Monday, April 20, 2015

Mental life and action in literary stories

It has been found that at least two kinds of brain networks are involved when people read or listen to literary fiction. One network, which includes the anterior medial prefrontal cortex and the right temporo-parietal junction is called the mentalizing network. It is concerned with understanding other people, that is to say with theory-of-mind. Another area, which includes the motor cortex, is concerned with action.

Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems (2015) report that when people read or listen to stories there are individual differences in their preference for using one or other of these two networks, and hence for engaging in one or other of these two modes of thinking.

The researchers asked 18 people to lie in an fMRI machine while they listened to excerpts from three literary novels. The excerpts were scored for mentalizing content, that is to say for thoughts and beliefs of characters, and for action content, depictions of what characters did.

Some people with a preference for thinking about characters’ thoughts and beliefs in fiction showed high activation of their mentalization networks when they listened to excerpts with mentalizing content. At the same time they showed a correlated de-activation in their motor areas. Others showed a different pattern. They showed high activation in their motor networks when they listened to excerpts about what literary characters were doing. At the same time they showed a correlated diminution of activation of their mentalizing networks

Nijhof and Willems say that their study provides evidence of two qualitatively different styles of entering the simulated worlds of fiction. They say that: “Participants could be placed on a continuum of how much they relied on mentalizing or motor simulation while listening to literary fiction stories” (p. 12). They say, also, that these may not be the only two modes of literary engagement. They propose that this kind of study shows the value of neuro-imaging in our growing empirical understanding of how people immerse themselves in fiction.

Nijhof, A.D. & Willems, R. M. (2015). Simulating fiction: Individual differences in literature comprehension revealed with fMRI. PLoS One, 10, e0116492. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116492


Image: part of Nijhof & Willems’s Figure 1, showing areas of the right cortex including the  distributed mentalizing network in blue, and the more localized action network in yellow.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Research Bulletin: Hating characters so much they seem real

People who read books often develop strong feelings towards specific characters. Avid readers feel as if they “know” Harry Potter and perhaps even view him as a friend. This strong sense of affiliation towards characters can develop into something of a relationship, known as a parasocial interaction. These parasocial relationships can occur across many types of media. We can, for example, come to feel that we know and trust Dr. House on television, even though he’s just a fictional character. Real people who we only know through media, such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, can also become targets of our parasocial friendships. Recently, however, researchers have begun to expand their thinking in this area, wondering if we can also form intensely negative relationships with people we don’t know personally or who are purely fictional. Drs. Jayson Dibble (Hope College) and Sarah Rosaen (University of Michigan) examined this idea by asking 249 undergraduate students to either report on a television character that they liked or one they disliked. What they found was that both groups reported evidence of parasocial behaviors, such as talking at the character on TV as if s/he could hear and heed what was being said. For example, in response to a liked character one person reported saying “Aww, that was so sweet, Jesse.” In contrast, a person who was reporting on a disliked character recalled saying “You need to get some professional help” toward the TV. The researchers found that characters who were disliked were just as likely to elicit these kinds of parasocial behaviors as liked characters. However, participants who reported on their feelings toward liked characters reported more intense parasocial feelings relative to those who discussed a disliked character. It appears that knowing a character that we dislike intensely makes that character seem just as real to us as one that we are deeply attracted to.

Dibble, J. L. & Rosaen, S. F. (2011). Parasocial interaction as more than friendship:
Evidence for parasocial interactions with disliked media figures. Journal of Media Psychology, 23, 122–132.


* For a copy of the article, please contact R. Mar (see the 'About' section)

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Monday, April 6, 2015

In celebration of resting space

When I packed up my home kitchen five months ago, it was with a sense of wonder at the number of relationships embodied in the jars stached around the space. A rich map of food chain explorations were laid out there, and although it was a little messy and overwhelming, it provided a concrete illustration of how vividly my days are packed with building and maintaining relationships with people who do interesting things with food and society. Food is something that’s constantly demanding, though – people always need to eat, and food and society organizations always are doing interesting things, and being engaged in such a broad topic definitely puts one at risk of succumbing to the syndrome of being too busy. My busy refrigerator, despite being planted squarely in my kitchen, was a portrait of being pulled across a lot of relational space.

Today, as I take a break to let the kitchen floor in Dunedin dry after mopping it and look through the emptied out, wiped down cabinets, the emotion that bellies out behind my sternum and keeps me feeling as if this is something beyond just a normal day is a feeling more specific to this space. It’s a feeling not unlike what I felt clearing out my office last autumn, as well, although books confer another layer of feeling, perhaps something more outward directed in the way the food collection in my home kitchen felt. Here, the foods that taste like this place—the pohutukawa honey, the apricots—are coming with me, and it is just the space I am leaving behind.   

But a space isn’t an empty hull. One day traveling along University Avenue in St. Paul a few years back, I was struck sharply by a sign that said “Cocoon House,” advertising clothing for women. For a tantalizing moment, in the part of attention that notices and spins things out into fanciful detail before the appraising eye pays more rational attention and trims back the imagination, I saw that place as a silky luxuriant nest, filled with lounging women resting on the cocooning environment of the space they had built. As I scrub its corners and shoo out the myriad moths and grasshoppers who have wandered in over a summer of open doors and windows, this space has these layers, of the months of meals cooked and cooked for me, the exercises done, the pages written, the movies watched, games of cards played, even conversations home over the long internet cable under the Pacific Ocean anchored all from this room.

In both the academic and artistic communities in which I have been trained, there is a strong emphasis on the sabbatical space: the moving away from the ordinary, and finding a regular time away. The distance from the everyday task has been emphasized, and I have been curious about what one now finds in an away space, given the ubiquity of these internet cables that tie us to our working communications. There is the “I am not checking my mail this sabbatical” method, and someday I would like to try that. But there is also something far more prosaic in the way that a retreat to a simplified version of the same kind of day allows one to rest and reflect on the construction of that day.

Toward the beginning of this time, I wrote about my appreciation for the supportive material tasks that it can be hard to properly incorporate when one’s schedule has gotten too full: being able to enjoy hanging out the laundry, luxuriate in making breakfast, write an exploratory page while the mopped floor dries. I am taking the time to document this layer of experience because I see that most of my colleagues are as bad as I am at practicing sabbatical time. With the urgency of the social organizing work we do, reflective time is hard to take, even when we know how useful it is. But perhaps for those of us for whom the traditional “day off” or “vacation weeks” tend not to be a move away from work, per se, we can still take some of the blessing of sabbatical practices by incorporating them into the rhythm of what we do.

Make the space sacred, revel in its richness – and do everything in your power to make sure everyone else can do the same.

Step out of franticness, if only to watch it from a more restful space and try to pick it up again more purposefully. Pay your employees for time spent reflecting on what they have done (/don’t pile more work on them than they can do in the time – if necessary, see what you might glean from some of their reflection time to organize their tasks to meet what satisfies them, but do not only incorporate the enjoyment of rest for its productive purposes). Not all people will enjoy the space the way I do. But pay attention to see whether you might, because a space that reinforces your refresh button makes everything more enjoyable.



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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"On or about December 1910": When and Whence Literary Modernism, Really?



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It has been a pleasure this week reading and rereading two articles, written 90 years apart, by authors who are both trying to figure out, or at least to present what they presume they have figured out, concerning when literary Modernism happened and what it was exactly. Both articles approach the question by using a sieve method, asking what it is that Modernism was not trying to do or could not do, and then trying to patch together and coherently present what’s left.

In 1924, Virginia Woolf’s cryptically seductive, and arbitrary but bold selection of a year and month, even, when “human character changed” (5) referred to a moment in cultural history when novelists were discovering and producing novels demonstrating that “there is something permanently interesting in character in itself” (5). Understanding how to present that interest and ensuing observations was “an absorbing pursuit” and articulating it “an obsession” (6) for the group of writers (only later to be called “High Modernists”) most of whom had begun writing “on or about December 1910” (21), Woolf notes.

Woolf has not very nice words to say about novelists immediately preceding her generation. They give the public too much of what they want to hear; they respect too much the contemporary cultural “common ground” that values objects, social utility, tradition, and geneaology, over individuals and their emotional and psychological experiences. What she thought necessary was a closet clean-up through the slow but determined development of a “code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship” (21), an interaction that she compares to talking about the weather as an accepted way of seeking to make a stranger aware of one as a thinking and feeling other (as opposed, I should think, to simply an annoying occupant of a much-coveted seat on the subway, or the person in front of one in line to order a hamburger). Woolf does not fault her predecessors because their writing is not timeless, but precisely because it is timely. These writers knew what contemporary cultural code language invited readers to a more intimate relationship with writers and which frightened them away. But they did not take it upon themselves to change that code. But Woolf also admonished readers in words somewhat to this effect: don’t let yourself be frightened away – what’s coming up next among novelists will astound you. Woolf was trying to identify not only what the new tenor of the novel and poetry was, but what had led up to it.

Likewise, Melanie Conroy (2014) recently conducted a study in which she sought to discover in which decade(s) of the French novel there is empirical evidence of what critic Erich Kahler had called the “inward turn of narrative”, which was precisely what Woolf had been trying to account for. Conroy’s field is French literature, so she sought evidence of linguistic innovations in 384 French novels contained in the ARTFL-FRANTEXT database of French literature. This database contains digital versions of texts from the twelfth to the twentieth century and was developed and is maintained by the University of Chicago. She wanted to test whether linguistic innovations could account for the eventual movement toward a modernist aesthetic in the French novel. Conroy conducted a database search for instances of reporting clauses (specifically, se-dit-il, se-dit-elle, pensa-t-il, pensa-t-elle, pensa, se disait and pensait) and then created the metric of “Common reporting clauses per 10,000 words” for each decade of the period from 1800-1929. She found several peaks in the data, in the 1830’s, 1860’s, 1890’s, and 1920’s, and she found two “large increases” in this set of phrases, in the 1830s and between 1910 and 1929 (165). She says that the “inward turn” of the 1830’s was larger than that of the later period. The earlier increase comes at the beginning of French Realism, and the second within the period of high Modernism. She then analyzed individual novels within each decade span and focused on particular authors who most frequently used these reporting clauses.

I admire Conroy’s efforts to try to identify through linguistic markers the most intensely focused historical moment of literary Modernism in French novels, as well as the ingenuity of using the ARTFL-FRANTEXT database to pursue that objective. However, as Conroy’s study stands, it cannot comment on the questions it asks, because of both theoretical difficulties within the conception of the project, and empirical and statistical methodological problems.   

There is a deep wavering on Conroy’s part, it seems to me at least, concerning whether she believes that the linguistic markers she searches are evidence of the “inward turn” or that they are just pre-“inward turn” awareness of authorial concern with characters’ mental states. Are reporting clauses and mental state verbs more valuable for their absence in the early twentieth century, when examples of free indirect thought might be more in evidence, than for their presence in the nineteenth?  She calls the two peaks in reporting phrases and mental states “rival ‘inward turns’” (166). The article is entitled “Before the ‘Inward Turn,’” but she says her research question is “do reporting clauses and mental verbs occur more frequently in some authors, texts, or decades than elsewhere? If the frequency of these markers is significantly higher in them, these authors, books, or decades quite possibly engage in more thought representation and thereby strengthen the ‘inward turn’” (134). 

But is the strengthening by constituting the turn, or only by making possible the arrival of the more developed free indirect thought which itself constitutes the turn? How can free indirect thought be argued to be more developed than just using lots of reporting phrases and references to characters’ mental states? And if they are so very different, does one have anything to do with the other at the level of the reader’s sense of intimacy with the author, which was so important to Woolf in the article discussed? These questions are important, because if the marked phrases themselves are evidence of the turn, the tables will mean one thing, but if they are precisely evidence against the literary period having arrived yet, we might as well turn the line graphs upside down and read the lows as highs and the highs as lows. 

My concern with the data analysis is that it is essentially just counting, even when ratios, as opposed to straight counts, are being compared. Though the author mentions that comparisons are “statistically significant” (137, footnote 50 on 147) on two or three occasions, I find no evidence of statistical tests having been done. Did the numbers beat out chance? If they did, what was the value of the effect size? It seems to me that time-series analysis would have been most appropriate, but I imagine that there would be problems with meeting the assumptions of that line of testing. For example, in a number of “counts,” the period 1900-1929 is treated alongside other slices of time that are only a decade long. Auto-correlation might have posed a problem as well. Perhaps the statistical tests were done, but not reported. In either case, these findings cannot be used to build further results upon until they are substantiated.  

What exactly is that “code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship” (21) the understanding of which Woolf takes to be key for understanding the clinamen that occurred “on or about December 1910” (4)? Can textual analysis of databases of literary works help us to learn more about that code? It seems to me that a study like Conroy’s that included many more instances of different kinds of mental states of characters might be helpful in this pursuit. Inevitably one would need to count also instances of free indirect thought, not a possibility using digital techniques alone, it would seem to me. But the questions are well worth asking and well worth tackling large databases and sophisticated statistical techniques to get to the bottom of.

Conroy, Melanie. (2014). Before the “Inward Turn”: Tracing Represented Thought in the French Novel. Poetics Today (35): 117-171. 

Woolf, Virginia. (1924). The Hogarth Essays: Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. London: Hogarth Press.   
   
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Monday, March 23, 2015

A thread to W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald is thought by many to be one of the great writers of the last part of the twentieth century. He was tipped for the Nobel Prize for literature but sadly he died at the age of 57 on 14 December 2001. He had emigrated from Germany in his twenties, and worked as an academic at the University of East Anglia, where in 1987 he became Professor of German Literature and, in 1989, Director of the newly established British Centre for Literary Translation. Although he had published energetically on German literature, his career as a literary writer started in 1990 and lasted only eleven years. His books in the newly-invented genre that he called prose fiction were Vertigo, The Emigrants, Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. The genre is part travelogue, part history, part fiction, with an intense inwardness and, every few pages, a diagram or photograph, perhaps blurry, perhaps sharp, invariably without caption, invariably suggestive.

Ariadne’s thread: In memory of W.G. Sebald is a memoir, based on diaries and reminiscences, by Philippa Comber. Although without pictures and without much fiction, her book is Sebaldian in style. It’s not a memoir of the ordinary kind, based on a sketch of events in a person’s life. Far more engagingly, it’s a memoir of a friendship, of Comber and Sebald—Max as he liked to be called. Comber had trained in psychology and psychotherapy, and had moved to Norwich to run a day centre there. By chance in August 1981, with a group of friends who went to a movie together, she met Max.

Comber thought Max to be “kindly, yet rather aloof and formal,” He spoke “perfect, slightly dated English … with a distinctive South German lilt.”

Six days after the movie, Comber receives a phone call. It’s Max, who says he would like to see her again. She invites him round to the flat that she is in temporarily. They talk about parallels between natural disasters and man-made disasters. A week later, there’s a tap on Comber’s door. It’s Max with a selection of vegetables that he has grown in his garden. He’s a very practical person, a tinkerer; as well as gardening, he likes “fixing things, mending things.” A week later,  Comber moves into a house she has just bought. Max visits and takes an immediate interest in it. He has ideas about what to do with it, and brings more vegetables … Comber writes that she feels “at ease in his company … perhaps I’m falling in love with him.”

Max Sebald is very proper. In Ariadne’s Thread nothing physical between him and Comber is mentioned. Instead the book depicts an intimacy of affection and an ability shared by both to take part in meandering conversations. This is one of the best books I know about a relationship of this kind.

In his essay Sur la lecture (On reading) Marcel Proust wrote this:
In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: “What did they think of us?”—“Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?”—“Did they like us?”—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (my translation).
In reading, we can befriend a book. At the same time we come to know a certain aspect of the book’s author. So social are we human beings that, just as with a new friend, we often want to know not just that aspect, but all about the author, his or her day-to-day social world, habits, vicissitudes. Comber’s book offers readers of W.G. Sebald some of that: in his social life Max was rather diffident, among his habits were hoarding things in case they might come in useful, among his vicissitudes were that although he was close to his grandfather he did not get along at all well with his father. Proust pointed out that an author’s self-whom-we-meet-when-reading is very different from the author’s day-to-day-social-self. Without contradicting what Proust says about relationships with books, or with authors, it seems to me that Adriadne’s Thread gives us a welcome triangulation with Sebald as Max. In her book, Comber extends the friendship we have with Sebald’s books. By identifying with her, she enables us to take part in a friendship with his social self.

When we read a piece of artistic literature, we can take it in so that it becomes a piece of our own consciousness. The accomplishment of Sebald in his prose fictions was to offer us such pieces of consciousness with, as I remember he put it, a certain density of thought. The accomplishment of Comber, in her memoir, is to write about her friendship with Sebald in the same kind of way. The book offers an intimacy with us readers such that its happenings, revelations, and thoughts, can gently become our own. It is reflective, and of a kind that we can take into our mind. Lovely!

Philippa Comber (2014). Ariadne's thread: In memory of W.G. Sebald. Norwich: Propolis.

Marcel Proust (1905). Sur la lecture. Amazon Kindle.
 
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Don't pitch over the edge! Introduction to short series on Applied Discourse Analysis

A recent study has helped put to rest clinicians' concerns that people who listen to internal dialogue might be crazy. This has been brought to my attention partly because of my recent preoccupation with understanding how stories work. My interest is in what I think of as "applied discourse analysis." Figuring out how stories are helping govern what happens in any given situation can be useful when those situations don't seem to be going well, and particularly when they seem not to be going well in part because of how we understand and govern them.

As I have noted in recent essays, I have spent the past season on a study trip meant to explore the way that stories of food security are operationalized in different agricultural systems. I will spend the next few weeks going over some of those stories, and I want to take this moment of introduction of this small series on applied discourse with a qualification and a related personal moment of insight.

My caveat has to do with what I will call "weak" versus "strong" applied discourse analysis. The injunction to "Change the story" can be used perniciously to suggest that various forms of suffering are largely matters of perception and perspective -- as if a positive attitude were all that might be needed to resolve oppression and the rampant inequalities that contribute to it. I want to be clear not only that this is NOT what I mean but also that I think it's worthwhile explicitly considering how to push back against such tendencies, and to figure out how to make this kind of storytelling more attentive to context.

If applied discourse analysis involves paying attention to the ways stories are being used to organize what happens -- and then seeing what can be done with that analysis to negotiate course corrections, the "weak" version is probably best exemplified by neoconservative attempts to praise romanticized stories of the (heroically individualistic) past while ignoring their bleaker aspects, a tendency well called out by Helaine Olen as "poor stories" in her analysis of this past week's weak efforts by Ross Douthat and David Brooks. She also points to the recently publicized discrepancies between The Little House on the Prairie stories that have been in circulation for the past 80 years and Laura Ingalls Wilder's original and more accurate stories of her experience. I find this a particularly salient example because of the number of people who have cited the Little House books as an influence on their decision to move out of the city and pursue the rural life. Imagine the implications of using, as an implicit instruction manual, a version that had all the potential hazards and challenges removed!

My related moment of insight (aftermath pictured above) has to do with the challenge of connecting critical stories to audiences who might be inclined to use them. Brooks and Douthat and ideologues spinning far worse stories about where society has gone wrong find audiences partly because they echo familiar moralistic tropes that people identify with: things have gone wrong (/vitality and power has been lost) because of people who are different from you (or, worse, people who represent impulses you would prefer to pretend don't exist). If we could only return to a version of the past that we remember as comfortable, easy, and going the way we wanted, things will be better. It's much harder for people to hear stories that tell them they need to make a change, put in effort toward goals they haven't entirely adopted as their own, or recognize other people's (competing) goals as valid and perhaps valuable. Except that there are moments that people NEED instructions, and these seem like the sweet spots for applied discourse analysis.

Stay to the left! Don't pitch over the edge!

On my odyssey to find the ruling narratives of global agricultural trade, I visited the Wanaka Agricultural and Pastoral Show this weekend. I have commuted by bicycle while living here, and this was my chance to finally use my mountain bike in the mountains. I was expecting a relatively tame track into town -- but ended up on an intermediate-skill rated single track trail for an exciting hour. Without any practice mountain biking, I watched and tried to mimic the moves my husband made (he's a much more experienced mountain biker) -- and tried to interpret his occasionally yelled pieces of advice.

The first ("stay to the left!") was incomprehensible. We were already on the left (this was a loop, and we were on the leftward "to town" section -- the sharper descent on the image above, rather than the switchback). Just as I was hoping he would stop to explain, a pile of stones appeared in my path with a track around it barely perceptible to the left. (Judging by several more of these piles of rocks or sticks that followed, the trail appeared to be under revision to be maximally bendy.) The bypass would have been much harder to see if I hadn't been primed. And the instructions were being repeated in my head as I needed them, so they were available. It was such a simple example, but it resonated with me for the rest of the ride: how do we get instructions to be available at the moment people might need to shift their path?

The descent down to the road level (above) involved a dauntingly steep path (especially for a bike loaded up with documentary equipment). "Well," said my husband, as we surveyed the only path down, "go carefully and don't pitch over the edge." Then he shot off down the hill.

"Easy for him to say," I obviously thought, but "don't pitch over the edge" ended up being much more helpful than you might expect. As with my approach to the waves learning to bellyboard, I found myself using that phrase at a number of challenging points in the short descent. As I would pause before a particularly impossible curve, I would calculate what angle seemed least likely to pitch me over the edge, and, like the heuristics one might use for billiards, this worked better than just shooting straight for the apparent goal.

Stories are almost always much more complex than we're able to recognize at first (as Douthat's analysis of past morality demonstrates). Applying our analyses is likely to run us into chapters of the stories that complicate what we think we understand. This makes it useful to find out what kinds of stories people are hearing and acting on as we dive in to figuring how to build "strong" or "rich" discourse analysis, a topic I will continue to explore over the next two weeks.
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