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Professor's New Book Explores Psychology of Literature

Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (Palgrave Macmillan)
6/6/2012 —

Penn State DuBois Professor of Psychology John Johnson has coauthored a newly published book that examines the psychological impact that literature has on the mind, and how it can influence the behavior of the reader.


Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (Palgrave Macmillan) was written by a group authors, including Johnson and fellow psychologist Dan Kruger from the University of Michigan, and English professors Joe Carroll from the University of Missouri and John Gottschall from Washington and Jefferson College.


"The book is meant for both professionals and ordinary lovers of literature who are curious about how and why literature affects us psychologically," Johnson said.  "I and my coauthors believe that the human mind evolved both to tell stories and to be receptive to stories."


Johnson explained that people can often relate most with the classic "good guys" versus "bad guys" stories. 


"Our research indicates that one of the most important features of stories, both oral and written, is what literary experts call antagonistic structure, or the presence of "good guys" and "bad guys." Most readers are naturally inclined to become imaginatively involved in stories, experiencing specific emotions toward the good and bad characters as if they were real people, and these emotional reactions carry over when we put a book down, motivating moral behaviors in everyday life. "



Johnson and the rest of his coauthors first published an article on their research into the psychology of literature in 2009, titled Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels In conducting the initial research for the article, Johnson said the team discovered that reading good guy/bad guy stories may help to keep one's moral compass pointed in the right direction.  In fact, they theorized that some Victorian era authors may have written their works with that in mind.


"We found that protagonists evoked feelings of fondness and admiration, while antagonists aroused feelings of anger and contempt," Johnson said. "We believe that the purpose of this kind of literature is to activate emotions that encourage people to engage in ethical behavior in real life."


Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning is available for purchase through Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Graphing-Jane-Austen-EvolutionaryPerformance/dp/1137002409/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337694834&sr= -1

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