. (full text) 

Analyses the start of Kafka’s The Trial to show how an understanding of cognition as enactive can open up new ways of understanding fiction-reading: in terms of enactive perception (including vision and imagination), in terms of enactive language (with a focus on basic-level categorisation and readers’ motor responses), and in terms of enactive emotion (drawing on appraisal theory). The multiple ways in which this passage is ‘cognitively realistic’ (corresponding to the realities of how the mind works) provide the basis for hypotheses as to its effects on readers’ responses.

Gibbs, R. W. Jr. (2017). Embodied dynamics in literary experience. In M. Burke & E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 219-238). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Characterises reading experiences in terms of embodied dynamics in which a wide range of personal, historical, and cultural constraints interact to produce distinct in-the-moment readings of literature, manifesting both commonalities with and differences from other readers’ experiences and interpretations. This approach tries to bridge the gap between scientific studies that emphasise generalities and individualistic interpretive goals of humanities scholars.

Carney, J. (2020). Thinking avant la lettre: A review of 4E cognition. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 4(1), 77. (full text)

A critical review of the current state of the research field of 4E cognition prompted by two recent edited collections. Includes objections related to ‘hidden processing’ (where/how are the inferencing and calculation really happening?), intentionality (how much do bodies really matter to this feature of cognition?), duplicity (is a 4E model of how we deal with this really possible?), AI and robotics (will active inference ever really rival the success of reinforcement learning or other strategies based on classical models of cognition?), and mathematics (does the free energy principle that could formalise embodied cognition inevitably bring inference and computation back in by the back door?). There’s a useful overview of the latest directions in the field via the two books’ contributions.


Emotion [see also, Interpersonal emotion]

Emotion is central to our cognitive life, and far from the base opposite to reason it was long taken for. See also Memory, which can be profoundly affected by emotional factors.

Scientific discussions

Frijda, N. H. (1993). The place of appraisal in emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 7(3-4), 357-387. (paywall)

A concise introduction to the idea that emotion is dependent on cognitive appraisal of what an object, person, or situation means to me (hence collapsing the Platonic reason/emotion opposition), clarifying the relations between the appraisal and the emotion, including the role of elaborative post-hoc appraisals.

Sloman, A. (2004). What are emotion theories about? Invited talk at a cross-disciplinary workshop on Architectures for Modeling Emotion at the AAAI Spring Symposium at Stanford University. (full text)

A no-nonsense round-up of the inadequacies of current ways of thinking and talking about emotion and affect, as well as the forms of wishful thinking that can get in the way of doing science. It calls for finer-grained categorisations as well as a broader perspective on emotions in their cognitive contexts, and sketches out the start of a ‘CogAff’ input–output model. ‘Starting again from an architecture-based theory may upset some scientists, but may also reveal the true depths of some of our intuitive, pre-scientific theories of mind, such as those used by novelists, playwrights, poets and gossips.’

Kensinger, E. A. (2009). Remembering the details: Effects of emotion. Emotion Review, 1(2), 99-113. (full text)

Discusses the effects of emotion on memory, with a focus on the enhancements it creates particularly in memories of negative experiences.

Izard, C. I. (2010). The many meanings/aspects of emotion: Definitions, functions, activation, and regulation. Emotion Review, 2(4), 363-370. (paywall)

An attempt to clarify the general concept by asking eminent emotion researchers six questions about emotion.

Gross, J. J., Sheppes, G., and Ury, H. L. (2011). Emotion generation and emotion regulation: A distinction we should make (carefully). Cognition and Emotion, 25(5), 765-781. (full text)

It’s natural to think of the generation of emotions and their regulation as distinct processes, but the distinction holds only in certain contexts.

Niedenthal, P. M., & Brauer, M. (2012). Social functionality of human emotion. Annual Review of Psychology63, 259-285. (full text)

An overview of emotion as a social phenomenon, in pairs and groups, and in terms of both functions and mechanisms.

Al-Shawaf, L., Conroy-Beam, D., Asao, K., & Buss, D. M. (2016). Human emotions: An evolutionary psychological perspective. Emotion Review, 8(2), 173-186. (full text)

‘Evolutionary approaches to the emotions have traditionally focused on a subset of emotions that are shared with other species, characterized by distinct signals, and designed to solve a few key adaptive problems. By contrast, an evolutionary psychological approach (a) broadens the range of adaptive problems emotions have evolved to solve, (b) includes emotions that lack distinctive signals and are unique to humans, and (c) synthesizes an evolutionary approach with an information-processing perspective. On this view, emotions are superordinate mechanisms that evolved to coordinate the activity of other programs in the solution of adaptive problems. We illustrate the heuristic value of this approach by furnishing novel hypotheses for disgust and sexual arousal and highlighting unexplored areas of research.’

Cognitive humanities discussions

Miall, D. S. (1988). Affect and narrative: A model of response to stories. Poetics, 17, 259-272. (full text)

An early mapping of the relevance of emotion to narrative engagement, replacing the information-processing model with one in which three characteristics of emotion—its self-referential and anticipatory qualities, and its enabling of links between conceptual domains—provide purchase on readers’ responses, which are understood by analogy with real-world social interactions but with reference to a defamiliarisation model of response. The claims are supported by evidence from two experiments, using reading times and self-reports, to assess the role of interpretive schemas in narrative response.

Cupchik, G. C. (1994). Emotions in aesthetics: Reactive and reflective models. Poetics, 23, 177-188. (full text)

Outlines various models of aesthetic emotion, and proposes that stimulus appraisal and response in everyday contexts can be generalised to aesthetic contexts, with different stimulus configurations and contexts yielding varying levels of automaticity and flexibility. The paper develops the reactive/reflective distinction, in which pleasure/arousal or meaning-making respectively is primary.

Carroll, N. (1997). Art, narrative, and emotion. In M. Hjort and S. Laver (Eds), Emotion and the arts (pp. 190-211). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Counters the Platonic model of emotion with a cognitive one, and emphasises the importance of attention to models of aesthetic emotion, describing literary texts as tailored to elicit in readers emotionally focused responses that contribute to the overall assimilation of the text. The paper counters the notion of identification: characters’ emotions don’t transmigrate into us; rather we respond as ourselves. The argument concludes with a brief response to the worry (based on considerations of reality and belief) that emotional engagement with fictions is impossible.

Cupchik, G. C., Oatley, K., and Vorderer, P. (1998). Emotional effects of reading excerpts from short stories by James Joyce. Poetics, 25, 363-377. (full text)

A study using stories by Joyce, classified either as descriptively dense or as having a unifying emotional theme. Readers were instructed either to adopt a sympathetic spectator role or to identify with the protagonist, and were asked to say whether they experienced a ‘fresh emotion’ or an ‘emotional memory’ during their reading, and to rate these experiences for pleasure, intensity, and tension, as well as being asked whether they felt any ‘primary emotions’ like anger or fear. Relationships were found between text type, reader stance, and emotion type.

Miall, D. S. (2007). Feeling from the perspective of the empirical study of literature. Journal of Literary Theory, 1/2, 377-393. (full text)

Proposes that the emotion system involves three levels: bodily aspects, the experiential level, and prototypes. This model helps us distinguish between tokens and types as objects of emotion; readers may generalise the significance of what they feel in response to literature by moving from token to type. Part of this movement is bound up with the self-referential nature of emotion and feeling, which act as contexts for engagement with our self concept. More generally, our sense of what is literary may come from engaging with emotion at the prototypical rather than the token-specific level. This argument also has relevance to empirical work on responses to foregrounding and absorption, and debates on empathy and identification.

Keen, S. (2011). Introduction: Narrative and the emotions. Poetics Today, 32, 1-53. (full text)

Traces a history and the current state of the study of narrative and emotion in different fields, including emotion’s connections to reason, morality, and mental health, and outlines the arguments of the other contributions to the special issue.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Djikic, M., & Mullin, J. (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition & Emotion25(5), 818-833. (paywall)

An overview of empirical research on emotional response to literary narrative fiction, before, during, and after the reading.

Miall, D. (2011). Emotions and the structuring of narrative responses. Poetics Today, 32, 323-348. (full text)

Expands on the 1988 paper by adding further qualities of emotion—an inherent narrativity, and a tendency to animism (or anthropomorphism)—and by incorporating some neuroscientific findings on the temporal structures of electrical evoked-response potentials (ERPs) as correlates of certain emotional responses.

Flesch, W. (2015). Reading and bargaining. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 369-392). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview), (paywall)

Suggests that we think of reading as a form of bargaining: we read as though it were uncertain what is going to happen next, even though we know it’s already been determined by the author, and feel like we’re bargaining with the narrative because we are investing emotionally in it. All emotional intensity involves a degree of bargaining: it aims to express desire, saying ‘this is how that makes me feel, so that I plead with you to interact with me accordingly’. Emotions in response to literature are wishful bargains: we yield some control to the writer in order to get some gratifications we couldn’t on our own. The paper shows the relevance of decision theory and evolutionary game theory (including recursive dynamics, the difficulties of estimating probabilities, and discounting of longer-term interests for shorter-term ones) to understanding our strategic interactions with others and ourselves in literary contexts, our desires and preferences about fictional occurrences, and the temporal dynamics involved.

Hogan, P. C. (2015). What literature teaches us about emotion: Synthesising affective science and literary study. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 273-290). New York: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

Argues for the value of literature (which both describes and induces emotions) as a tool for investigating the complexities of emotion, with reflections on the role of literary features like genre, and the interplay of emotion and reward (e.g. emotion-sharing, such as between author and reader, and amongst readers). In conclusion the author provides a reading of a poem that contrasts his own, Semir Zeki’s, and Martha Nussbaum’s approaches to emotion and literature, showing how these perspectives can illuminate both the poem itself and to our emotional lives more generally.

Jacobs, A. M. (2017). Affective and aesthetic processes in literary reading: A neurocognitive poetics perspective. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 303-325). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Offers a survey of literary reading from the perspective of neurocognitive poetics, taking the form of a ‘mountain climb’ from ‘word valleys’ to ‘sentence slopes’ and on to ‘verse lifts’, ‘stanza rises’, ‘passage hills’, ‘story knolls’, and finally ‘poem mountains’. The chapter reviews findings on textual features including foregrounding and backgrounding, and on response features lie immersion and disportation, empathy and suspense. The conclusion sets out some general principles for the theory and practice of studying literature scientifically, and in particular for integrative modelling of the micro- and macro-processes underlying literary reading.

Evolution and culture

Evolutionary psychology has always been a controversial field, and cultural evolution is no exception. The debates include questions about whether specific cultural phenomena, like storytelling, are evolutionarily adaptive, and questions about how to conceive of the evolution of human culture as a whole.

Scientific discussions

Pinker, S. (2007). Toward a consilient study of literature. Philosophy and Literature, 31(1), 162-178. (full text)

A review of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, offering a critical summary of the contributions, and setting out the author’s own thoughts on whether literature is an evolutionary adaptation, alongside his reservations about how evolutionary-literary criticism is being done.

Blackmore, S. (2010). Memetics does provide a useful way of understanding cultural evolution. In F. Ayala and R. Arp (Eds), Contemporary debates in philosophy of biology (pp. 255-272). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. (preprint full text)

Makes the case for memetics (memes being a cultural replicator which demonstrates heredity, variation, and selection, as genes do) as an essential framework for understanding the development of culture.

Lewens, T. (2013). Cultural evolution. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition). (full text)

A brief round-up of some of the main theories of cultural evolution, including memetics and its alternatives—coming down anti-memes.

Creanza, N., Kolodny, O., & Feldman, M. W. (2017). Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114(30), 7782-7789. (full text)

An overview of cultural evolutionary theory and empirical findings, focusing on cultural evolutionary applications in population genetics, ecology, and demography.

Kolodny, O., Feldman, M. W., & Creanza, N. (2018). Integrative studies of cultural evolution: crossing disciplinary boundaries to produce new insights. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 373, 20170048. (full text)

Argues for an integrative interdisciplinary approach to cultural evolution (with examples from cognitive science and neuroanatomy, behavioural ecology, population dynamics, and evolutionary genetics) and for taking cultural processes into account in the study of genetics, neuroscience, behaviour and evolution.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Flesch, W. (2007). Introduction. In W. Flesch, Comeuppance: Costly signaling, altruistic punishment, and other biological components of fiction (pp. 1-7). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (full preview)

An alternative to more mainstream ways of doing evolutionary literary studies, of which Flesch is critical for their reductionism, focusing not on the origins of storytelling but on its psychological and biological conditions of possibility: what is a story, what makes stories possible, what must we be like given that storytelling is a human universal, and what must the mind have evolved to do to be able and eager to tell and hear stories? The answers, set out in the rest of the book (including through analyses of Oliver Twist and King Lear), depend on concepts including altruistic punishment (our desire to see good rewarded and evil punished), costly signalling (we like costly signallers), and volunteered affect (in relation to storytellers and audiences).

Carroll, J. (2008). An evolutionary paradigm for literary study. Style, 42(2/3), 103-135. (full text)

The target article in a special double issue on evolutionary approaches to literary study, providing a brief overview of the field and its current status, and addressing its relation to cognitive literary studies. The paper also covers questions about human nature and the interpretive process, the adaptive function of literature, and reductive and empirical methods. It’s followed by 32 peer responses, and a response by Carroll.

Hines, C. A. (2010). Evolutionary landscapes: adaptation, selection, and mutation in 19th century literary ecologies. PhD dissertation, University of Iowa. (full text)

An account of how narratives and literary genres developed in the USA in the 19th century, drawing on the concepts of mutation, replication, and selection of texts in an adaptive landscape, including analysis of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Edward Bellamy and Mary Wilkins Freeman.

Kramnick, J. (2012). Literary studies and science: A reply to my critics. Critical Inquiry, 38(2), 431-460. (full text)

A considered intervention in the fraught field of literary Darwinism, taking in the arguments made by Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschal, Paul Bloom, Blakey Vermeule, Vanessa Ryan, and Gabrielle G. Starr about the place of storytelling in human evolution, and the place of evolutionary literary criticism in the science-humanities ecosystem. This paper follows on from a target article by Kramnick in the same journal the previous year, ‘Against literary Darwinism’ (volume 37(2): and a set of responses, ‘Debating literary Darwinism’, in 38(2).

Zipes, J. (2012). The cultural evolution of storytelling and fairy tales: Human communication and memetics. In J. Zipes, The irresistible fairy tale: The cultural and social history of a genre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1-20. (full text)

Applies memetic principles to the study of fairy tales.

Grishakova, M., & Sorokin, S. (2016). Notes on narrative, cognition, and cultural evolution. Sign Systems Studies, 44(4), 542-561. (full text)

Offers an account of both implicit and explicit narrativity in the evolutionary history of human culture.

Oring, E. (2014). Memetics and folkloristics: The applications. Western Folklore, 73(4), 455-492. (paywall)

A critical outline of four applications of memetic theory to the study of folklore, arguing for a a broader attention to the macro- and micro-processes of the folklore tradition.

Salmon, C. (2018). Evolutionary perspectives on popular culture: State of the art. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture2(2), 47-66. (paywall)

An overview of evolutionarily informed studies of popular culture.

Hofhuis, S. T., & Boudry, M. (2019). ‘Viral’Hunts?: A cultural Darwinian analysis of witch persecutions. Cultural Science Journal11(1), 13-29. (full text)

Argues that cultural Darwinism can indeed resolve long-standing sociocultural puzzles via a cultural Darwinian analysis of the European witch persecutions, answering the questions ‘who created the concept of witchcraft?’ and ‘why did beliefs in witchcraft and witch-hunts persist and disseminate despite no one appearing to benefit from them?’, and answering both with reference to a Darwinian process of evolution in which cultural variants that accidentally enhanced the reproduction of the witch-hunts were selected and accumulated. The authors conclude that witch persecutions exemplify a type of ‘viral’ sociocultural phenomenon that reproduces ‘selfishly’, even against the interests of its human hosts.

McAdams, D. P. (2019). “First we invented stories, then they changed us”: The evolution of narrative identity. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture3(1), 1-18. (full text)

Shows how the evolution of human storytelling provides the basic tools for constructing self-defining life narratives, including considerations relating to life-course development, social variation, and cultural influences. The perspective ‘was formulated within the fields of personality and developmental psychology, but it is also informed by concepts and constructs in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and literary studies.’ Target article with numerous peer commentaries.

See the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture,, founded by Joseph Carroll, for more on this topic.


Illusions are fun to think about and hard to define, but a helpful point of departure may be the idea of something being other than what it seems. Illusions, in this sense, extend from the specific (the magician’s illusions) to the highly general (maybe all our sensory interactions with the world are illusory). See also Sensory perception.

Scientific discussions

Reynolds, Robert I. (1988). A psychological definition of illusion. Philosophical Psychology, 1(2), 217-223. (paywall)

Sets out five possible definitions of ‘illusion’ based on the idea of discrepancy between awareness and stimulus, shows why all five cause problems, and proposes a new definition not based on any notion of truth or falsity, namely that illusion is ‘a discrepancy between one’s perceptions of an object or event observed under different conditions’—where ‘conditions’ can include stimulus exposure, stimulus context, and experiential context. The article concludes with some thoughts about the psychological and philosophical implications of the new definition, including: recategorisations of things usually thought of as illusions; evasion of the problem that perception always lags behind the stimulus event; and the non-specification of which if any percept is ‘true’, which has the potential to mediate between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ models of perception.

Noë, A. (2002). Is the visual world a grand illusion? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(5-6), 1-12. (full text)

Addresses the question in the title through engagement with the ‘new sceptical’ view according to which we may not only lack knowledge about whether things are as we experience them to be, but we may not even have the perceptual experience we think we do. The paper’s analysis of visual perception is informed by the enactivist/sensorimotor accounts, and takes in the problem of ‘perceptual presence’ (the fact that things can be present to us whether or not we see or attend to them) and inquiry into how our experiences really seem to us. The title question is answered in the negative—though arguably thanks to some slippage between the question of whether the visual world is itself an illusion, or whether its richness is.

Kuhn, G., Caffaratti, H. A., Teszka, R., and Rensink, R. A. (2014). A psychologically-based taxonomy of misdirection. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1392. (full text)

Misdirection is central to how magicians create the effect of magic, by directing attention away from the real cause of the effect. This paper presents a new taxonomy for magicians’ techniques of misdirection, focusing on cognitive mechanisms, primarily perception (attentional focus, timing, and resources), memory (forgetting and misremembering), and reasoning (ruse, feigning actions, wrong assumptions), with a view to enhancing the dialogue between magicians and cognitive scientists.

Maniatis, L. M. (2015). First, believe your eyes. Perception, 44(10), 1149-1152. (full text)

Unpacks the philosophical positions (realism versus anti-realism) underlying the impulse to call anything an illusion, and argues that (vision) science cannot proceed without realism.

Yarritu, I., Matute, H., & Luque, D. (2015). The dark side of cognitive illusions: When an illusory belief interferes with the acquisition of evidence‐based knowledge. British Journal of Psychology106(4), 597-608. (full text)

An empirical study demonstrating the detrimental effects of cognitive illusion on learning about causality, offering caveats to arguments about the adaptive nature of persistent cognitive illusions.

Zavagno, D., Daneyko, O., and Actis-Grosso, R. (2015). Mishaps, errors, and cognitive experiences: On the conceptualization of perceptual illusions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, article 190. (full text)

Argues for the usefulness of the concept of illusion in the neuroscience of sensory (particularly visual) perception, taking in discussions of veridicality and representation, and covering the ecological, the cognitive, and the gestalt perspectives as they tie into the underlying metaphysical question about illusion and reality.

Kuhn, G., Olson, J. A., & Raz, A. (2016). The psychology of magic and the magic of psychology. Frontiers in Psychology7, 1358. (full text)

An introduction to a special issue on magic and psychology, offering an outline of current and future research areas

 Ekroll, V. (2019). Illusions of imagery and magical experiences. i-Perception10(4), 2041669519865284. (full text)

Uses topological illusions as a case study for exploring psychological principles involved in successful visual illusions.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Backe, H.-J. (2013). Disappearing acts: stage magic and the illusion of the body. Comparative Critical Studies Electronic, 91-105. (full text)

Discusses metaphorical and metareferential qualities in literary texts about stage magic, focusing on the relation between magic and identity in fragmented narratives that emulate the misdirection of stage magic, and complicate the stark power relations between magical performer and audience (with Freudian implications).

Mellmann, K. (2013). On the emergence of aesthetic illusion: An evolutionary perspective. In W. Wolf, W. Bernhart, and A. Mahler (Eds), Immersion and distance: Aesthetic illusion in literature and other media (pp. 67-88). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (partial preview)

A cognitive-evolutionary take on the ‘aesthetic illusion’ (one of numerous terms for the experience of engaging with fiction—this one emphasising the simultaneity of immersion and distance). The chapter offers a theoretical framework based on Luhmann’s model of sociocultural evolution, combining neodarwinian evolution with systems theory. It includes reflections on the biological prerequisites and cultural processes that might have supervened on the biological ones. Illusion is treated not in referential terms (‘illusion of something’), but in a biologically grounded sense of cognitive ‘illuded’ states of mind that result from play behaviour. The topics covered include the human capacity for metarepresentation and symbolic cognition, play, interpretation, the idea of the author, and the scope of the aesthetic, alongside some criticisms of common ways of doing evolutionary-biological literary/cultural studies.

See Immersion/Transportation for more on aesthetic illusion and related phenomena.


Immersion and transportation are just two of numerous competing terms, originating in disciplines as varied as artificial intelligence and film studies, to designate the experience of engaging with art (especially narrative art); others include absorption, presence, aesthetic illusion, and narrative engagement. The different terms have different theoretical entailments, sometimes made explicit, sometimes not.

Scientific discussions

Gerrig, R. (1993). Two metaphors for the experience of narrative worlds. In R. Gerrig, Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading (pp. 1-25). New Haven: Yale University Press. (preprint full text)

With reference to conceptual metaphor theory, this chapter analyses the metaphors of transportation and performance in readers’ reports of their experience of engaging with narrative worlds, as a first step towards investigating the underlying cognitive processes. The chapter discusses the various entailments of the two metaphors, and also includes definitions of narrative and narrative world (not necessarily fiction), explanations of the situation/mental model versus propositional representation of a text, remarks on individual differences, and a brief outline of the following chapters.

Green, M. C., and Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721. (full text)

A well-known set of experiments showing that transportation correlates with story-consistent beliefs and favourable evaluations of protagonists, irrespective of whether the text is labelled as fact or fiction. Provides a ‘transportation’ scale which has been widely used in empirical studies since.

Krakowiak, M. K. (2008). When good characters do bad things: Examining the effect of moral ambiguity on enjoyment. PhD thesis, Pennsylvania State University. (full text)

A study suggesting that the morality of characters’ actions doesn’t directly affect transportation, though it did have effects via perceived realism: ambiguous and good characters were perceived as more realistic than bad characters, and narratives featuring more realistic characters were more transporting. Bad characters had a positive effect on transportation but also a negative indirect effect via affective dispositions and perceived realism. Narratives that were more transporting were found to be more affectively and cognitively enjoyable and more suspenseful.

Busselle , R., and Bilandzic, H. (2009). Measuring narrative engagement. Media Psychology, 12, 321-347. (paywall)

Describes the development and validation of an alternative (focused on audiovisual media) to Green and Brock’s ‘transportation’ scale, tapping four dimensions: narrative understanding, attentional focus, emotional engagement, and narrative presence.

Murphy, S. T., Frank, L. B., Moran, M. B., and Patnoe-Woodley, P. (2011). Involved, transported, or emotional? Exploring the determinants of change in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in entertainment-education. Journal of Communication, 61, 407-431. (full text)

An experiment assessing the relationships between readers’ involvement with specific characters, transportation, and emotional reactions to the narrative, and their correlations with changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour. The authors conclude that emotional engagement with characters shapes these latter ‘entertainment-education’ effects only indirectly, via transportation and emotion.

Kuijpers, M. M., Hakemulder, F., Tan, E. S., and Doicaru, M. M. (2014). Exploring absorbing reading experiences. Scientific Study of Literature, 4(1), 89-122. (full text)

Develops and tests another scale for narrative engagement specifically with written text, including the dimensions of attention, transportation, emotional engagement, and mental imagery.

van Laer, T., de Ruyter, K., Visconti, L. M., and Wetzels, M. (2014). The extended transportation-imagery model: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of consumers’ narrative transportation. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(5), 797-817. (full text)

A review and meta-analysis of research on narrative transportation, proposing a new ‘extended transportation-imagery model’ including the antecedents of transportation (identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude in the text; familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographic factors in readers) and its consequences (for emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and intentions). The findings’ relevance to consumer research are outlined.

Jacobs, A. M. (2015). Neurocognitive poetics: methods and models for investigating the neuronal and cognitive-affective bases of literature reception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience9, 186. (full text)

An overview of neurocognitive poetics as a set of methods and models for studying literary reading, including a section on immersive reader responses and foreground/background features of texts, taking in the connections of immersion with other theoretical concepts and psychological processes.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Wolf, W. (2013). Aesthetic illusion. In W. Wolf, W. Bernhart, and A. Mahler (Eds), Immersion and distance: Aesthetic illusion in literature and other media (pp. 1-63). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (partial preview)

The author’s latest take on his own concept of aesthetic illusion, a gradable and unstable mixture of ‘immersed’ and ‘distanced’ response to, or ‘quasi-experience’ of, representational ‘illusionist’ artefacts, including its relation to other terms, how to investigate it, and what its functions may be.

Ryan, M.-L. (2015). The poetics of immersion. In M.-L. Ryan, Narrative as virtual reality 2: Revisiting immersion and interactivity in literature and electronic media (pp. 61-116). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (full preview of chapter ‘The poetics of immersion’, partial preview of ‘The varieties of immersion’)

This section discusses immersion and transportation in the contexts of reading and virtual reality, asking what makes the semantic domain of a text into a world. It covers possible-worlds theory, games of make-believe, and mental simulation, before going on to consider spatial, temporal, and emotional varieties of immersion.

Hartung, F., Burke, M., Hagoort, P., & Willems, R. M. (2016). Taking perspective: Personal pronouns affect experiential aspects of literary reading. PloS one11(5), e0154732. (full text) (and corrected figure here:

Reports on an experiment suggesting that immersion (specifically transportation into the storyworld and mental imagery during reading) is higher in response to first-person than third-person narrative fiction.

Troscianko, E. T. (2017). How should we talk about reading experiences? Arguments and empirical evidence. In T. Koblizek (Ed.), The aesthetic illusion in literature and the arts (pp. 237-71). London: Bloomsbury. (preprint full text)

Aesthetic illusion is one of many terms available for describing the experience of engaging with fiction. This chapter argues that aesthetic illusion has important qualities lacking in alternative terms—above all, it reminds us that reading experiences are more complex than just ‘immersion’, ‘absorption’, or ‘transportation’. Despite this potential, however, aesthetic illusion is flawed in ways that, taken together, prove fatal: in the core concepts of illusion and the aesthetic; in associated notions like quasi-experience and rational distance; and in questions of its typicality and its relation to phenomena like immersion. After a theoretical critique, the chapter presents empirical evidence, from a survey on fiction-reading and health (specifically eating disorders), to help adjudicate between aesthetic illusion and its competitors, and to explore both the therapeutic relevance of aesthetic illusion and the cases where its basic structure (emotional engagement versus rational distance) proves not only conceptually but ethically inadequate.

Anderson, M., & Iversen, S. (2018). Immersion and defamiliarization: experiencing literature and world. Poetics Today39(3), 569-595. (preprint full text)

Offers readings of Chaucer, Kafka, and Borges to challenge the simple opposition between immersion (elucidated here from the perspective of cognitive narratology) and defamiliarization (from the perspective of unnatural narratology) and contribute to understanding the overlaps and differences between the two narratological paradigms.

Bell, A., Ensslin, A., Van Der Bom, I., & Smith, J. (2018). Immersion in digital fiction. International Journal of Literary Linguistics7(1). (full text)

Presents empirical findings on immersion in digital fiction to distinguish between narrative and ludic immersion, and to expand deictic shift theory for digital media. Insights include the status of spatiotemporal immersion as a prerequisite for other types, and the importance of extra-textual features in contributing to immersion.

See also Polvinen, M. (2013). Affect and artifice in cognitive literary theory. [in Attention] and Mellmann, K. (2013). On the emergence of aesthetic illusion: An evolutionary perspective. [in Illusion].

Interpersonal emotion

Emotions are crucial to our survival in the nonhuman world, but even more so in the social world. Interpersonal emotion is a central part of social cognition. See also Emotion and Social cognition.

Scientific discussions

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126. (full text)

An account of the development of one of the most commonly used scales for measuring emotional responses that can be classed under the broad heading of ‘empathy’. The scale separates this category out into four subclasses: perspective-taking, fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress.

Preston, S. S., and de Waal, F. B. M. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate causes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1-72. (full text)

Tries to integrate research on proximate and ultimate causes of empathy. Suggesting that common distinctions between cognitive and emotional forms of empathy have been exaggerated, the authors present evidence for adapting the perception-action model of motor behaviour (the idea that perceiving a behaviour automatically activates representations leading to action) for the case of empathy. They address amongst other things the well-documented effects of familiarity/similarity, past experience, learning, and cue salience on empathic response.

Singer, T., & Lamm, C. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1156(1), 81-96. (full text)

Outlines the neuroscientific evidence on self- and other-related emotional experiences, with discussion the effects of contextual factors including personality.

Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35-45. (full text)

Discusses the evolved mechanism of empathy as an emergent property of high-level cognitive functioning, with material on its hormonal and neural substrates, its context-dependence, its connections to other prosocial feelings and behaviours, and its different levels of complexity, from arousal and emotional contagion to representational and metarepresentational mechanisms operating hierarchically and in parallel.

Zaki, J., and Williams, W. C. (2013). Interpersonal emotion regulation. Emotion, 13(5), 803-810. (full text)

An overview of the different ways in which people can regulate their own emotional experiences, either through self-directed change or by attempting to change the other person. Discusses mechanisms including the ‘safety signal’ (indicating that someone needn’t tackle things alone), affiliation (increasing the likelihood of longer-term connections), labelling (finding words for one’s emotions and their sources), empathy and vicarious experience, and the ‘warm glow’ that comes from any prosocial activity regardless of its outcome for others.

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences18(7), 337-339. (full text)

Argues that empathy as a catchall term should be abandoned in favour of more precise concepts like emotional sharing, empathic concern, and affective perspective-taking to understand the complex relationships between morality and empathy.

Kiverstein, J. (2015). Empathy and the responsiveness to social affordances. Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 532-542. (paywall)

Develops the direct perception theory of empathy (which claims that we can experience someone else’s state of mind directly, rather than using physical clues to infer ‘internal’ states) to take account of responsiveness to environmental affordances (possibilities for action): shared emotion allows one to orientate one’s attention towards what matters to someone else. The implications for autism spectrum conditions are also considered.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Coplan, A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62, 141-152. (full text)

Aims to elucidate concepts like identification, empathy, sympathy, and emotional contagion by considering empirical research on text processing and narrative comprehension. The paper emphasises the importance of self–other differentiation, and argues for a pluralist account of character engagement in which empathy plays an important role.

Keen, S. (2006). A theory of narrative empathy. Narrative, 14(3), 207-236. (full text)

From the starting point of the obviously significant variation in readers’ empathic responses, this paper discusses narrative techniques for modulating empathy, with an emphasis on perspectival features.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications34(4), 407-428. (full text)

‘Readers of fiction tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind (Mar et al., 2006). We present a study designed to replicate this finding, rule out one possible explanation, and extend the assessment of social outcomes. In order to rule out the role of personality, we first identified Openness as the most consistent correlate. This trait was then statistically controlled for, along with two other important individual differences: the tendency to be drawn into stories and gender. Even after accounting for these variables, fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task. Extending these results, we also found that exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.’

Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PloS one8(1), e55341. (full text)

‘Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story. No transportation led to lower empathy in both studies, while study 1 showed that high transportation led to higher empathy among fiction readers. These effects were not found for people in the control condition where people read non-fiction. The study showed that fiction influences empathy of the reader, but only under the condition of low or high emotional transportation into the story.’

 Johnson, D. R. (2013). Transportation into literary fiction reduces prejudice against and increases empathy for Arab-Muslims. Scientific Study of Literature3(1), 77-92. (paywall)

‘In two studies, indirect out-group contact via narrative fiction was shown to foster empathic growth and reduce prejudice. Participants read an excerpt from a fictional novel about a counterstereotypical Arab-Muslim woman. Individuals who were more transported into the story rated Arab-Muslims significantly lower in stereotypical negative traits (Study 1, N = 67) and exhibited significantly lower negative attitudes toward Arab-Muslims (Study 2, N = 102) post-reading than individuals who were less transported into the story. These effects persisted after controlling for baseline Arab-Muslim prejudice, reading-induced mood change, and demand characteristics. Affective empathy for Arab-Muslims and intrinsic motivation to reduce prejudice were also significantly increased by the story and each provided independent explanatory mechanisms for transportation’s association with prejudice reduction. Narrative fiction offers a safe and rich context in which exposure and understanding of an out-group can occur and can easily be incorporated in educational and applied settings.’

Dunbar, R. I. M., Teasdale, B., Thompson, J., Budelmann, F., Duncan, S., van Emde Boas, E., and Maguire, L. (2016). Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society Open Science, 3, 160288. (full text)

Tests the hypothesis that watching an emotionally arousing film increases our sense of belonging to a group, and that this effect is mediated by the endorphin system, the neurobiological mechanism that underpins social bonding. Audience responses are measured using a task to assess changing pain thresholds as a proxy for endorphin response, and those who watched a film with emotionally arousing (specifically, upsetting) content were found to have increased pain tolerance (on a wall-sit test) after viewing than those who watched a film without such content. The change in pain threshold was associated with a heightened sense of bondedness with the rest of the audience. The findings are discussed in the context of storytelling’s evolutionary history.

van Lissa, C. J., Caracciolo, M., van Duuren, T., and van Leuveren, B. (2016). Difficult empathy: The effect of narrative perspective on readers’ engagement with a first-person narrator. (full text)

Tests the widespread assumption that the first-person perspective is more conducive to inducing empathy and trust in readers than the third person, and finds an effect of perspective on trust but not empathy: trust is actually greater in the third-person condition.

Hogan, P. C. (2017). Simulation and the structure of emotional memory. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 113-134). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Analyses two moments of anomalous rage in the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, demonstrating structural relationships between emotional memories and simulation that have not been widely recognised. Specifically, the idea is that emotional memories are structured by narrative and shaped by early critical-period experiences, both egocentric and involving empathy: we use these implicit emotion stories to organise our simulations, of hypothetical but also remembered and even ongoing experiences.

Schmetkamp, S., & Ferran, I. V. (2019). Introduction: Empathy, Fiction, and Imagination. Topoi, 1-7. (full text)

Introduction to a special issue on the three topics.

Best, J. (2020). Reading literary fiction: More empathy, but at what possible cost? North American Journal of Psychology22(2). (abstract) (excerpt)

A substantial body of experimental and correlational research has shown that people who read fiction avidly often find themselves transported into the fictional realm, where they use imagination and other cognitive processes to visualize and simulate social processes occurring among the fictional characters. Such processing may foster abilities in both mentalizing and empathy, and it has been shown that readers of fiction outperform nonreaders of fiction on empathy tasks. The current paper, an integrative review of neuroscience and cognitive research, analyzes brain structures and processes to show the possible mechanisms that support this performance difference. The results of this analysis suggest a possible disadvantage for readers of fiction: The use of the brain circuitry that supports mentalizing and empathy while reading may also result in reality monitoring errors. That is, avid readers of fiction may experience difficulties in separating experientially-based knowledge from that which has been derived from fiction. The paper concludes with a discussion of two specific difficulties for fiction readers stemming from reality monitoring deficits. First, readers of fiction may misapply schemas used in fiction (such as the just-world hypothesis) to people and events in the actual perceived world. Second, people may incorrectly apply inferences made while reading fiction to the empirical world, even under circumstances in which such inferences are not warranted.’



Interpretation is the backbone of the humanities, but treated far more often as a method than an object of inquiry. It is also a fundamental feature of cognitive activity, and an understanding of its psychological qualities can illuminate its applications in the exegesis of literary texts and the study of literary reading.

Scientific discussions

Smythe, W. E. (1991). Perspectives on interpretation for cognitive science. In H. J. Stam, L. P. Mos, W. Thorngate, and B. Kaplan (Eds), Recent trends in theoretical psychology. Volume III, Selected proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology, 24-28 June 1991 (pp. 185-94). New York: Springer. (paywall)

Criticises two perspectives on interpretation in ‘orthodox cognitive science’: the definition of interpretation as an internal computational process (e.g. a process of accepting as input an expression that designates a process and then performing that process, or a process of compiling information through procedural representation) and the view of interpretation as extrinsic attribution of meaning to cognitive systems. The paper argues that both rest on unanalysed assumptions about meaning, presupposing precisely the kind of semantic properties they set out to explain. The chapter concludes with the proposal that we consider meaning not as a product of interpretation but as a precondition for it.

Gallagher, S. (2004). Hermeneutics and the cognitive sciences. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(10-11), 162–174. (full text)

Explores how philosophical hermeneutics and (cognitive) science, often thought of as incompatible, are in fact closely linked by their shared interests in human understanding, in how we gain and organise knowledge and understand other people, in the roles of language and memory, and in the relation between conscious and unconscious knowledge. The article argues that each discipline can contribute to the other, with a focus on three questions: how do we know objects, how do we know situations, and how do we understand other people? It connects the hermeneutic circle with schema and prototype theory and mirror neurons with hermeneutic accounts of empathy, and discusses the limits of subpersonal computational approaches as part of the broader question of what it means to be scientific.

Hoffmeyer, J. (2010). God and the world of signs: Semiotics and the emergence of life. Zygon, 45(2), 367-390. (full text)

Starting with a brief history of how biosemiotics emerged out of the gradual semiotisation of nature in 20th-century biology and biochemistry (Uexküll, Tinbergen, Sebeok, et al.), the paper argues for the preponderance of unconscious as opposed to conscious interpretation in human life. A sign can be understood as referring to something else by inducing the formation of an ‘interpretant’ in a receptive living system, and this gives us a notion of interpretive activity that extends far beyond the human or even the animal kingdom, right down to the ‘translation’ of the genetic code of DNA molecules by growing tissue. This in turn has far-reaching consequences for our concepts of meaning and humanity’s place in the world.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Furlong, A. (1995). Relevance theory and literary interpretation (PhD dissertation, University of London). (full text)

Treats literary interpretation as a subset of ordinary communication driven by the search for relevance as a global cognitive strategy. The discussion takes in vagueness and indeterminacy, literariness, ‘poetic’ effects and foregrounding, and canon formation, as well as the broad question of what constitutes a literary interpretation.

Nordlund, M. (2002). Consilient literary interpretation. Philosophy and Literature, 26(2), 312-333. (paywall)

Calls for cognitive literary critics to distinguish more systematically between ‘poetic’ and ‘thematic’ approaches (i.e. between focusing on what literature does and what it means) and to stop being ‘closet thematicians’. The article argues for the benefits biocultural and evolutionary theory can offer for the biggest literary question of all: how to make sense of the ‘unimaginable complexity’ of interpretation, and the numerous subquestions which constitute that overarching one. It sets out what we know with reasonable confidence already, and where the major work remains to be done within a consilient science-humanities framework. (See also Easterlin 2012, below, pp. 20-27, which draws heavily on Nordlund.)

Jackson, T. E. (2003). ‘Literary interpretation’ and cognitive literary studies. Poetics Today, 24(2), 191-205. (full text)

Beginning with the ambiguity of the phrase ‘literary interpretation’ (related to that of ‘cognitive literary criticism’)—does ‘literary’ denote the object or the mode of interpretation?—the paper criticises the argumentative structures of recent literary interpretation. It goes on to consider the status of knowledge in relation to the scientific method, taking in reflections on originality, falsifiability, and confirmation bias, as well as the unique way in which literary interpretation shares in the nature of its object of study.

Keestra, M. (2008). The diverging force of imitation: integrating cognitive science and hermeneutics. Review of General Psychology12(2), 127-136. (full text)

Argues for the value of hermeneutics to cognitive science, with imitation as a case study: as the formalised study of understanding and interpretation, hermeneutics can help us better understand imitation (a key human mechanism for interpreting other people and actions), in particular by complementing the scientific focus in psychology on convergence of representations with an emphasis on indeterminacy and openness of action understanding due to preunderstanding, action configuration, and the processual nature of understanding.

Caracciolo, M. (2012). Narrative, meaning, interpretation: An enactivist approach. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(3), 367-384. (preprint full text)

Argues that enactive cognition extends to the production and interpretation of stories, as examples of a ‘joint process of sensemaking’ (through collaborative social interaction between writer and reader) that affects and is affected by the interpretive context (or ‘background’)—specifically, the ways we make sense of and attribute value to our lives. These principles extend right across the spectrum from saying we enjoyed a film to attempting a critical account of its meaning.

Easterlin, N. (2012). ‘Literature, science, and biocultural interpretation.’ In N. Easterlin, A biocultural approach to literary theory and interpretation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (partial preview)

Outlines a view of the humanities as interpretive (i.e. in which interpretation is a method not an object of study), and discusses this view in connection with evolutionary accounts of the arts from the likes of Edward O. Wilson, Joseph Carroll, and Marcus Nordlund.

Caracciolo, M. (2014). Interpretation for the bodies: Bridging the gap. Style, 48(3), 385-403. (paywall)

Sketches out the difficulties that the concept of interpretation raises for cognitive literary studies, and suggests that embodiment can provide the missing link between hermeneutic and cognitive/biological levels of analysis. The paper takes in discussion of the spectrum of interpretation (with varying degrees of sophistication and reflectiveness) and that of embodiment (from evolved predispositions via embodied processes in cognition and language, to bodily experience and embodiment as an existential condition), and the feedback relationships between constraints and affordances which mediate between the two.

Korthals Altes, L. (2014). Literary interpretation, ethos attributions, and the negotiation of values in culture. In L. Korthals Altes, Ethos and narrative interpretation: The negotiation of values in fiction (Part 1.1). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. (limited preview)

Covers Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic prescriptions for interpretive practice and Ricoeur’s model of narrative interpretation; interpretive horizons and how to investigate them; the connections between interpretation and ethics; and how cognitive research can help us understand the ways in which we attribute ethos to characters, narrators, or authors in a middle ground between universal validity and ‘mere subjectivity’.

Caracciolo, M. (2016). Cognitive literary studies and the status of interpretation: An attempt at conceptual mapping. New Literary History, 47(1), 187-207. (paywall)

“What is the role of interpretation—the close reading of individual texts—in cognitive literary studies? In attempting to come to grips with this vexed question, my article focuses on the complex divides that separate the practice of interpretation from cognitive-scientific research. I argue that cognitive literary studies can only fulfill their potential by moving beyond interpretation, and I survey lines of research that have already put into practice this intuition. Secondly, I explore a heuristic use of interpretation, where insights from cognitive science are leveraged—in what I call a ‘cognitive thematics’—to illuminate a background of metacognitive questions.

Willemsen, S., Troscianko, E.T., & Kraglund, R.A. (2018). Interpretation: Its status as object or method of study in cognitive and unnatural narratology. Poetics Today, 39, 597-622. (paywall)

“Narratology and literary studies have always had ambivalent attitudes toward interpretation. This article proposes that the recent divide between the research programs of cognitive and unnatural narratology is a new expression of a profound methodological schism. Reviewing the status of interpretation in cognitive and unnatural approaches to narrative, we contend that scholars in the cognitive camp have tended to treat interpretation as an object of study (i.e., investigating the interpretive process), while those in the unnatural field typically treat it as a method of study (i.e., practicing interpretation in the study of narratives). Relatedly, whereas cognitive narratology assumes continuity between the interpretive processes operative in narrative understanding and the rest of life, the unnatural approach emphasizes discontinuity between fiction (reading) and the everyday. To show how these different conceptual underpinnings feed into contrasting academic practices, we supplement this theoretical overview with a double case study of Hans Christian Andersen’s short story ‘The Shadow’ (‘Skyggen’). Taking advantage of our diverse disciplinary backgrounds, we offer one ‘interpretation’ from a cognitive perspective and one from an unnatural narratological perspective, followed by metaresponses to each other’s responses. By setting up a theoretical and methodological dialogue, we highlight the nature of the differences between the two approaches while also looking for possible sites of overlap and cooperation.”

Language, speech, and thought

The relations between language, speech, and thought have always been opaque and complex: does thought require language, is it always ‘subvocalised’, how do spoken and written language use compare? These questions are bound to be fundamental to the study of language-based art.

Scientific discussions

Katz, A. N. (1998). Figurative language and figurative thought: A review. In A. N. Katz, C. Cacciara, R. W. Gibbs Jr, and M. Turner (Eds), Figurative language and thought (pp. 3-43). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Suggests that figurative language is a good example of the creative interplay of language and thought, but has been largely neglected in research on the latter topic. The chapter sets out the main positions in this debate and what changes if figurative language is taken into account.

Willems, R. M., & Hagoort, P. (2007). Neural evidence for the interplay between language, gesture, and action: A review. Brain and Language, 101(3), 278-289. (full text)

Discusses gestures that accompany speech (‘co-speech gestures’) as manual actions tightly coupled to the language system, as well as neurocognitive evidence for other action–language couplings such as motor representations of speech sounds, action-related language, and sign language.

Regier, T., Kay, P., Gilbert, A. L., and Ivry, R. B. (2010). Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds), Words and the mind: How words capture human experience (pp. 165-182). New York: Oxford University Press. (preprint full text)

Universalist and relativist accounts of the relation between thought and language are typically seen as opposing and mutually exclusive stances: on the one hand, language is shaped by universals of human cognition, so linguistic differences don’t affect cognition; on the other, semantic distinctions are determined largely by arbitrary linguistic convention, and the resulting large discrepancies do affect cognition. Regier and colleagues argue that data on colour naming and cognition make both all-or-nothing views impossible to uphold.

Allott, N. (2013). Relevance theory. In A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo, and M. Carapezza (Eds), Perspectives on linguistic pragmatics (pp. 57-98). Cham: Springer. (preprint full text)

Summarises the components and consequences of Sperber and Wilson’s original (1986) theory, dealing with the relation between communicative effort and effects, inference and the cognitive maximising of relevance, ad hoc concepts, and the conceptual/procedural and interpretive/descriptive distinctions.

Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D. E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. H., and Monaghan, P. (2015). Arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity in language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19, 603-615. (full text)

Complicates the standard view that there is an arbitrary relationship between words and their meanings with recent research on two non-arbitrary qualities of this relationship: systematicity (in which statistical regularities in forms predict function) and iconicity (in which aspects of form resemble aspects of meaning). The authors present evidence suggesting that these form-to-meaning correspondences serve different functions in language processing and development: systematicity makes it easier to learn categories using phonological cues, and iconicity makes it easier to learn and use words through perceptuomotor analogies, while arbitrariness helps meanings be distinguished from each other through distinctive forms. Cultural-evolutionary principles can help explain how these competing motivations shape the structures of vocabulary.

Zlatev, J., & Blomberg, J. (2015). Language may indeed influence thought. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1631. (full text)

“We discuss four interconnected issues that we believe have hindered investigations into how language may affect thinking. These have had a tendency to reappear in the debate concerning linguistic relativity over the past decades, despite numerous empirical findings. The first is the claim that it is impossible to disentangle language from thought, making the question concerning ‘influence’ pointless. The second is the argument that it is impossible to disentangle language from culture in general, and from social interaction in particular, so it is impossible to attribute any differences in the thought patterns of the members of different cultures to language per se. The third issue is the objection that methodological and empirical problems defeat all but the most trivial version of the thesis of linguistic influence: that language gives new factual information. The fourth is the assumption that since language can potentially influence thought from ‘not at all’ to ‘completely,’ the possible forms of linguistic influence can be placed on a cline, and competing theories can be seen as debating the actual position on this cline. We analyze these claims and show that the first three do not constitute in-principle objections against the validity of the project of investigating linguistic influence on thought, and that the last one is not the best way to frame the empirical challenges at hand.”

Levinson, S. C. (2016). Turn-taking in human communication—origins and implications for language processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 6-14. (full text)

Argues that turn-taking, or ‘duetting’, occurs in all primate language use, and has been neglected largely because psycholinguistics has tended to separate off language production and comprehension from natural spoken dialogue. More specifically, to maintain a normal rhythm and pace of switching in dialogue, participants have to engage in an intensive combination of processing and prediction, which has important implications for how we understand language processing and acquisition.

Rescorla, M. (2019). The language of thought hypothesis. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Summer 2019 edition). (full text)

A thorough discussion of the basic hypothesis, its history, arguments for and against, and implications for models of mind.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Ribeiro, A. C. (2013). Relevance theory and poetic effects. Philosophy and Literature, 37(1), 102-117. (full text)

Uses relevance theory to help explain why features like repetition of sounds or abstract structures are used in poetry, given that they would seem to slow down comprehension and require greater cognitive effort to be processed. The idea is that the basic communicative principle ‘be relevant’ applies to form as well as content, and that if asked to exert more effort in comprehension, readers will assume that the effort will be repaid accordingly, by yielding a wider context and therefore a broader range of implicatures (things suggested by an utterance). The paper also proposes ways in which relevance theory could be expanded to take fuller account of the non-propositional and the emotional (as opposed to more narrowly cognitive) elements of communication so as to explain poetic effects better.

Kuzmičová, A. (2013). Outer versus inner reverberations: Verbal auditory imagery and meaning-making in literary narrative. Journal of Literary Theory, 7(1-2), 111-134. (full text)

Verbal auditory imagery (VAI) has been neglected in the study of narrative prose as compared with poetry. This paper fills the gap from an embodied-cognition perspective, inquiring into the mechanisms and experiences of VAI in reading, and drawing connections between types of VAI and different interpretive tendencies. The argument distinguishes between outer and inner VAI: imagining listening and imagining speaking (through subvocal rehearsal) respectively.

John, E. (2013). Poetry and directions for thought. Journal of Philosophy and Literature, 37(2), 451-471. (paywall) 

Considers poetry in light of the question: do poems provide ‘scripts’ for readers’ thoughts? Can they express thoughts without positing a thinker within the text? If not, further questions arise about the relation between poetry and the content and control of thought, and between poetry, thought, and feeling. Evidence from various areas—research on ‘thought insertion’ (where thoughts are experienced without the thinker experiencing ownership of them), the role of metaphor, and the precision of words in contrast to thought—contributes to the analysis of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

 See also: Furlong, A. (1995). Relevance theory and literary interpretation. In Interpretation.

Life-span development

Children’s imaginative development, with and without props like fiction, was long dismissed in the default valuation of the adult and the rational, but developmental processes are now acknowledged as crucial to understanding what makes us human.

Scientific discussions

Harris, P. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell. (substantial preview when signed in)

A survey of research on many varied aspects of children’s imaginative lives, from role play to counterfactual thinking, and providing a cogent counterargument to Piaget’s classic model of the development from children’s ‘autistic thinking’ to the emergence of logical thinking, in which play is thus a distortion of reality to the self’s desires. (See Chapter 1, pp. 1-7, for a brief outline of the book’s scope, and Chapter 4, pp. 58-97, on imagination and emotion, including fictionality. Other chapters deal with pretend play; reasoning, make-believe, and dialogue; and obligation and violation, as well as role play, language, and counterfactuals.) 

Cole, C. A., Harris, P., and Koenig, M. A. (2012). Entitled to trust? Philosophical frameworks and evidence from children. Analyse und Kritik, 2, 195-216. (full text)

A summary of findings on how children acquire beliefs from other people’s testimony, including the tendency to trust, on the one hand, and sensitivity to evidence of unreliability on the other.

Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Lillard, A. S. (2015). How is theory of mind useful? Perhaps to enable social pretend play. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1559. (full text)

“It is often claimed that theory of mind (ToM) is facilitated by pretend play (PP), or by a particular type of PP, social pretend play (SPP). Here we challenge that view, proposing instead that ToM might be useful for driving SPP, rather than the reverse. We discuss background theory, review pertinent studies, and explain why the “ToM first” view is at least equally likely.”

Semeijn, M. (2019). Interacting with fictions: The role of pretend play in theory of mind acquisition. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 10(1), 113-132. (full text)

“Pretend play is generally considered to be a developmental landmark in Theory of Mind acquisition. The aim of the present paper is to offer a new account of the role of pretend play in Theory of Mind development. To this end I combine Hutto and Gallagher’s account of social cognition development with Matravers’ recent argument that the cognitive processes involved in engagement with narratives are neutral regarding fictionality. The key contribution of my account is an analysis of pretend play as interaction with fictions. I argue that my account offers a better explanation of existing empirical data on the development of children’s pretend play and Theory of Mind than the competing theories from Leslie, Perner and Harris.”

Cognitive humanities discussions

Kümmerling-Meibauer, B., & Meibauer, J. (2013). Towards a cognitive theory of picturebooks. International Research in Children’s Literature, 6(2), 143-160. (full text)

Argues for the developmental importance of picturebooks as contributors to cognitive development through use in situations of joint reading and attention, with reference to three types of picturebooks: early-concept books, picturebooks telling stories of lying, and picturebooks displaying maps.

Winston, J. (2013). ‘Play is the thing!’ Shakespeare, language play and drama pedagogy in the early years. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 47(2), 1-15. (paywall)

Describes a study conducted by the Royal Shakespeare Company to introduce young children to Shakespeare (The Tempest, presented through active storytelling), and assess whether this had any effects on their use of and engagement with language. Factors assessed included use of vocabulary and syntax, engagement with ideas presented verbally, use of words drawn from Shakespeare, and interpretations of Shakespeare’s words either verbally or nonverbally. Improvements were observed on all four dimensions, as well as clear enthusiasm, interest, and enjoyment amongst the children. The paper draws on cultural theories of play to help situate the findings in the context of drama as pedagogy.

Nikolajeva, M. (2014). What is cognitive criticism and what’s in it for children’s literature research? In M. Nikolajeva, Reading for learning: Cognitive approaches to children’s literature (pp. 1-20). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (full preview)

The starting point for this book is that literature plays a role in educating and socialising young people. The introduction establishes the ambiguous status of children’s literature scholarship as a discipline in literary studies or education or somewhere in between. This ambiguity derives from the hybrid status of children’s literature itself, its aesthetic qualities balanced against its educational ones. Cognitive criticism is presented as a way of answering a central question for the field: how does children’s literature have an epistemic function when the recipient is held to have different cognitive capacities from the writer? The rest of the introduction gives an outline of cognitive literary studies (including in relation to reader-response studies, semiotics, and narrative theory), calls for more attention to the differences between child and adult readers, and summarises some relevant empirical research on young readers. Finally, it introduces the spectrum between novice and expert as an alternative to the child/adult dichotomy, and offers a list of assumptions about the dimensions along which this spectrum manifests variation.

Kokkola, L., & Van den Bossche, S. (2019). Cognitive approaches to children’s literature: A roadmap to possible and answerable questions. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 44(4), 355-363. (full text)

An introduction to a special issue, setting out the value and some of the pragmatics of a broadly cognitive literary approach to children’s literature.

Kucirkova, N. (2019). How could children’s storybooks promote empathy? A conceptual framework based on developmental psychology and literary theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 121. (full text)

“Insights from developmental psychology and literary theory form the basis for an interdisciplinary framework based on three premises: (1) book-reading can support empathy if it fosters in-group/out-group identification and minimizes in-group/out-group bias; (2) identification with characters who are dissimilar from the readers is the most valuable contribution of children’s storybooks to cognitive empathy; and (3) the quality of language positions children’s storybooks as an exceptional, but not exclusive, empathy-building form of fictional narratives.”


Memory plays roles at all levels of our engagement with literature, from the moment-to-moment dynamics of text processing to the recollection or forgetting of passages of text between and within reading episodes, to all the autobiographical memories that inflect our responses to the textual events and characters—including their own remembering and forgetting. The scientific understanding of memory has shifted decisively from a ‘reproduction’ to a ‘reconstruction’ model, in which what we remember depends as much on the present as the past.

Scientific discussions

Miyake, A., and Shah, P. (1999). Models of working memory: An introduction. In A. Miyake and P. Shah (Eds), Models of working memory: Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control (pp. 1-27). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (full text)

An introduction to the different ways of thinking about working memory, introducing eight key topics which are addressed by the contributors in the rest of the book: the basic mechanisms of working memory, its control and regulation, its unitary or non-unitary nature, its limitations and role in complex cognitive activities, its relationship to long-term memory and procedural skills, its relation to attention and consciousness, and its neural instantiation.

Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594-628. (full text)

Sets out a framework in which long-term memory is understood to be in reciprocal interaction with the set of active goals and self-images that make up the self. The motivated nature of memory explains why long-term memories are structured more by coherence (with current goals) than by correspondence (to past realities).

Wilson, R. A. (2005). Collective memory, group minds, and the extended mind thesis. Cognitive Processing6(4), 227-236. (full text)

Offers an overview of the history and status quo of the concept of collective memory, spanning the social and cognitive sciences.

Hoerl, C., and McCormack, T. (2005). Joint reminiscing as joint attention to the past. In N. Eilan, C. Hoerl, and J. Roessler (Eds), Joint attention: Communication and other minds: Issues in philosophy and psychology (pp. 260-286). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (limited preview) (paywall)

Refigures the concept of joint attention as memory-sharing: a past incident can become the focus of joint attention just as a visual percept might in the prototypical visual case. The initial assumption might be that this is a largely linguistic phenomenon—we share memories simply by talking about them—but this chapter argues that joint attention through reminiscence can be seen as an important contributor to what allows us to have those linguistic exchanges in the first place. It does so by informing the development of episodic memory (as a turning of one’s attention towards the past) and the causal reasoning necessary for it. This leads to consideration of the relation of memory to narrative, which can be understood in two broad ways: narrative as a framework for recollection itself, and narrative as a means of making memories socially accessible and allowing them to guide behaviour and expectations. Developmentally, then, joint attention can be seen as a key part of the story of how we develop a relationship with the past through other people.

Mace, J. H. (2007). Involuntary memory: Concept and theory. In J. H. Mace (Ed.), Involuntary memory (pp. 1-19). Malden, MA: Blackwell. (partial preview)

Defines involuntary as opposed to voluntary memory, and discusses three main contexts in which the former occurs: spontaneously in everyday life, during attempts at voluntary retrieval, and in psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The chapter outlines the basics of how involuntary memories are cued, the cognitive contexts in which they’re most likely to occur, the differences between voluntary and involuntary retrieval, changes over the life span, and the phenomena of memory chaining and spreading activation. It also offers brief contextualisations for the other chapters in the book.

Brockmeier, J. (2010). After the archive: Remapping memory. Culture & Psychology16(1), 5-35. (paywall)

Argues that memory can no longer be thought of as an archival storage system, drawing on evidence from sociocultural, technological, literary/aesthetic, and biological/cognitive research.

See also a commentary identifying five implicit assumptions Brockmeier makes about the archive model.’s_remapping_memory_The_relation_between_past_present_and_future_as_a_metaphor_of_memory/links/00b7d53a30fa21777f000000.pdf (full text)

Holland, A. C., & Kensinger, E. A. (2010). Emotion and autobiographical memory. Physics of Life Reviews7(1), 88-131. (full text)

An overview of two main ways in which emotion and autobiographical memory interact: influence of the emotional content of an experience on how it is remembered, and the influence of emotions at the time of retrieval on how an experience is recalled.

Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., Hassabis, D., Martin, V. C., Spreng, R. N., & Szpunar, K. K. (2012). The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron76(4), 677-694. (full text)

On the similarities and differences between remembering the past and imagining or simulating the future, including behavioural and neuroscientific evidence.

Anderson, M. C., and Hanslmayr, S. (2014). Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(6), 279-292. (full text)

Discusses mechanisms for inhibiting remembering, at both the encoding and the retrieval stages (i.e. when the to-be-remembered event happens, or when you try to remember it). Neural and behavioural evidence is presented to support the claim that neural structures involved in representing past experience can be interfered with in a way that disrupts retention. The idea is that mechanisms which regulate moment-by-moment awareness—for example, with a preference for pleasant over unpleasant stimuli—introduce longer-term biases that affect our broader engagement with the past, present, and future. The authors also provide a list of some significant motives for forgetting, like forgiving others or preserving one’s self-image.

Wamsley, E. J. (2014). Dreaming and offline memory consolidation. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports14(3), 433. (full text)

Outlines evidence in favour of the hypothesis that dreaming is a mechanism for memory consolidation in which recently formed memory traces are stabilised and reorganised into a more permanent form of storage. 

See also a related paper: Wamsley, E. J., & Stickgold, R. (2011). Memory, sleep, and dreaming: Experiencing consolidation. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 6(1), 97-108. (full text)

Cognitive humanities discussions

Upal, M. A. (2011). Memory, Mystery and coherence: Does the presence of 2‐3 counterintuitive concepts predict cultural success of a narrative? Journal of Cognition and Culture11(1-2), 23-48. (full text)

Reports on a study investigating the effects of minimally counterintuitive concepts on memory for stories, including findings related to the number of such concepts and their contribution to global story cohesion.

Tribble, E. B., and Sutton, J. (2012). Minds in and out of time: Memory, embodied skill, anachronism, and performance. Textual Practice, 26(4), 587-607. (full text)

Offers a riposte to the claim that cognitive approaches are necessarily ahistorical, by proposing an understanding of our experience of time that has polytemporality and anachronism (i.e. ways of mixing times) built into it from the start. Essentially, the coordination of disparate neural, cognitive, interpersonal, ecological, technological, and cultural factors in any cognitive act frees us from the forced choice between present and past. The argument is illustrated with reference to the meshing of sound, rhythm, and time in audio walks by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and through the anachronisms, history, embodied skill, and clowning found in Shakespeare and other early-modern theatre.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). Cognitive realism and memory in Proust’s madeleine episode. Memory Studies, 6(4), 437-456. (full text)

Compares what Proust’s famous madeleine episode tells us about memory with how it operates in the real world, focusing on the voluntary-involuntary distinction. The paper concludes that although Proust uses this episode as his prime example of the categorical voluntary-involuntary opposition, the text itself complicates that opposition—as does scientific and philosophical evidence about memory and consciousness. The madeleine episode can thus be seen as both conforming to and challenging our expectations about how memory works.

Bortolussi, M., and Dixon, P. (2013). Minding the text: Memory for literary narrative. In L. Bernaerts, L. Herman, B. Vervaeck, and D. de Geest (Eds), Stories and minds: Cognitive approaches to literary narrative (pp. 23-38). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. (preprint full text)

Memory is crucial to reading, but is almost entirely overlooked in the literary context: the general assumption seems to be that people have memory capacities that correspond, or are infallibly able to adapt, to the demands of the text in question. This paper sets out some basic findings about memory for discourse (e.g. the reconstructive nature of memory, the levels of representation constructed during reading—surface structure, text base, and situation model), and asks how these might or might not apply when it comes to literary texts. The authors report on a study conducted using two short stories by James Joyce, in which a memory recognition task assessed the effects of style, surface structure, and story content on recall. In conclusion, implications for the teaching of literature are outlined.

See also their 2015 paper on the same theme, with more emphasis on “mind wandering, in which the reader momentarily gives relatively little priority to processing the text; and engagement, in which the reader constructs elaborate and personally meaningful representations of the story world”. (full text)

See also: Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. In Cognitive biases.

Mental health, disability, and loss

Scientific insights into mental health and illness, disability, and bereavement span the clinical and the experimental and theoretical realms, and psychiatry has gradually come to acknowledge the importance of cultural factors in interaction with psychological ones, with some research now investigating the potential therapeutic functions of literature.

Scientific and clinical discussions

Albrecht, G. L., Seelman, K. D., and Bury, M. (2001). Introduction: The formation of disability studies. In G. L. Albrecht, K. D. Seelman, and M. Bury (Eds), The handbook of disability studies (pp. 1-8). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (full preview)

A survey of the emergence of disability studies, including its significance and scope and the challenges it faces.

Zhang, B., El-Jawahri, A., and Prigerson, H. G. (2006). Update on bereavement research: Evidence-based guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of complicated bereavement. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 9(5), 1188-1203. (paywall)

A review of bereavement research, covering the difference between complicated and uncomplicated grief, the relation between grief and mental disorders, and manifestations of resilience and stigma in bereavement, as well as psychotherapeutic interventions for ‘complicated grief disorder’.

Wakefield, J. C. (2007). The concept of mental disorder: diagnostic implications of the harmful dysfunction analysis. World Psychiatry6(3), 149. (full text)

A target article offering a definition of mental illness as ‘harmful dysfunction’, with peer commentaries.

Zisook, S., & Shear, K. (2009). Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry8(2), 67. (full text)

An overview of forms of grief targeted at psychiatrists, including differential diagnosis, clinical characteristics and treatment for uncomplicated (normal) grief, complicated grief, and grief-related major depression, as well as discussion of psychiatrists’ reactions to patient suicides.

Detrixhe, J. J. (2010). Souls in jeopardy: Questions and innovations for bibliotherapy with fiction. Journal of Humanistic Counselling, Education and Development, 49, 58-72. (paywall)

A thorough digest of existing theories and clinical applications of bibliotherapy with fiction, as well as the limited experimental research on the topic, concluding with a plea for more research and fewer assumptions. The author, a practising psychotherapist, also offers reflections on moments when fiction comes up in his own clinical practice.

Holschuh, J., and LeCroy, C. W. (2012). First person accounts of mental illness and recovery. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (partial preview)

A collection of reflections on a wide range of mental health conditions written by people who have experienced and in some cases recovered from them. Includes individual accounts within the following broad areas: schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, substance-related disorders, eating disorders, somatoform disorders, impulse control disorders, dissociative disorders, sexual and gender identity disorders, sleep disorders, disorders usually diagnosed in childhood, and delirium, dementia, and amnesic and other cognitive disorders.

Semple, D., and Smyth, R. (2013). Thinking about psychiatry. In D. Semple and R. Smyth (Eds), Oxford handbook of psychiatry, 3rd edition (pp. 1-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

A look at the history and the future of psychiatry and mental illness, myth and stigma, tackling questions including: what is disease, what is illness, what is the history of the psychiatrist’s role, how and why are diagnoses made, what is the relation between mind and brain, and why does the placebo effect exist?

Shakespeare, T. (2013). Disability rights and wrongs revisited. Routledge. (partial preview)

A rejection of the ‘strong’ social model of disability (that disability is entirely a construct of the attitudes and structures of society), including discussion of other competing models, and offering case studies of applications to issues like prenatal diagnoses and violence against disabled people.

Symeonidou, S., & Beauchamp-Pryor, K. (Eds.). (2013). Purpose, process and future direction of disability research. Springer Science & Business Media.,+process+and+future+direction+of+disability+research&ots=8rtvjyBxkJ&sig=GsUTOXyfMXWvEVPiucRiiLd8zxY#v=onepage&q=Purpose%2C%20process%20and%20future%20direction%20of%20disability%20research&f=false (partial preview)

Showcases contributions from current doctoral students setting out the objectives, methodologies, and experiences of their research on disability, all informed by a social model of disability.

See also a review here: (full text)

Yamada, A.-M., and Marsella, A. J. (2013). The study of culture and psychopathology: Fundamental concepts and historic forces. In F. A. Paniagua and A.-M. Yamada (Eds), Handbook of multicultural mental health: Assessment and treatment of diverse populations, 2nd edition (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: Academic. (full preview)

An introduction to how to think about the relationship between culture and mental health, including how normality and abnormality, illness and disease, selfhood and personhood can be and have been treated within a multicultural framework.

Richer, J. M. (2014). Ethology and “Mental Illness”. Evolutionary Science of Human Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Approach. (preprint full text)

An introduction to the ethological perspective on mental illness, treating conventional mental illness categories as ‘not necessarily clear, fixed, useful or easily distinguishable from “normal” behaviour’. Stepping outside the debate on what constitutes mental illness, the author argues that scientific research should not be shaped by how people use the term, but should take in the full range of human behaviour, including in its evolutionary progression.

Radden, Jennifer, “Mental Disorder (Illness)”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (full text)

An overview of the concept of mental disorder or illness, with attention to the ramifications of the medical model of psychiatry, and giving brief accounts of some philosophical perspectives on specific conditions.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Anderson, M. (1988). Anorexia and modernism, or How I learned to diet in all directions. Discourse, 11, 28-41. (paywall)

Discusses the experience of teaching students who are anxious about bringing themselves, and specifically their embodied selves, into the practice of literary criticism. These observations are connected to reflections on the Modernist ‘language crisis’ as inseparable from various food-centred forms of bodily self-obliteration. Giving examples from Hoffmansthal, Kafka, Beckett, and Melville, and including thoughts on paradox, myth-creation, gender, and the ‘ciphers’ of text and body, the paper addresses the question of how far ‘anorexia’ can be used literally or metaphorically in the analysis of textual phenomena.

Hirsch, G., and Hirsch, L. (2006). Trollope’s The last chronicle of Barset: Memory, depression, and cognitive science. Mosaic, 39(1), 165-179. (available via ProQuest Literature Online, Gale Cengage Shakespeare Colleciton Periodicals, and other paid-for databases)

Explores Trollope’s novel with a focus on his evocation of the protagonist’s ruminative and depressed cognitive processing, using developments in cognitive (neuro)science and their application to psychotherapy to understand the relations between memory and depression in the text. The discussion takes in factors including the role of emotion and attention in determining encoding and subsequent recall, and a model of depression in which distorted inferences of implicational meaning sustain the condition through feedback structures. It also considers other forms of ‘stuckness’ in the novel’s plot and other characters, and, briefly, the effects of these patterns on readers.

Allison, S., Heuser, R., Jockers, M. L., Moretti, F., & Witmore, M. (2011). Quantitative formalism: An experiment. (full text)

Asks whether computer-generated algorithms can ‘recognise’ literary genres, and offers an outline of the methods and the results (and a qualified ‘yes’).

Billington, J. (2011). ‘Reading for life’: Prison reading groups in practice and theory. Critical Survey, 23(3), 67-85. (paywall)

Sets out the theoretical and empirical evidence for the therapeutic value of shared reading-aloud of literature for mental health amongst prison communities. The paper describes work carried out by The Reader Organisation, and includes testimony from reading group leaders. Context is provided via reader-response theories (e.g. Iser’s notion of reading and transformation, Fish’s ‘interpretive communities’), as well as research on reading and mental health more generally.

Hogan, P. C. (2012). The mourning brain: Attachment, anticipation, and Hamlet’s unmanly grief. In I. Jaén and J. J. Simon (Eds), Cognitive literary studies: Current themes and new directions (pp. 89-104). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (paywall)

Discusses grief, including its gendered aspects, in connection with emotion (with some discussion of the neurobiology), attachment, and the types of expectation that operate at different temporal levels (in imagined time). Illustrations are given from the author’s mother’s mourning for her mother, and from Hamlet.

Kuiken, D., and Oliver, M. B. (2013). Aesthetic engagement during moments of suffering. Scientific Study of Literature, 3(2), 294-321. (paywall)

Reviews research on aesthetic engagement during times of distress, including discussion of aesthetic interest or curiosity, felt presence, perspective and ‘peripersonal space’, empathy and self-relevance, poignantly bivalent feelings, and catharsis.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation in Kafka’s ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’. Style, 48(3), 331-348. (full text)

Explores Kafka’s short story ‘A Hunger Artist’ in terms of the physical and cognitive effects of starvation, responding to critical readings of the protagonist as either an anorexic or an artist by asking to what extent the text validates either interpretation. Identifying the ways in which the text is and is not a cognitively realistic evocation of starvation generates hypotheses about observed and probable patterns of reader response, and a call is made—for reasons of ethics as much as accuracy—to be wary of symbolic interpretations that neglect the ‘literal’ level of what is given in the text, in particular when they unthinkingly elevate mind over body, or even celebrate denials of the bodily.

Moretti, F. (2014). ‘Operationalizing’: or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory. (full text)

Explores what ‘operationalising’ (taking a concept and transforming it into a series of operations) means for the field of computational criticism, using ‘character-space’ as an illustrative concept.

See also other Literary Lab pamphlets on network theory and plot analysis, and style at the scale of the sentence.

Bruhn, M. (2015). A mirror on the mind: Stevens, chiasmus, and autism spectrum disorder. The Wallace Stevens Journal, 39(2), 182-206. (paywall)

Shows how the highly versatile rhetorical structure of chiasmus can be leveraged to better understand the language-processing differences manifested in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Specifically, the tendency to privilege the concrete, perceptible features of written language over its semantic content or pragmatic function can be thought of as a form of ‘enhanced perceptual processing’ also experienced by readers of Stevens’s poetry, creating a promising basis for future experimental research on ASD using chiastic stimuli.

Iyengar, S. (2015). Shakespeare’s ‘discourse of disability’. In S. Iyengar, Disability, health, and happiness in the Shakespearean body (pp. 1-20). New York: Routledge. (full preview)

An introduction to how the conjunction of health studies, disability studies, and early-modern body studies has come to be applied to Shakespeare, outlining the differences between the ‘strong social’ model, the ‘cultural disabilities’ model, and the ‘social realist’ model; the distinctions between disability and impairment; and the differing opinions on the power of ‘cultural narratives’ to shape embodied experience. The chapter then goes on to exemplify some of these debates through specific references to Shakespeare’s drama and poetry, and introduces the chapters that make up the book’s tripartite structure (nation, sex, and emotion).

Troscianko, E. T. (2017). Feedback in reading and disordered eating. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 169-194). New York: Oxford University Press. (full text)

Uses theoretical arguments and empirical evidence (from a large online survey) to demonstrate the importance of a technical concept of feedback (in particular the distinction between positive, or self-reinforcing, and negative, or self-stabilising, feedback) for understanding reading, literary reading, and literary reading by people with mental-health problems, specifically eating disorders.

Troscianko, E. T. (2018). Fiction-reading for good or ill: eating disorders, interpretation and the case for creative bibliotherapy research. Medical Humanities, 44(3), 201-211. (full text)

An overview of the current state of research into ‘creative bibliotherapy’ (the use of prose fiction or poetry for therapeutic purposes), taking eating disorders as a case study.

Carney, J. (2019). Culture and mood disorders: The effect of abstraction in image, narrative and film on depression and anxiety. Medical Humanities. (full text)

Offers a theoretical framework centred on the concept of entropy, and drawing on the tenets of construal level theory, to propose that cultural representations (including image, verbal narrative, and film) might be used to therapeutic effect in the treatment of mood disorders: low-entropy (abstract) representation are likely to have benefit for anxiety, while high-entropy (concrete) represents may have positive impacts on depression.

Llewellyn-Beardsley, J., Rennick-Egglestone, S., Callard, F., Crawford, P., Farkas, M., Hui, A., … & Sælør, K. T. (2019). Characteristics of mental health recovery narratives: Systematic review and narrative synthesis. PLoS One, 14(3), e0214678. (full text)

Reports on large-scale corpus analysis of published literature yielding a conceptual framework of mental health recovery narratives, comprising nine dimensions (genre, positioning, emotional tone, relationship with recovery, trajectory, use of turning points, narrative sequence, protagonists, and use of metaphors), each with detailed subtypes (e.g. for genre: escape, endurance, endeavour, and enlightenment). In general the narratives were found to be diverse, often nonlinear and rejecting coherence, and to contain more social, political, and rights aspects than illness narratives.


See also White. (2014). ‘Insanity without insanity’: Epilepsy and the absence of free will in Dostoyevsky’s novels. In Agency and free will.

See also Troscianko (2017). How should we talk about reading experiences? Arguments and empirical evidence. In Immersion/Transportation.

Mental imagery and imagination

The imagination comprises conceptual faculties like the capacity to entertain counterfactuals, as well as perceptual qualities, or imagery – which can be visual but also auditory, tactile, etc. The visual modality has received by far the most attention, and has been defined by the same opposition between mental-representation and action-based accounts as apply to visual perception (see Sensory perception) and characterise the shift towards the ‘4E’ paradigm.

Scientific discussions

Reisberg, D., Smith, J. D., Baxter, D. A., and Sonenshine, M. (1989). ‘Enacted’ auditory images are ambiguous; ‘pure’ auditory images are not. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 41(3), 619-641. (paywall)

Uses the case of ambiguous auditory imagery to test two alternative hypotheses about imagery: that we interpret images as we do real-world perceptual objects, or that images exist only through our interpretations of them, and so are always already interpreted. The finding that participants could reinterpret auditory imagery only with the help of subvocalised interpretive activity leads to reflections on the differences between auditory and visual imagery, and the corrigibility of mental representations more generally.

Blackmore, S. (2007). Memes, minds and imagination. In I. Roth (Ed.), Imaginative minds: Concepts, controversies and themes (pp. 61-78). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy. (preprint full text)

Takes a memetic perspective in order to argue against the common assumptions that imagination 1) requires consciousness and 2) evolved because it serves a biological function.

Boyer, P. (2007). Specialized inference engines as precursors of creative imagination? In I. Roth (Ed.), Imaginative minds: Concepts, controversies and themes (pp. 239-258). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy. (paywall)

Focuses on the humbler end of the human imaginative spectrum: the creation of stable and predictable representations of possible situations, operating through specialised inference engines that create a ‘what if’ to aid in our prediction of possible outcomes.

Mithen, S. (2007). Seven steps in the evolution of the human imagination. In I. Roth (Ed.), Imaginative minds: Concepts, controversies and themes (pp. 3-29). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy. (paywall)

The seven steps in the evolution of the human imagination are: Theory of Mind, human life history (childhood-adulthood developmental patterns), domain-specific intelligences, language and music, cognitive fluidity, the extended mind, and sedentary farming lifestyles.

Nettle, D. (2007). A module for metaphor? The site of imagination in the architecture of the mind. In I. Roth (Ed.), Imaginative minds: Concepts, controversies and themes (pp. 259-274). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy. (full text)

Considers three ways of conceiving of the imagination in the context of the architecture of the mind, favouring the idea that it operates by mapping meaningful representations between dissimilar cognitive domains, as a consequence of the fact that multiple parallel specialised processes are incompletely insulated from one another. This has implications for creativity and for delusion and psychosis.

Thomas, N. J. T. (2014). Mental imagery. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Fall 2014 Edition. (full text)

An overview of the history of philosophical and scientific thought about mental imagery, and of recent findings and current theories, including the major debate between pictorialist, propositionalist, and enactivist accounts. Includes an extensive annotated bibliography.

Foglia, L., and O’Regan, J. K. (First Online 2015). A new imagery debate: Enactive and sensorimotor accounts. In Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 7(1), 181-196. (paywall)

Posits a new ‘imagery debate’, this one between two kinds of body- and action-based accounts of imagery which have often been lumped together: the enactive and the sensorimotor.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E. T., and Kangiser, S. (1988). Imagination in story response: Relationships between imagery, affect, and structural importance. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 320-336. (paywall)

An early empirical study in which qualitative and quantitative measures were used to assess readers’ responses to paragraphs of short stories in terms of mental imagery, emotion (or affect), and perceived importance to the story as a whole. Participants were asked to rate paragraphs on these dimensions and, for paragraphs that received high ratings on all three dimensions, asked to explain their ratings. In general there was high consistency between readers and between the report methods. Significant individual differences were observed particularly in the imagery reports, with the free responses elaborating beyond what was given in the text (though consistently with it). There were also notable intrusions of imagery into emotion reports, and emotion into importance reports. The authors conclude that imagery had a relationship to affect independent of importance, that affect had a relationship to importance partially mediated by imagery, and that imagery had a relationship to importance strongly mediated by affect. The results are linked to Paivio’s dual coding theory of verbal and image-based cognitive processing and to Brewer and Lichtenstein’s structural affect theory.

Jajdelska, E., Butler, C., Kelly, S., McNeill, A., and Overy, K. (2010). Crying, moving, and keeping it whole: What makes literary description vivid? Poetics Today, 31(3), 433-463. (paywall)

Argues that the term ‘vivid’ is often used in ways which conflate emotional intensity with imaginative accuracy. Research on face perception and mirror neurons is used to compare two models of reader responses to literary descriptions of faces: the jigsaw (or pictorial) model (in which a mental image is cumulatively built up from the description) and the experiential model (in which the reader has an embodied, emotional, and holistic response to the description). The paper offers some broad principles by which descriptions are likely to be ‘vivid’ in the sense of making the reader feel as though he or she is looking at the face, with examples from Walter Scott, Chaucer, Tremain, Dickens, Nabokov, Tobias Smollett, and George Eliot, and broader remarks on realism, accuracy, and vividness.

Grünbaum, T. (2013). Sensory imagination and narrative perspective: Explaining perceptual focalization. Semiotica, 194, 111-136. (paywall)

Explores focalisation through the lens of sensory imagination, connecting up philosophical discussions of self and imagination with narratological debates about perspective and voice. The author argues that focalisation is necessarily perceptual, and necessarily distinct from voice, and always internal to the narrative world. (Perceptual) focalisation is presented as a key factor determining which form of sensory imagination the reader is most likely to adopt, with important consequences for interpretive and emotional response; the distinctions between internal and external (tied to a character or not) can be understood as designed to correspond to those between acentral and central sensory imagination. An excerpt from Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ is used to illustrate the argument.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). Reading imaginatively: The imagination in cognitive science and cognitive literary studies. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(2), 181-198. (full text)

Draws on empirical data from the pictorialist/propositionalist/enactivist imagery debate to show how readers’ responses to literature (here, a short story by Kafka) can and should inform the scientific study of imagery. Specifically, the most commonly used measure of individuals’ tendency to imagine ‘vividly’, the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, is presented as failing to capture the full range of individuals’ imaginative abilities because it assumes imagery to be pictorial, rather than exploiting the action-based capacities of both language and the imagination to be indeterminate.

Kuzmičová, A. (2014). Literary narrative and mental imagery: A view from embodied cognition. Style, 48(3), 275-293. (full text)

Discusses mental imagery in relation to embodiment (including embodied simulation) and consciousness, and offers a typology of readerly mental imagery, based on scientific and introspective evidence. Imagery depends on the text, the reader, and the situation, is characterised by the variables of referential versus verbal and inner versus outer stance, and can be split into four broad sections of a continuum: enactment, description, speech, and rehearsal imagery. The paper draws attention to the general neglect of verbal imagery as opposed to imagery (especially visual imagery) with referential contents (the ‘referential bias’). It also touches on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: here, specifically the gulf between the ‘subpersonal’ mechanisms and the experience of imagery (e.g. in mirror neuron research).

Richardson, A. (2015). Imagination: Literary and cognitive intersections. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 225-245). New York: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

A broad outline of the domains covered by the concept of ‘imagination’, and of areas in which scientific and aesthetic collaboration is currently most fertile, including mental imagery, conceptual blending, and the brain’s default mode network (this last in relation to memory, theory of mind, daydreaming, and navigation), with particular reference to literary Romanticism.

Starr, G. A. (2015). Theorizing imagery, aesthetics, and doubly directed states. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 246-272). New York: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

Starting with a sketch of how the imagination is neurally organised, this chapter discusses the role imagery plays in driving aesthetic experience (including via the reward system and default mode connectivity), with emphasis on the multimodal or multisensory nature of imagery. The chapter suggests that vivid mental imagery might be particularly salient in aesthetic engagement because it involves a bidirectionally focused state in which perceptual activity is both self-generated and elicited by external prompts (the words of the text).

Jajdelska, E., Anderson, M., Butler, C., Fabb, N., Finnigan, E., Garwood, I., … & Schwan, S. (2019). Picture this: A review of research relating to narrative processing by moving image versus language. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1161. (full text)

Compares narrative processing in moving image fiction versus verbal fiction, on dimensions including visual mental imagery as well as verbal processing and personal memory, across a range of languages.

Magyari, L., Mangen, A., Kuzmičová, A., Jacobs, A. M., & Lüdtke, J. (2020). Eye movements and mental imagery during reading of literary texts with different narrative styles. (full text)

Reports on a study using eye tracking as well as post-reading questionnaire to investigate the effects of ‘descriptive’ versus ‘enactive’ style as in Kuzmičová’s (2014) typology. Readers experienced more difficulty generating mental images when reading descriptive-style texts, and showed longer fixation duration on words when reading enactive-style texts. The authors conclude that the enactive style involves more imagery processes, as manifested in eye movements.

Mental representation

Whether the brain operates using representational structures, and if so how precisely it uses such structures in different cognitive contexts, is a debate central to the shift from the ‘first’ to the ‘second’ generation of cognitive science (see ‘4E’). The question of mental representation has profound implications for how we think about our connections with the world and each other. See also Predictive processing (including Bayesian inferencing).

Scientific discussions

Clark, A. (1997). The dynamical challenge. Cognitive Science, 21(4), 461-481. (full text)

Sets out different levels of representationalist arguments about mind, from the impossible-to-object-to right up to the strongest claim, before showing how embodied cognition changes the goalposts on the debate. The emphasis is on a dynamical systems model of mind and its implications for thinking about temporality (should we focus on static states or temporally extended processes?) and the brain’s ‘explanatory privilege’ (should we focus almost exclusively on the brain?).

Barsalou, L. (2009). Simulation, situated conceptualization, and prediction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 1281-1289. (full text)

Presents evidence that simulation is a basic computational mechanism in the brain supporting a wide range of processes from perception to social cognition. Simulations, which may be conscious (experienced as imagery) or unconscious, are typically ‘situated’—that is, the situated character of experience in an environment is reflected in the nature of the representations underlying simulation (also referred to as ‘model re-enactment’). An architecture for how the brain implements simulation is offered, with situated conceptualisations capturing patterns of recurrent real-world situations and the simulations they give rise to. The ideas are linked to predictive coding as a crucial part of cognition: an inferencing system uses these recurrent patterns to create predictions via simulations in relevant modalities during action and social interaction. Supporting examples are given from research on perception, action, memory, language, conceptual processing, and social cognition.

Augusto, L. M. (2013). Unconscious representations I: Belying the traditional model of human cognition. Axiomathes, 23(4), 645-663. (preprint full text)

Challenges the neat separation between conscious (symbolic/conceptual) and unconscious (nonsymbolic/nonconceptual) mental representations.

Pitt, D. (2013). Mental representation. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Fall 2013 Edition. (full text)

An introduction to the various kinds of representational theory of mental functioning (the notion that cognition occurs by means of the existence, transformation, and storage in the mind and/or brain of some kind of information-bearing structures) and their implications and opponents, including sections on imagery, the computational model of mind (the mind is the brain, and the brain is a computer), and the relation between thought and language.

Ramsey, W. (2016). Untangling two questions about mental representation. New Ideas in Psychology, 40, 3-12. (paywall)

Argues for the importance of distinguishing between the functional role of mental representations and the content associated with that role, rather than conflating the two or ignoring the functional role.

Hutto, D. D., & Myin, E. (2019). Deflating deflationism about mental representation. What are mental representations (full text)

An attack on the main variants of the deflationist view of mental representation, which tries to sidestep the problems generated by the concept of mental representational content while retaining a commitment to representationalism.

See also the living handbook of narratology entry on ‘schemata’:

Cognitive humanities discussions

Allington, D. (2005). Re-reading the script: A discursive appraisal of the use of the ‘schema’ in cognitive poetics. Working with English: Medieval and Modern Language, Literature and Drama, 2, 1-9. (full text)

Argues that the concept of the script or schema has become so popular in cognitive poetics because it inhabits the ambiguous territory between actual mental structure and metaphor for cognition. The article provides examples of this term/concept being used in questionably loose ways in order to organise speculations about the contextual knowledge needed for reading literary texts, whether or not these correspond to neural or cognitive realities. The author suggests that cognitive poetics does not really want to explain text processing, but mainly aims to produce new readings of texts that are (at least nominally) supported by theories of text processing. The paper argues for the importance of taking the social aspects of reading more seriously when thinking about readers’ cognition, and the usefulness of the discursive model of scripts (or ‘script formulations’) as ways of speaking or thinking rather than as hypothetical mental structures.

Herman, D. (2006). Scripts, sequences, and stories. In D. Herman, Story logic: Problems and possibilities of narrative (pp. 85-114). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. (full preview)

A review of the structuralist account of narrative sequences, suggesting that narratological models can be enriched with the concepts of scripts, frames, and schemata, in particular by helping explain the difference between a mere sequence of actions or occurrences and a narratively organised sequence or ‘molecular narrative’ that drives inferencing. The interplay between narratives and cognitive scripts can be seen as one of anchoring and deviation, stereotypicality and tellability, canonicity and breach. These considerations move us towards definitions of narrativehood (what makes a story a story) and narrativity (how readily a narrative can be processed as narrative).

Flanagan, J. (2008). Knowing more than we can tell: The cognitive structure of narrative comprehension. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 6(2), 323-345. (paywall)

Argues that we should replace the representational paradigm of narratology, focused on the fictional representation of consciousness, with a functionalist one, where the focus is instead on the functional organisation of the mental structures through which we comprehend narratives. Takes in discussion of different explanatory levels in cognitive science (phenomenological, functional, algorithmic, neural) and how they apply in an interdisciplinary context. An illustrative reading of a story by Katherine Mansfield provides the basis for a series of questions for the future of a cognitive-scientific literary narratology.

Grishakova, M. (2009). Beyond the frame: Cognitive science, common sense and fiction. Narrative, 17(2), 188-199. (full text) 

Proposes that ‘certain types of modernist and postmodernist self-reflexive fiction paradoxically provoke focused schema-consistent reading and foreground stereotype frames to alleviate the cognitive load that schema-inconsistent information presents to the reader.


Akimoto, T. (2019). Narrative structure in the mind: Translating Genette’s narrative discourse theory into a cognitive system. Cognitive Systems Research, 58, 342-350. (full text)

Translates Genette’s narratological terms into methods of story-form memory construction in a cognitive system, and narratological methods into cognitive terms (including temporal segmentation of the world, generalisation of stories, theory of mind, metacognition, self-formation, memory organisation, and sociocultural aspect of cognition) in order to characterise a story as integrative, multifaceted, and multifunctional information in the mind.

Metaphor, blending, and figurative language

Dominated by the two best-known accounts, conceptual metaphor theory and conceptual blending, metaphor is where the crosstalk between literary studies and cognitive science most conspicuously began. Questions about how figurative language is created and processed, and what it says about the mind more generally, remain fertile.

Scientific discussions

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1980). Conceptual metaphor in everyday language. The Journal of Philosophy, 77(8), 453-486. (full text)

The classic articulation of conceptual metaphor theory: the idea that metaphors are a fundamental part of everyday language (rather than a poetic optional extra) and are grounded in our embodied experience of the physical world. The basic argument is illustrated by examples of different metaphorical schemas that underlie a vast number of individual metaphors (e.g. time is money, argument is war, communication is a conduit, plus the many classes of orientational metaphors), before the authors set out the theory’s consequences for how to think about our conceptual system as a whole, including the question of how to treat novel metaphors.

For more on the philosophical implications, and many detailed examples of metaphors, see their 1980/2002 book Metaphors We Live By.

Grady, J. E., Oakley, T., and Coulson, S. (1999). Blending and metaphor. In G. Steen and R. Gibbs (Eds), Metaphor in cognitive linguistics: Selected Papers from the Fifth International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, Amsterdam, July 1997 (pp. 101-124). Philadelphia: John Benjamins. (partial preview)

Compares conceptual metaphor theory and blending theory, and concludes that they can be thought of as complementary rather than competing.

Turner, M., and Fauconnier, G. (2000). Metaphor, metonymy, and binding. In A. Barcelona (Ed.), Metonymy and metaphor at the crossroads (pp. 133-148). Berlin: de Gruyter. (partial preview)

An early account of the theory of conceptual blending, which suggests that meaning can be created by blending elements from different objects or scenarios into a constituent mental space which has emergent structures that are elaborated in the process of meaning-making. This theory also aims to unify metaphor with other aspects of linguistic and conceptual activity.

See also Turner and Fauconnier’s 2002 book The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities (preview)

Plus an encyclopaedia entry by Gilles Fauconnier on conceptual blending here:

Gibbs, R., and Matlock, T. (2008). Metaphor, imagination, and simulation: Psycholinguistic evidence. In R. Gibbs (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought (pp. 161-176). New York: Cambridge University Press. (partial preview)

Evidence from psycholinguistic and neuroscientific research on the embodied nature of responses to metaphor, specifically through the mechanism of simulation: people simulate actions even when they are impossible because they involve abstract entities (e.g. ‘stomp out the racism’). Reflects on the split in metaphor studies between ‘classic A is B metaphors’ (e.g. my lawyer is a shark) and ‘metaphors arising from correlations in experience’ (e.g. I can see the point you’re making), and argues that both can be understood through embodied simulation, not just in terms of categorisation and comparison.

Handl, S., & Schmid, H. J. (2011). Introduction. In S. Handl & H. J. Schmid (Eds), Windows to the mind: Metaphor, metonymy and conceptual blending (Vol. 48) (pp. 1-20). Walter de Gruyter. (full text)

An introduction sketching out some similarities and differences between conceptual blending and conceptual metaphor theory before outlining the book’s contributions to addressing outstanding questions in the field and exploring its limitations and potential.

See also a review by Vera Stadelmann:

Gibbs, R. (2012). Metaphors, snowflakes, and termite nests: How nature creates such beautiful things. In F. MacArthur, J. L. Oncins-Martínez, M. Sánchez-García, and A. M. Piquer-Píriz (Eds), Metaphor in use: Context, culture, and communication (pp. 347-371). Amsterdam, PA: John Benjamins. (preprint full text)

A speculative piece suggesting that metaphorical meanings arise not from human intentionality but from the same kind of self-organising systems that result in snowdrifts and zebra stripes: from dynamical mind-body processes that can be understood as movements through a state-space between regions of attraction. This allows us to account for the indeterminacy characteristic of metaphorical understanding by offering a framework for conceptualising the effects of hugely different timescales and bottom-up/top-down feedback loops.

Lakoff, G. (2014). Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry: Metaphorical thought in everyday reason. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience8, 958. (full text)

Outlines a neural theory of metaphor, showing how everyday thought makes use of embodied metaphor brain circuitry, and working from the starting point that ‘the division between concrete and abstract thought is based on what can be observed from the outside’. The author argues that ‘Physical entities, properties, and activities are “concrete.” What is not visible is called “abstract”: emotions, purposes, ideas, and understandings of other non-visible things (freedom, time, social organization, systems of thought, and so on). From the perspective of the brain, each of those abstractions are physical, because all thought and understanding is physical, carried out by neural circuitry. That puts “concrete” and “abstract” ideas on the same basis in the brain.’ 

Slepian, M. L., & Ambady, N. (2014). Simulating sensorimotor metaphors: Novel metaphors influence sensory judgments. Cognition130(3), 309-314. (paywall)

Reports on an experiment finding that teaching participants novel embodied metaphors not based in prior physical experience does lead to embodied simulation, with implications for current models of embodied cognition.

Xie, J., Lu, Z., Wang, R., & Cai, Z. G. (2016). Remember hard but think softly: Metaphorical effects of hardness/softness on cognitive functions. Frontiers in Psychology7, 1343. (full text)

Shows that the hardness or softness of the chair participants sit on while trying to recall previously memorised words, solve Chinese riddles, or perform an analogical reasoning task affects rigidity (memory) or flexibility (creativity).

Yu, N., & Huang, J. (2019). Primary metaphors across languages: Difficulty as weight and solidity. Metaphor and Symbol34(2), 111-126. (full text)

A study of two ‘primary’ metaphors (structured by tight correlations between fundamental dimensions of human experience) in English and Chinese, offering insight into how the linguistic patterns reflect the underlying conceptual associations across metaphorical domains. Includes reflections on the role of individual speakers’ linguistic, bodily, and cultural experiences.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Burke, M. (2003). Literature as parable. In J. Gavins and G. Steen (Eds), Cognitive poetics in practice (pp. 115-128). London: Routledge. (partial preview)

Shows how blending theory can help explain parable and parabolic structures in literature: from input spaces to generic spaces to the blended space, blending processes yielding a new emergent structure that no longer depends on the original inputs. Examples are given from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, using both blending and conceptual metaphor theory to explore the texts’ parabolic effects and the parabolic qualities of the human mind more generally. As with the other chapters in this volume, suggestions are given at the end for how to take the ideas presented further, for example in a classroom setting.

Crisp, P. (2003). Conceptual metaphor and its expressions. In J. Gavins and G. Steen (Eds), Cognitive poetics in practice (pp. 99-114). London: Routledge. (partial preview)

Analyses a range of conceptual metaphors in a poem by D. H. Lawrence, and argues that they derive from both embodied everyday experience and the revivification of conventionalised metaphors. Also considers the relations between metaphor, allegory, and symbol; how to decide what is metaphorical language and what isn’t; and how blending theory expands the scope of conceptual metaphor theory as a way of understanding cross-domain mappings. The appendix provides an analysis of a poem by Keats, for readers to compare with their own.

Copland, S. (2009). Modelling the mind: Conceptual blending and modernist narratives (doctoral dissertation). (full text)

‘This thesis offers a new approach to mind modelling in modernist narratives. Taking Nietzsche’s work as exemplary of modernist ideas about cognition’s relational basis, I argue that conceptual blending theory, a particularly cogent model of a fundamental cognitive process, has roots in modernism. I read inscriptions of relational cognition in modernist narratives as “conceptual blends” that invite cognitive mobility as a central facet of reader response. These blends, which integrate conceptual domains, invite similarity-seeing and difference-seeing, exposing the reader to new conceptual content and new cognitive styles; she is thus better able to negotiate the reading-related complexities of modernist narrative’s formal innovations and the real-world complexities of modernity’s local and global upheavals.’

Schneider, R. (2012). Blending and the study of narrative: An introduction. Blending and the Study of Narrative. Approaches and Application, 1-30. (paywall)

An introduction to a volume showcasing how the study of narrative can be enhanced by the explanatory power of conceptual integration networks. The following chapters, outlined here, offer new theoretical approaches informed by blending theory and/or new readings of texts using blending.

Cánovas, C. P., and Jensen, M. F. (2013). Anchoring time-space mappings and their emotions: The timeline blend in poetic metaphors. Language and Literature, 22(1), 45-59. (full text)

Proposes that the standard conceptual metaphor framework positing binary and unidirectional mappings between domains could be enhanced using Fauconnier and Turner’s ‘conceptual integration theory’—specifically by taking into account emotional effects as well as the multiplicity of spatial (e.g. linear or nonlinear) structures used for different rhetorical and expressive purposes. The case study is the timeline: this serves as a template for conceptual blending of time and space in examples from medieval Spanish and modern Greek literature. The analysis shows how temporal relations are made available as spatial relations by integrating a straight line with the path in the time–space blend. This leads to further conclusions relating to intertextuality and to emotional expression.

Winter, B. (2014). Horror movies and the cognitive ecology of primary metaphors. Metaphor and Symbol29(3), 151-170. (full text)

Analyses horror movies to demonstrate the consistency with which they reflect metaphorical associations between verticality and brightness metaphors and moral judgements (i.e. evil is down, and evil is dark). Explores how these associations help create fear, and how cinema elaborates on metaphorical concepts and keeps them alive within cultures.

Morality and ethics

Literature has a long and complex relationship with attributions of morality and immorality, and moral psychology offers new ways of thinking about the many components of this relationship.

Scientific discussions

Narvaez, D. (2010). Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 163-181. (full text)

Suggests that moral decisions made with a mandate of intuitive rightness or ‘truthiness’, whether or not followed by post-hoc rationalisation, are on shaky ground, and that narrowly intuitionist and rationalist approaches to morality need to be combined in a broader model of the multiple systems involved in embedded decision-making.

Hardy, S. A., and Carlo, G. (2011). Moral identity: What is it, how does it develop, and is it linked to moral action? Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212-218. (full text)

Proposes the concept of moral identity as a way of bridging the commonly observed gap between moral judgement and moral action, raising questions around the state/trait distinction and the integration of morality and self.

Krakowiak, K. M., & Oliver, M. B. (2012). When good characters do bad things: Examining the effect of moral ambiguity on enjoyment. Journal of Communication, 62(1), 117-135. (paywall) (full text of associated PhD thesis)

Investigates how liking for characters dissociates from finding them transporting and suspenseful, such that morally bad or ambiguous characters can be liked much less than good ones, but be found equally cognitively engaging.

Decety, J., and Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 337-339. (full text)

Drawing on findings from developmental, behavioural, and social neuroscience, the authors argue that the relation between morality and empathy is neither one of inevitable complementarity nor one of systematic opposition, and that it can be properly understood only by splitting up empathy into its constituent parts, including emotional contagion or affective resonance, empathic concern, and affective perspective-taking.

Doris, J., and Stich, S. (2014). Moral psychology: Empirical approaches. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Fall 2014 Edition. (full text)

An introduction to the origins of moral psychology in the distinct traditions of philosophy and psychology, and a roadmap for the potential of interdisciplinary approaches to yield better theoretically and empirically grounded responses to questions around responsibility, virtue ethics, and egoism and altruism.

Guglielmo, S. (2015). Moral judgment as information processing: an integrative review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1637. (full text)

A review of the psychology of moral judgements through an information-processing lens, asking (1) What input information guides moral judgements? and (2) What psychological processes generate these judgements? The answers involve the concepts of (1) information models and (2) processing models, including considerations of intuition versus deliberation, and bias driven by prior moral judgements.

Tobia, K. P. (2015). The effects of cleanliness and disgust on moral judgment. Philosophical Psychology, 28(4), 556-568. (preprint full text)

A synthesis of existing findings on the influence of disgust and cleanliness on moral judgements, distinguishing between several possible causal connections, and ruling out the idea that effects can be attributed to a single common cognitive mechanism for disgust and cleanliness.

Ellemers, N., van der Toorn, J., Paunov, Y., & van Leeuwen, T. (2019). The psychology of morality: A review and analysis of empirical studies published from 1940 through 2017. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(4), 332-366. (full text)

A review of findings in the psychology of morality, including in relation to social order, the moral self, thoughts and experiences, and the paradox of morality, as well as reflections on theoretical and empirical approaches in the field.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Hakemulder, J. (2000). Apologies. In J. Hakemulder, The moral laboratory: Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept (pp. 1-27). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (partial preview)

An introduction to the study of literature’s ethical effects, in relation to narrativity, truth, fiction and fact, complexity, catharsis, character formation, defamiliarisation, and other ways of thinking about the relationship between literary, morality, and ethics.

Breithaupt, F. A. (2015). Empathic sadism: How readers get implicated. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 440-462). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (partial preview) (paywall)

Investigates the (apparently far from rare) readerly phenomenon of ‘empathy for empathy’s sake’, where we want others to feel pain so that we can feel for them, and even feel like them, yet paradoxically feel good ourselves. This phenomenon (whose underpinnings can be illuminated by cases of real-life retributive satisfaction) suggests a narratological distinction between the implied reader and the ‘implicated reader’, whose active involvement draws them into the moral constellation of the text. Illustrated through two works of 19th-century fiction, the chapter explores the relations between predictive, self-empowering, and sadistic empathy, as well as exploitative advocacy and sadistic benefaction.

Bruun Vaage, M. (2015). On the repulsive rapist and the difference between morality in fiction and real life. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 421-439). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (partial preview) (paywall)

Observes that moral psychology is asymmetric in real-life and fiction with regard to the relation between murder and rape: legally, murder is marked as worse than rape, but in fiction, rape is more often used to mark a character as truly villainous. The author suggests components of an explanation: that we rely more on moral emotions when engaging with fiction, that rape is emotionally disturbing in a way murder need not be, and that our moral repulsion thus becomes more evident in the fictional context. Examples are given from The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, and Dexter.

Black, J. E., & Barnes, J. L. (2020). Fiction and morality: Investigating the associations between reading exposure, empathy, morality, and moral judgment. Psychology of Popular Media (advance online publication) (preprint full text)

Investigates the relationship between exposure to narrative (adult and young-adult fiction and nonfiction) and morally relevant individual differences (empathy, moral identity, and moral agency), controlling for personality and gender, and finding distinct associations for nonfiction, fiction, and young-adult fiction, plus a mediating role for empathy. Connects the findings to the competing hypothesis of reading as moral laboratory or as moral boundary erosion.

See also Caracciolo, M., & Van Duuren, T. (2015). Changed by literature? A critical review of psychological research on the effects of reading fiction. In Social cognition.

Personality and individual difference

Scientific methods are just as good at telling us about individual differences as they are at generalising across large numbers of individuals, and questions about variation on dimensions like personality are gradually becoming part of the empirical field of cognitive literary inquiry.

Scientific discussions

Pronin, E., and Ross, L. (2006). Temporal differences in trait self-ascription: When the self is seen as an other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2), 197-209. (full text)

A new take on the well-documented ‘trait ascription bias’ (closely related to the ‘fundamental attribution error’ and the ‘actor-observer bias’): our tendency to attribute our own actions to situational factors while describing others’ in terms of fixed character traits. The study asks whether this bias could extend to our own past and future selves: do we ever perceive them from an observer’s standpoint as we do other people? (The answer is yes, but not symmetrically.)

Mahoney, B. (2011). Individual differences: Aims, methods and ethics. In B. Mahoney, Personality and individual differences (pp. 1-36). Exeter: Learning Matters. (full preview)

Runs through the basics of research in the field, including questions about structures and determinants of individual difference, measures for assessing them, plus some statistical and ethical considerations.

Briley, D. A., and Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2014). Genetic and environmental continuity in personality development: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140(5), 1303-1331. (full text)

Reviews theories of personality development and asks whether nature (the crystallisation of genetic continuity) or nurture (environmental factors such as the increasing stability of life experiences) are responsible for the increase of personality stability in adulthood. A meta-analysis concludes that the contribution of genetic effects to phenotypic stability is moderate and relatively constant with age, while the role of environmental effects increases from near zero in early childhood to moderate in adulthood.

Benet-Martínez, V., Donnellan, M. B., Fleeson, W., Fraley, R. C., Gosling, S. D., King, L. A., … & Funder, D. C. (2015). Six visions for the future of personality psychology. (full text)

Six researchers in the field give their takes on important questions in the field of personality psychology and its future.

Sackett, P. R., Lievens, F., Van Iddekinge, C. H., & Kuncel, N. R. (2017). Individual differences and their measurement: A review of 100 years of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 254. (full text preprint)

A review of research on individual differences, focusing on ‘3 major individual differences domains: (a) knowledge, skill, and ability, including both the cognitive and physical domains; (b) personality, including integrity, emotional intelligence, stable motivational attributes (e.g., achievement motivation, core self- evaluations), and creativity; and (c) vocational interests’. For each domain, the authors describe its evolution and highlight major theoretical, empirical, and methodological developments. Connections are drawn with job performance and satisfaction and career development, but the conclusions are more widely applicable.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Thompson, R., and Haddock, G. (2012). Same story, different attitude: Do different processes in narrative persuasion influence general and personal evaluations? Scientific Study of Literature, 2(1), 150-164. (paywall)

Reports on a study investigating how transportation is linked to personal habits and general attitudes: specifically, how does transportation into a narrative about binge drinking relate to self-reported drinking habits, perceptions of the riskiness of binge drinking, and intentions to reduce alcohol intake? The results are discussed with reference to psychological engagement with characters in the narrative, personal memories, and simulation.

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., and Moldoveanu, M. C. (2013). Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy. Scientific Study of Literature, 3(1), 28-47. (preprint full text)

The question of whether reading literature can make readers more empathic is investigated in a study that takes into account personality variation, finding that readers who were low in Openness (one of the ‘big five’ personality dimensions) showed significant increases in self-reported cognitive (but not affective) empathy after reading a short story as compared to an essay. Participants who were frequent readers of fiction also had higher scores on the non-self-report measure of empathy (the Mind in the Eyes test), and were better at answering questions about the text. However, both the essay and the short story lowered the cognitive empathy of those who were high in Openness. The questions and findings are discussed in relation to identification, simulation, and the potential broader cognitive benefits of exposure to literature.

Michelson, D. (2014). Personality and the varieties of fictional experience. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 48(2), 64-85. (paywall) — also in Aesthetic experience

Counters the common assumption that differences in identity influence what, how, and why we read with the claim that literature affects personality. The central example explored is the fact that the kinds of literary experiences valued by literary scholars—deep meditative reading, introspection, sensuous aesthetic apperception, and identity development—are not typical of general adult reading experiences, and are preferentially sought and successfully developed in individuals moderately high in the heritable personality dimension of Openness to experience. The possibility that these personality-related preferences are trained by reading itself has pedagogical as well as theoretical implications for how we think about literature in its cognitive and evolutionary context.

Nijhof, A. D., & Willems, R. M. (2015). Simulating fiction: individual differences in literature comprehension revealed with fMRI. PLoS One, 10(2), e0116492. (full text)

An fMRI study using excerpts from Dutch literary fiction, suggesting that ‘some people are mostly drawn into a story by mentalizing about the thoughts and beliefs of others, whereas others engage in literature by simulating more concrete events such as actions’.

Hoven, E., Hartung, F. C., Burke, M., & Willems, R. M. (2016). Individual differences in sensitivity to style during literary reading: Insights from eye-tracking. (full text)

Reports on an eye-tracking study finding significant variation in readers’ sensitivity to foregrounding features: some readers did not slow down at all when reading foregrounded passages, while others slowed down a lot during foregrounded passages as well as for high-perplexity words (which is what one might expect as a result of higher processing demands).

Mak, M., & Willems, R. M. (2019). Mental simulation during literary reading: Individual differences revealed with eye-tracking. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 34(4), 511-535. (full text)

An eye-tracking study using three literary short stories, finding that ‘motor simulation reduces gaze duration (faster reading), whereas perceptual simulation and mentalising increase gaze duration (slower reading)’. ‘Individual differences in the effect of simulation on gaze duration were found, which were related to individual differences in aspects of story world absorption and story appreciation. These findings suggest fundamental differences between different kinds of simulation and confirm the role of simulation in absorption and appreciation.’

Carney, J., & Robertson, C. (2018). People searching for meaning in their lives find literature more engaging. Review of General Psychology, 22(2), 199-209. (full text preprint)

Reports on a study in which participants were presented with two variants of a famous literary text (Woolf’s The Waves), one altered to remove overtly literary elements. Participants with higher scores on search for meaning (as opposed to need for cognition, presence of meaning, or intentionality/mentalising ability) were more likely to rate the literary excerpt as higher in literary value.

See also Michelson, D. (2014). Personality and the varieties of fictional experience. In Aesthetic experience.


Predictive processing (including Bayesian inferencing)

Predictive processing, Bayesian inferencing, and other forms of probabilistic modelling, are promising new(ish) ways of thinking about how the mind copes with the world’s complexity and unpredictability: the basic idea is that a system develops a set of ‘priors’ which allow it to assign a probability to a given hypothesis (e.g. this water is hot), leading to action which confirms or disconfirms the hypothesis, causing the priors to be validated or updated. The space in this model for the temporal dynamics of mind-body-world feedback makes it conducive to a 4E perspective on cognition.

Scientific discussions

Hohwy, J. (2007). The sense of self in the phenomenology of agency and perception. Psyche, 13(1). (full text) 

Uses the predictive coding model to illuminate the sense of self and agency, including as they are altered in psychopathology. 

Griffiths, T. L., Kemp, C., and Tenenbaum, J. B. (2008). Bayesian models of cognition. In R. Sun (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of computational psychology (pp. 59-100). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (full text)

The first few pages are a good introduction to Bayesian models of cognition, and if you have the maths to follow it, the rest introduces the technical details of specific modelling techniques.

Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: A unified brain theory? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 127-138. (full text)

Incorporates the predictive, probabilistic model into a wider theory of brain function based on the broad principle of optimisation, as manifested through expectations about reward or utility and through the surprise (and expected cost) that results from prediction error. In the author’s words: ‘A free-energy principle has been proposed recently that accounts for action, perception and learning. This Review looks at some key brain theories in the biological (for example, neural Darwinism) and physical (for example, information theory and optimal control theory) sciences from the free-energy perspective. Crucially, one key theme runs through each of these theories—optimization. Furthermore, if we look closely at what is optimized, the same quantity keeps emerging, namely value (expected reward, expected utility) or its complement, surprise (prediction error, expected cost). This is the quantity that is optimized under the free-energy principle, which suggests that several global brain theories might be unified within a free-energy framework.’

Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(3), 181-204. (full text) 

Advances the thesis (which goes back to Helmholtz’s work on perception as unconscious inference) that brains are prediction machines which attempt to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations, and sketches out the implications of this position for how we conceive of mind, experience, and agency. Numerous open peer commentary responses, and an author’s reply, follow the main article.

Gärtner, K., & Clowes, R. W. (2017). Enactivism, radical enactivism and predictive processing: What is radical in cognitive science? Kairos. Journal of Philosophy & Science, 18(1), 54-83. 

Offers a sceptical take on the notion of radical enactivism via a critique of its implications for mental representation, and an argument for heterogeneity.

Wiese, W., & Metzinger, T. (2017). Vanilla PP for philosophers: A primer on predictive processing. (full text)

An overview and brief explanation of 12 central concepts involved in predictive processing, including a simple glossary. The list is roughly ordered by how central the authors think each term is to ‘vanilla PP’ (a formulation of predictive processing that will probably be accepted by most researchers working on the topic).

Williams, D. (2018). Predictive processing and the representation wars. Minds and Machines, 28(1), 141-172. (full text) 

Defends and develops Andy Clark’s proposal that a predictive processing theory of neural functioning could put an end to the ‘representation wars’ of recent cognitive science, i.e. that it implies an understanding of internal representation that can accommodate important insights from the enactivist (as well as pragmatist, behaviourist, and reductionist traditions) without renouncing the theory’s representationalist credentials. 

Cognitive humanities discussions

Schneider, R. (2001). Toward a cognitive theory of literary character: The dynamics of mental-model construction. Style, 35(4), 607-640. (paywall)

Presents a dynamic model of how readers construct literary characters, involving inferencing, schema activation, and category construction, in a bottom-up/top-down interaction between textual information about characters and what readers know about people in the real world and in literature. Examples are given from a variety of 19th-century English novels. 

Kukkonen, K. (2014). Quixotic reasoning: Counterfactuals, causation and literary storyworlds. Paragraph, 37(1), 47-61. (preprint full text)

Suggests that fiction-reading can be thought of as a process of learning the probabilities of the fictional world by running inferences and revising prior probabilities in light of new observations—a process that can also be seen engaged in by fictional characters who are themselves readers. These ideas are presented through the analysis of two 19th-century novels with ‘quixotic’ heroines, with reference to counterfactual reasoning and cognitive decoupling, and the social and evolutionary contexts of reading.

Kukkonen, K. (2014). Bayesian narrative: Probability, plot and the shape of the fictional world. Anglia: Journal of English Philology, 132(4), 720-739. (full text)

Expands on the earlier article by showing how a text’s ‘probability design’ relates to plot responses such as surprise, curiosity, and suspense, and to the malleability of the fictional world’s verisimilitude. Discussion of Burney’s Evelina provides the context for exploring how structuralist, narratological, and reader-response models differ from the Bayesian one.

Kukkonen, K. (2014). Presence and prediction: the embodied reader’s cascades of cognition. Style, 48(3), 367-384.’s_Cascades_of_Cognition/links/58cd34f24585157b6dae3ea9/Presence-and-Prediction-The-Embodied-Readers-Cascades-of-Cognition.pdf (preprint full text)

Develops a model of the reader ‘based on the notion that cognition is situated, embodied and geared to however the world is available to us, but it also considers that this availability depends on predictive, probabilistic judgments of how embodied actions are likely to turn out and how confident we can be in their accuracy. Through “cascades” of such probabilistic judgments, the proposed model connects the embodied reader with the narrative dynamics of plot and metaperspectives.’

Kukkonen, K. (2017). Fantastic cognition. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 151-168). New York: Oxford University Press. (preprint full text)

Shows how the literary quality of the fantastic (an epistemic hovering between the strange and the marvellous) can serve to challenge, defamiliarise, and so make clearer to us the ways in which we use Bayesian inferences to calibrate real-world probabilities. Analysis of Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love (1772/1776), including of Cazotte’s manuscript changes, helps makes the case for the fantastic’s contribution to the project of ‘found science’ in its illumination of artistic shortcuts.

See also Kukkonen’s 2020 book, Probability designs: Literature and predictive processing. (preview)

Carney, J., Robertson, C., & Dávid-Barrett, T. (2019). Fictional narrative as a variational Bayesian method for estimating social dispositions in large groups. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 93, 102279. (full text) 

Describes evidence from theory and simulation suggesting that fictional narrative is a cultural tool evolved to help humans deal with large groups, and specifically that prototypical action roles removed from real-world interactions function as interpretive priors in a form of Bayesian inference, allowing readers to make estimates of unknown social motives.

Fabry, R. E., & Kukkonen, K. (2019). Reconsidering the mind-wandering reader: Predictive processing, probability designs, and enculturation. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2648. (full text) 

Investigates reading and mind-wandering through the lens of predictive processing understood as involving both cultural and individual variation.



Like Free will, self is a thorny philosophical concept that can also be explored scientifically. Whether or not it exists or is what it seems (see Illusion), it is part of our folk psychology, and therefore part of what we need to understand literary texts and reading.

Scientific discussions

Olson, E. T. (1998). There is no problem of self. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5, 645-657. (full text)

Argues that the term ‘self’ causes more problems than it solves, and that we should stop talking about selves.

Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1), 14-21. (Also commentary and reply in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(5), 167-168.) (full text)

Sets out the distinction between minimal self (comprising self-ownership and self-agency) and narrative self (involving temporal continuity as narratively constituted) in relation to cognitive-scientific findings and debates.

Gallagher, S. (2011). Introduction: A diversity of selves. In S. Gallagher (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the self (pp. 1-28). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

Sets out the range of approaches covered in the handbook, from the history of concepts of self to its developmental origins and neural underpinnings; from body ownership to personal identity and pathologies of self; and from the self that arises out of action or social interaction to spiritual traditions of no-self.

Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2017). Cultural differences in self‐recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves?. Developmental Science20(3), e12387. (full text preprint)

Reports on self-recognition tasks performed by infants and their mothers of three nationalities: Scottish, Zambian, and Turkish. ‘Scottish interactions were characterized by distal contact, Zambian interactions by proximal contact, and Turkish interactions by a mixture of contact strategies. These culturally distinct experiences may scaffold different perspectives on self.’ The correlations of each set of strategies with mirror self-recognition and the body-as-obstacle task were assessed. Cultural context was found to be the best predictor of self-awareness performance, suggesting that cultural factors may play a role in the early expression of self-awareness.

Blackmore, S., and Troscianko, E.T. (2018). Egos, bundles, and theories of self. In S. Blackmore and E.T. Troscianko, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 435-463). Abingdon: Routledge (3rd ed.). (partial preview)

The idea that we are unified conscious selves experiencing a stream of consciousness is natural but problematic. For example, cases of multiple personality show that one body can sometimes support more than one self, although theories differ on the nature of those selves. Two categories of theory are contrasted: ego theories posit a continuing self, whether supernatural or brain-based; bundle theories reject the existence of any continuing self. Thought experiments can help elucidate their implications, from Martians swapping people’s brains to the “teletransporter” which destroys and reconstructs a person’s body and brain in the process: is the replica still the same person? Theories of self include James’s claim that “thought is itself the thinker”, and neuroscientific theories that seek the brain basis of self. Damasio distinguishes between a proto-self, core self, and autobiographical self, while others invoke an interpreter or observing self. Other theories include GWTs, Hofstadter’s “strange loops”, Strawson’s “pearls on a string”, and Metzinger’s “self-model theory of subjectivity”. The importance of embodiment and language are considered, along with the idea of self as a social construction or “centre of narrative gravity”. As technology develops we consider the prospects for downloaded and enhanced selves and selves in cyberspace.’

Millière, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Trautwein, F. M., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2018). Psychedelics, meditation, and self-consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology9, 1475. (full text)

Explores evidence for the potential of meditation and psychedelics to affect sense of self, including through ‘ego dissolution’ or other forms of ‘self-loss’, and distinguishes between different aspects of experienced selfhood (including narrative aspects of autobiographical memory, self-related thoughts and mental time travel, and embodied aspects rooted in multisensory processes) and well as short- and long-term effects of specific practices.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Knight, D. (1994). Selves, interpreters, narrators. Philosophy and Literature, 18, 284-286. (paywall)

Explores the narrative qualities of self in the context of interpretation and self-interpretation, through a contrast between Daniel Dennett’s views (on the self as centre of narrative gravity, or autobiographical accretion) with Rebecca Goldstein’s more active account of self-narrative (preferring the latter). The article concludes that despite the impossibility of the omniscient third-person narrator who could tell an unabridged story of any self (an ‘Authorized Version of the Whole Story of Me written by the Impersonal Narrator’), we do tell ourselves rather than simply being told.

Vice, S. (2003). Literature and the narrative self. Philosophy78(303), 93-108. (full text)

Explores narrative models of self in conjunction with the question of what engaging with literary narratives means for selfhood.

Kuiken, D., Miall, D. S., and Sikora, S. (2004). Forms of self-implication in literary reading. Poetics Today, 25(2), 171-203. (full text)

Explores the question of how literary reading can implicate the self and deepen self-understanding, differentiating between two forms of self-implication: one that functions like simile, and one like metaphor. By means of a phenomenological and an experimental study, these structures are linked to a type of reading experience called expressive enactment. Expressive enactment involves blurred boundaries between self and narrator, plus active iterative modification of an emergent emotional theme with the potential to alter understanding of everyday life. This way of reading is found to be common amongst individuals who remain affected by a significant loss some time ago.

Miall, D. S. (2017). ‘Annihilation of self’: The cognitive challenge of the sublime. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 55-72). New York: Oxford University Press. (paywall)

Explores the sublime as an experience defined not least by a loss of sense of self, or a blurring between the self and the rest of the natural world—an effect which can be both evoked in texts and induced in readers. Textual analysis of 18th- and 19th-century examples of sublime experiences is complemented by discussion of neuroscientific studies of mystical, sexual, aesthetic, and otherwise self-transcending experiences.

Kukkonen, K. (2019). Exploring inner perceptions: Interoception, literature, and mindfulness. Journal of Consciousness Studies26(11-12), 107-132. (preprint full text)

‘This article establishes a connection between the novel, as a cultural artefact which encourages the exploration of inner perceptions, literary reading, and recent research into interoception in cognitive psychology. Interoception is broadly conceived here, ranging from physical states (like pulse, breathing rate, etc.) to emotions and the conscious perception of these physical states. The article identifies relevant interoceptive mechanisms in literary reading and develops a research programme for their empirical study. It unfolds an account of the relationship between interoception and exteroception, as well as critical concepts to capture how readers’ interoception aligns with the embodied signature of the text (‘interoceptive attunement’) and how the text offers points of re-entry after readers’ remindings (‘interoceptive anchors’). The article closes with a discussion of the role of interoception in the investigation of mindfulness meditation, and how this might enable an empirical comparison between the two cultural practices of mindfulness meditation and literary reading.’

Sensory perception

Our senses give us access to the world. How does sensory perception work, how does it relate to other aspects of the mind, and how can it be altered in conditions like synaesthesia? These questions are directly relevant to how literary characters are evoked as engaging with their worlds, and—thanks to the close connections between sensory modalities and their imaginative counterparts (see Mental imagery and imagination)—to how readers respond to those evocations.

Scientific discussions

O’Callaghan, C. (2012). Perception and multimodality. In E. Margolis, R. Samuels, and S. P. Stich (Eds), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of cognitive science (pp. 92-117). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (preprint full text)

Corrects the traditional bias towards vision at the expense of the other senses, arguing not just for considering the others in isolation, but for studying them in concert as elements of a richly multimodal processing system.

O’Callaghan, C. (2012). Perception. In K. Frankish and W. M. Ramsey (Eds), The Cambridge handbook of cognitive science (pp. 73-91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (partial preview)

The functions, mechanisms, computational challenges, and experience of perceiving.

Ward, J. (2013). Synaesthesia. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 49-75. (paywall)

A review of the current state of research on synaesthesia, including its basic characteristics—its elicited nature, automaticity, prevalence, consistency, and perceptual and spatial phenomenology—and its possible causes: both the candidate neural mechanisms and the distal influences of genetics (in developmental synaesthesia) and sensory loss (in acquired synaesthesia). The final section considers synaesthesia in the context of individual cognitive variation, and summarises evidence of its influence on colour vision, mental imagery, memory, art/creativity, and numeracy.

Fulkerson, M. (2014). Rethinking the senses and their interactions: The case for sensory pluralism. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, article 1426. (full text)

Argues that the simple assumptions that we have many senses and they often interact need to be reconsidered, since the more we learn about their interactions, the harder it becomes to make sense of what the individual senses might be, and, more generally, the harder it becomes to maintain the idea that there can be a single, authoritative, and context-free account of what it is to be a sensory modality (do pain, vestibular awareness, or thermal perception count?) or for an interaction between them to be multisensory or multimodal. A pluralist account is proposed as an alternative.

See also Zavagno et al. (2015). Mishaps, errors, and cognitive experiences: On the conceptualization of perceptual illusions. In Illusion.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Mangen, A. (2008). Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion. Journal of Research in Reading31(4), 404-419. (full text)

An account of reading as a multisensory activity involving perceptual and motor as well as broader cognitive interactions with the text, with a focus on digital reading and the role of our fingers and hands in the reading process.

Wagschal, S. (2012). The smellscape of Don Quixote: a cognitive approach. Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 32(1), 125-162. (full text)

Applies Lakoff and Johnson’s conceptual metaphor theory in an analysis of Don Quixote, including the notions of primary and secondary metaphors and the cross-domain pairings that yield inferential structures for experience. Although vision is privileged over the other senses in Don Quixote, tracing the relationships between textual references to olfaction and how olfaction works in the real world, including in sociohistorical context, helps to demonstrate how textual meanings—and thereby also the concept of authorial intention—are circumscribed by the author’s textual embodiment. Analysis of figurative uses of smell also leads to the conclusion that Lakoff and Johnson’s view of olfaction as secondary metaphor is overly restrictive, and that Cervantes was tackling the same question about nonhuman consciousness as Nagel did in his famous 1974 discussion ‘What is it like to be a bat?’.

Kuzmičová, A. (2013). Outer vs. inner reverberations: Verbal auditory imagery and meaning-making in literary narrative. Journal of literary theory7(1-2), 111-134. (full text)

Investigates verbal auditory imagery (VAI) in the silent reading of narrative prose, aiming ‘to provide a systematic theoretical account of the felt qualities and underlying cognitive mechanics of VAI, based on convergent evidence from the experimental cognitive sciences, psycholinguistic theory, and introspection’. The author argues that ‘distinctions within the domain of embodied VAI also apply to higher-order meaning-making, i. e., that discrete types of VAI are associated with discrete tendencies in spontaneous literary interpretation’.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). Cognitive realism and memory in Proust’s madeleine episode. Memory Studies6(4), 437-456. (full text)

Reviews evidence on the links between olfaction, memory, and emotion to offer a new account of the power of Proust’s madeleine episode in terms of its cognitively realistic and unrealistic elements, and their convergences and divergences with the folk psychology of memory.

Lyne, R. (2014). Shakespeare, perception, and theory of mind. Paragraph, 37(1), 79-95. (full text)

Discusses how drama (with examples from Hamlet and King Lear) gives us different kinds of access to sensory information than do novels, whether through props and scenery or more expansively through mindreading. The article explores the relevance to theatre of the bidirectional connections between social cognition and the basic sensory processing of social information, including with reference to variants on perceptual experience like Hamlet’s ghost.

Troscianko, E. T. (2014). Perception without pictures. In E. T. Troscianko, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism (pp. 39-93). New York: Routledge. (partial preview)

Outlines the main debate on the mechanisms of visual perception (whether they are propositional, pictorial, or enactive). Then proceeds to connect the scientific questions with the literary history of pictorialism and the alternatives to it, distinguishing between Realism as a historical movement and realism as a cognitive quality.

Kramnick, J. (2015). An aesthetics and ecology of presence. European Romantic Review, 26(3), 315-327. (full text)

Argues that an ‘aesthetics of presence’ along the lines of today’s enactivist notions of perception as skilled attunement to the environment emerges during the 18th century. Suggests that the skill-based account arises as a counterpoint to worries (entailed by representationalist theories) about whether perception accurately captures the precise features of things, and that literary writing played an important role in getting it off the ground.

Social cognition

The umbrella term for numerous areas of inquiry, from Theory of Mind to Interpersonal emotion, social cognition is what we engage in when we make cognitive contact with other people, real and immediate, remembered, or imagined. It is hence central to our engagement with textually created characters.

Scientific discussions

Sperber, D., Clément, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G., and Wilson, D. (2010). Epistemic vigilance. Mind and Language, 25(4), 359-393. (preprint full text)

The flipside of all the social benefits conferred by human language: the need to protect ourselves from being accidentally or deliberately misinformed. Drawing on philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology, and the social sciences, the paper considers developmental and population-level questions, vigilance towards source and content, and links to trust, comprehension, acceptance, and reasoning.

Bohl, V., and van den Bos, W. (2012). Toward an integrative account of social cognition: Marrying theory of mind and interactionism to study the interplay of Type 1 and Type 2 processes. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience6, 274. (full text)

Suggests that the opposition between the traditional ‘theory theory’ account of social cognition and the more recent ‘interaction theory’ can be defused by incorporating both into one model.

Frith, C., and Frith, U. (2012). Mechanisms of social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 287-313. (full text)

A cross-species review of social cognition in humans and other social animals, from observation, imitation, and mirroring to mentalising and meta-cognition.

De Jaegher, H., and Di Paolo, E. (2013). Enactivism is not interactionism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 345. (full text)

A commentary on Bohl and van den Bos, which focuses on the differences between interactionism and the stronger claims of enactivism, and argues that a reconciliation of ‘mindreading’ and enactive frameworks is impossible.

Marraffa, M. Theory of mind. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (full text)

An introduction to ‘theory theory’ and ‘simulation theory’ and their problems and proposed alternatives, including a section on so-called mirror neurons.

Cognitive humanities discussions

Palmer, A. (2004). Social minds in fiction and criticism. Style, 45(2), 196-240. (paywall)

Discusses the relationship between intra- and intermental activity, i.e. cognition in individual and social minds, as central to narrative fiction and therefore as deserving of centrality to narrative theory. In particular the article argues that fictional and real minds are similar though not identical, and that social minds are possible because much of our thought is visible, in a way that challenges the truism about literature giving us direct access to the minds of others in a way we can never achieve in real life. Outlines a range of relevant cognitive-literary subdisciplines—cognitive narratology, cognitive approaches to literature, and cognitive poetics—and the Theory of Mind versus simulation theory opposition. The paper also deals with characterisation, perspective, distributed cognition, and historical specificity, and provides a typology of intermental activity, plus an application of the theory to Middlemarch. The paper is followed by 24 responses and then a rejoinder from Palmer.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Part one: Attributing minds. In L. Zunshine, Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel (pp. 3-44). Columbus: Ohio State University Press. (partial preview)

Sets out the territory for the book, making the case for why literary critics should engage with scientific research on Theory of Mind, explaining the relevance of autism as an instructive example of the inability to read minds (a position Zunshine has since retracted), and discussing issues like effortlessness and success in mindreading. The book’s main thesis is staked out: we read fiction because it’s ‘grist to the mill’ of our ToM, and it may be pleasurable because it offers us a context for successfully testing our capacities, or offers us respite from the uncertainties of everyday mindreading, or both. The issue of levels of intentionality is foregrounded, before a section on the challenges and benefits of cognitive-literary interdisciplinarity.

Allington, D., and Swann, J. (2009). Researching literary reading as social practice. Language and Literature, 18, 219-230. (full text)

Contrasts the study of reading as a social practice with the traditional literary-critical preoccupation with the close interpretive analysis of texts: ‘the basic model for research being one in which a lone academic scrutinizes the linguistic structure of a text in order to pronounce upon its meanings and effects’. An analysis of occurrences of the word read and its derivatives (reader, reading, etc.) finds that ‘readers’ in literary analyses are usually ideal rather than real. The paper suggests that the current model for cognitive literary study could usefully be enhanced with more ethnographic methods, e.g. by involving reading groups and other contexts for empirical investigation that reflect the profoundly social realities of how and why we read.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science342(6156), 377-380. (full text)

A much-cited study presenting ‘five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.’

This experiment has generated a slew of other experiments and commentaries, including:

A failed 2016 replication, finding instead that lifetime exposure to fiction predicted theory of mind, here:

A response to the failed replication here:

A response to the response here:

A 2016 replication by the original authors, finding that the prevalence of markers of reflective function partially mediated the effect of literary fiction on ToM performance: 

A failed 2018 replication, supporting the lifetime rather than the single exposure finding:

A largely successful 2018 replication plus a small meta-analysis of the published replication attempts, finding nonsignificant effects for reading on theory of mind:

A 2018 meta-analysis supporting the original claim (‘But does fiction reading causally improve social cognition? Here, we meta-analyze extant published and unpublished experimental data to address this question. Multilevel random-effects meta-analysis of 53 effect sizes from 14 studies demonstrated that it does: compared to nonfiction reading and no reading, fiction reading leads to a small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance’): / 

Three preregistered replications and extensions of the 2013 study by the original authors (2019) here: 

Finally (for now), Castano and new collaborators on correlations between long-term exposure to literary and other fiction and cognitive traits like attributional complexity: 

See Castano’s website for (selective!) updates on this line of research: 

Krueger, J. (2013). The phenomenology of person perception. In M. J. Bruhn and D. R. Wehrs (Eds), Neuroscience, literature and history. New York, Routledge (pp. 153-173). New York: Routledge. (full text)

An outline of the ‘direct perception’ model of social cognition from a phenomenological perspective, concluding with some thoughts about the role of literary narratives as aspects of the socially extended mind.

Carney, J., and Dunbar, R. (2014). Inference or enaction? The impact of genre on the narrative processing of other minds. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e114172. (full text)

Addresses the question of whether narratives influence how we engage with other minds or whether they presuppose an existing theory of mind (a question which is linked to the enaction versus inference debate on the nature of social cognition) by presenting participants with narrative texts altered on the variables of genre, levels of intentionality, and linguistic complexity. The study found that the interaction of genre and intentionality level is crucial: genres deploying evolutionarily familiar scenarios (here, relationship stories) were rated as higher-quality when accompanied by more levels of intentionality; whereas increasing levels of intentionality caused stories without evolutionary familiarity (i.e. espionage) to be rated as lower in quality. The findings indicate the importance of genre in determining how we understand the mind states of fictional others.

Chesters, T. (2014). Social cognition: A literary perspective. Paragraph, 37(1), 62-78. (full text)

Sets out the basics of the debate between theory theory (Theory of Mind), simulation theory, and interaction theory, arguing that none of the three alone can do complete justice to the combination of immediacy and opacity we confront when we try to understand other people, but that literature can by contrast do exactly this. Examples from Rabelais and Hugo are given to show how literature helps us think about thinking.

Popova, Y. B. (2014). Narrativity and enaction: the social nature of literary narrative understanding. Frontiers in Psychology5, 895. (full text)

Proposes a model of narrative as enactive cognition, more specifically, ‘as a form of intersubjective process of sense-making between two agents, a teller and a reader’. The paper argues that ‘making sense of narrative literature is an interactional process of co-constructing a story-world with a narrator. Such an understanding of narrative makes a decisive break with both text-centered approaches that have dominated both structuralist and early cognitivist study of narrative, as well as pragmatic communicative ones that view narrative as a form of linguistic implicature.’ 

Caracciolo, M., & Van Duuren, T. (2015). Changed by literature? A critical review of psychological research on the effects of reading fiction. Interdisciplinary Literary Studies17(4), 517-539. (paywall)

A theoretical, critical take on research aimed at establishing whether reading fiction has psychological effects, focusing on Keith Oatley’s work on social cognition and Frank Hakemulder’s on morality, and arguing for a bottom-up qualitative approach founded on phenomenological principles.

Carney, J., & Mac Carron, P. (2017). Comic-book superheroes and prosocial agency: a large-scale quantitative analysis of the effects of cognitive factors on popular representations. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 17(3-4), 306-330. (preprint full text)

Argues that the structures of comic-book literature can be understood as the results of selection effects exerted by real-world cognitive constraints. The focus is on how comic-book characterisation offers a response to the problem of living in large groups, by evoking ‘enforcer’ characters as exhibiting kin-signalling proxies and being punitively prosocial, quasi-omniscient, and minimally counterintuitive.

van Duijn, M. (2018). Readers’ mindreading challenges, and how they can inform cognitive science. Review of General Psychology22(2), 188-198. (full text)

Offers a critical review of the dominant model in cognitive literary scholarship (mostly associated with Lisa Zunshine’s work) of social cognition as ‘recursive mindreading’ or ‘multiple-order intentionality’ (A thinks that B believes that C wants …) and suggests an alternative to applying recursively embedded mindstates in a framework for literary analysis, based on narrative spaces and blending theory. The author suggests that narrative excerpts can provide detailed ‘test cases’ for psychological models and theories, thus benefiting the cognitive sciences as well as literary scholarship.