New paper: Your brain on comics

I’m very excited to announce the publication of my newest paper,”Your brain on comics: A cognitive model of visual narrative comprehension” in Topics in Cognitive Science. This journal issue is actually a themed issue edited by me about visual narratives, and this paper is my personal contribution.

This paper in many ways is a culmination of about 10 years of experimental research asking “how do we comprehend a sequence of images?” Much of this work comes from my studies measuring people’s brainwaves while they read comics, but it integrates this work with research from fields of discourse, event cognition, and other related disciplines. Here, I tie this work together in a cognitive model to provide an explanation for what happens in the brain when you progress through a sequence of images. My emphasis on brain studies gives the overall endeavor a neurocognitive focus, although the model itself is not specific to the brain.

The primary paper focuses on the evidence for two levels of representation in processing a sequence of images: a semantic structure, that computes the meaning, and a narrative structure, which organizes and presents that meaning in sequencing. In addition, I discuss how these mechanisms are connected to other aspects of cognition, like language and music processing, and I discuss the role of expertise and fluency in comprehending sequential images.

Overall, this is the first full processing theory of visual narrative comprehension, making it a significant marker in the growth of this research field.

The paper is readable online with Open Access, though a downloadable pdf is available here, and via my downloadable papers page. Here’s the abstract:

The past decade has seen a rapid growth of cognitive and brain research focused on visual narratives like comics and picture stories. This paper will summarize and integrate this emerging literature into the Parallel Interfacing Narrative-Semantics Model (PINS Model)—a theory of sequential image processing characterized by an interaction between two representational levels: semantics and narrative structure. Ongoing semantic processes build meaning into an evolving mental model of a visual discourse. Updating of spatial, referential, and event information then incur costs when they are discontinuous with the growing context. In parallel, a narrative structure organizes semantic information into coherent sequences by assigning images to categorical roles, which are then embedded within a hierarchic constituent structure. Narrative constructional schemas allow for specific predictions of structural sequencing, independent of semantics. Together, these interacting levels of representation engage in an iterative process of retrieval of semantic and narrative information, prediction of upcoming information based on those assessments, and subsequent updating based on discontinuity. These core mechanisms are argued to be domain-general—spanning across expressive systems—as suggested by similar electrophysiological brain responses (N400, P600, anterior negativities) generated in response to manipulation of sequential images, music, and language. Such similarities between visual narratives and other domains thus pose fundamental questions for the linguistic and cognitive sciences.

Cohn, N. (2019). Your brain on comics: A cognitive model of visual narrative comprehension. Topics in Cognitive Science. doi:10.1111/tops.12421


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