Autistic Traits and Spatial Imagery in Literary Narrative Reading

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Andrew Currie @AndrewC23

:classical_building: Affiliation: University of Strathclyde

Title: Autistic Traits and Spatial Imagery in Literary Narrative Reading

Abstract (long version below): This paper presents a new approach to understanding the contributions spatial comprehension and spatial phenomenology, realised through spatial imagery, makes to literary narratives. As an innovation, it suggests looking at specific processing traits found in neurodivergent populations and comparing them to neurotypical populations. For the purposes of the paper, it considers the strengths that some autistic individuals have in producing visuo-spatial imagery, as well as differences readers show in generating spatially coherent scenes in memory and internal scene construction. These traits will be considered in relation to the experience of narrative absorption and other related subjective states.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Theoretical Background

Spatial imagery, defined as the way we imagine spatial relations, locations, and movement (Blajenkova, Kozhevnikov and Motes, 2006), forms an important part of narrative processing. For example, there is evidence indicating that our ability to imagine future and fictious events depends, in part, on detailed internal scene construction (see Maguire, Vargha-Khadem and Hassabis, 2010; Pearson 2019), which likely relates to how we mentally construct scenes for literary narratives (see Jajdelska et al. , 2019). There is also evidence showing that readers frequently track spatial changes as part of the situation models they form for texts. (Zwaan and Oostendorp, 1993), and use spatial representations to connect situation models causally (Jahn, 2004)

Some researchers have also suggested that spatial descriptions in texts can also play a phenomenological role. For example, they can cause an increase in the sense of presence — i.e. the sense of perceptually ‘being there’ in a fictional world — that readers feel (Kuzmičová, 2014; Pianzola et al. , 2021); and that egocentric (first-person) and allocentric (third-person) spatial frames can affect immersion, such that reading a narrative from a first-person perspective can be considered more immersive for readers (Hartung et al. , 2016). This is of particular interest in literary reading. However, little is known about the relationship between spatial processing for narratives and the phenomenological aspects of internal scene construction that interest literary scholars.

In this paper, I suggest that one way researchers can advance knowledge about spatial representations in literary reading is by looking at neurotypical and neurodiverse, and more specifically autistic, reader traits. Relevant traits distinctive to some autistic people include strong visual and especially visuo-spatial imagery (Souliéres et al. , 2011; Maróthi et al. , 2019), but difficulty in internal scene construction — the ability to generate spatially coherent scenes through mental simulation (Mullally, Hassabis and Maguire, 2012) — related to episodic memories, episodic future thinking and imagination (Lind, Bowler and Raber, 2014). Identifying readers with these traits and comparing them with readers who lack these traits may present several advantages, particularly in helping researchers understand the relation between spatial comprehension and spatial phenomenology (and whether they are dissociable) in literary narrative reading, as well as understanding what role spatial imagery plays in the generation of subjective states like narrative absorption (see Hakemulder et al. , 2017).

Aims and Methods of Investigation

For future researchers, one question that could be pursued is the extent to which spatial narrative phenomenology is dependent on spatial comprehension abilities. In this case, using readers who demonstrate differences in spatial comprehension abilities would allow researchers to consider whether, for example, strong visuo-spatial imagery, or weak internal scene construction, are associated with subjective differences in imagining literary narrative space. In order to determine comprehension differences in autistic and non-autistic readers, researchers could use a variety of measures used in spatial cognition and mental imagery assessments. They include, for instance, the Embedded Figures Test (Almeida et al. , 2010) and Mental Rotation tasks (see Conson et al. , 2022), for spatial cognition, and the Visual Imagery Questionnaire (Dance et al. , 2021) and the Object-Spatial Imagery Questionnaire (Blajenkova, Kozhevnikov and Motes, 2006), for visual and spatial imagery. For internal scene construction, researchers could rely on the Spatial Presence Experience Scale (Hartmann et al. , 2015) and the Spatial Coherence Index questionnaire (Hassabis et al. , 2007).

Another important question that could be asked is how readers with certain processing traits respond to spatial representations in literary narratives. This could be achieved by assessing the quantity and quality of spatial descriptions in a given text (either presented in full, or excerpted). Assessing the number of spatial descriptions in a chosen text or excerpt (see Gysbers et al. , 2004), the level of spatial coherence (Hassabis et al ., 2007), what spatial frame is adopted in the text (e.g. whether a scene is described from a first-person or third-person perspective) (Hartung et al. , 2016), and how spatial descriptions are organised in the prose — i.e. whether they begin with proximal objects to distal objects, reverse this, or change its order, in a visuo-spatial field (see Finnigan, 2013) — offer several ways of doing this. Combined with measures for evaluating visuo-spatial and internal scene construction abilities, researchers could predict the extent to which textual representations of space determine the quality of spatial imagery for autistic readers, in contrast to neurotypical readers.

Lastly, in order to understand the contributions both textual representations of space and spatial processing traits make to certain subjective states, researchers could borrow questions from the ‘Transportation Scale’ (Green and Brock, 2000), the Story World Absorption Scale (Kuijpers et al. , 2014), and the Immersion Questionnaire (Hartung et al. , 2016), and ask participants to respond to them after reading. An interesting question to pursue in this context is whether autistic people are more, or less, open to states like absorption through spatial imagery processing, and whether certain traits determine this.


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Thank you Andrew, for your presentation. This gave me a lot of food for thought! I will be coming to your presentation at the conference to engage in further discussion, but I already wanted to take the opportunity to pose you a question, so you can think about it for a bit.

I am very interested in the relationship between spatial comprehension/phenomenology and absorption into a story world. Are you familiar with deictic shift theory and if yes, I would like to hear your thoughts on whether you think people with higher spatial processing skills may be more or less readily transported into a story world and whether there may be spatial textual cues we could manipulate to test this relationship?

Looking forward to meeting you in Monopoli!

All the best,
Moniek Kuijpers

Hello, Moniek; thank you for watching my presentation! I’m glad it gave you something to think about.

This is a very interesting question you’ve asked. Yes, I have heard of deictic shift theory, and I think spatial processing skills probably have a role in allowing deictic shifts to occur. The process of adopting a character/narrator’s deictic centre no doubt involves adopting their particular spatial frame of reference (or indeed any kind of frame of reference that is part of the story world, if we consider third person narratives also).

I also think that having strong spatial processing skills might make deictic shifting (and reading generally) a far more immersive experience. For example, being able to mentally represent the spatial relations between the deictic centre (e.g. a character) and the environment, should at least make the story world seem more ‘convincing’ or ‘real’ perceptually. Those who struggle to do so might see the world in a less visually and perceptually mimetic way.

This could be the case if consider individuals with hippocampal lesions (this is in Hassabis et al., 2007, who I cite in my paper). In their study, they asked these individuals to imagine a particular scene in their head (like being at a beach on a warm, sunny day), and to report on what they saw. Many of their responses seemed to suggest that they only saw a series of fragmented images, rather than a holistic, spatially coherent image of the environment they were supposed to imagine. The authors of the paper suggest that imagining scenes involves, to a large extent, the ability to bring together and bind disparate elements of the environment within a rich spatial context, in a manner similar to how we perceive the real world visually.

However, some literary texts can already be under-determined spatially but still immersive (though, it’s also likely that most readers will ‘fill in the gaps’ using their spatial processing abilities). Furthermore, some novels like To the Lighthouse add complexity to the amount of spatial deictic centres that can be processed. Presenting the same environment from many different visual perspectives could make it harder to form a holistic representation of it.

In terms of testing the relationship between spatial processing and transportation, there are, I think, quite a lot of cues to draw on. In general, the goal would be to look for text that contains spatial descriptions of environments, the objects within them, and the relations between these objects. These descriptions can be divided into two spatial frames of reference as well: deictic and intrinsic (this is a distinction often made in the literature about spatial language, and there are other distinctions like ‘egocentric and allocentric’, ‘relative and absolute’, ‘subjective and objective’). To begin with deixis, scanning for spatial deictic terms, like demonstratives, prepositions and other locating expressions, that involve referring to locations in space, relative to the deictic centre (i.e. narrative perspective), would be a useful step. They include words and phrases like ‘over there, inside here, in front of, behind’ and so on. We could also look for verbs of motion in a sentence like ‘She ran quickly down the side street’, which indicates speed and movement through space, and verbs that register someone or thing coming into a particular space, like ‘She came into the bedroom’. This list is by no means exhaustive, however, since there are plenty more cues to draw upon (which would take a while to explain here), and it would be great to work towards a kind of check list. If you want to find more on spatial cues, you should refer to these publications: Space and Language in Cognition (Levinson, 2003); and ‘“What” and “where” in spatial language and spatial cognition’ (Landau and Jackendoff, 1993).

A good way to test the relationship between spatial processing skills and transportation would be to remove certain spatial cues from text stimuli. This way, we could potentially see whether individuals with strong spatial processing skills don’t necessarily need spatial cues to produce vivid mental representations of space during reading. This could be contrasted with those who have weaker spatial processing abilities. What we could potentially find here, therefore, is whether those with particularly high spatial imagery abilities still experience transportation, in the absence of spatial cues that orient the formation of a spatial context for which to imagine a particular environment. This is just one example.

I hope this answers your question. Looking forward to meeting you, too (I’ll be online; I’m not going to be in Monopoli).