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Evolution and the Social Mind
Narrative resources
Towards a Psychology of Neoformalism:
Empirical Studies of Literary Response
A Presentation by David S. Miall
Department of English, University of Alberta, Canada
October 20, 1998 at 12:30pm
IHC McCune Conference Room, HSSB 6020
Although postmodern accounts of literature have denied the distinctiveness once thought to belong to literary experience, literary texts continue to be written and read in every part of the world.  Literature in our modern sense also appears to be continuous in important respects with several millenia of oral literary experience, having in common with the oral such features as play with language and narrative form.  It seems worthwhile asking whether literature fulfils some long-standing function or set of functions that has evolved in the human species, given the ubiquity of literary experience across time and cultures.  In the light of this approach we are able to generate specific hypotheses that can be tested against the evidence of reading.  In other words, an evolutionarily informed theory will enable us to promote the empirical study of literary response and to view this as the foundation of a reconceptualized theory of literature.

In our empirical research we (i.e., Miall and Kuiken) have focused primarily on the attempt to understand the role of formal features of literary texts in shaping the response of readers.  Although interpretations of texts appear to differ widely across individuals (despite Stanley Fish's claim to a conformity enforced by the so-called "interpretive community"), readers appear to be systematically influenced by such formal aspects of texts as foregrounding (striking stylistic features) and such narrative features as shifts in time or space, or changes in focal perspective.  We hypothesise that the formal structures we can identify in texts serve to evoke issues in readers that are distinctive to the concerns of the individual.  In this paper I briefly outline some of the relationships we have identified between formal features and the constructive role played by readers' feelings and their self-concept issues.  In particular I situate our research within the framework of evolutionary psychology, raising two key issues: first, whether there is anything distinctive about literary response that has made it adaptive; and second, in what long-standing psychological capacities should we look to find the roots of literary response.

David S. Miall

External Full Text

David S. Miall is Associate Professor English (B.A. Stirling, 1976; Ph.D. Wales, 1980) taught for thirteen years in England before moving to the University of Alberta in 1990.  His primary interest is in Romantic literature, especially Gothic fiction and environmental and psychological aspects of the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth.  He is the designer and co-editor (with Duncan Wu) of Romanticism: The CD-ROM (Blackwell, 1997).  He is interested in the practice and theory of computers in literary studies, and recently taught a graduate course on hypertext theory.  He studies literary reading empirically and theoretically: this research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. His articles have been published in a range of journals, including Studies in Romanticism, European Romantic Review, The Wordsworth Circle, Poetics, Journal of Literary Semantics, English Quarterly, Research in the Teaching of English, and the British Journal of Psychology.

In psychology he draws on both neuropsychology and cognitive studies to explore feeling and self-concept issues as these relate to literary reading. He has published a number of papers on psychological topics, including several reports of empirical studies.


Miall, D. S., and Kuiken, D. (1998). The Form of Reading: Empirical Studies of Literariness. Poetics 25: 327-341. Abstract.

Miall, D. S. (1997). The Body in Literature: Mark Johnson, Metaphor, and Feeling. Journal of
Literary Semantics 26: 191-210. Abstract. External full text.

Miall, D. S. (1996). Empowering the reader: Literary response and classroom learning. In Roger J. Kreuz and Mary Sue MacNealy, Eds., Empirical Approaches to Literature and Aesthetics (pp.
463-478). Ablex, 1996.

Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275-298. External full text.

Miall, D. S. (1994). Beyond cognitivism: Studying readers. Stanford Humanities Review, suppl.
4:1, 82-84.

Miall, D. S., and Kuiken, D. (1994). Foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affect: Response to literary stories. Poetics, 22, 389-407.

Miall, D. S., and Kuiken, D. (1994). Beyond text theory: Understanding literary response. Discourse Processes, 17, 337-352.

Miall, D. S. (1990). Readers' responses to narrative: Evaluating, relating, anticipating. Poetics, 19,

Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives.
Cognition and Emotion, 3, 55-78.

Miall, D. S. (1988). Affect and narrative: A model of response to stories. Poetics, 17, 259-272.

Miall, D. S. (1986). Emotion and the self: The context of remembering. British Journal of Psychology, 77, 389-397.

These and other papers are available online at David Miall and Dan Kuiken's
extensive project web site, Empirical research on literary reading.
CogWeb resources on narrative


Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind
Narrative resources