Intersections between cognitive and literary sciences

Pavol Štubňa


Psychology studies the human mind, its functions and mental characteristics, the human behavior and its motivation; literature depicts (aesthetically) the human condition, behavior, way of thinking and feelings through fiction.

The study deals with the mutually beneficial influence between cognitive and literary sciences, mainly in the form of new interdisciplinary branches called cognitive literary sciences (based on the analogies between the process of construction of the "image" of exogenous world in the human consciousness and the process of creation and reproduction of "fictional worlds" in the narrator´s and reader´s minds) and psychology of literature (founded mostly on the assumption that both disciplines – psychology and literature – explore and explain the brain´s motivational circuits which determine the human behavior and emotions in interaction with other agents, with the environment and in relation to themselves).

Key words

cognitive science, literary science, psychology of literature, psychological function


Cognitive science (cognitive sciences) as an interdisciplinary scientific branch originated around the late 1950s. At present, the focus of its research is on neuroregulation mechanisms that determine the performance of mental activities in a person such as thinking, reading, speaking, learning, memory, and the like.

By Robert Sternberg the cognitive science has been defined as "an interdisciplinary activity that deals with thinking and intelligence, and it includes philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics and anthropology" (2002, p. 11). Cognitions are examined in a scientific way and in accordance with methodologies of the above-mentioned disciplines. The goal of cognitive science is to understand how human mind functions based on the study of processes which concern representations. It also seeks to respond to persistent epistemological issues, especially those dealing with the nature of knowledge, its elements, resources, development and utilization (GARDNER, 1985, p. 6).

In the field of literary theory, the impact of cognitive science has been reflected mainly in the emergence of cognitive literary science and psychology of literature.

Cognitive literary science

This branch of literary science contributes to the reconsideration of the goals, knowledge and conclusions of traditional literary science by taking into account the procedural competences (perception, reading, memory, attention, speech competence, thinking, etc.) applied in the processes of literary production and reception (KUZMÍKOVÁ, 2011, p. 17). The starting point and the premise of cognitive approach to literature is to consider works of fiction as manifestations of a creative mind in general, its components and processes, since "the literary (artistic) process employs identical methods and ways of mental coding, the same cognitive architecture, as well as the same functions of short-term, long-term and working memory activated as in common speech and in everyday life. Metaphorical imagination is the foundation of human thinking and language throughout its range "( KUZMÍKOVÁ, 2011, p. 17).

Cognitive sciences are generally founded on the premise that "image" of the (objective) world in human consciousness is formed on the basis of interaction between external stimuli and internal physiological-mental processes. Human beings do not perceive the exogenous world as an objective reality, but they perceive and experience only its constructed and structuralized version; similarly in the process of creation and reproduction of (real or fictional) stories (narratives), pieces of information are combined and fused in various ways, modified or deleted.1

Nowadays, the cognitive literary studies include these relatively independent branches: cognitive rhetoric, cognitive poetics, cognitive narratology, cognitive aesthetics of reception, cognitive history of literature and evolutionary literary theory (LOZINSKAJA, 2007, p. 8).

Cognitive rhetoric is mainly concerned with rhetorical figures.

In the field of cognitive poetics, Reuven Tsur is the most prominent person and his literary research focuses on the expressive, structural and affective aspects of human thinking and their manifestations in the literary process. It presumes a critical approach to the interpretation and analysis of literary texts in terms of cognitive linguistics and psychology (REDLING, 2012, s. 248). Topics addressed by cognitive poetics include, for example a study of conceptual metaphor, i. e. how conceptual bases of such metaphors interact with(in) the text as a whole.

Cognitive narratologists explore mental representations and cognitive processes, thanks to which we are able to understand narrative texts (EMMOTT, 1999). They are also concerned with a modal concept of possible worlds and that of text-as- world.

Cognitive aesthetics of reception studies mental processes applied in the process of reading literary texts.

Cognitive history of literature examines literary production and writing styles from the point of view of biological processes activated in human brains.

Finally, evolutionary theory of literature considers literature in terms of adaptive mechanisms of the humans in the process of evolution. It also seeks to answer the question why mankind has created a type of activity such as literature. Based on the findings of neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists that narration and listening to narrations can be another way leading to the elucidation of the evolution process of the human species; other scientists have begun to investigate so-called narrative universals – themes, types of characters, settings, and story plots that are common to all cultures on a global scale. In 2006, Jonathan Gottschall discovered a relevant match in the descriptions of romantic love in folk tales originating from different cultures and from different historical periods (HSU, 2008, p. 50). Before, the notion of romantic love has not been considered a cultural universal, because in many countries the marriage is just a consequence of economic and/or social factors. Other discovered thematic universals were human desires and needs. Hogan found that more than two-thirds of the most prominent stories in cultural traditions around the world were essentially variations of three narrative motifs, patterns or prototypes as he had called them. The first of these were tribulations of (romantic) love, the second one a struggle for power, and the third one was connected with a sacrifice in the sense of social redemption (for example, a community rescue from famine or other kinds of destruction) (HOGAN, 2003).

Psychology of literature

The prerequisites for the existence of a relatively recent interdisciplinary branch of science called psychology of literature (mainly according to ŠTUBŇA, 2016a, p. 74) are:

  • awareness of a connection between psychology and literature,
  • the fact that psychology is concerned with observation and explanation of patterns and motivation of human behavior on the one hand; and the fact that literature depicts behavioral manifestations of human intentions and opinions, and explains the motivation of characters' behavior in interaction with other agents, with the environment and in relation to themselves,
  • the premise that motives of the human mind can be elucidated by observing human behavior; and the fact that the awareness of psychological motivation of an individual makes it possible to predict his/her future behavior.2

From a psychological point of view "reading (fiction) is an internal dialogue based on the need to share a life problem. Given the premise that a reader is involved in the story plot, this dramatic confrontation is realized by means of a reader´s inner speech – in a dynamic stream of ideas, feelings and thoughts" (NAKONEČNÝ, 1965, s. 72). Readers identify with one of the characters on the basis of psychic similarity or similar life events.

Sometimes readers identify with a character that has the opposite "destiny" as they do. Thus they constantly anticipate and think about what will happen and how the story will continue. The confrontation between the reader's ideas (expectations) and events in a fictional world, is a source of emotional charge that enhances further reading (ŠTUBŇA, 2016b, p. 77) The psychological (cognitive, emotional) identification of the reader with one of the characters in the story is referred to as narrative transport. Melanie Green's research in 2004 confirmed that prior knowledge and personal reader's experience are key factors in determining the reader's involvement in the story and characters' behavior. Another research has shown that in persons with markedly developed empathy or capacity for mentalization,3 a major tendency to identify with one of the characters, with the plot or the story environment was found.

According to psychologist Thomas McIntyre, the psychological effect of a fictional book on the reader results in three processes:

  • 1) identifying with the story's main character and the events s/he experiences,
  • 2) catharsis in terms of emotional engagement in the story and the subsequent release of strong or repressed emotions in a safe environment,
  • 3) recognizing solutions that the story offers (MCINTYRE, 2004).

Based on the personal experience (both of a reader and of a researcher), we believe that point one should be modified as follows: "identifying with some of the story character(s)" and point three should be completed as follows: "recognizing solutions and the potential that the story offers" meaning other potential effects of literary works of art on the reader, e. g. value ladder re-evaluation or confirmation, imaginary adventure experience, motivational element or others.

According to recent findings in the field of personality theory, a person is in a state of permanent construction (or deconstruction) and reconstruction of his/her "self" (GERGEN, 1991). Over the course of life, s/he reveals and transforms existing parts of his/her personality, creating new ones and trying to integrate all of them in a meaningful and consistent whole, i. e. his/her life story (as a form of personal narrative). Narativeness is a natural disposition of the human mind which involves reflection of the reality, as well as its interpretation.4

Haman, in his book entitled Literature from the viewpoint of readers (Literatura z pohledu čtenářů), gives two main suggestions that lead the reader to choose a specific book:

  • 1) the need for self-awareness (it occurs when a person is facing an important life decision, or considering his/her possibilities and constraints in an effort to find the optimal solution to a problem);
  • 2) the need for self-forgetfulness (reading allows us to escape from unsatisfactory life situations).

Psychological functions of literature

The psychological effect induced by a work of literary art depends not only on mental dispositions of the reader, but also on the social circumstances in which s/he has been raised or located. Every reader approaches a book of fiction activating his/her individual endocept – a personal fund including both consciousness and subconsciousness (PSTRUŽINA, 1994, p. 7). His/her disposition to understand a literary text also depends on such factors as cultural, social and economic conditions of his/her life, social status, personality traits, intelligence type, education degree, interests, current personality orientation, etc. All components of the reader's endocept influence how a literary work is interpreted, and vice versa, each literary work affects all its components, thereby contributing to the development of personality structure of the reader (PSTRUŽINA, 1994, p. 7).

According to Jaroslav Křivohlavý, the psychologically5 relevant functions of reading fiction are:

  • 1) information function – aims to an increase in the level of subjective and objective knowledge;
  • 2) educational function – represents attitudes and opinions that can broaden the reader's educational background; literature possibly serves as a model for future actions;
  • 3) "mirror" function – allows the reader to compare author's views with his/her own, which may possibly lead to its reassessment and restructuring;
  • 4) identification function – means associating closely (mentally and/or emotionally) with the characters of a story;
  • 5) purifying function – refers to the potential of psychic catharsis, i. e. elimination of the actual psychological burden from the reader´s mind;
  • 6) aesthetic function – can satisfy man's desire for beauty and harmony;
  • 7) relaxation – means that literature brings relaxation and release of tension (KŘIVOHLAVÝ, 1987).

From a psychological point of view readers subconsciously approach a fictional work of art in terms of psychoanalysis, since reading (i. e. being involved in a fictional world) serves them as a compensatory mechanism in situations of cognitive or emotional deficiency (lack of emotional support, seeking help or a suitable pattern of behavior, searching for meaning in life, etc.) (ŠTUBŇA, 2016c, p. 36). The psychological purpose of reading fiction does not necessarily consist in revealing a symbolic meaning of a work of literary art, but in activating psycho-dynamic processes in reader's mind, in discovering and understanding the unconscious parts of his/her "self". Based on this premise, Rudolf Lesňák distinguished six main types of readers:

  • 1) rational (critical) – is focused on cognitive aspects of reading;
  • 2) aesthetic – focuses mainly on the artistic expression of a literary text;
  • 3) utilitarian – concentrates on the practical use of acquired knowledge;
  • 4) social type – reading affects his/her behavior;
  • 5) ethical – evaluates reading in terms of educational activity;
  • 6) emotional – identifies with one of the characters or the environment (HAMAN, 1991, p. 7).

Research areas within the psychology of literature

The theoretical bases and research field of the psychology of literature have not still been defined completely and unanimously. In our monograph published in 2017 (Psychology of literature – Psychológia literatúry) we proposed to discern several research directions within the discipline and to consider as separate areas. For the purpose of this study we complete the previous suggestion as follows:6

  • 1) literary production as such (literary works of art considered as a whole): A Jungian approach to literature (KNAPP, 1984), Catharsis in Literature (ABDULLA, 1985);
  • 2) a particular literary genre: Rozprávky z pohľadu kognitívnej psychológie (ŠTUBŇA, 2016e), On the psychology of detective stories and related problems (BELLAK, 1945);
  • 3) a particular literary movement: New Psychologies and Modern Assessments: Rethinking Classics in Literature, Including Film and Music (KNAPP, 2010), Toward a science of the heart: romanticism and the revival of psychology (SCHNEIDER, 1998);
  • 4) a particular (ethnical) literature: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (CAIRNS, 1993), Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (TATE, 1998);
  • 5) a particular social, or ideological movement (for example religious or political): Feminist reconstructions in Psychology: Narrative, Gender, and Performance (GERGEN, 2001);
  • 6) a particular author´s production: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (ARMSTRONG, 2001);
  • 7) a particular literary work: Pinocchio a Jungove archetypy kolektívneho nevedomia (ŠTUBŇA, 2016f), Underlying motivation in Pirandello´s Six Characters in Search of an Author: a psychoanalytic view (WANGH, 1976);
  • 8) a psychic disposition of human mind to create, mediate and interpret (literary) narratives: The mind and its stories. Narrative universals and human emotions (HOGAN, 2003), Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology and the Brain (FIREMAN – MCVAY – FLANAGAN, 2003), etc.


Cognitive literary science as well as psychology of literature are relatively recent interdisciplinary branches to which the scientific community has begun to pay serious attention only towards the end of the 20th century. Despite their indisputable raison d´etre (already Aristotle dealt with the importance of catharsis in his Poetics), this delay can be explained by the fact that psychology first meant to establish itself as a science (DANZINGER, 1997), proving its scientific character through comparisons (and relations) of psychological findings with those of natural sciences (biology, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.). At that period, literature and art represented subjectivity which psychology so strongly tried to eliminate.


ABDULLA, A. K. Catharsis in Literature. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.

ARMSTRONG, P. Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 2001.

BELLAK, L. On the psychology of detective stories and related problems. Psychoanalitical Review 1945, Vol. 45, p. 403–407.

CAIRNS, D. L. The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

DANZINGER, K. Naming the mind: how psychology found its language. London: Sage, 1997.

EMMOTT, C. Narrative comprehension: a discourse perspective. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1999.

FIREMAN, G. D. – McVAY, T. E. – FLANAGAN, O. J. Narative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

GERGEN, M. M. Feminist reconstructions in Psychology: Narrative, Gender, and Performance. London: Sage Publications, 2001.

GOTTSCHALL, J. Literature, Science, and New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2008.

GREEN, M. C. Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes 2004, No. 38, p. 247–266.

HAMAN, A. Úvod do studia literatury a interpretace díla. Praha: H&H, 1999.

HOGAN, P. C. The mind and its stories. Narrative universals and human emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

HSU, J. The secrets of storytelling. Scientific American Mind 2008, Vol. 19, p. 46–51.

KNAPP, B. L. A Jungian approach to literature. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

KNAPP, J. V. New Psychologies and Modern Assessments: Rethinking Classics in Literature, Including Film and Music. Style 2010, Vol. 44, No. 1-2.

KŘIVOHLAVÝ, J. Biblioterapie. Československá psychologie 1987, Vol. 31, No. 5, s. 472–477.

KUZMÍKOVÁ, J. Kognitívne súvislosti literárneho procesu. (Krátky prehľad kognitívne orientovanej literárnej vedy). World Literature Studies 2011, Vol. 3, No. 3, s. 15–27.

LOZINSKAJA, E. V. Literatura kak myšlenie. Kognitivnoje literaturovedenie na rubeže XX – XXI vekov. Moskva: Ran.Inion.

McINTYRE, T. How to use psycho-educational interventions: Bibliotherapy. London: Random House, 2004.

MOGHADDAM, F. M. From ‘psychology in literature’ to ‘psychology is literature’: an exploration of boundaries and relationships. Theory and psychology 2004, No. 14, p. 505–525.

NAKONEČNÝ, M. Psychologie čtenáře. 1 díl. Praha: Ústřední dům armády, 1965.

PSTRUŽINA, K. Etudy o mozku a myšlení. Praha: Československý spisovatel, 1994.

SCHNEIDER, K. J. Toward a science of the heart: romanticism and the revival of psychology. Americal Psychologist 1998, Vol. 53,No. 3, p. 277–289.

SCHWARTZOVÁ, M. Úvod do kognitivní lingvisitiky. Praha: Dauphin, 2009.

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ŠTUBŇA, P. (a) Psychológia literatúry – výzva pre tradičné literárne vedy. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXIV. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 73–81.

ŠTUBŇA, P. (b) Kognitívny prístup k čítaniu odborných a beletristických textov. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXVI. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 73-80.

ŠTUBŇA, P. (c) Biblioterapia. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXV. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 34-45.

ŠTUBŇA, P. (d) Naratívna psychológia a psychoterapia. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXV. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 78-89.

ŠTUBŇA, P. (e) Rozprávky z pohľadu kognitívnej psychológie. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXVII. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 99–107.

ŠTUBŇA, P. (f) Pinocchio a Jungove archetypy kolektívneho nevedomia. Jazykovedné, literárne a didaktické kolokvium XXXVII. Bratislava: Z-F Lingua, 2016, s. 43–50.

ŠTUBŇA, P. Psychológia literatúry. Bratislava: Univerzita Komenského, 2017.

TATE, C. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

WANGH, M. Underlying motivation in Pirandello´s Six Characters in Search of an Author: a psychoanalytic view. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 1976, Vol. 42, No. 2, p. 309–328.

Mgr. Pavol Štubňa, PhD. currently works as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Romanesque languages, Faculty of Arts, Comenius University where he teaches courses on Italian Literature and Literary Translation. He specializes in cognitive science applied to the theory of literature and in relatively recent interdisciplinary branch of science called psychology of literature.

Contact: Department of Romaneque languages, Faculty of Arts, Comenius University, Gondova 2, Bratislava, e-mail:

[1] According to Monika Schwartzová (2009, p. 65), all cognitive processes in humans are determined in a decisive way by memory functions. Semantic lexical records are stored in a memory store – in a long-term memory as so-called lexical inputs. A unit of a mental organization whose role is to store pieces of knowledge is called a term. The terms are stored in the long-term memory in complex schemes called frames, scenarios or scenes. For example, a scenario/a scheme of swimming includes a swimmer, swimming as such, a bathing costume, a waterbody and its surroundings, etc. Thanks to these schemes we can complete a missing information, to understand an incomplete utterance which is often encountered in the literary works of art.

[2] Fathali Moghaddam (2004) critically assesses three categories of possible relationships between psychology and literature which differ in levels of abstraction. The first category entitled ‘psychology in literature’ comprises (A1) literature as a source of psychological data and (A2) literature as a source of insight for psychologists. The second category focuses on the nature and role of literature, and it involves: (B1) literature as an independent variable in psychological research, (B2) literature as a dependent variable in psychological research and (B3) literature as a domain of human behavior to be better understood through lens of psychology. The third category represents the highest level of abstraction in terms of relationship between psychology and literature. It comprises: (C1) depiction of psychology as nomothetic and literature as idiographic science, (C2) psychology as culture-free and literature as culture-bound discipline, (C3) psychology as dealing with actual worlds, contrasted with literature as dealing with possible worlds, and (C4) the possibility that psychology is literature.

[3] The ability to understand mental states of others. It enables us to perceive and interpret human behavior in terms of intentional mental states (beliefs, needs, desires, feelings, goals, etc.)

[4] Basic concepts utilized in narrative psychology and narrative psychotherapy are: story (narration), narrative truth, narrative identity and narrative knowledge. More in Naratívna psychológia a psychoterapia. (ŠTUBŇA, 2016).

[5] As well as bibliotherapeutically – at conscious or unconscious level.

[6] In italic we give examples of treatise, paper, dissertation, etc. dealing with the area defined above.

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