My interdisciplinary research unites modern scholarship in the humanities with new developments in the cognitive sciences. My research brings the humanities to the forefront in a STEM-driven society by drawing from current theories and practices in the cognitive sciences that can be directly applied to modern society at large. In particular, my research involves readership in the 21st century. How and why do people read in a digital environment? How does the evolved human mind construct, perceive, and participate in fiction, and to what benefit? In addition to empirical research, I use as a case study the microrrelato in my dissertation – a very brief work of narrative fiction that has gained momentum in the 20th and 21st centuries in Spain and Latin America more so than any other geography or language, not only in publication and consumption, but in academic scholarship as well.
The microrrelato has many names in Spanish, but they all refer to the same concept. They vary in length, but their hallmark is their brevity: occasionally they are less than ten words long, though this is often considered to be roughly the limit of these “micro-stories.” A great deal of the theory surrounding these microrrelatos reflects a widely-accepted essential nature of brevity, fictionality, and narrativity. If these stories are so short, how can they be considered stories? What is it about them that makes them fictional? Can fictional events truly be narrated in ten words and still have literary merit or cognitive consequences? What could explain this boom in production and research? I address these questions in my dissertation. Scholarship on the microrrelatooften focuses on the aesthetics, lexicality, or intertextuality. My research analyzes the context of the microrrelato– the psychological, physical, social, temporal context – and concludes that this context is drastically under-recognized or ignored altogether in scholarship despite being fundamental to the act of reading a microrrelato and part of its very definition.
Readership in the 21st century is then discussed and deconstructed by addressing theories of attention spans and myths of modern readers by combining qualitative and quantitative research. This is all to contextualize the microrrelato in current readers’ line of vision: how people have traditionally told stories, how people have done so in recent decades, and how people do so today. Lastly, I examine the concept of “context” from a cognitive sciences perspective. This includes quantitative results from an IRB-approved experiment I carried out among students of Spanish: the analysis compared interpretations of microrrelatos after having completed a variety of reading tasks designed to consciously or subconsciously suggest a specific theme to the participant. Early results suggest that thematic suggestion is, in fact, influential on reading microrrelatos, indicating that the psychological context of the work is an important factor in its reception.
Research for this dissertation has thus far produced an array of research apt for articles and conference presentations. It has also laid some of the groundwork for further research I plan to continue. I have published an article titled “A Cognitive Approach to Sinister, Very Short Fiction in Casa de muñecas” in Spanish and Portuguese Review. I currently have an article under revision titled “What is it like to be a snake? Lector, empatía y acercamiento psicológico en ‘Anaconda’.” This article discusses fiction as a simulation of social minds which allows for a deconstruction of the human-nature hierarchy, thus allowing the readers to empathize with serpents and distance themselves from the other humans in the story. This creates a simulation of social minds allowing for an ecocritical understanding of humanity’s role in nature. Another article under revision discusses Paco Roca’s graphic novel Arrugas, which provides a visual medium for embodied, conceptual metaphors in color and in placement within the panels – a discussion that is currently often limited to the linguistic context, though here I show that these conceptual metaphors are perceived in a variety of modalities. I have also presented at several conferences over the last few years on similar topics, including psychological distance in Cárcel de amor at the Midwestern MLA; another on disembodied cognition in Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla; another on autopoietic madness and enactive cognition in Don Quijote at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts this past November in Toronto, Canada. I have organized and moderated a panel at the MLA this past January 2019 in Chicago titled “Embodied Minds in the Cognitive and Digital Humanities” in which my panelists presented their interdisciplinary research at the intersection of the cognitive and the digital, speaking to my theoretical and applied research at the intersection of literature and science.
This dissertation is part of a broader scope of interdisciplinary research that I will continue investigating in preparation for my next book-length project. For example, I am currently collecting data from my students in the “Introduction to Hispanic Literature” course. Research suggests strong correlations between being well-read in literary fiction and holding more pro-social attitudes, such as egalitarian world views, immigration rights, increased empathetic aptitudes, and more. It is theorized that this is due to fiction being a mental “training ground” for empathy, which allows a reader to interact with different minds and simulate a social environment that encourages perspective-taking and exploring different emotions and perspectives. However, there is little research in the process of becoming a well-read member of society – much less becoming well read in another language. The data I am collecting adds to that research. It compares the awareness of mental states in fictional characters before and after studying literature for sixteen weeks. My hypothesis is that students in my class will demonstrate more awareness of these mental states after finishing the class, which has also been correlated with greater levels of empathy in the real world, indicating that learning to read literature in a foreign language is correlated with an increase in empathy.
This is in line with this book-length project that analyzes cognition, readership, and humanity: I dialogue with current theorists of fiction, such as Dorrit Cohn’s The Distinction of Fiction, to move away from the text and focus more broadly on the “reader” as both experiencer and co-creator of fiction – the reader of books, viewer of film or theater, and listener of podcasts, among others. This project combats the perceived “lack of utility” that literary fiction offers in contemporary society and will be the collective result of collaborative, empirical, theoretical and qualitative research written for the masses but without sacrificing academic rigor and merit. Participants in these experiments could therefore be undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, members of the University community and more.
Other research that I am preparing is in this same vein and could eventually be another long-term project: the context of fiction, including its paratextual information. As of now, it is a part of my dissertation; however, it is a concept that has the potential for a long-term project. There are a number of experiments I could perform in collaboration: for example, thematic suggestion in movie trailers. How does one perceive a film for the first time after watching a trailer that does not coincide in theme with the film (i.e. a horror film “disguised” as a romantic comedy in the trailer)? To what degree, precisely, does the summary on the back of a book influence its reading?
These types of questions are pressing in the current state of US society, education, and politics because the answers could very well apply to such questions as: what makes news “fake”? What role does Orwellian “doublespeak” and “doublethink” play in the creation of “alternative facts,” and why does it matter? We know that the humanities are undervalued in a STEM-focused world; this interdisciplinary research demonstrates the fundamental need for humans to study humanity and brings it into the public eye, breaking out of the “ivory tower” with the intent being to encourage people to consider alternative perspectives. In addition to my qualitative and theoretical research, I would invite interested faculty as well as promising students to help me design and carry out experiments in this unique field while helping collaborate on their projects.
In addition to the written word, it is vital to take advantage of digital means to bring this type of research to the public space. I have created and continue to host, edit, and produce a podcast titled “Fiction on the Mind.” The purpose is to discuss these cognitive science approaches to fiction for a general, public listener. Thus far I have collaborated with scholars in the Center for Neurohumanities at Purdue University. I am willing and able to help create additional digital resources for the public as it relates to storytelling, ranging from websites to mobile apps, in addition to the podcast. It goes without saying that it is imperative that our collective research extends beyond the academic circles and reaches the public directly.
To summarize, my research is of mixed methodology in a way that is beneficial to contemporary and innovative humanities scholarship in the public view as well as within academia. Publications and conferences are demonstrably possible in a variety of outlets, from the MLA to the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, thus bringing research in the humanities to the international spotlight in a STEM-focused world.