Experimental insights into mental simulation during literature comprehension
In an influential and thought-provoking contribution, Zwaan (2004) labelled language ‘a vicarious experience’. This entails that we have the feeling of experiencing the events described in language, even though we are not actually part of those events. A closely related term is mental simulation: The idea that we simulate the content of language, such as when we listen to a detailed description of someone’s face. Reading literary narratives is the prime example of a vicarious experience, since it allows readers to explore scenarios, and the consequences of actions, in a safe fiction world.
In my talk I will present the results of a few recent experiments in which we studied simulation during understanding of literary narratives, using neuroimaging (fMRI), behavioural methods, and eye tracking. Next to discussing how these findings increase our understanding of how people enter a fiction world, I will argue that studying responses to literary narratives provides a much richer test bed for the role of simulation in language as compared to earlier approaches using more impoverished language stimuli.