A short, basic account of what we do and why we think it matters. Pointers to further reading are at the right.

To print this document (currently 5 pages), if there is a frame at the top of the screen, you will need to reload the page as http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/reading/overview.htm

What kind of reading?

We study the reading of literary texts, such as novels or poems. These are often very attractive to us as readers: we commit much time and energy to reading and will become absorbed by what we read. And we will often continue reading despite difficulties or uncertainty about what a text means. Literary reading can be a demanding activity, both cognitively and emotionally. So we want to know what readers are doing, especially why and how they do it.

So why do we read?

There's no single answer to this. Sometimes we read for the story: we want to know what happens (do they marry? does she find the gold?). Sometimes we read to learn something about our own situation or our own feelings. Sometimes we read in order to become immersed in another time or place, or to learn what it's like living in another culture. Sometimes we read to enjoy the sound and feel of the special language in which a literary text has been written. But there does seem to be something unique about literary reading: it provides an experience that we can get in no other way, whether from other kinds of reading or from other media, such as movies, television, or video games.

a typology of reader's aims: see Miall &
Kuiken (1995)
How do we study reading?

We ask readers to carry out readings for us in our lab. Sometimes we monitor the reading process, or we ask readers to report to us in various ways about their experiences during reading. We use some standard techniques of experimental psychology, such as the collection of reading times; but we have also devised several methods of our own, such as a technique for coding and analysing the comments that readers make. In addition, we expect shortly to be monitoring reading electrophysiologically. Thus our research is based on empirical methods, but these are informed by a continually evolving theory about what may be important in literary reading -- above all, what may make it unique.

coding technique: see "Numerically aided phenomenology" (2001)
How is literary reading unique?

We think literary reading may involve some distinctive psychological processes not found in other kinds of reading. If we contrast reading a newspaper article or a textbook with the reading of a novel, we believe that readers' feelings are not only more important in the context of a novel, but that feelings play a critical role in the constructive processes that enable a reader to sustain her reading and make it meaningful as a whole. Our theory of reading is thus based on trying to understand feeling rather than cognitive processes. Although cognitive components such as imagery or memory are clearly essential, these are controlled and shaped by the reader's feelings. Feelings are important because they engage the reader's sense of self. Reading a literary text involves exploring and perhaps questioning the self, although readers may generally be unaware of this underlying process while reading.

for a neuropsychological
argument on feeling, see
Miall (1995)
How do literary texts invoke feeling?

Obviously, narratives evoke feeling. Seeing a protagonist involved in some predicament may arouse not just interest but empathy: we feel for a character as we read, as though we were that character. We may have feelings also about the setting of a novel or a poem, especially if the setting reminds us of an environment we are familiar with. But there are also other important components of literature that arouse feeling: the language may have effects at the level of sound (e.g., alliteration, metre), or an evocative metaphor may occur. We call such features foregrounding (after Mukarovsky), because they tend to stand out; readers find them striking. And we have found that readers tend to report more feeling in relation to such textual features.

an empirical study of
foregrounding: see
Miall & Kuiken (1994)
How is feeling constructive?

Researchers who study discourse (i.e., response to connected prose) turn to cognition to explain the coherent, meaning-making processes of reading: to schemas, semantic activation or connectionist models. We believe that literary texts are distinctive precisely because they call into question the adequacy of these standard processes: that is, they alert readers to the limitations of their habitual concepts and ways of thinking. Under these circumstances the cues for feeling provided by the text become especially salient: feeling, not information processing, provides the medium for the constructive thinking required for understanding the text. Feeling has several properties that qualify it for this role: it acts as a taproot into experience and memory that is independent of the standard conceptual domains; it provides a framework for evaluating the appropriateness of interpretive ideas; and, above all, it is the matrix in which ideas about the self are embodied and negotiated. (If you think about the person you will have become in five years time, for example, that image is present primarily in terms of a feeling or an attitude.) Feeling thus directs the interpretive processes that enable us to make sense of a complex literary text, while motivating us to read it by enabling us to sense its relevance to our own experience and dispositions.



calling schemas into
question: see Miall (1989)

a critique of discourse
theory: see Miall &
Kuiken (1994)

feeling directs the reading process: see "A feeling for fiction" (forthcoming conference paper)

So what difference does such research make?

There are several answers to this question. On practical grounds there are educational and cultural reasons for such research. If we know more about how literary texts are read and why they matter (when they do) to readers, then we can be more effective in designing the classroom for literary studies. In North America literature is often taught for instrumental purposes, such as to instill grammar or to teach writing: students may get a distaste for literature for this reason. If there is a set of core values to reading, we should ensure that these become central to the classroom, whatever else we may wish to do. Other media (television, hypertext, the internet) rival literature for our attention. Before literature is displaced, we need to know what experiences we may be giving up, or whether they can be replaced by other media (our research suggests that they can't, although we are not sure about this yet). It is also worth reminding ourselves that literary experience in some form has been a central feature of all human cultures since prehistoric times: it may be an adaptation that has helped humans to evolve and survive. We need to know if its contribution to human culture is unique and what that means, if so, for maintaining our future health and our social values.





literature in the classroom:
see Miall (1996)


for some discussion of hypertext and literature, see Miall (1999) (online essay at Mosaic journal site)

If your research is so important, why hasn't it been done before?

We do claim that our research is distinctive, and that almost no one else is engaged in similar work. There has been a long tradition in literary studies that discouraged attention to actual readers, from the so-called "affective fallacy" of the New Critics up to the current postmodern distaste for any kind of psychology (especially empirical) except of the psychoanalytic kind (Lacanian being the most influential right now). In academic psychology, discourse theory (as we mentioned above) has dominated the study of texts, and this has meant that literature has either not been studied, or that the questions asked of literary reading have been poorly formulated. This is just now beginning to change, with a greater range of relevant psychological issues entering the field of empirical study of literature. We believe that our kind of empirical study represents a coming paradigm, not only for literary studies itself, but also for psychology. Only now are we putting ourselves in position to ask the right questions and to set about examining them in effective ways.

for the international research group we are associated with the most closely, see the IGEL web site (Miall maintains this site)

some argument on poststructuralist views of literature: see "What is literariness?" (1999)

What are you working on now?

Currently we are analysing data from several recent studies. These include (1) response to stylistic and narrative differences in a short story, based on think-aloud data; (2) a close examination of the effect of phonetic variations (sound patterns) on reading; and (3) a study of the incorporation of self-concept issues into the reading of a long poem, and what constructive processes such readers show after several readings. We are also at a preliminary phase of studying the impact of literary reading on people who have experienced bereavement or trauma. In the near future we expect to run a preliminary study of some of the electrophysiological correlates of literary reading, so that we can better understand the time course of the response to foregrounding in texts. And from time to time we have conference papers in preparation that provide examples of our most recent work (see the link on the right).

forthcoming conference
So what can I do?

You may want to read about our research, so please consult the publications section of this web site for details. If you are a college or university teacher, you might consider introducing empirical literary studies into the curriculum, as another form of literary theory. For practical classroom implications flowing from the research (if, for example, you are teaching introductory literature classes), Miall has authored several papers on learning methods that you might find helpful, and is also drafting a book. If you are interested in supporting the research directly as a private donor or foundation, we would be glad to discuss funding opportunities: for example, we try to support several graduate students each year, as they pursue research in this field; and we get requests each year from well-qualified postdoctoral academics who wish to join our research group for a year or more; and we would welcome support for the regular research work carried out in our lab. To make inquiries, please email David.Miall@UAlberta.ca

learning methods: papers
are listed on Miall's vita;

see also extracts from
the book

Return to Reading

Document created April 17th 1998 / revised March 27th 2001