Whether a book, a film, a television show, or a story someone has told us, we’ve all experienced that sensation of getting lost in a story. It’s a feeling that the rest of the world has faded away, become muted; that we’ve travelled to another place and become somehow closer to the story world than our own. Often we don’t become aware that we’ve had this experience until it’s over, when something – an alarm, a breeze, the dog – jolts us back to reality, and we suddenly realise that we’re going to be late for work or that we’re letting the dinner burn. Sometimes we try to manage any necessary real world tasks without fully leaving the story world because we feel that we can’t physically put the book down just yet – this is when you fall over the aforementioned dog because you were trying to read with one hand and get dressed with the other! Most of us will also have had one of those very frustrating reading experiences where we can feel ourselves just getting into the story but some distraction keeps preventing us from doing so. Perhaps a group was talking loudly near you on the train or maybe you were aware that you were really getting into the book and kept worrying that you might miss your stop, either way you probably put the book away.
There is a psychological basis for this phenomenon of feeling getting lost in a story, and it has a couple of different names: in cognitive linguistics it’s typically called ‘transportation’ (in video gaming research this is called ‘flow’ but that’s a slightly different body of research that we won’t deal with in this post). One psychologist who has done fascinating work in this field is Richard Gerrig (1993). He explains that readers often describe their reading experiences using this idea of transportation as a metaphor in which the reader is a traveller, and the text is the other world that they visit on their trip.
Gerrig explains that a natural product of our transportation to a story world is a ‘loss of access’ to parts of the real world, and that this can have two main consequences: neglect of our physical surroundings and a lack of reference to other information in our memory. A concept from attentional psychology introduced in our last post – figure and ground – helps us to account for this. In the simplest terms, we can’t focus on everything at once. Instead as we move about in our daily lives, and when we read, we are always consciously and subconsciously selecting what we pay attention to (the figure) and neglecting everything else (the ground). As a result of this, there is an attentional cost involved in ‘getting lost’ in a story. Attention is a zero sum game: we can’t pay attention to something without shifting our attention away from something else.
Gerrig argued that when readers have highly transporting reading experiences, they are more likely to be in some way ‘changed’ by that experience, as well as more likely to align their beliefs to story world beliefs. Green and Brock (2000) later empirically tested this claim and found it to be accurate: readers are more likely to accept, rather than critically consider, that conditions in story worlds hold true in the real world if they were highly transported when they were reading. They also found that,
‘greater transportation was systematically associated with a more positive evaluation of the main characters of a narrative […] Transported individuals may have a greater affinity for story characters and thus may be more likely to be swayed by the feelings or belief expressed by those characters’
(Green and Brock 2000: 719).
In essence, the research suggests that transportation involves higher levels of emotional engagement in texts, closer connections with the characters, and a greater potential for the story to have a powerful impact on the reader, who can be changed by their journey into the narrative world. This was borne out in another recent study, which found that reading Harry Potter can result in readers having more positive and accepting attitudes towards minority groups such as refugees and reject racial discrimination of the kind enacted by Voldemort and the Death Eaters (Vezzali et al. 2015, a good and accessible overview of this study can be found here).
However, the research also reveals a double-edged sword when we think pedagogically about the benefits and dangers of ‘getting lost in a story’. In Green and Brock’s study, for instance, participants were asked to read a story in which a young woman is murdered by a psychiatric patient. They found that readers who were highly transported by this story thought levels of violent crime were higher than those who were not transported and were more likely to say that psychiatric patients should not be allowed out unsupervised. In other words, the story made them think the world, and specifically those hospitalised as a result of mental illness, were more dangerous.
With regard to studying fiction, this research suggests a number of things which English teachers might find useful to consider, both when teaching class readers, but also when thinking about whether or not, and how, to instigate discussions with students about books they read for pleasure.
- Anything within the classroom which competes with the class reader for a student’s attention leaves them less equipped to become immersed in the story because it carries an attentional cost. For example, asking students to take turns reading the text out loud. Here, part of their attention will be held at the ‘real world’ rather than the ‘narrative world’ level as they monitor when it will be their turn. This is particularly salient when considering major plot points or emotionally engaging scenes, which this research suggests may be best dealt with by facilitating transportation. Ways to achieve this could include dealing with these portions of a narrative in one go without fragmentation, saving questions or tasks you want the students to undertake until after reading is complete, and by reading these parts of the text to the class.
- If students have been highly immersed in the story they are likely to be actively disoriented at the point reading concludes and they re-access the world of the classroom.
- If students are successfully transported by a story, they are likely not to have thought critically about it because their attention was fully focused on experiencing the narrative. They are therefore likely to need time after reading to reflect on what they’ve read in order to think critically about it. This suggests that open discussion after reading might better prepare students to analyse the text rather than asking for critical interpretations immediately.
- Engaging students in discussions about texts they find highly transporting is really important if those texts might result in misguided or problematic beliefs. At the same time, these reading experiences are likely to be the ones students have found most powerful, enjoyable and engaging, so dismissing these texts or simply telling students those views are wrong are both likely to be ineffective strategies: in effect you’re competing with their favourite characters! In other words, far from dismissing texts like Twilight, we should be encouraging young people to think critically about and question them.
- People who are highly transported by a text often describe an inability to put the book down and a compulsion to keep reading – this is worth considering wherever it is practically possible to allow students to take copies of their class readers away from the classroom with them.
Special thanks to Jessica Mason’s fantastic Cognitive Poetics students at the University of Sheffield, whose thoughtful and insightful discussions helped to shape this post.
Gerrig, R.J. (1993) Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Green, M. & Brock, (2000) ‘The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79(5): 701-21.
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D. and Trifiletti, E. (2015) ‘The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice’, Journal of Applied Psychology 45(2): 105–21.