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Understanding literature – in groups

Literature isn’t just enjoyable. It can be useful, too. Researchers at the Interacting Minds Centre regard literature as a form of mental technology which can create communities, thereby promoting social inclusion.

The debate about the usefulness of literature is not new. What can we learn from literature? Does reading make us better people? Does it teach us to be more empathetic and to think more carefully about what we do? And does reading have any therapeutic effects?

A group of researchers at the Interacting Minds Centre are studying literature as a mental and social technology which can affect both individuals and social learning processes. In a new interdisciplinary project they challenge the precepts on which previous studies of the useful value of literature have been based.

“Most empirical researchers have focused on the effect of reading literature. They are inclined to take their measurements before and after the actual experience of reading, but don’t focus on the process of reading itself. Our focus is on the reading of literature as a cultural practice. We study how various forms of reading affect the way we read, thereby influencing what we get out of reading. This is why we’re constantly developing new methods to analyse how the process is related to the effect,” explains Mette Steenberg, a postdoc scholar who is leading the research project in collaboration with Sebastian Wallot (an experimental psychologist) and Pernille Bräuner (an ethnographer and research assistant).

Literature behind bars and for patients with mental illness
The research group are studying the useful value of literature on an ongoing basis in various social contexts. Most recently, they have been looking into the effect of a form of intervention based on the idea of shared reading in Ringe State Prison and among a group of people in Aarhus suffering from mental illness. The setup is the same in both cases. The researchers are monitoring shared reading groups using a British model called “Get Into Reading”. A reading group leader facilitates the process, reading aloud and asking questions. And at regular intervals the participants reflect on what they have heard.

“One of the things that shared reading can do is to bring people together and create social inclusion. And the evidence was clear immediately: the two reading groups felt that their social competences and relationships had improved. At Ringe State Prison reading also had a therapeutic effect on the environment, with prisoners suddenly discussing Dan Turèll with the warders on the corridors,” explains Pernille Bräuner.

One hypothesis, three analyses
“Our hypothesis was that establishing a community which was also physical would lead to the cardiac rhythms of the participants being increasingly synchronised over time as the group became more closely knit and effective,” explains Mette Steenberg.

To test this hypothesis, the research group had three different academic approaches to the project. A physiological, quantitative analysis, with Sebastian Wallot measuring the cardiac rhythms of the participants. An ethnographic analysis, with Pernille Bräuner observing the group dynamics of the participants and carrying out qualitative interviews. And a reader-response analysis focusing on the individual process, with Mette Steenberg analysing reader responses to determine the level of commitment of individual group participants to their reading, thereby revealing what they were getting out of it. However, Sebastian Wallot’s physiological analysis disproved the hypothesis that cardiac rhythms would become more synchronised over time. In fact the opposite occurred:

“My studies showed that their cardiac rhythms actually became less synchronised over time.” 

The next step for the research group involved comparing a quantitative data set with the qualitative observations of the reading group, with a view to explaining the physiological data.

“One of the things we learned after combining a physiological, ethnographic and linguistic analysis was that group processes work and people interact successfully in situations where the individual position is maintained in the community. What reading can achieve as a technology is that it builds bridges between subjective experiences and a shared reality. It also explains why the group became more individualised and asynchronous over time even though the sense of community in the group clearly became stronger,” explains Steenberg, adding that:

“We also analysed how people related to texts individually, and discovered that reading helped to meta-train their social cognition – for instance when they had to interpret the motives and intentions of the main character in a work of literature. This is often something that they find difficult to do in their own lives.”

Exploiting the potential of literature
The three researchers are in no doubt that the potential social value of literature is even greater than this.

“We need to explore the potential of literature as a technology because it can help people suffering from mental illness. We want to find out if we can use literature as a kind of ‘organic’ form of rehabilitation because we can see that it has an effect on concentration, attention span and memory,” explains Steenberg.

The results are promising. The effects of shared reading that have already been demonstrated in the two groups are as follows: people who have not read much in the past start reading; and more participants develop their ability to interact socially and play a part in social contexts.

Fact box: “Get Into Reading”
The method was developed by the Reader Organisation in Liverpool, and is now very widespread in the UK, where the Get Into Reading project has launched a veritable reader revolution. In the UK the method was originally designed for socially marginalised individuals; but the evidence proves that it has a therapeutic effect on people suffering from depression and dementia as well. Mette Steenberg, a researcher at the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University, helped to set up a reading association in Denmark in 2010, using the British method as inspiration. She is a trained shared reading practitioner in the UK – the first person in Denmark to achieve this distinction. 

Further information

Mette Steenberg
Telephone: (+45) 8716 2908
Mobile: (+45) 2370 7091
Mail: mette.steenberg@hum.au.dk