4th Cambridge Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature: A Retrospective Blog Post

Katy Day just passed her PhD viva here at Cambridge, and is putting off finishing her minor corrections by writing this blog post. You may remember her as the blog czar from a couple years ago; then again, you might not.

I feel very connected to the Cambridge Symposia on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature—I think I’m the only person, besides, of course, our chair Maria Nikolajeva*, who can claim that they’ve been to all four of them. The first two years I presented, last year I organized, and this year I chaired a panel, so I’ve got a wide perspective on how this conference has evolved—much like cognitive narratology itself.

A long, long time ago (in 2014), in a classroom far, far away (from where the symposium is now held), the first Cambridge Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature happened. Of course, we didn’t call it the first one at the time—we just called it a symposium. I was a little baby scholar who was in the throes of writing my master’s thesis. I was enamored with cognitive narratology (though I called it cognitive poetics then), and was using theory of mind in my master’s thesis; I was awestruck meeting these eminent academics, whose names I was citing over and over again. Roberta Seelinger Trites (who gave the keynote), Kimberley Reynolds, Peter Hunt, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer—the list goes on. Everyone was kind and welcoming, even if at that first symposium not everyone was completely buying into this whole cognitive approach to literature thing.

Four years later, and while there are still cognitive skeptics, cognitive narratology is much more accepted as a theoretical approach to children’s literature. To shamelessly steal from my thesis, cognitive narratology studies the idea that the brain affects how we read fiction, and the fiction we read changes our brains. It merges the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and literature to create “a cross-disciplinary approach to reading” (Nikolajeva, 2014a, p.4). Our minds seem to be hardwired for narrative understanding, and when examined cognitively, “fiction emerges as an evolutionary adaptation that recalibrates the mind, sharpens social cognition, and offers multiple benefits” (Oziewicz, 2015, p.54). Fiction provides vicarious experiences of imagined spaces and situations that can help shape our perceptions of the real world, our social others, and the self (Fong, Mullin, and Mar, 2015, p.10).

If you want to study cognitive narratology more, a good place to start is with the person who gave the keynote this year: Lisa Zunshine. It’s almost a requirement to discuss her in your work if you do cognitive narratology. She literally wrote the book Why We Read Fiction (spoiler: it’s to discover stuff about other people, and in turn to learn about yourself). Her talk delved into complex embedded mental states in fiction aimed at children from ages 1-2, 3-7, and 8-12.

IMG_2265 2

If you look at the slide next to Lisa*, you can see an illustration of a person thinking of what a person is thinking about what a person is thinking about what a person is thinking. That is embedded cognition. Complex embedded cognition is when there are three or more mental states under consideration—something Lisa states is not common in our everyday lives, but is common in fiction.

She determined that in for fiction intended for 8-12 year-olds, it’s easy to find three-level embedded cognition, though it does not appear as frequently as it does in “adult” fiction. For example, it can be found in Winnie-the-Pooh when Pooh is trying to look like a rain cloud to trick the bees into letting him steal their honey; the reader thinks that Pooh imagines that the bees will think that he is a rain cloud, and therefore not a threat. In fiction for 3-7 year-olds, there’s usually one complex mental embedment that is repeated throughout the book; for instance, in The Gruffalo, a tiny mouse tricks the big scary Gruffalo into thinking that he is the terrifying one. Thus the reader knows that the mouse thinks that the Gruffalo perceives that the mouse isn’t scary, but the joke is that while the mouse tricks the Gruffalo into thinking that the other animals are scared of the mouse, the reader knows it’s really the Gruffalo that is scary. (You can see where talking about embedded mental states can become confusing—one attendee brought up the Friends episode where Rachel and Phoebe learn about Monica and Chandler’s relationship, but “they don’t know we know they know we know”…and so on.) Lisa concluded her talk with discussing fictional books for 1-2 year-olds, stating that while there weren’t complex mental embeddings, there were representations of mental states; this was somewhat surprising, seeing as neuroscientists have previously stated that theory of mind (the ability to understand that others have mental states) doesn’t develop until around age 3 or 4. But it makes sense when viewed in the context of the latest research, which states that 15-month-olds do indeed show understandings of false-belief; that is, to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are divergent from our own.

Basically, her talk was fascinating; unsurprising, seeing as she’s one of the cognitive literary scholars. And here’s the thing—the rest of the talks were fascinating, too! But you know the other thing? Blog posts are meant to be short(ish), and I don’t have the word count to sum up all the great discussions that we had. I do, however, have some pictures, so I’m going to post those and let you get a feel for the symposium that way. And maybe be a little bit jealous that I’ve had the chance to witness the growth of both this symposium and this theoretical field—both of them have knowledgeable, critical, and welcoming proponents, and (getting sappy here) it’s been amazing to see this journey.


 Malin Alkestrand discussing cognitive scripts and aetonormativity in The Cursed Child. Spoiler alert: adult Harry is kind of a jerk.



A slide from Natalia Kucirkova’s presentation about how personalized books may or may not foster empathy in child readers.


 Sarah Mears, co-founder of Empathy Lab, discussed what the organization does and how it helps to foster empathy by, in part, getting children to read fiction.



 A response received from a child participant from Empathy Day—kind of like it’s showing that reading fiction really can help foster empathy…



 It was such a beautiful day in Cambridge that we had lunch outside!



 The panelists from the afternoon session from l-r: Jessica Mason, Chloe Harrison, Marcello Giovanelli, Ben Morgan, and Naomi Rokotniz. Don’t be mad that I didn’t get individual shots of their papers—I was chairing this session! I was distracted!



 The round table discussion at the end of the day was led by Maria Nikolajeva (second from right), and guided by (from l-r) Laura Tosi, Shalini Vohra, and Joe Sutliff Sanders.


*While it is usually a sign of respect to refer to a scholar by their last name, because I have met these people it feels rude to call them “Nikolajeva” or “Zunshine” in a blog post. I therefore refer to them by their first names in this context (though in my thesis I do the opposite).

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s