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How narrative perspective influences reading

How does the style in which a novel is written influence you reading experience? In a recently published study, we looked at the influence of the perspective from which a story is narrated on experiential effects of literary reading. We found evidence that readers report to get more immersed into stories told from first person perspective and that they like these stories better. During reading stories in third person perspective we found higher activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
How narrative perspective influences reading

Narrative perspective is regarded as an important tool in storytelling. With this tool, story writers can guide the point of view from which readers perceive events and generate a mental model of the story. For example, writers can make the reader 'see' through the eyes of one of the characters or take a spectator's view. Despite the fact that narrative perspective is generally considered a fundamental element in narrative comprehension, its effect on how we get immersed into reading, identify with fictional characters, and how much we like the story remains unclear.

In this study, we set out to test in how far immersion into stories and appreciation of them is affected by narrative perspective. We had participants read 8 short stories from Dutch fiction writers like Thomas Rozenboom, Marga Minco, Tommy Wieringa, and Bernlef. In half of the original stories, the main character was referred to with a first person pronoun (Ik) and in the other half with a third person pronoun (hij, or zij). For each story, we made a second version in which we swapped these pronouns and randomized between participants who read which story in which version.

While participants were reading the stories, we measure their sympathetic nervous system activation (electrodermal activity) with two electrodes attached to their fingers. After reading each story, participants rated how much they liked it and filled in a questionnaire measuring their engagement with the story. This so called immersion questionnaire measures different dimensions of reading engagement including understanding of the story and the motives of the characters, how much readers loose themselves during reading (attention), how much they engage emotionally with the protagonist, in how far they felt transported into the narrative world, and whether they ‘see’ images of characters or situations in the stories during reading.

We found that being immersed into a story and liking it is closely connected and that first person stories are generally liked better. These stories make readers feel more transported into the story world and more likely to experience mental imagery during reading. Interestingly, our measure of nervous system activity showed an opposite pattern: readers were more aroused when reading stories in third person perspective. This study shows that small stylistic differences in how a story is narrated can affect how we experience literature.


For more information:

Hartung, F., Burke, M., Hagoort, P., & Willems, R. M. (2016). Taking perspective: Personal pronouns affect experiential aspects of literary reading. PloS one, 11(5), e0154732. (PDF)
Neurobiology of Language

What is the neurobiological infrastructure for the uniquely human capacity for language? The focus of the Neurobiology of Language Department is on the study of language production, language comprehension, and language acquisition from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Read more...

Director: Peter Hagoort

Secretary: Carolin Lorenz


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