Avid readers of novels know that they often take the perspective of the characters they read about. But just how far does this mental role-playing go? A new paper in the Journal of Memory and Language has provided a clever demonstration of how readily we simulate the thoughts of fictional characters. Borrowing a method from research into the psychology of deliberate forgetting, the researchers at Binghamton University, USA, show that when a story character needs to focus on remembering one series of words rather than another, the reader simulates this same memory process in their own minds. The character’s mental experience becomes the reader’s mental experience.
In one experiment, Danielle Gunraj and her colleagues asked about 100 undergrads to read a vignette about Nadia and Lyle, who’d just moved from New York to North Dakota. Nadia decides to go shopping for their new place and makes a list of 15 items to buy from an emporium (the vignette then details the list of items). Half the participants then read that Nadia changed her mind and that she drew up a new list of items (again these are listed) to buy at Walmart. The other half the participants read that Nadia decided to go to both the emporium and Walmart to buy both lists of items.
Effectively, this is an implicit version of an established memory test used in research into deliberate forgetting: half the participants had been cued that Nadia needed to forget the first list and focus on remembering the second; the other participants had been cued that both lists should be remembered.
After the vignette, Gunraj’s team gave the participants a surprise test of their memory for the two lists of items. They wanted to see how much they had simulated Nadia’s thought processes, depending on the version of the story they read. The key finding was that participants who read the version in which Nadia decided not to go the emporium and to only get the items at Walmart showed superior memory for the Walmart list compared with the participants who read the other story version. Although they didn’t show forgetting of the first, emporium list, it’s as if the Walmart-only participants had deliberately focused on remembering the second, Walmart list, just as their version of Nadia needed to do. “We conclude that Nadia’s memory experience influenced readers’ mental experience,” the researchers said.
A follow-up experiment was similar but this time undergrads read one of two versions of a vignette about a Frenchman Pierre who was learning English and had to study a list of 15 English words for an exam. In one version, he realises he has studied the wrong list and must study a new list of 15 more words instead. In the other version, he suddenly realises he needs to study the new list as well as the old.
Afterwards, when the participants were given a surprise memory test for both the lists, their performance again depended on the story version they’d read. The participants who read the version in which Pierre realised he’d initially studied the wrong list showed superior memory for the second list as compared with the participants who read the other story version. Again, the participants seem to have simulated the memory processes of the fictional character.
These are intriguing effects, although reading a short vignette in a psychology lab is of course quite different from being immersed in a literary novel. However, arguably we should expect the memory simulation effects uncovered in this research to be even more powerful for engrossing novels.
Another potential caveat relates to the task instructions. Although participants were surprised by the specific nature of the memory tests, and they weren’t given any explicit instructions to remember or forget the two lists, they were told to “read the passage from Nadia’s (or Pierre’s) perspective. Try to imagine what she is thinking and doing as you read. Furthermore, try to keep track of the details that are important to Nadia (Pierre). After reading the passage you will be asked to recall details from Nadia’s experience”. It’s not clear how much readers would have spontaneously simulated the characters’ memory processes without these instructions.
“Regardless of the exact mechanisms involved, we can conclude that readers’ mental representation was influenced by their understanding of the story character’s cognitive processes,” the researchers said. Their findings add to past research that’s shown how we automatically simulate the content of the stories we read: for instance, we are better at remembering a story character’s current location compared with their past location; and we’re quicker to make bodily movements that resemble character’s actions described in written sentences, as if we simulate their described actions in our minds.