Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reading comprehension and Theory of Mind

An article in last week's New York Times reports that literary scholars are following on the heels of economists, historians, political scientists, and art critics, and venturing into cognitive science:

Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.
Of particular interest to Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, is Theory of Mind and reading comprehension. 
Ms. Zunshine is particularly interested in what cognitive scientists call the theory of mind, which involves one person’s ability to interpret another person’s mental state and to pinpoint the source of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.
Especially challenging in this department are the novels of Jane Austen:
Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.
As for Ms. Zunshine's research:
Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.
It would be particularly interesting to look for individual differences in reading ability.  I've long suspected that those I call "left-brainers"--Simon Baron-Cohen's "systemizers"--will find books (or plays) that focus on the diverse perspectives of multiple interacting characters much more difficult to follow than books structured around a single argument (however complex), while for "right-brainers"--Simon Baron-Cohen's "empathizers," it's the other way around.

That's certainly true of me.  I can sail through (for example) Climbing Mount Improbable and How the Mind Works, while Arcadia and The Smartest Guys in the Room (most recently) have so totally overwhelmed me that I've had to put them down.


Keith Schoch said...

Great break-down of a variable too often ignored in discussions regarding reading comprehension. This helps to explain why labeling someone a "good reader" or a "bad reader" is showing an ignornace for the types of reading required. My brother-in-law the mechanic could read any technical manual with ease and lock it into a schema, while I'd be lost on the second page.

Lsquared said...

I bet its just as much about background knowledge. I'm pretty left brained, but I like Arcadia (Stoppard's I assume). But then, I not only know the mathematics (fractal geometry), I also know the social context (my husband almost got a PhD in English, and I find the posturing and infighting among the academics to be hilariously familiar).

On the other hand, the science fiction novel I tackled back in my youth where every chapter was a different incarnation of the same character in a different time stream (I think there were more than 9 of them) was pretty confusing