Flow and the Reading Process
If you’ve ever had the experience of getting lost in a good book, you’ve experienced flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s general characteristics of flow describe this experience. The key to flow is complete absorption in an activity. For readers, the flow experience means that they enter a new reality, the world they create from the text.
One characteristic of reading in flow is that we gradually enter the fictive world we’re reading about. All sense of awareness of the real world around us slips away as we enter a new dimension. In other words, reading in flow occurs outside of our conscious awareness. As soon as we start to think about what is happening, we are bounced out of the fictive world back into our real world. For this reason the process of reading in flow is difficult to talk about and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to devise ways of studying how we read. Here’s a summary of their hypotheses about how the reading process works.
Gerrig has extensively studied the cognitive processes involved in the reading process. He uses the phrase narrative world to refer to the situation model readers create while reading. Like Rosenblatt, Gerrig sees reading as a transactional process: The reader interacts with the text to construct the narrative world, and the narrative world completes the transaction by reconstructing the reader. This mutual exchange becomes a continual process through which the reader creates and revises the situation model as long as the flow experience continues. This process takes place outside of conscious awareness.
In creating the narrative world, the reader interacts with verbal clues provided by the text. These textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention by activating some of the “magnetic fields,” what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “bits of information” stored in the brain. The textual clues forge associations between these various mental constructs, and from these associations the reader continuously constructs the narrative world through what Copland calls cognitive mobility. These processes move both backward and forward in the sense that readers are able to hold in abeyance contrary or ambiguous suggestions of meaning that later details may either confirm or preclude.
One means by which textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention is foregrounding, the use of “unusual linguistic features … to place emphasis on the form of the text, prompting a fresh perspective on the meaning of the text (Emmott, Sanford, & Dawydiak, p. 206). Aspects of foregrounding include direct juxtaposition of concepts, linguistic techniques such as simile and oxymoron, and stylistic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, sentence length, sentence structure, and paragraph length.
The field of psycholinguistics attempts to study foregrounding by examining depth of processing as a way to determine the amount and kind of detail readers notice while reading. The main method for examining depth of processing is anomaly testing, which presents readers with questions such as this one: “After an aircrash, where should the survivors be buried?” Most readers, according to Emmott and colleagues, will consider the question of where burial should occur without noticing that survivors would not be buried at all. This is an example of shallow processing.
A newer experimental technique for studying depth of processing, the text change detection method, presents study participants with a textual passage, withdraws the passage for an interval of 100 to 500 milliseconds, then presents a text passage again. In some cases the second passage of text is identical to the first (control condition), while in other cases the second passage differs from the first by one word. Participants are asked whether the second passage is the same as or different from the first. Using this technique, the researchers found that stylistic devices (such as sentence structure and paragraph formatting) often used to foreground details did increase readers’ depth of processing. However, the researchers also found that, contrary to their expectation, narratological cues (such as an announcement that upcoming events were important or surprising) decreased rather than increased the amount of detail that readers noticed.
Another method that literary texts use for focusing the reader’s attention is conceptual blending, described by Copland and by Freeman. In conceptual blending, elements from two different domains are brought together in a way that highlights both their similarities and their differences; in creating the blend, readers construct a third entity that incorporates both the similarities and the differences. Through this “typically unconscious process” (Copland, p. 140) readers constantly build and rebuild their situation model of the narrative world: “the theory of conceptual blending is particularly powerful in revealing the ways in which the embodied mind articulates the many dimensions of human experience … through language” (Freeman, p. 107).
Both of these textual techniques for focusing readers’ attention—foregrounding and conceptual blending—work through defamiliarization and refamiliarization. Both techniques present readers with two items, A and B. By associating A with B, the text leads readers to see A in a new and different way. In other words, the text causes readers to defamiliarize themselves with their usual, or automatic, concept of A and then to construct a revised concept for A that includes the new element acquired from the comparison with B; this latter process is called refamiliarization. Through these interlocking processes of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, readers continuously create and re-create meaning from the text. Such cognitive processes produce the intentional ordering of consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says constitutes flow.
In general, the cognitive processes at work during reading in flow probably are similar in all people. However, as reader-response literary theory hypothesizes, all individuals bring their own personal history of experiences to their reading. (Also see Rosenblatt ). Miall proposes that what directs each person’s unique transaction with a given literary text is affect, or emotion. He defines affect broadly:
For the purpose of this article I will understand affect to denote the subjective experience of emotions and feelings, including (necessarily for my argument) feelings that have little or no cognitive content but which operate immediately as judgements, preferences, and the like. (Beyond the Schema Given)
He further describes three characteristics of affect: (1) it is self-referential; that is, it allows readers to apply experiential and evaluative aspects of their self-concept to the task of reading; (2) it enables cross-domain categorization of text elements in processes such as foregrounding and conceptual blending; and (3) it is anticipatory and prestructures a reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text early in the reading process.
Other researchers also point out the role that affect plays in reading. For example, van Peer reports that studies have shown that an accumulation of foregrounding devices has an affective impact on the reader. Freeman says that any theory about how the reading process works must account for both intentionality and feeling. Gold writes that literature allows our brains to combine memory, language, and emotion: “The defining characteristic of fiction and poetry, the power of literature to influence, entertain, help and illuminate, resides in its ability to call forth feeling along with thought in the reader” (p. 19). Affect works, according to Miall, by activating in the reader “vectors of concern” that resonate with the reader’s current concerns about the self.
Another condition that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as necessary for flow is a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Gerrig suggest that all people without some form of brain impairment (organic brain disorder or attentional deficits) have the cognitive processes necessary for experiencing narrative worlds—or reading in flow. Many people read in flow naturally, without any special training beyond the rudiments of learning to read. However, it is possible to court flow and to become more proficient at it by studying techniques of literary criticism and, perhaps more important, by reading widely.
The example of a reader who finds a rose in a fictive world may explain how the flow process of reading functions and can be enhanced. The rose has become a common literary symbol for love because its beautiful appearance and pleasant aroma suggest the positive attributes of the human emotion of love. But the same stem that supports the beautiful flower also bears, lower down, thorns meant to protect the flower from being picked. The beautiful flower thus becomes associated with the potential pain involved in trying to obtain it. Logically, this new attribute contradicts the previous pleasant associations of the rose, but affectively most readers comprehend the aptness of this symbol for the mixture of pleasure and pain involved in love. In addition, a rose eventually opens too wide and surpasses its point of fullest beauty; the petals of the full-blown rose soon begin to die and fall off, further suggesting that, like all living things, the perfect rose contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Moreover, readers who know other literary works that present a rose as a symbol of love—such as Robert Burns’s famous poem “My love is like a red, red rose” or William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily”—will make associations between the rose imagery in those works and the current image. In this way the current appearance of the rose will acquire additional layers of symbolic resonance for readers whose previous exposure to literature provides them with many available concepts for rose.
Benefits of Reading in Flow
Although Csikszentmihalyi believes that achieving the flow state is its own reward, there are, nevertheless, benefits of reading in flow. Some researchers look to brain functioning to explain how reading enhances readers’ lives. Miall, for example, says that because the brain’s right hemisphere appears to play an important role in mediating one’s self concept and also in literary response, “literature may offer one of the most significant vehicles for development and change in the self.”
Joseph Gold, who is both a licensed therapist and a professor of literature, believes that reading narrative fiction contributes to personal development in two ways: (1) by activating the pre-frontal cortex and the temporal lobes, the major language centers of the brain, and (2) by assisting in the building of personal identity in narrative form. It is fiction’s ability to engage both cognition and affect that gives it its power to help us “reorganize and rethink our ways of seeing and thinking about things” (p. 36). Such reorganizing and rethinking is called reframing, and it allows us to imagine alternative contexts. As Copland explains, the mental processing that occurs during reading acts as “a mental gymnasium in which through reading, we can exercise new modes of being in the world and new modes of world-making” (p. 158).
Reading can especially help readers in dealing with negative feelings and negative self-concept issues by placing such feelings in a critical context with other feelings and ideas; this new context allows readers to better understand those negative feelings. By taking readers outside of immediate experience, fiction can give them the distance necessary to understand and control a situation. On a more concrete level, Nell writes that reading can provide the opportunity for “the covert rehearsal of real-life coping strategies” (p. 245). The extent to which a work of literature can transform a reader’s concept of self depends upon the concerns that result from that reader’s prior experience.
Copland, S. (2008). Reading in the blend: Collaborative conceptual blending in the Silent Traveller narratives. Narrative, 16(2), 140–162. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Dawydiak, E. J. (2007). Stylistics meets cognitive science: Studying style in fiction and readers’ attention from an interdisciplinary perspective. Style, 41(2), 204–224. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.
Freeman, M. H. (2006). Blending: A response. Language and Literature, 15(1), 107–117. Retrieved February 6, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.
Gerrig, R. J. (1998). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1993)
Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life: Literature as a life support system. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. (Original work published 1990)
Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives. Cognition and Emotion, 3(1), 55–78. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/688/0/Beyond_s.htm
Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275–298. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/40/0/NEUROLIT.htm
Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
van Peer, W. (2007). Introduction to foregrounding: A state of the art. Language and Literature, 16(2), 99–104. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.
© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown