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Andrew Elfenbein, “Cognitive Science and the History of Reading” (2006)

Research Report by Kim Knight
(created 8/18/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Cognitive Approaches to Reading | Past Reading Practices

Original Object for Study description

Elfenbein, Andrew. “Cognitive Science and the History of Reading.” PMLA 121.2 (2006) 484 — 500.

Elfenbein uses the strategies and terms of cognitive approaches to the study of reading to analyze the varied critical response to Robert Browning’s Men and Women, published in 1855. He argues for a critical practice that joins the complexity of literary criticism with the scientific attention to microprocesses of reading. His aim is to reveal that microprocesses, although always individually inflected, are locatable in various cultures and time periods.

Elfenbein begins the article by outlining the various ways that literary criticism and cognitive psychology approach the study of reading. The “history of reading,” as a subset of literary criticism, tends to focus on reaction to complex literary texts, the way that readers are portrayed in literature and art, and the conditions of production and distribution of reading materials. In contrast, cognitive psychologists tend to study the “microprocesses” (see Technical Analysis Section) of reading in relation to the way that readers engage with much simpler texts.

There are many psychological definitions of reading. However, the one through-line of all cognitive definitions is that the reader constructs a “representation in memory of the textual information and its interpretation” (485). The representation is divided into nodal points made up of individual elements of the text, such as “events, facts, [and] settings” (485) and becomes part of a network of other representations. Elfenbein admits that the mechanized approach to reading in cognitive psychology may strike literary critics as reductive, but he insists that much of the reading process is in fact quasi-mechanical in that it is routine and automatic. The more complex texts and interpretive questions of literary criticism may lead critics to overlook the simpler routines of reading practices.

Elfenbein next engages in an explanation of several concepts central to psychological approaches to the study of reading, the terms of which are defined below in the “Technical Analysis” section. Of greatest interest to the Transliteracies project are the concepts of online vs. offline reading, the three types of memory that are utilized during the reading process and cohort activation vs. coherence-based retrieval. All of the concepts and strategies associated with cognitive approaches to reading are brought together under the umbrella “standards of coherence.” These standards “reflect the degree of comprehension that a reader attempts to attain during the reading of a text” (490). Cognitive scientists refer to standards of coherence as highly individualized. Elfenbein extends their analysis of this singularity to include the social and cultural factors that influence the formation of individual standards of coherence.

The article next approaches historical responses to Robert Browning’s Men and Women, using evidence of offline processes to explain the variety of critical reactions to the text.

Margaret Oliphant, writing for Blackwood’s, refers to poetic “transportation,” which Elfenbein locates as her standard of coherence. That Oliphant laments the lack of emotional sympathies inspired by the poem indicates to Elfenbein that she would prefer to engage with poetry mainly in online processes. She would, if possible, rely heavily upon the relatively automatic process of cohort activation. For Oliphant, cohort activation is impeded by the difficult syntax of Browning’s poetry. She is forced to shift her standard of coherence to include the largely offline process of coherence-based retrieval.

Thomas McNicoll, whose review appeared in The London Quarterly Review, seems to agree with Oliphant’s standard of “transporation.” However, upon closer examination of the evidence, Elfenbein finds something he believes the psychologists have overlooked — intellectual transport. “The mapping of thought, not emotion, guides his standard of coherence for Browning” (493). McNicoll does not possess adequate background information that allows him to fully engage in understanding through online processes. He instead understands the poetry through coherence-based retrieval, uncovering connections between different portions of the text to achieve meaning. Thus, although McNicoll seeks a different type of transport than Oliphant, his experience of Browning is similarly dissatisfying because it does not allow for meaning making through online processes.

George Brimley, the reviewer for Foster’s, did not look for “transport” in his standard of coherence, although he also finds Browning’s poetry wanting. Seeking “Coledridgean organic unity” (493), Brimley’s microprocesses would include keeping large portions of the text active at any given time in order to make larger connections within an organic whole. This would require a large capacity for working memory and the effort to engage in substantial re-reading. The fragmentary nature of Men and Women impedes Brimley’s standard of coherence, leading to another negative review.

Finally, Elfenbein examines the evidence surrounding William Morris’ review of Men and Women. Elfenbein speculates that Morris’ positive review of the work is owed to his vastly different standard of coherence. Morris employs two strategies to arrive at a “successful” reading of the work. The first is “suppression.” Morris overlooks large portions of the text, such as sustained description. He engages instead with the actions of the protagonists, thus interpreting the poems as a series of character sketches. Morris’ second strategy places the poems side-by-side for comparative purposes, rather than looking for organic unity. He groups and re-arranges poems according to commonalities and differences. “Through this strategy of seeing the individual item as part of a larger network, Morris develops a new source of background information for coherence-based retrieval” (495). Additionally, Morris uses offline processes to arrive at an emotional response to the text that may not have been possible during online processes. Thus, Morris’ positive response to the Browning text can be attributed to the fact that he employs a different standard of coherence than Oliphant, McNicoll, and Brimley.

Elfenbein uses these four reviews to establish the ways in which the critic’s aesthetic foundation affects his or her microprocesses, and subsequently, the success of his or her reading. He then engages in a more sustained analysis of the historical nature of these particular strategies, disputing the notion that one or another is more intellectually rigorous or more correct than any other. They are merely historically and culturally situated in a way that differs from our own cultural moment.

Elfenbein argues for a higher degree of metacognitive awareness among literary critics and students, suggesting that the vocabulary of cognitive approaches to reading offers a valuable set of descriptors in relation to the rich, complex processes of literary criticism.

Research Context:
Elfenbein states it best when he argues “in addition to familiar humanist justifications of the discipline, cognitive work in reading underscores the contributions that literary-critical study can make to reader’s abilities to monitor, evaluate, and improve their comprehension processes” (499). As he demonstrates in this article, the work of cognitive approaches to reading can be utilized to understand the actions of historical readers. In addition, this framework can be used to evaluate existing reading interfaces and whether they aid in successful readings.

Technical Analysis:

Microprocesses of reading — “common strategies involved in understanding texts” (484).

Successful reading — “the result is a coherent and usable mental representation of the text” (485). “Success” and “coherent” are considered contextual and singular, dependent upon the particular reader and her goals in reading. A successful reading does not imply validity of interpretation; psychologists are more interested in the processes of the interpretive act than how well the reader uncovers the literary fact (author’s intent).

Textual representation — the mental picture that the reader forms and which remains in the reader’s memory. The textual representation is made up of nodes, elements of the text that are grouped together and connected to other nodes. Examples of nodes may include characters or settings. Each textual representation then becomes part of a larger network of representations, from which the reader can recall information and make connections. The textual representation is constructed both during online and offline processes.

Online processes — occur while reading and lead to a coherent representation of the text. These include “inferring, elaborating, summarizing, paraphrasing, and integrating information” (486).

Offline processes — modify the textual representation formed during online processes. The impact of time on memory and the addition of new background information are examples of offline processes. Generally, the way in which online and offline processes combine and work together varies from reader to reader.

Landscape model — one of the better known and more flexible computer programs that act as “a metaphor for how the brain processes textual information.” The Landscape model, as with all computer models of microprocesses, is deliberately reductive. Elfenbein describes this as ”architecture,” rather than “theory.” The landscape model is flexible enough that it accommodates various theories about reading. The sort of basic assumption of the landscape model is that the reader’s network of representations “consists of concepts and the connections among them, that different concepts and connections are more or less strongly activated during the reading process, and that degrees of activation constantly fluctuate” (487).

Concepts —activated during the reading process and vary according to the organization of the text and the reader’s skills and goals. Concepts are generally believed to stem from four sources, two of which depend upon mechanisms of activation (see below). Concepts that are highly active tend to be those that are repeated, associated with textual causality, or connected to the reader’s emotional state or reading goals. Psychologists rely on a fairly reductive notion of concept — content words such as nouns, action verbs, etc. and the connections (causal, referential, etc.) between them. Literary criticism has the opportunity to employ concepts in relation to more complex literary works. This would require careful expansion of the definition of both concepts and connections.

Three types of memory in the landscape model:

  • Short-term memory — holds “the most recent clauses comprehended” (487).
  • Working memory — “provides resources for processing information” (487). The various processes of working memory require different levels of effort. These processes range from contextualizing passages within a larger work, the recall of relevant background information, etc. Repetition increases the efficiency of working memory; familiar concepts are processed more quickly than those that are new or unfamiliar. The capacity of working memory varies between readers and is never infinite. Researchers test working memory through a task that requires readers to scan texts and recall information. This is not a test of interpretation, but a task designed to test the reader’s ability to focus and maintain information. The findings of such tests indicate that readers can only pay attention to a relatively small subset of all of the elements of any text at a given time. Elfenbein suggests that this means that complex acts of literary interpretation occur mostly during offline processes.
  • Long-term memory — “can be a permanent store for information” (487).

Four Sources for Activating Concepts:

  • Cycle – a reading unit, line or clause, of the text being read.

  • Previous cycles – when the reader approaches each new cycle, elements from the previous one(s) are still present in working memory.

  • Episodic memory representation – a network of connections that influences “how a reader will process new information” (488).

  • Background knowledge -“concepts from the reader’s background knowledge connect with concepts from the text to become part of the developing memory representation” (488). The presence of background knowledge in the construction of the reader’s representation of the text means that any text is automatically “other to itself” (488) with each reader producing a singular representation.

Mechanisms for accessing Episodic Memory Representation or Background Knowledge.

  • Cohort activation — assumes that no concept is freestanding. Any familiar concept calls up a Deleuzian rhizome of links between multiple concepts. Depending upon conditions described under “concepts” above, a concept may enter the memory representation of the text and remain active or it may fade quickly due to the limitations of working memory. This is a fairly automated online process.
  • Coherence-based retrieval — occurs when a reader cannot create a mental representation of the text due to a gap in coherence. The gap is not inherent to the text itself, but in the reader’s ability to understand the text; thus these gaps vary from reader to reader. Coherence-based retrieval is the “strategic and deliberate” effort to retrieve information when confronted with such a gap. Additional information may be gained by revisiting other parts of the text, calling upon background knowledge, or consulting additional sources. This is largely an offline process.

Standards of coherence — vary according to individual choices and abilities; Standards of coherence are also culturally inflected, “a border between psychology and sociology” (490). “These standards reflect the degree of comprehension that a reader attempts to attain during the reading of at ext and arise from such factors as the reader’s purpose, background knowledge, skill level, alertness, sense of the text’s difficulty, and relation to internal or external distractions” (490).

Metacognitive awareness — the degree to which readers are aware of the microprocesses of reading and are able to change strategies and standards of coherence depending upon this awareness.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

It is tempting to be skeptical about Elfenbein’s use of cognitive approaches to reading to “justify” humanities work. However, as he states, this is not necessarily a new approach to literary study. Rather, the vocabulary of cognitive psychology “mak[es] visible aspects of literary criticism that exist now largely as widespread tacit knowledge” (499).

An understanding of the microprocesses of reading and of the singularity of standards of coherence will no doubt assist the Transliteracies team in developing a tool to meet the project’s goal of improving online reading. Elfenbein’s article, and any subsequent research reports completed in this area, present the opportunity to develop a tool that maximizes both online and offline reading processes, particularly in the areas of working memory and coherence-based retrieval. This knowledge can be used to develop a tool targeted at a large user population, by including functions to support different standards of coherence. Or, the knowledge may be used to narrow the target audience by focusing on a particular subset of standards among a specific population.

Resources for Further Study:

Points for Expansion: The following are “foundational” works referenced in “Cognitive Science and the History of Reading”:

  • Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1988. 155-64.
  • Blanchot, Maurice. “Reading.” The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982. 191-97.
  • Bortulussi, Marisa and Peter Dixon. Psychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary Response. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.
  • Crane, Mary and Alan Richardson. “Literary Studies and Cognitive Science: Toward a New Interdisciplinarity.” Mosaic. 32 (1999).
  • Harker, W. John. “Toward a Defensible Psychology of Literary Interpretation.” Empirical Approaches to Literature and Aesthetics. Eds. Roger J. Kreuz and Mary Sue MacNealy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1996. 645 — 58.
  • Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
  • Ricoeur, Paul.
  • Zwaan, Rolf A. Aspects of Literary Comprehension: A Cognitive Approach. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1993.

  tl, 08.18.06

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