Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Recent Paleolithic Research in Tübingen, plus Presentation at the 22nd Biennial Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics (IAEA), Taipei, August 2012

Michael Ranta (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University)


An Exploratory Pilot Study on Pictorial Narrativity and Eye Scan Patterns

The philosophical debate on the nature of narrative has been mainly concerned with literary narratives, whereas forms of non-literary and especially pictorial narrativity have been rather neglected. Within traditional art history, however, the narrative potential of the visual arts has usually been taken for granted, though rarely by attempting to elucidate any deeper cognitive, semiotic, and philosophical aspects involved. The question whether narrative should be regarded as an exclusively verbal or verbally based (i.e. necessarily presupposing the receivers’ previous knowledge of verbally transmitted plots) phenomenon has of course been discussed within narratological research. Discussions on these lines have usually been more or less of a theoretical nature, although sometimes research from cognitive science has been taken into account. Nevertheless, empirical and psychological research may have an important contributing role to play, and it seems that scholars within narratology - compared to other branches of philosophy, most notably perhaps philosophy of mind - are somewhat too reluctant to recognize that role.

In this paper, I intend to outline how empirical studies making use of eye-tracking methods may help to clarify these issues. Numerous studies seem to have corroborated that eye movements are strongly synchronized with and indicative of cognitive processes going on during spoken or written word recognition, sentence processing and picture or visual scene encoding – and mental imagery in general. Now, as to the study of narrativity, which certainly is a quite complex, heterogeneous phenomenon, it would seem fruitful to focus upon some of its constituents which - according to common usage within narratological research - appear to belong to its core structure.  We suggest, without any claims of being exhaustive in this respect, that the following ones fruitfully could be considered within an experimental approach:

  1. Chronological ordering
  2. The establishment of causal agency and effects
  3. The establishment of goal-related agency and intended effects
  4. The establishment of breaks or deviations from/within canonical scripts or schemas

The purpose of this paper will be to discuss to which extent the comprehension and identification of narrative features as here outlined can be indicated by eye-tracking methods and to which extent there will be differences according to various viewing conditions, with and without the inclusion of explicit and specific verbal texts (rather than any tacit acquaintance with common action scripts, or the like) directing or influencing the narrative structuring of the used pictorial stimulus material. Put in another way, to which extent will there be intersubjective overlaps or regularities concerning the narrative comprehension of pictures? These differences and overlaps could be registered in form of verbal reports made by the beholders. However, it will also be hypothesized that concurrent saccadic movements and fixations, reflecting attention and underlying cognitive processing, might be correlated with the narrative structuring of pictorial stimuli. Preliminary results from a pilot study, making use of eye-tracking laboratory at Lund University, will be presented.