Tuesday, May 19, 2015

When to look for new instructions

Like many people in my latitude, where we have just passed the historic frost-free date, I spent a considerable amount of this weekend gardening. Or, to be more precise, painstakingly recovering plantable soil from a riot of opportunistic other plants. Many hours of tracing the rootlets of creeping yellowcress down into the dirt (after the prior three years' methods of reducing the amount of garden bed given up to this hungry and allelopathic rhizomatous creeper) gave me ample time to wonder about how environmental knowledge feedback loops work. 

Gardening seems like a perfect domain for this line of thought: one tries many different things, with fairly stable goals, and only moderately changing environments. Quizzing my fellow gardeners as we weeded, pulled out rocks -- and learned how to build a hoop house through a skillsharing workshop led by Cherry Page and Tim Flowers with the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance (pictured assembled!) -- I realized that the different modes people bring to garden observation may be quite salient to my ongoing exploration of frameworks for orientation.

Many people seem drawn to gardening because it is a domain of knowledge passed on from others -- while others seem more excited about the direct interactions with environment. And both of these approaches seem to have strengths and weaknesses for dealing with the need to change behaviors as conditions require. Hoop houses are a great example of the way that the changing conditions may be social as much as environmental: as people share techniques for building this kind of growing season extender, the process of sharing observations and experiences may invite others into ways of noticing and adapting. What did really well that warm spring or fall that might thrive with more shelter? Which weeds seem to have less yellowcress around them? What kinds of garden orientation seem to get people to come back and keep weeding?
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Orientation to very hard things

If you tell people something is going to be really hard, who responds to that invitation?

Can you figure out how to stage the signals letting people know that there will be difficulty -- so they are neither ambushed nor deterred, but invited with the assurance that they will have just as much support as they need to face the challenge?

I have been following this line of thought to figure out how to more successfully scaffold uncomfortable conversation about society and environment issues.

Traveling back to the U.S. reminds me how hard people are on each other, even (maybe especially) when they're trying to build up to doing hard things. So having watched a wave of appreciation for mothers swell the bandwidth of social media yesterday, I'd like to add my appreciation for the orientation provided by people who have done things they think others should try.

I can see how you went. I can witness and imagine some ways these things can be done, especially if I don't also have to worry about sticking exactly to your path(s). And especially then, figuring out the paths to take, I am even more grateful for the sign posts people might leave at difficult passages and choice points.
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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Orientation and Hospitality: On Celebrations of Place and Time (7th Anniversary Post)

What prompts the scripts that propel us into action? What is disorienting enough to stop us in our tracks?

Today marks OnFiction's seventh year, and the occasion of an anniversary (and a significant one -- will we itch to do something else now?) and also of my return home after a half year away gives me an opportunity to think about functions of the celebration of time and place.

Spending several months in a small foreign city where people mostly speak your language -- just more quietly -- is an excellent exercise in attuning to cues around you. And returning to one's home country -- cacophonous and loud with an overwhelming array of familiar cues makes one grasp for prioritizing tools to decide: what requires action?

I returned from my time in Aotearoa New Zealand via San Francisco, which, it turns out, shares a remarkable array of vegetation. Many plants were introduced to both places from South Africa, and in the beach neighborhood where I was staying with family, my favorite pohutukawa trees were everywhere, as pictured above (and here, in Gisborne, for contrast, and for the context of my tree posture). They were even blooming, throwing me even more completely into seasonal disorientation.

The pohutukawa is widely considered the Christmas tree of New Zealand, largely because its large red blossoms are most fully out around Christmas, the height of summer in the Southern hemisphere. As if it was not difficult enough to make a graceful transition from the starting up of the autumn term in Otago to the wrapping up of the spring term back in the U.S., Christmas trees that had really only just stopped flowering in the late summer of our very southerly latitude (where the trees are really not quite out by Christmas) were popping out in the sunny California April. 

Vegetation is always a force to be reckoned with, setting up association-filled backgrounds that are easy to underappreciate -- and the commanding nature of American spoken language is also a predictable attentional force to be reckoned with. Perhaps more surprising than these were the stars. Looking out over the Pacific when the sun went down over San Francisco, the beach seemed familiar -- but I found myself suddenly gripped with the realization that I would not be able to see southern hemisphere constellations! What was surprising about this reaction is the fact that I can barely recognize any of these constellations, making my attachment to them either purely nominal -- or based on an attachment to place details even more subtle than vegetation-noticing.

Over the next few weeks, I will be further exploring the idea of orientation, and how orientation can be provided through bodies of knowledge codified under the rules of hospitality (or, perhaps more abstractly, specific forms of discourse). Celebrations of time and place provide a profoundly useful starting place, because they feature qualities of orientation -- reminders of the past ways people have interacted with a place and each other, and often re-enactments of how this has taken place and changed form over time, along with celebrations of hopes for future plans in place and in the context of the continuity of community time. Reverse engineering the hospitality of celebrations may also suggest some of the common features of disorientation. Expecting a marginal view of those few constellations I can pick out from the far south, I am thrown off by the realization that my view has shifted (even if it has shifted back to a much more familiar view, this is the disoriented reaction that precedes the slower working out of how stars relate as they appear in the Pacific gloaming). Accustomed to quiet conversation, I am jolted by a thousand conversations that seem to be spoken as if I should be hearing them. A week later, I am re-oriented, having picked back up on the habits appropriate to familiar cues -- but I am also intrigued by that liminal space where habits can be seen unhabitually, and wonder how much that, too, is what we celebrate in the spectacle of things like anniversary?

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Quick Hit: Plotting the Reception of a TV Show Across Seasons

I'm sure that a lot of us have wondered whether the Simpsons has declined in quality over its 26 seasons. A new resource, developed by Kevin Wu, called GraphTV plots viewer ratings of episodes from IMDb and then calculates a regression line to explore linear trends. You can click on individual data-points (i.e., episodes) to explore shows that were particularly highly rated, or panned. It's a really fun way to explore the arc of an entire series and a clever use of crowd-sourced data that's been visualized to be more accessible. And yes, it appears that most agree that the Simpsons just isn't as good as it used to be. In contrast, The Wire appears to have gotten better each season. What would be really interesting would be to use different curve-fitting models to explore nonlinear associations (e.g., shows that get better, peak, then decline).   

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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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