Saturday, October 23, 2010

RA in a day 2010: "Empirical research on reading, and its implications for advising readers" with Dr. Raymond Mar

I am blogging out of chronological order, here, which annoys me immensely, but my notes about this afternoon session are finished first, because Dr. Mar's slides were online. So here you go. More forthcoming!

The second session of the day was “Empirical research on reading, and its implications for advising readers” with York University’s Dr. Raymond Mar (editor of On Fiction, an online journal on the psychology of fiction). Dr. Mar is an assistant professor of psychology who uses the methods of neuroscience, personality psychology, social psychology, and developmental psychology to research the relationship between story-processing and social-processing.

He opened by addressing the question of why use science to study art? He discussed how a story (eg. fiction) can be both real / not real, true / not true, and how it reveals aspects of human psychology and not necessarily facts. He talked about narrative fiction as a “simulation” exercise: when reading a novel, for example, you imagine what it would be like to be in the book. With neural imaging, the areas of the brain that deal with social processing light up when subjects are reading. He described the function of fiction as including “the recording, abstraction, and communication of complex social information in a manner that offers personal enactments of experience, rendering it more comprehensible than usual.” In other words, we develop socially when we read, absorbing complex social information in a format that is easier to understand.

Dr. Mar talked about a correlational relationship between reading and decoding social information. The study examining this phenomenon is called “Bookworms versus Nerds:" it found that bookworms (eg. traditionally fiction readers) were better at social decoding tasks than nerds (eg. traditional expositional non-fiction readers). This doesn’t show that the relationship is cause and effect (that reading fiction necessarily causes better social skills), but it is definitely correlational! Studies have also shown that preschoolers aged 4-5 who are read more books show more advancement in social development than their peers; significantly, they understand that other people have other mental states, something that other children at that age may be struggling with. I personally found this really interesting, because the letter I sometimes send to school principals if they are questioning why library visits are important includes the following lines: “Library programs have also been shown to “help build social capital and community participation” (Bourke 138). Visiting the library with a group, especially for a library program such as storytime, helps develop library habits for the families that attend, develops socialization skills, and provides families with rhymes and songs they can use at home.” Dr. Mar pointed out that exposure to books and movies at that age show the same results; exposure to TV does not.

Studies have also shown correlations between unhappiness and attachment to fictional characters: this discussion reminded me a lot of Dora in the novel, Literacy and longing in LA. People who are more happy daydream less; people who are happy who do daydream, daydream about themselves or their friends and family. Unhappy people daydream more, and daydream about exes and fictional characters. Dr. Mar is now studying the reasons why certain readers sometimes re-read books. His hypothesis involves the idea that these readers enjoy re-experiencing the familiar.

As Dr. Mar said in his talk, “our experience with books is simply another experience that has the power to transform us” in life; he cited numerous researchers who have explored the “forced perspective taking” that fiction readers participate in. Some researchers, such as Betsy Sparrow have used fiction for studies of inter-group relations within the context of psychology. While it is certain that books themselves cannot change someone’s mind completely if they adamantly subscribe to a certain point of view, fiction can encourage personal growth and persuade someone to explore a slightly altered perspective. Dr. Mar also touched on the use of fiction writing to overcome trauma: apparently, even trauma survivors who wrote about a different trauma than they experienced felt better from the experience.

I would highly recommend that anyone interested in the psychology of reading visit the OnFiction online journal, or consult the work of Dr. Mar and his colleagues: Dr. Jordan B. Peterson (Toronto), Dr. Keith Oatley (Toronto), Dr. Maja Djikic (Toronto), Dr. Jennifer L. Tackett (Toronto), Dr. Chris Moore (Dalhousie), Dr. Shira Gabriel (Buffalo), Dr. Jacob Hirsh (Toronto), Dr. Jennifer dela Paz (Toronto), Dr. Marina Rain (York), and Dr. Ariana Young (Buffalo).

On a side note, I was very impressed with Dr. Mar as a speaker; it was refreshing to look at reading from a different, more academic, perspective. It was also fun to see someone, like me, who looks excessively young for his weighty accomplishments!

*Sources for above excerpt from my letter to school principals:

Benner, Gregory J., et al. "The Relationship Between the Beginning Reading Skills and Social Adjustment of a General Sample of Elementary Aged Children." Education & Treatment of Children 28.3 (2005): 250. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.

Bourke, Carolyn. "Public Libraries: Partnerships, Funding And Relevance." APLIS 20.3 (2007): 135. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.

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