Psycho Babble

Calling All Psychonarratologists

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By Jessica Love


The study of linguistics has become a more quantitative enterprise in the last decade or two. From corpus linguistics, where researches analyze large datasets of naturally produced language in search of reliable trends, to laboratory phonology, where tightly controlled experiments test specific hypotheses about human speech, empiricism is the order of the day.

Of course, quantitative methods may not be necessary, or even desirable, for those linguists who are, say, compiling a dictionary of a dying language or developing a formal (that is, logical or symbolic) theory about how “meaning” works. This is how linguistics departments have come to straddle, with the delicacy and inestimable awkwardness this verb implies, both the humanities and the social sciences.

I mention this because a similar transition has been taking place in English and other humanities departments, where hybrid disciplines are becoming increasingly common. Scholars working in the “digital humanities,” for instance, are bringing to bear computational tools and analytic techniques in fields such as history, philosophy, music, and literature. In terms of topicality, “digital humanities” is to The Chronicles of Higher Education what “Rick Santorum” is to CNN: a search of the term pulls up 818 pages on The Chronicle’s website (alas, “psycholinguistics” pulls up all of 18).

Just last year, The New York Times deemed psychonarratology, a mishmash of cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and literature, the “most exciting area of new research” coming out of English departments. Not being a member of an English department, I can’t comment on the merits of this superlative. I will, however, put forth unequivocally that it is the “most exciting area of new research” to me.

A number of psychologists are investigating how we read—how we respond to narrative techniques, or track characters and their motivations from one scene to the next. But psychologists, for better or for worse, are not in the business of understanding art. Their aim is to learn about human behavior (and the mental processes that drive it). Most psychologists are interested in readers’ typical responses to narrative. Accordingly, as I wrote in an earlier column, the narratives used as stimuli in psycholinguistic experiments are intentionally representative (i.e., dull), lest readers’ responses be unduly influenced by an outlier item.

But God help us all if what drove Anna Karenina to end her life or Dorothea Brooke to valiantly mis-marry could be considered representative. Who studies the very real effects these characters’ specific motivations have on readers (and for that matter, which readers?) Right now, for the most part, nobody.

Last week, I mused about a topic—the poetic line—that begs empirical analysis. Is the poetic line read differently from a line of prose, and, if so, how might a technique like enjambment affect readers? These are questions that psychologists are well-enough-equipped to answer. (Indeed, a group of four Dutch researchers is investigating this subject right now.) But what of Milton’s use of enjambment in Book IV of Paradise Lost (“Of what he was, what is, and what must be / Worse”)? Literary scholars have pondered this question for ages, but it also seems perfectly suited for the psychonarratologist.

I’ll offer a needling caveat next week—but I am optimistic about this grand new disciplinary fusion. There is much psychonarratology to be done, so by all means, psychonarratologists, get to work.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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