Reading Research

Expressive Reading and Self-Perceptual Depth

The Self-implicating Aesthetic Outcomes of Expressive Reading

Some time ago, Coleridge suggested that both dreaming and literary reading prompt people to perceive things in freshly vital and compelling ways. Correspondingly, we have found that people who report dream-induced self-perceptual depth also read literary texts in ways that deepen self-understanding (Kuiken & Miall, 1994). So, with a colleague from the Department of English, David Miall, we have been examining the self-transformative potential of literary reading. We have also begun articulation of a theory of expressive reading that integrates empirical studies of literary reading with phenomenological understandings that derive especially from Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gendlin (Kuiken, 2008; Kuiken & Douglas, 2016).

Dufrenne (1973) echoed Coleridge’s conviction that feeling is the vehicle of self-implication through which literary reading can “exile and uproot us from those habits which are the embodiment of the superficial self” (p. 408). In our research, we have examined this possibility at two levels. First, we have provided evidence that stylistic variations in literary texts (called foregrounding) prompt the ‘defamiliarization’ of familiar referents (Miall & Kuiken, 1994; Miall & Kuiken, 1999). More specifically, foregrounding evokes aesthetic feelings that initially unsettle conventional conceptions and then help to guide the reconceptualization of textual referents (Miall & Kuiken, 1995a). Second, we have found that, within a form of reading we call expressive enactment (Sikora, Kuiken, & Miall, 2011; Kuiken, Miall, & Sikora, 2004), self-perceptual change occurs through a succession of evocative reading moments. These moments involve (1) aesthetic feelings, as well as narrative feelings in response to situations and events in the text; (2) blurred boundaries between the self and the narrator or story characters, suggestive of metaphors of personal identification (Cohen, 1999); and (3) active and iterative modification of an emergent affective theme. For some readers, these iterative modifications give literary reading a fugal form, manifest as thematic developments that move toward saturation, richness, and depth. This particular form of self-modifying feeling (Miall & Kuiken, 2002) is identifiable as a distinctively poignant form of aesthetic response: sublime feeling (Kuiken, Campbell, & Sopčák, 2012). In recent studies, we distinguish between the mytho-poetic poignancy of sublime enthrallment and the tragi-poetic poignancy of sublime disquietude (Kuiken, Campbell, & Sopčák, 2012; Kuiken, 2015).

We are studying individual differences in the occurrence of self-perceptual shifts during literary reading. First, we have developed and validated an instrument, called the Literary Response Questionnaire (LRQ), which assesses individual differences in readers’ orientation toward literary texts (Miall & Kuiken, 1995b). The LRQ includes a scale that reflects the extent to which self-perceptual shifts occur during literary reading; it has helped to identify those for whom reading facilitates shifts in self-perception under experimental conditions that create what is traditionally called the ‘aesthetic attitude’ (Kuiken, Miall, Busink, & Cey, in preparation). Second, we have found that absorption (Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974) is a personality trait that predicts the occurrence of self-perceptual shifts during reading. Our evidence suggests that the relation between absorption and self-perceptual shifts is mediated by the interactive combination of affective theme variations and metaphors of personal identification (Kuiken, Phillips, Gregus, Miall, Verbitsky, & Tonkonogy, 2004), rather than mere emotional involvement. Third, in parallel with our studies of dreams, we have found that bereaved individuals who read poetry concerning loss are likely to experience shifts in self-perception as a result (Kuiken, Sikora, & Miall, 2010; Kuiken & Sharma, 2013).

We are now extending that work by examining how expression-centered explication facilitates the distinctively aesthetic outcomes of literary reading. In a series of publications (Kuiken, Miall, & Sikora, 2004; Sikora, Kuiken, & Miall, 2010; Sikora, Kuiken, & Miall, 2011), we identified a form of literary reading (expressive enactment) that involves reader identification with characters, repeated variation of affective themes, and progressive transformation of feelings and self-perception. Most recently (Kuiken & Douglas, 2017), we have provided the psychometric means for differentiating expressive enactment from inference-centered integrative comprehension. We have also provided evidence that expressive enactment mediates the aesthetic aftereffects of deeply absorbed reading and that integrative comprehension mediates the explanatory aftereffects of deeply engaged reading (Kuiken & Douglas, 2017. We are now attempting to replicate evidence (Kuiken & Douglas, 2017, 2018) that the aftereffects of expressive enactment include the enriched metaphor comprehension that mediates self-perceptual depth, inexpressible realizations, and sublime feeling.