“Reading as Mental Stimulation”

ONFICTION, Online Magazine on the Psychology of Fiction, recently published an article explaining how, when we read, we create a “mental stimulation of the events in the story.” The study, undertaken by Professor Jeffrey Zacks, Associate Director of Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at the University of Washington, St. Louis, and three of his colleagues, set out to determine “the brain processes of study participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans”, when reading. As detailed in this Live Science article by Andrea Thompson, the researchers took the following approach with their study:

The 28 study participants […] spent about 10 minutes reading four narratives, each less than 1,500 words, taken from the book “One Boy’s Day.” The words from the book were flashed onto a screen that the participants could read on a mirror in front of their faces.

[…]The researchers coded the four narratives for six types of changes “that people might be monitoring while they’re comprehending” — changes they would notice both in everyday life and possibly in reading, Zacks said. These changes included: spatial changes (when a location changed); object changes (when a character picked up a ball, say); character changes; causal changes (when an activity occurs that wasn’t directly caused by the activity in a previous clause); and goal changes (when a character begins an action with a new goal).

Monitoring such changes in the environment is adaptive, because it likely helped our ancestors to predict what might happen next: where prey might dart to next or what a predator might do. Similarly, today it helps us predict what might happen next in a story.

In other words, “reading a simple verb such as “run” or “kick” activates some of the same regions of the brain that would be activated when we actually go running or kick a ball.”

The Guardian published a related article back in January, which you can read by following this link.

The Anthony Walker Foundation Festival 2009

The Anthony Walker Foundation Festival 2009 is taking place on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th August 2009, at Greenbank Sports Academy, Greenbank Lane and Sefton Park, from 9am till 6pm.

It is a free two day festival of sport, music, art and education which works to encourage racial harmony and better community relations. There will be workshops promoting social and life skills, football tournaments, art workshops, music and dance performances, plus much more!

For more information on the Festival, please visit the Anthony Walker Foundation Website, where you can also view the Festival brochure.

If you would like tickets for the AWF Carnival at Alma De Cuba, please email: info@anthonywalkerfoundation.com

Radio 4’s Thought for the Day….

To see the planet desecrated is to behold the undoing of God’s creation.

The above subject was discussed on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, presented by Bishop James Jones of the Diocese of Liverpool.

In his discussion, Bishop James made reference to the poem Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins; in which Hopkins expresses his outrage at the felling in 1879 of an avenue of grand poplar trees, which once ran along the side of the river Thames between Oxford and the village of Binsey.

In the poem, Hopkins mourns the loss of his ‘dear aspens’, and condemns man’s unecessary interference with the power and beauty of nature; regretfully noting that ‘Even where we mean / To mend her we end her’. You’ll find Binsey Poplars below, where Hopkins’ fury, sadness, and indignation at man’s arrogance in robbing future generations of the chance to ever know this ‘beauty-been’ is evident.


Binsey Poplars, Felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,

All felled, felled, are all felled;

Of a fresh and following folded rank

Not spared, not one

That dandled a sandalled

Shadow that swam or sank

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew—

Hack and rack the growing green!

Since country is so tender

To touch, her being so slender,

That, like this sleek and seeing ball

But a prick will make no eye at all,

Where we, even where we mean

To mend her we end her,

When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve

Strokes of havoc unselve

The sweet especial scene,

Rural scene, a rural scene,

Sweet especial rural scene.


Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1879


Anyone catch Thought for the Day, or have any thoughts on today’s subject?

If you missed it, Thought for the Day will be available on the iplayer shortly.

Past Versus Present: Our Victorian Heritage

On 14th July 2009, members of The Reader Organisation will be taking part in an academic conference at Cambridge University. The conference – ‘Past Versus Present’ – is a joint meeting of the British Association for Victorian Studies and the North American Victorian Studies Association.

Our panel will consider: ‘The heritage that the Victorians invented for us – are we still living in a Victorian world?’

On the panel will be: Dr Jane Davis (Director of The Reader Organisation; Chair), Dr Josie Billington (University of Liverpool School of English), Professor Philip Davis (University of Liverpool School of English; editor of The Reader magazine) and Blake Morrison (author and journalist).

Metaphysically speaking, ‘our Victorian heritage’ is the difficulty of finding meaningful purpose or of knowing what to make of human experience in a post-religious age. Victorian literature, the novel especially, represented the period’s commitment to finding means of mediating, tolerating or recognizing the predicament. This panel will consider the degree to which literature does, can or should have a ‘Victorian’ role in the contemporary world in relation to the secular/religious problems of how to live which it has inherited; and it will offer The Reader Organisation, in its commitment to opening up and sharing serious literature with people for whom it might be humanly valuable, as a model for carrying forward a Victorian mission, a belief in literature, from the past into the future.

More information about the conference can be found here.

Anthony Browne is new Children’s Laureate

Children’s writer and illustrator Anthony Browne has been made the sixth Children’s Laureate, taking over the role from Michael Rosen. Browne is the second illustrator to take on the role since Quentin Blake, who held the title when it was first launched ten years ago.

Browne states that one of his main aims as Children’s Laureate will be:

to raise the profile of, and respect and enthusiasm for, picture books

Browne has written and illustrated almost forty titles and, of these, it is The Shape Game that will be central to his campaign promoting picture books: a story based on a childhood game involving drawing.

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award

The School of English at the University of Liverpool, in partnership with The Reader Organisation has been awarded an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award. This project will explore the existing theoretical foundations for the practice of bibliotherapy, or reading as cure, in the English literary tradition and seek to translate theory into practice by using methods and materials suggested by the research base in shared reading groups in mental health contexts provided by Mersey Care NHS Trust.

The partnership with Mersey Care NHS Trust, which serves a population of one million across Merseyside, builds on a successful record of association with The Reader Organisation, which is now a nationally recognised centre for the promotion of reading as an intervention in mental health.

This PhD is likely to be the first if its kind to seek to reclaim English Literature as pivotal in relation to health and well-being, and, through a mix of practical and theoretical methods, to give the existing language of English Literature an equal place alongside social and biomedical sciences in the observation and analysis of human experience.

For more information on the PhD project and how to apply, please visit our website, or you can email Dr Josie Billington.

Vital Vocabulary

Today sees the publication of the final report of Sir Jim Rose’s Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum.

In this report, Sir Jim Rose identifies that the language aquisition of children entering primary education needs to be addressed. It’s shocking: children from deprived socio-economic backgrounds arrive at school with a vocabulary of around 500 words (and often are unable to string a sentence together), which compared to the 6,000 words that children from more affluent backgrounds come with, elucidates the magnitude of the problem. We don’t know yet how this issue will be addressed but it is hoped that Sir Jim Rose’s report will lead to some action being taken by the government.

We need to work out a stratgegy to enable children to aquire the language they need in order to express themsleves and to understand difficult and complex issues and challenges. Through our outreach work with  Get Into Reading and Liverpool Reads, we have learnt that not only reading and not only reading aloud but  reading more challenging books aloud with children (and adults) not only increases their vocabulary and therefore improves literacy but it also gives them an emotional language – a way to express themselves.  If this is not done, if children are unable to learn this vital vocabulary, then it will be only their feet they use and not their minds: the book will be booted out.