DS0804 -

Cognitive Sciences: Humanities, Literature, Culture, and Embodiment – Cog-HuLiCE

Submission summary

Throughout history, philosophers have valued literature for its cognitive, emotional, and ethical effects: literary fiction has the potential to help understanding complex situations, to provoke ethical experiences and new qualities of feelings (c.f. Wittgenstein). The arts and humanities have always been central to education for their role in creating decent citizens. Yet, as signaled by M. Nussbaum (2010), the primarily goal of todays education is to teach students to be economically productive rather than to become knowledgeable and empathetic individuals. This damages our competence to keep a decent world culture.

The Cog-HuLiCe project aims at valuing investments in social and moral skills of students, by considering that in addition to economic skills, such personal skills acquired through education benefit to the whole society as a common good. Cog-HuLiCe contributes to this goal through the investigation of how and why consuming literary fiction can affect human cognitive and affective processes. Our basic hypothesis and the theoretical frame underlying this project were developed in 2013, following the publication of “Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind” by Kidd and Castano in the journal Science. This study showed that reading literary fiction (LF) but not popular fiction (PF) instantly improves a reader’s aptitude to understand the mental state of others (i.e. “mentalizing” skills). Based on our previous research on language processing, in Cog-HuLiCe we assume that language processing in general can provoke a genuine experience of the signification of words and sentences by way of mental simulations (c.f. embodied language processing). These mental simulations, in turn, can modulate affective and pro-social behavior. Critically though, while such language-induced simulations certainly depend on multiple variable (e.g. content), we assume that the strength and quality of these simulations also hinge on simple stylistic elements of narratives. These stylistic elements distinguish LF from PF. Our project focuses 3 objectives: i) identifying differences in the use of specific stylistic elements in LF and PF. ii) demonstrating that the stylistic elements that are characteristic for LF and PF engage the brain in different ways. iii) Determining the consequences of reading fiction on affective and pro-social behavior. The latter point constitutes a first step towards determining the cultural and ethical dimensions of literary experience.

We will also track cultural differences in reading habits and literary style via large-scale online surveys in Germany and France to correlate these features with measures of personality traits and interpersonal sensitivity. Since what we read matters, cultural differences in reading habits and authors writing style could suggest that certain personality traits might develop differently in different cultures.
Cog-HuLiCe is an interdisciplinary project that is based on expertise in cognitive neuro-sciences, philosophy of language and art, linguistics, and literature.

The outcome of this project could orient the pedagogy of reading and literature toward the type of texts that help developing acculturation in the society (through the development of social abilities such as mindreading and empathy). It could also help identify the type of pedagogical approaches toward texts that will enhance the beneficial effects. The resulting guidelines from this project could be quickly implemented with the use of little budget because they will principally concern directions on the kind of existing literature that should be promoted for educational purposes.

Project coordination

Tatjana Nazir (Laboratoire sur le Langage le Cerveau et la Cognition UMR 5304)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.

Partner

L2C2 Laboratoire sur le Langage le Cerveau et la Cognition UMR 5304
IHRIM Institut d'Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités UMR5317

Help of the ANR 192,379 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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