Rewriting a Reader’s Mind

Here’s a book I’d buy and probably not read: Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley studies what goes on in our brains when we read (or write) literature. It sounds fascinating, so if you do read it please post extensively of the experience. I came across it in an essay by Nicholas Carr in Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, which I bought to read  Zadie Smith’s and Jeanette Winterson’s essays. Carr reports on one study that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative’, and relates the following experiment.

A recent experiment conducted by Oatley and three colleagues suggests that the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle  but real ways, people’s personalities. The researchers recruited 166 university students and gave then a standard personality test that measures traits as extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One group of participants read the Chekhov short story ‘The Lady with the Toy Dog,’ while a control group read a synopsis of the story’s events, stripped of its literary qualities. Both groups then took the personality test again. The results revealed that the people ‘who read the short story experienced significantly greater change in personality than the control group’. and the effect appeared to be tied to the strong emotional response that the story provoked. What was particularly interesting, Oatley says, is that the readers ‘all changed in somewhat different ways. A book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites each reader’s mind in a uniques way, too.

Nicholas Carr – The Dreams of Readers

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