Crying, moving, and keeping it whole: what makes literary description vivid?

Elspeth Jajdelska, Christopher Butler, Steve Kelly, Allan McNeill, Katie Overy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Vividness is used in a range of senses which often conflate the intensity of an experience with the accuracy of mental images. In this article we consider the vividness of responses to literary descriptions of faces in the light of the psychology of face perception and the neuroscience of the mirror neuron system. We distinguish between intensity of experience and accuracy of mental images and compare two models of reader response to descriptions: the jigsaw model (the reader constructs a mental image from items of verbal information) and the experiential model (the reader has an emotional, embodied, and holistic response). We predict which aspects of facial description will provoke a vivid response in the experiential sense and discuss examples of literary descriptions of faces in the light of these predictions. We conclude with an illustration of how these insights can be used in literary history and interpretation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-463
Number of pages31
JournalPoetics Today: International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • mirror-neuron system
  • face recognition
  • ekphrarsis
  • imagery
  • construction
  • empathy
  • future
  • memory
  • common

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