Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Maurice is Back! Time in Narrative Comprehension


In our everyday experience time is continuous and chronological. In stories we can jump around in time. Just as with many other things, Aristotle had already given this discrepancy thought. 

In his Poetics he declared that historians are to provide a blow-by-blow chronological account of events. Authors of fiction, on the other hand, are not bound by this directive. For them, plot is the constraining factor. If the plot calls for a jump ahead in time, the author should do so. No need for a detailed account of Odysseus’ daily bowel movements during the seven years that he was ensnared by Calypso.

Time shifts are extremely common in stories. For example, we often encounter phrases like an hour later, which force us to jump an hour forward in time from one sentence to the next. But how do we process such time shifts?

Cognitive psychologists have begun to address this question. An early example is here. In a study published in 1996, I compared time shifts like an hour later to non-time shifts such as a moment later. 

There were three main findings.
·     Reading times for hour shifts are longer than for moment shifts.
·      After an hour shift, information before shift is less accessible to the reader than after a moment 
    shift.
·      Events separated by a moment are more strongly connected in long-term memory than events
    separated by an hour.


So it looks like time shifts act as separators between events. We deactivate information that comes before the time shift and (possibly as a result) events separated by the time shift become separated in long-term memory; furthermore, processing time shifts is resource consuming (takes time).

In a later paper, we found that a similar deactivation occurs when it is explicitly stated that an action is discontinued. For instance, people respond more slowly to the word playing after He stopped playing the piano than after He was playing the piano despite the fact that they just read the word playing.

Apparently we don’t represent information in a form that resembles the text but rather in a form that is close to the described situation. The time shift or explicit discontinuation forms as some sort of mental barrier to what has happened before.

In my 1996 paper, I examined these questions using a couple dozen short stories. The story I use as an example in the paper and in talks involves a gallery owner named Maurice. I pictured him as an overly sensitive dandy. I thought the name Maurice was a good fit (with apologies to everyone named Maurice). I kind of suspect that Nathan Lane’s role of Pepper Salts in the hit show Modern Family is based on the Maurice character.

Anyhow, after a 17-year hiatus, Maurice makes a comeback in a recent paper by Weingartner and Myers. The authors adapted the Maurice story (and other stories from the 1996 paper). Again, Maurice has a grand opening of his art gallery but this time things go better for him than in the original story (where he’d forgotten to invite the local art critic, to his own detriment). That’s reassuring to know. But what about the findings?

Like the 1996 study and other studies, Weingartner and Myers find that time shifts lead to increases in processing times. They measured eye fixations whereas the earlier studies used key presses, so this is an extension of those earlier findings.

The authors also find that reading times for time shifts are longer after a discontinuation (Maurice stopped doing something) than after a continuation. Because there is no interaction between time shift and discontinuation, their effects appear to be additive. So it takes extra long to read what happened an hour later after someone discontinued doing something.

But Weingartner and Myers also find that time shifts might be what I’ll call “semi-permeable,” letting through some information but not other. For example, if the story made reference to something before the time shift, the reading times for this anaphor did not vary as a function of time shift. Apparently, the information was equally available after a moment or hour of story time.

This is different from the earlier studies, which found that information was less available after an hour of story time than after a moment. But what was also different was the method. The earlier studies used a probe-recognition task. A word was presented and the subjects had to indicate whether or not it had occurred in the text. Weingartner and Myers only used reading times.

In a second experiment, therefore, they used a probe recognition task. Responses were significantly slower after a discontinuation than after a continuation, replicating our 2000 findings but there was no effect of time shift, not replicating the 1996 findings (as well as other findings).

The authors point out that there is a potentially critical difference with the 1996 study. In that study, the probe words were actions, which have a fleeting nature. In the current study, the probes were nouns, which referred to stable entities in the situation. A 2010 study by Radvansky and Copeland had found earlier that time shifts led to deactivation of activities but not entities.

So maybe time shifts are semi-permeable, letting through stable situational elements but not more ephemeral ones. Explicit discontinuations apparently are not permeable. This helps constrain models of discourse comprehension.

As the authors note in conclusion: Much remains to be done. I agree. I have therefore decided to take this topic back up again. The Maurice saga continues… 

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