Sensational Reading: The Effects of Lacking Mental Recall in Experiencing Literature Vania Vasquez 2017
Buttery popcorn, dark room, cherry Lip Smacker . . . these are the three descriptors that my former theatre professor gave to describe his first date in middle school as part of an acting exercise. Though I was not able to experience for myself what was later revealed to be an 8th grade movie theatre date, my professor’s words were brimming with such sensational description that I was able to emphasize with his experiences due to their heavily endowed descriptors; I’ve tasted popcorn, I’ve been to the cinema, and I know every scent of Lip Smacker that middle school brings. And, thanks to a little neurological process known as “sensory recall,” my brain was able to cue up memories of these experiences with memory of their corresponding sensations.
The human sensory system works by touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and feeling stimuli from the outside world. This physical stimulation engages the sensory system to send information about the stimulus to the brain where the information gets processed into what we know as a “sensational experience”: tasting the sourness of a lemon, feeling the tickling of a grass field, hearing the sharpness of a whistle, or even feeling your location in space can all be considered outcomes of sensory input (Dunn). This ability to experience the world keeps our brains working, for without constant sensory input our minds would have nothing to process and we would have no mind at all (Dunn). It can then be concluded that our body’s wiring to experience physical stimulation is already of significance in that it benefits our health. However, the sensory system is also an integral part of communication: the way people experience literature and how they engage with a text relies heavily on their pool of past sensory experiences. This phenomenon is how I was able to empathize with the “first date” descriptors made by my professor--sensory recall allowed me to draw from my own, similar life experiences and associate the proper sensations with it. The question now raised is what is the effect of lacking sensational experience when engaging with a text? Is there an effect? If there is, what are its implications? In this paper, I will explore research done in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, beginning to examine how they work in relation to sensory recall and memory. While reviewing how these neurological functions work, I will consider how sensory recall is linked to experiencing fiction in literature and what implications, if any, the possibility of lacking a catalogue of sensational experience might bring. Additionally, plans for future research about how people respond to fiction based on their past experiences will be discussed.
The brain is equipped to generate mental imagery. “Mental imagery” has been defined as “a quasi-perceptual state of consciousness in which the mind appears able to simulate or recreate sensory-like experience” (Pearson). Mental recall is accomplished by the brain’s ability to recall past sensational experiences. When the brain recalls an experience, it is sourcing from the information stored in the long-term memory that then provides it with a referent for the mental imagery experience (Thompson). For example, this is how a person is able to imagine the sourness of a lemon without having to eat one: at one point in time, the body was given the sensory stimulus of a lemon and the appropriate associations were made. Following that initial experience with lemons, the same person will now have at least one referent for lemons based on past sensory experience (i.e, lemons = sour); this information remains stored in the memory and available for recall when prompted.
The idea of mental recall is important when considering the act of reading and how a reader engages a text. In textual based reading, a reader is visually interpreting a string of printed characters to create a word. This word then prompts the brain to recall the sensory experiences that the reader has with it, and, subsequently, allows the reader to re-experience the appropriate sensation (Taylor). This is why a reader will be able to project mental imagery within their mind of forestry and similar imagery upon reading the printed word tree. These sensations attributed to mental imagery allow a reader to follow along with a plot, empathize with characters, and even imagine things that do not exist in reality--for not only is mental recall able to simulate things experienced, but it is able to blend experiences so that a reader can create and understand what a new experience would be like. This is how it would be possible to imagine things contrary to reality, such as a rainbow-striped cat; the senses have experienced rainbows, cats, and stripes, so now all the brain needs to do is blend the three using mental imagery and a new sensational experience is created (Pearson).
So far, the research in this paper that concerns reading and its relationship with sensory recall have been analyzed with the assumption that the reader possesses complete accessibility to the basic five senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste)--but what if there is a reader who does not have the same catalogue of sensational experiences to draw from? What if a reader does not have the ability to experience all five senses? How does this change the way a text is experienced through sensory recall?
In 2006, the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness published an article titled “Developmental Stages of Reading Processes in Children Who Are Blind and Sighted” that examines the differences between blind children and sighted children when learning how to read (Steinman). While this journal’s objective was to analyze the reading experiences of children in accordance with an educational paradigm known as “Chall’s Stages for Reading Development,” its findings align closely with the queries of this paper concerning how sensory recall works in the absence of particular senses. In the study, researchers found that the developmental process of reading is heavily based on a child’s sensory experiences. The study concluded that as children grow, they have the opportunity to experience the world sensationally. Eventually, children learn that the things they have experienced can be represented with words--the beginnings of experiencing literature through sensational recall. The article expresses that a sighted child presented with the word “apple” will be able to recall a smooth, shiny piece of fruit as the referent for the word. The study discovered that this experience of information gathering and mental recalling is no different for a sighted child than it is for a blind child. While a sighted child would be able to match the visually-based experience of an apple to the word “apple,” a blind child would make a textually-based association for the word, recalling an apple for its tactile properties as opposed to its visual ones (Steinman). This article is not the only research to suggest that a person’s sensory experiences are valid regardless of how they are experienced. I recently had the opportunity to interview a former researcher of neurobiology who helped me investigate the effects of lacking sensational experiences when engaging with literature. The discussion resulted in information similar to that of the article from the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. In the interview, the former researcher discussed the process of mental recall in relation to reading, along with the same implications this paper considers. Just as the aforementioned journal article discovered, the interview concluded with the knowledge that sensory recall can be experienced through all of the senses in any combination; an experience is not exclusive to one sense (Taylor). Consider the previously mentioned example of how mental imagery works in textually based reading. The same process remains true for non-textual stimuli, thus allowing auditory and tactile reading to produce the same results: if somebody with visual associations of a tree will see imagery of trees and forestry in their mind’s eye upon seeing the printed word tree, then mental recall can provide the same effect for people with tactile, auditory, or any other type of sensational associations with a tree. Reading literature through print, audio, or tactile means results in readers constantly taking in stimuli that prompt the memory to recall a sensory experience whether it be visual, olfactory, aural, gustatory, or tactile--because every person lives a life full of different sensations, every person’s sensational experiences are unique (Dunn).
It can now be understood that lacking a sense does not take away from a person’s ability to engage with literature in a fulfilling way: this is because a person’s long-term memory is full of a diverse array of sensational experiences that they can pull from to enrich their experience of a text. If this is not the implication that should be of concern in regards to this topic, is there an implication to be made? After reviewing literature about memory, sensory recall, and the relationship that the two have with reading, I propose a new implication: what effects can be brought when readers experience a text they identify very strongly with in an emotional sense? How does sensory recall come into play when it is the emotions that are concerned? Mental imagery is not only able to use mental recall to recount past, objective experiences or create new, whimsical ones; it is also equipped to use its experiences to rationalize “what if?” situations or relive traumatic experiences (Boyer). This arises as an implication when texts containing potentially triggering content are presented to readers who are unaware of the concerning material but have life experience associated with it. This unexpected presentation of alarming literature could lead to negative effects on the reader’s productivity, psyche, and overall well-being in a class setting or work environment. To eliminate the risk of these outcomes, further research should be conducted in regard to sensory recall and how people experience literature--for very little exists on the subject right now. Additionally, exploring the links among psychology, neurology, and how humans tell and interpret stories can help gain more knowledge about the most positive ways to receive them. This is not to say that any writing of content with the potential to trigger negative emotional recall should be prohibited; rather, it is to suggest that we examine how experiences are being shared so that we can better understand how they are being received. The human condition is a unique experience and the opportunity that people have to share it among others through storytelling should be honed to its greatest finesse; the better we can understand the experiences of others, the richer our interactions will be--a form of knowledge-sharing that can ultimately lead us to the most sensational stories and the most sensate lives.
Boyer, Pascal. “Specialized Inference Engines as Precursors of Creative Imagination?” Imaginative Minds, Ilona Roth, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 239-58.
Dunn, Winnie. Living Sensationally. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008.
Pearson, David G. “Mental Imagery and Creative Thought.” Imaginative Minds, Ilona Roth, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 187-212.