Readers’ insensitivity to tense revealed: No differences in mental simulation during reading of present and past tense stories
Eekhof, L. S., Eerland, A., & Willems, R. M.
Readers’ insensitivity to tense revealed: No differences in mental simulation during reading of present and past tense stories. Collabra: Psychology, 4
(1): 16. doi:10.1525/collabra.121.
While the importance of mental simulation during literary reading has long been recognized, we know little about the factors that determine when, what, and how much readers mentally simulate. Here we investigate the influence of a specific text characteristic, namely verb tense (present vs. past), on mental simulation during literary reading. Verbs usually denote the actions and events that take place in narratives and hence it is hypothesized that verb tense will influence the amount of mental simulation elicited in readers. Although the present tense is traditionally considered to be more “vivid”, this study is one of the first to experimentally assess this claim. We recorded eye-movements while subjects read stories in the past or present tense and collected data regarding self-reported levels of mental simulation, transportation and appreciation. We found no influence of tense on any of the offline measures. The eye-tracking data showed a slightly more complex pattern. Although we did not find a main effect of sensorimotor simulation content on reading times, we were able to link the degree to which subjects slowed down when reading simulation eliciting content to offline measures of attention and transportation, but this effect did not interact with the tense of the story. Unexpectedly, we found a main effect of tense on reading times per word, with past tense stories eliciting longer first fixation durations and gaze durations. However, we were unable to link this effect to any of the offline measures. In sum, this study suggests that tense does not play a substantial role in the process of mental simulation elicited by literary stories.