Have you ever had the experience of being so caught up in the story you were reading, that you forgot the world around you and your troubles, and did not notice the time passing? Have you ever felt more present in the world of the story you were reading, than in the armchair in which you were reading the story at that time? Have you ever felt absorbed by a captivatingly good story, immersed in a characters’ emotional turmoil, transported to a beautiful fictional world?
Then you know exactly what my research is about: I investigate absorbing reading experiences. The field of absorption research lies at the center of a couple of overlapping research areas: literary studies, media psychology, empirical aesthetics and even neuropsychological and neuro-cognitive studies. I prefer to call my particular research nook empirical literary studies.
During my PhD I was mainly focused on the question of what it is in the text that makes people feel absorbed. Which text features increase or decrease absorption? In previous research on absorption, the focus has been primarily on the reader and only little systematic empirical investigation of the possible textual determinants of absorption has been conducted. Apart from that virtually no attention has been paid to the relationship between aesthetic experiences and absorption. Therefore I decided to investigate how different textual devices – both literary (foregrounding) and popular (suspense/curiosity) – can elicit different varieties of absorption experiences and subsequent evaluative responses in readers. The most important findings of my dissertation were that different text features indeed lead to different varieties of story world absorption and that foregrounding and story world absorption do not exclude each other in one reading experience (something that more traditional theories proposed). This last finding lead me to suggest that there might be different varieties of absorption besides story world absorption that can bring aesthetics into the realm of absorption research by positing that readers can just as well be absorbed in the form of a narrative as in its story and that absorption as a phenomenon could be seen as an aesthetic experience encompassing more than just escape and passive entertainment.
At the moment I am a Postdoc fellow and my current research is going back to what I like to call the roots of absorption: what is it that makes all of these different varieties of absorption absorption-like? What do all of these experiences have in common and how do I characterise ‘absorption proper’ without using metaphorical concepts? The reasons I am doing this is because I want to find the physiological markers of an absorption experience. Being able to specify what characterises an absorption experience physically will allow me to validate self-report measures of absorption that use metaphorical expressions to capture the experience. Apart from that, I believe that with the physiological signature of absorption I will be better equipped to find which text features change the nature of absorption experiences and how.