Imagery, affect, and the embodied mind: implications for reading and responding to literature



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Texas A&M University


Since Plato first banished poets from his Republic, the relationship between the aesthetic and moral value of literature has been subject to philosophical, critical, and pedagogical debate. In this philosophical investigation, I sought to explain how the evocation of the senses during literary transactions shapes the phenomenal experience of the reader. Recent developments in neuroscience (Damasio, 1999, 2003; Edelman, 1992) provide strong evidence in support of embodied theories of cognition in which imagery and affect play a central role. The purposes of this philosophical investigation were to describe the structure and function of imagery and affect in the cognitive act of reading, to provide a detailed account of how we exercise our capacity for imaginative thought in order to achieve literal, inferential, and critical comprehension, and to explore the implications of an embodied mind for reading and responding to literary texts. The investigation yielded a critical review of contemporary theories of reading (Kintsch, 1998; Rumelhart, 1977; Sadoski & Paivio, 2001) to examine their ability to explain the phenomena associated with the literary experience. Dual coding theory (Sadoski & Paivio, 2001) which maintains an empirical and embodied view of the mind was shown to have considerable theoretical advantages over rationalist computational theories of cognition in explaining phenomena associated with reading and responding to literary texts. A neurobiological account of consciousness provides support for the idea that literature can engage readers imaginatively in the process moral deliberation (Dewey, 1932/1985). In addition, I concluded that considerable evidence exists to suggest that somatic and visceral changes experienced as a result of undergoing the text can potentially incite individual and social change.