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Neurocognitive Model of Literary Reading

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This is a simplified English version of the Neurocognitive Model of Literary Reading from our book "Gehirn und Gedicht" (Brain and Poem). It hypothesizes a dual-route processing of texts with poetic features: a fast, automatic route for (implicit) processing texts which mainly consist of 'background' elements informing the reader about the 'facts' of a story; and a slower route for (explicit) processing of foregrounded text elements. The fast route is hypothesized to facilitate immersive processes (transportation, absorption) through effortless word recognition, sentence comprehension, activation of familiar situation-models, and the experiencing of non-aesthetic, narrative or fiction emotions, such as sympathy, suspense, or 'vicarious' fear and hope. The slow route is assumed to be operational in aesthetic processes supported by explicit schema adaptation, artefact emotions, and the ancient neuronal play, seek, and lust systems. The model’s hypotheses are discussed in the light of neurocognitive studies on facts vs. fiction reading, the comprehension and aesthetic appreciation of figurative language, and poetry reception.
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Texts are often reread in everyday life, but most studies of rereading have been based on expository texts, not on literary ones such as poems, though literary texts may be reread more often than others. To correct this bias, the present study is based on two of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Eye movements were recorded, as participants read a sonnet then read it again after a few minutes. After each reading, comprehension and appreciation were measured with the help of a questionnaire. In general, compared to the first reading, rereading improved the fluency of reading (shorter total reading times, shorter regression times, and lower fixation probability) and the depth of comprehension. Contrary to the other rereading studies using literary texts, no increase in appreciation was apparent. Moreover, results from a predictive modeling analysis showed that readers’ eye movements were determined by the same critical psycholinguistic features throughout the two sessions. Apparently, even in the case of poetry, the eye movement control in reading is determined mainly by surface features of the text, unaffected by repetition.
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As a part of a larger interdisciplinary project on Shakespeare sonnets’ reception (Jacobs et al., 2017; Xue et al., 2017), the present study analyzed the eye movement behavior of participants reading three of the 154 sonnets as a function of seven lexical features extracted via Quantitative Narrative Analysis (QNA). Using a machine learning- based predictive modeling approach five ‘surface’ features (word length, orthographic neighborhood density, word frequency, orthographic dissimilarity and sonority score) were detected as important predictors of total reading time and fixation probability in poetry reading. The fact that one phonological feature, i.e., sonority score, also played a role is in line with current theorizing on poetry reading. Our approach opens new ways for future eye movement research on reading poetic texts and other complex literary materials (cf. Jacobs, 2015c).
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