Story Immersion: Toward Fiction Synesthesia for Enhanced Reader Empathy

15:30, Friday 7 May 2021 (30 minutes)

Roxana Girju and Charlotte Lambert, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

Languages capture, to different degrees, the content of sensory perception. Yet, despite significant progress in language and perception, little consideration has been given to a wide descriptive coverage of the basic five senses and their combinations. We argue that a good starting point is fiction. Emotions are grounded in sensations and fiction writers weave their characters’ feelings from an exquisite description and blending of their sensory experiences. Empirical studies of such sensory contexts can bring new insights into the various strategies writers use to best immerse the reader into the characters’ worlds. This study reports encouraging preliminary empirical results on the semantic organization of English sensory descriptors in a corpus of over 8000 fiction books from Project Gutenberg. We introduce a large-scale data-driven approach based on distributional-semantic word embeddings to identify and uncover the vast sensory space. Starting with a compiled set of seed sensory descriptors (for each of the 5 senses) and their inflections, the model uncovers new sensory words and their combinations. The findings and the evocative visualizations promise to be of great value to those interested in sensory blending for a better understanding of perceptual spaces of sensory experiences in language in general and in narratives in particular.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign