Monday, February 23, 2015

Films and Facts

I recently reviewed for PsycCRITIQUES The imitation game (Oatley, 2014). It’s a film about the life of Alan Turing, founder of modern computing and artificial intelligence, and important contributor to cognitive science. The film is a good one, and it’s been well received. Many people will not have heard of Turing or the contribution he made during World War II at the British Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (click here) to breaking German codes, and hence to defeating the Nazis and probably shortening the War, perhaps by as much as two years. It’s good that the film tells audiences something about this. But Turing is someone I happened to know about. I did not enjoy the film as much as many of my friends did because for me the misinformation in the film was irritating. Why, I think to myself, does the film industry use the caption “based on a true story,” as if this somehow implies that a film with this designation is better than one drawn from a novel, or short story, or written by a scriptwriter?  Documentaries have a dedication to truth, but why in movies are there no genres that correspond to history or biography in which filmed events are anchored in known facts and evidence?

In the New York Times Sunday Review section, of 15 February this year, Jeff Zacks, who has done very interesting research on events in movies (Zacks, 2013) wrote a piece for the column Gray Matter in which he discussed how people remember incidents and issues from historical films that aren’t true, and which don’t appear in histories or biographies. These incidents and issues are inserted by film-makers because they think that they make for a better story. In the New York Times piece Zacks cites, but does not give references for, two studies that relate to this issue. The references are below. In a study by Butler et al. (2009), students read a text on a piece of history and watched a film clip on the same subject. In a test, one week later, they better remembered events that were seen in the clip and had also read about, than those who recalled information from the text without having seen a film clip about it. When, however, the film’s information contradicted information from the text, subjects often recalled the false information from the film. Umanath et al. (2012) repeated the experiment but asked the students to monitor the films for inaccuracies. Even when they had done this, tests of recall often showed they had remembered not the correct information from the text but the misinformation from the movie. 

In his New York Times article, Zacks writes that what is going on here is that we are better at remembering events than at remembering the source of events, and that this usually makes sense as it’s the events themselves that are likely to be the most important. The trouble with inaccurate information in movies is that we may remember it, and believe it to be true, even when we don’t remember that the film was only “based on a true story.” Umanath et al. did however find one technique that helped. If the misinformation was identified at the time it was seen in the film then its influence was substantially reduced. 

So, if you haven’t seen The imitation game, and think you might go, here are some of its inaccuracies, so that you can recognize them at the time. Turing was eccentric but did not have a stammer. He did not suffer official opposition of the kind depicted in the film. He did not invent and build the machine to decode the Nazi Enigma code all by himself; he had important collaborators, who included Gordon Welshman (who does not appear in the film). The woman to whom Turing becomes engaged, Joan Clarke, did not apply to join Bletchley Park and be mistaken as a typist. She won a double first in mathematics at Cambridge and was recruited by Welshman. And so on. And so on. You can read more about the inaccuracies in an article by Caryl (2015) in the New York Review of Books.

In the Wikipedia article on The imitation game the following appears, in relation to the film’s inaccuracies.
In a January 2015 interview with The Huffington Post in response to general complaints about the level of historical accuracy in the film, its screenwriter Moore said: "When you use the language of 'fact checking' to talk about a film, I think you're sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don't fact check Monet's 'Water Lilies'. That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That's the goal of the piece.
Yesterday evening Graham Moore won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his work on this film. Good for him. All the same, it sounds from his Huffington Post quote that if he were painting Monet’s “Water Lilies,” he might replace some of the lilies with orchids because they are more valuable.

Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F. M., Lyle, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Using popular films to enhance classroom learning: The good, the bad, and the interesting. Psychological Science, 20, 1161-1168.

Caryl, C. (2015, February 5). Saving Alan Turing from his friends. New York Review of Books, 42 (2), 19-21. 

Oatley, K. (2014) Coded messages. Review of The Imitation Game (2014) dir. Morten Tyldum, PsycCRITIQUES, 59 (52), pp. [np]

Umanath, S., Butler, A. C., & Marsh, E. (2012). Positive and negative effects of monitoring popular films for historical inaccuracies. Applied Cognitive Science, 26, 556-567. 

Zacks, J. M. (2013). Constructing event representations during film comprehension. In A. P. Shimamura (Ed.), Psychocinematics: Exploring cognition at the movies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zacks, J. M. (2015, February 15). Why movie "facts" prevail. New York Times, p. SR 12. 

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things: A Review

 Cover of The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber does something remarkable in his novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014). He creatively, and gently but resolutely, sidesteps all those script variations on the aliens theme that make one yawn when reading sci-fi, and the variations on mission stories that make one stop at the blurb on the cover. And the way he does it makes for a very enjoyable read.

His  main character, thirty-something Peter Leigh, is an English Christian minister who has made it through a rigorous selection process to be granted the opportunity to go to a planet far away to minister to the natives. Faber derails our expectations in small ways and large. In the human colony where Peter will be stationed, no one carries a weapon or is engaged in any way in militaristic colonial pursuits. And Peter is not the first minister to work with the natives on the planet Oasis: indeed a good many of the natives already know about the Gospel from an earlier minister, and are already converts to Christianity – so convincingly so that they have names such as Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, Jesus Lover Three, and so on, and know much of what is written in “the book of strange new things,” (125), the Oasan’s phrase for the Bible. Thus our main character will not get the glory for the original conversion of the natives. Whatever his role on Oasis, it will be, already, in some sense second-order.

When one of the experts on the space capsule headed to Oasis asks him about his role on the planet, he replies, “’I don’t really think of myself as a preacher.’ …. ’I’m just someone who loves people and wants to help them, whatever shape they’re in.’” (49). Peter’s past is one of drug abuse, alcoholism, and at times, homelessness. But his redemption came with meeting and falling in love with Bea, a Christian nurse who tends to him in hospital after he had broken his ankles trying to escape from police. He begins to read Christian scriptures with her, converts to Christianity, and they marry. But redemption already? How can a main character already have found redemption at the beginning of a 584 page novel? Isn’t that supposed to happen at the end of a story? Here we have a main character who is already redeemed, and already mature, empathetic, open to otherness, and not in it for the glory. In a sense, everything is already done. How could an intricate and engaging novel spring from such beginnings? 

But all of this ostensibly anticlimactic preparatory work is just Faber very deftly suggesting that a novel set among aliens on another planet need not involve a great clash of weapons; that a minister need not be a missionary, whose primary goal is to introduce a people to his God in the first place; that redemption need not happen only once in a lifetime; and that feeling that one loves people and wants to help them is not necessarily the end of a growth trajectory. None of these themes develops in the way that it might typically be allowed to, and I find Faber’s restraint regarding each admirable. 

What this clearing away allows is the consideration of other more interesting questions, as they manifest in this singular setting: How do you maintain a relationship with your partner from many billions of miles away, when the only way of communicating is a form of e-mail? (Time-differentials are of no consequence in this futuristic world – Peter knows before leaving that he can return to earth and rejoin his partner at some point.) Does the quality of a relationship depend in any important way on how well we can express our feelings, or how well we can envision our beloved in their absence? How strange do one's own experiences have to be, in one's own judgment, before they are no longer communicable? What is the relationship between one’s love for a partner and one’s love for God?  How does a Christian minister witness to a group of creatures whose attainment of Christian morality in some ways rivals his own? How do you share the stories of the New and Old Testaments among creatures whose planets have no seas, no mountains, no deserts, and who themselves seem to have no blood, no sexual organs, no eyes, and no teeth? How can a universal message of God’s love be universal in the absence of these physical entities so often used symbolically in scriptures? And further, is a group of socially unattached, highly-motivated, largely unemotional, and accomplished scientists the ideal group to be resident researchers in an alien world? What can and can’t such a group do toward understanding the natives and their world?

Over the course of the novel, it’s evident that having found faith was not the culmination of Peter’s spiritual journey, but a beginning. One night, in a revealing scene, he experiences what he calls his “Crying Jag” (297), which is a kind of unspoken confessional, after waking from a dream he cannot remember, during one of his extended stays among the Oasans. He cries for hours and hours “about the weirdest things, things he had long forgotten, things he would not have imagined could rank very high in his roll-call of griefs” (297). He remembers moments either when he had done harm to others, or when those he loves had had disappointments, or had harm inflicted on them by others. He cries until he can cry no more. Then, from somewhere in the new church building where he sleeps, he hears Jesus Lover Five, whom he did not know had been present, address him. Jesus Lover Five is Peter’s favorite among the Oasans, and another example of Faber’s aesthetically-pleasing restraint – we never learn her or his sex, nor does Peter, no matter the inquiries and body-language reading that he engages in. But Peter loves this Oasan. “A very long song” she or he says, apparently not being able to distinguish song from wailing. She quotes a verse from Jeremiah: “Long ago, the Lord said to Israel, I have loved you, my people.” (300). The invocation of the covenant between God and the Hebrews is an overarching reminder that what matters in the end is relationship. It’s about I and Thou, before, throughout and after grief occasioned by one’s own deep inadequacies or those of others. The Oasan understands Peter, just as surely as herself, or himself, to be included in this sacred covenant. 

Through the correspondence between Peter and his partner back on Earth, we watch their relationship deteriorate. On the ground, his friendship -- or is it perhaps more interpersonal ministry? -- with the female colleague, the colony’s pharmacist, develops. He must decide if he should stay on Oasis or return to a catastrophe-afflicted Earth and a severely morally deteriorating population of Earthlings, as well as to an alienated partner, or stay on Oasis where his faith is floundering. Faber’s aesthetic restraint throughout the novel is evident here, too. There’s no predicting the end of this story from the genres this work might be said to rank among.

Faber, Michel. (2014). The Book of Strange New Things. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers, Ltd.


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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Quick Hits

Some notable pieces from elsewhere:

Kurt Vonnegut was deeply interested in the practice of writing fiction and the nature of narrative. This Washington Post article includes a video of his famous (and famously hilarious) lecture on narrative that includes his drawing of the "shapes of stories." The graphs of typical story structures are also re-drawn and presented in the article by a talented graphic artist name Maya Eilam.

The Guardian has published this piece by Stephen Marche in which he discusses his experiences having read a couple of text more than one hundred times: Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves. Such frequent re-reading creates an entirely unique experience in the reader, but one that illuminates the experiences that many of us have to other forms of narrative such as a favourite film or television episode.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Research Bulletin: Prosocial Videogames

Although many have studied the effects of violent videogames on aggression, very few have examined the potential positive outcomes of playing prosocial videogames (Yee, 2006). The narrative framing of a videogame, along with its content, can very much affect a player's experience. One exception to the focus on violent videogames is the work of Tobias Greitemeyer and his colleagues (2010). These researchers  examined the whether playing a prosocial videogames would affect emotions. Specifically, the authors hypothesized that exposure to a prosocial videogame would increase empathy and decrease schadenfreude. In the first experiment, 56 participants were randomly assigned to play a prosocial videogame named Lemmings or a neutral videogame (i.e., Tetris). In Lemmings, a player helps a group of small creatures to arrive safely at the exit. In Tetris, a player positions falling geometrical shapes by rotating them. After 10 minutes of videogame playing, participants engaged in two ostensibly unrelated tasks. First, they read a vignette about the misfortunes of Paris Hilton, who was to be sentenced to jail for violating her probation. Participants then rated how they felt towards Paris Hilton with respect to their levels of schadenfreude, relief, and happiness. These three items were averaged to form a schadenfreude scale. Next, participants read two essays about misfortune, one in which the author broke up with his girlfriend and another in which the author broke his leg. Directly after each essay, participants rated how sympathetic, compassionate, and soft-hearted they felt towards the author. These three items were averaged to form an empathy scale. As predicted, the authors found that group who played Lemmings reported lower levels of schadenfreude towards Paris Hilton and higher empathy for two essay authors, compared to those who played Tetris. In the second experiment, 61 participants were randomly assigned to play one of three possible games: Lemmings (prosocial), Tetris (neutral), or Lammers(an antisocial videogame). Lamers is the aggressive version of Lemmings, in which a player trys to kill all the small creatures so that none reaches the exit. After 10 minutes of video game playing, participants read a vignette about the misfortunes of Dieter Bohlen, a German entertainer, who was robbed of 60,000 Euros during a home invasion. Participants then responded to the same measure of schadenfreude as in Experiment 1, and indicated how empathetic they felt towards the entertainer. The authors found that (a) those who played Lemmings reported lower schadenfreude and higher empathy for Dieter Bohlen than both Tetris and Lammers groups, and (b) there were no significant differences Lemmings and Tetris groups on schadenfreude and empathy. Overall, this study suggests that the effects of playing videogames depends on the content of the game (e.g., violent or prosocial), and that exposure to prosocial videogames may temporarily increase prosocial emotions and decrease antisocial emotions. 

Greitemeyer, T., Osswald, S., & Brauer, M. (2010). Playing Prosocial Video Games Increases Empathy and Decreases Schadenfreude. Emotion, 10, 796–802.

Yee, N. (2006). The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online Graphical Environments. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15, 309-329.

- Posted by Jin Kang

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Re-labeling a fierce wind: Listening more to internal dialogue


 I commuted this morning for the first time to my new office against a head wind that was strong enough to beg for an additional adjective. The wind was whipping off the hills to the north and pouring into the valley with such strength that it stopped my bike on downhill slopes, and it took herculean pedaling to get to work in just under twice the amount of time I had estimated it would take. My route takes me around the bay end of Otago harbor, and especially as I got down to the south side of the water, the wind was not only trying to push me off my bicycle, it was also throwing fistfuls of water my way, and snapping branches down into my path. Passing through the lee of my favorite pohutukawa trees almost knocked me off my bike in the other direction, the contrast was so sharp when sheltered.

In this kind of retrospect, it is easier to deconstruct the various parts of my experience of the wind, and analyze their relationship to my emotional state in relation to it. At the time, however, my main reaction was terse. I kept finding myself exclaiming (to myself) about what a fierce wind this was, or how wicked.

This was clearly a practiced response—the kind of thing one might say to a companion facing into a stiff wind, perhaps to keep spirits up, or to check in to see whether a course correction might be in order, or if the goal is worth the punishment of the wind. It certainly summons a certain attention to the wind: is this the kind of wind that is bringing a change in the weather I need to pay attention to?

My immediate response was surprisingly normative: I found myself chastising my inner wind labeller. True, the wind is from the north northwest, and my northern hemisphere self braces against the Alberta Clipper-eque cold that often signals at the time of year. But here in Dunedin in summer, what if this is a warm equatorial burst? Pedal harder. And I would no sooner concentrate on pedaling again when I would hear the first voice start up again about what a fierce wind that was.

In the weeks that have followed since I wrote the first lines above on my first commute, this conversation with myself has stuck with me, and has made me notice some things about internal dialogue. First was its pre-formedness. I was not so much searching for descriptions for what I was experiencing as I was discovering what I was experiencing by the way my internal voice was narrating it to me. This was accentuated by the dramatic nature of the effortful windy bike ride, and my consequently narrowed mental bandwidth. When I wondered, somewhat involuntarily, “why is this so hard?” a preformed answer was already there with an explanation about the ferocity of the wind.

This was, secondly, not just a descriptive note, but a preformed normative analysis that constructed the wind as a character! By assigning qualities like fierce and wicked to the wind, my internal weather monitor was personifying what I was “up against,” and providing me a set of similarly preformed schemata for responding: fight, struggle, perhaps retreat. It was only through the second part of the internal dialogue that I could access a perhaps more interesting schema like explore—or even reconsider those hasty judgments that come from experience in a very different place.


Although fairly mundane, these observations about the qualities of internal dialogue made me start to pay considerably new attention to how much I was relying on presets to interpret and orient in new situations. And especially since I was already bringing the frame of reorienting myphenological expectations in a hemispherically reversed seasonal transition, I had yet a new tool for noticing when and how that second part of the conversation could be encouraged, figuring out what patterns I am observing, and how those work.


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Monday, January 26, 2015

Research Bulletin: Gender and Reading

The issue of gender and reading continues to be of interest for OnFiction so that, for instance, a few weeks ago (click here) we commented on the study in which Marisa Bortolussi and colleagues (2010) found that both women and men preferred male protagonists. Is this result due to congruence with the stereotype in Western industrial society that men are the ones who do things out there in the world? Maybe it’s different in Russia where I have heard it said that the women do everything, and the men do everything else.

The gender differences of one of the first studies in our group in Toronto surprised us. The study was a central part of Angela Biason’s PhD thesis (1993), and it was reported in Oatley (1996). We asked 59 high-school students to read one of two short stories about adolescent identity. One was “Red Dress” by Alice Munro. It had a female protagonist. The other was “Sucker” by Carson McCullers. It had a male protagonist. We adapted the method of Larson and Seilman (1988) and asked the participants, as they read, to mark an M in the margin if they experienced a memory coming to mind, and to mark an E in the margin if they experienced an emotion. We counted up the Ms and Es for each story. The 12 girls who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 6.67 emotions as they were reading, and the 13 girls who read “Sucker” experienced 6.77 emotions (overall mean 6.72). By contrast, the 17 boys who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 2.88 emotions, and the 17 who read “Sucker” experienced 4.88 emotions (overall mean 3.88). (The overall means were significantly different as a function of gender at p < 0.02.)
We interpreted our results as meaning that high-school girls were much more involved than boys in these stories as they read them, and that the girls were equally able to experience emotions in themselves with both female and male protagonists. The high-school girls were willing to make a leap into another mind, they were equally able to identify with a female or male protagonist. By contrast, the boys were, overall, not only less willing to identify with the protagonist about whom they were reading, but they were particularly unwilling to make a leap into the mind of the female protagonist of “Red Dress.” We also asked both the girls and the boys to write a summary of the story, and we had these marked by their English teachers. There was no significant gender difference between the sets of marks, nor was there any significant difference between the expected marks of the girls and boys in English literature. The curriculum for the classes whose members we studied was typical for high school English literature: being able to give details of stories, and understand their themes. It puzzled us that these abilities were independent of girls' and boys' willingness to involve themselves in the stories they read.

What does this mean? One conclusion is that although high-school girls and boys were equally able to do as they were asked by their teachers of literature, the girls were more able to become involved with, and hence to take an interest in, stories in which the content was interpersonal, and had to do with understanding the self and others. As we reported in December 2013 (click here) the US National Endowment for the Arts found in their 2009 survey, based on 18,000 telephone interviews, that 58 % of women but only 42% of men had, in the previous year, read a novel a short story, a piece of poetry, or a play.

Biason, A. (1993). Emotional responses of high-school students to short stories. PhD, University of Toronto.  

Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.

Larsen, S. F., & Seilman, U. (1988). Personal remindings while reading literature. Text, 8, 411-429.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Oatley, K. (1996). Inference in narrative and science. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Modes of thought (pp. 123-140). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Image: Book cover of Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, which includes “Red Dress.” 
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