Monday, 29 September 2008

Myrifield Manifesto on Research on Literary Reading

On 16 July we posted an announcement of a symposium on Literary Reading and Emotion at the newly formed Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts, that is hosted by Margaret Freeman, Don Freeman, and Mark Turner, (you can reach the Myrifield website by clicking here). Amongst other matters, the group at this symposium discussed and drafted a manifesto for an interdisciplinary approach to literature and the other arts. After further electronic discussion, the manifesto has now been published at the Myrifield website, and a copy is below.


The Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts is a think tank for the formal and informal discussion of literature and the arts.

1. We share a growing dissatisfaction with the way literature and the arts have been presented as university subjects over the past decades. In response, we call for a new emphasis, based on our contention that predominant approaches to the study of the arts ignore what we consider to be fundamental issues.

2. We discern a need to shift focus from the interpretative preoccupation of current approaches to the experience of literature and the arts, which includes the need to study their emotional aspects.

3. We propose a new interdisciplinary approach that integrates the social and biological sciences with the humanities. This proposed integration implies the readiness to become actively involved with the methodology of non-humanistic disciplines, including the development of philosophical and empirical research methodologies.

4. Of great promise, we believe, is the emergent cognitive approach to the study of the arts, specifically recent new developments such as embodied cognition and cognitive linguistics that have special relevance for research in literature and the arts.

5. At this stage we propose two central topics: empathy (and related concepts) and literariness (which includes, more broadly “artifying”). In these domains we aim to show what the underlying structures and functions of the arts may have in common, a topic that has been unsatisfactorily covered by current and most past approaches in the humanities.

6. We propose to reopen and reexamine theories of the fundamental nature of the various arts. For that endeavour, we welcome the active participation of scholars in disciplines other than the humanities, such as evolutionary psychology, gestalt theory, linguistics, cognitive science, neuropsychology, philosophy, anthropology, and related disciplines.

To this end, the Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts invites proposals for conferences, symposia, colloquia, or workshops. Please address enquiries to Margaret H. Freeman at

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Research Bulletin: Fiction and Belief in a Just World

In a recent study Markus Appel (2008) found that, as compared with people who watched television generally, people who watched a lot of fiction on television were more likely to believe in a just world.

In social psychology, the just-world theory (or the just-world fallacy) is the belief that the world is just and that, when it seems not to be so, people who hold this theory search for explanations that would make it so. Alternatively, one can believe that the world is frightening (known technically in this field as the "scary world" theory).

Appel studied 515 television viewers who reported how many hours of television they watched per day during the week and at the weekend, in 19 different genres each exemplified by names of two well-known programs. The genres included non-fiction programs such as evening news, news magazines, political talk, art documentary, science documentary, etc., as well as four kinds of fictional programs: feature films, detective shows/crime dramas, soap operas, other series and serials. The strength of participants' beliefs in a just world, and in a fightening world, were measured as individual differences.

Appel found that the general amount of people's television watching predicted the strength of their beliefs that the world is frightening. This is understandable since much television, particularly the news, shows victims of violence or disease, scenes of natural disaster, and so on: examples of a world that is arbitrary and often cruel. Thus, in the language of communication research, television is a cultivation device: it tends to cultivate beliefs of this kind.

But Appel also found that people who spent more time watching television of the four fictional genres had significantly stronger beliefs in the idea of a just world.

Here, then, is evidence both that television does have an effect on what we believe, and that televised fiction has a rather specific kind of effect.

As Frank Kermode (1966) has argued in his book The sense of an ending, fiction is one of the ways in which we strive to make meaningful sense of the world, and the idea of justice, as depicted for instance in many television stories of detection, legal argument, and judgment, offers this kind of meaning-making specifically in the domain of justice (see our list of books on the psychology of fiction by clicking here).

Does this indicate that televised fiction gives a falsely optimistic view of the world, of the kind advocated by Dr Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide? It may sometimes do so. But if we consider two kinds of television—news reporting and fiction—perhaps the one serves to elicit our empathy for those afflicted by severe and cruel events in a way that is far more vivid and widely publicized now than a hundred years ago, while the other offers us models of what we might do about arbitrariness and injustice.

Markus Appel (2008). Fictional narratives cultivate just-world beliefs. Journal of Communication, 58, 62-83.
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux comments:

This is fascinating. If the general amount of people's television watching predicted the strength of scary world beliefs, I'd like to know how no television watching relates to just world beliefs (or just world aspirations -- there must be ways to tease out the self-deceptive aspects of this belief from the aspirational aspects).

I cannot find the study, but I remember a study in the mid-90s noting a strikingly high correlation between attending a top tier college and watching no television -- although the report I read did not posit a causal mechanism. More interesting, perhaps, is the increasingly common phenomenon of watching news television via the interpretive lens of comic genre shows, such as The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart, I think, may provide an interesting case for exploring some of the qualities perhaps shared by fiction and creative non-fiction that might contribute to Appel's findings: Stewart's show runs a simulation not only of the news, but also of the genre of the news itself, making much more evident the creative act of interpreting something like the news.

In addition to the critical distance and positive affective tone provided by the humor, the kind of creative engagement with what might otherwise remain scary facts that Steward offers his viewers may have an important function in enabling audiences to simulate their own agency. This flexing of agency - or transformational potential - may help to transform scariness into aspiration for justice.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Intractable Characters as Personality Extensions

As the days get suddenly shorter (this is the time of year when the sun lines up with the grid streets in downtown Toronto in the afternoon), I find myself mulling over a line of thought inspired by a midsummer OnFiction post on the Taylor, Hodges, and Kohányi (2002-2003) study about what they called “the illusion of independent agency” in fiction writers’ experience of their characters.

The report of the study stresses the intractability of characters, and goes to lengths to support the "experience of characters contributing to or rebelling against the author's vision of a story." What seems particularly interesting about this phenomenon is not just that the characters have agency, per se, but that their actions open up whole lines of narrative and perspectives on the world to which the author might very well not have access without the particular agency afforded by the character's traits, experiences, and activities.

There seem to be several implications here. One might involve identity maintenance; I may not be able to buck socially desirable response patterns in particular situations, etc., while my character may. This suggests that while we preserve our habitual identities, our characters make us new personalities, or personality extensions. And these may help us get to all those pesky thoughts that hover beyond the edges of what we might otherwise consciously be able to write about.

In research into visualization, mirror neurons, and imagining actions, brain activity has been shown to correspond to the brain activity that would actually occur if an item or action visualized or witnessed or imagined was actually being seen or performed (Kosslyn et al. 2001; Oberman et al. 2007). Applied to intractable characters, this could suggest that instead of being merely symbolic representations compiled from the parameters of our stories, the exploratory projection of intractable characters may be creating a simulation that involves a frame of mind that’s not necessarily the one you would be inhabiting were you not imagining a character. And possibly even that these personality extensions may help us transcend the habitual limits, say, of being an agreeable person, or a graceless person, or a loud or quiet person. I think I have some jobs for some characters.

Kosslyn, S. M., Thompson, W. L., Wraga, M. J., & Alpert, N. M. (2001). Imagining rotation by endogenous versus exogenous forces: Distinct neural mechanisms. NeuroReport, 12, 2519-2525.

Oberman, L. M., Pineda, J. A., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2007). The human mirror neuron system: A link between action observation and social skills. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(1), 62-66.

Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Festival Film on Emotion

We recently reviewed a film from the Toronto International Film Festival that provided an intriguing exploration of human memory. This review is devoted to a film that explores another aspect of human psychology: the emotions. 35 Rhums (35 shots) by the French director Claire Denis certainly falls within this category. Denis has always excelled at complex emotional portraits, never simplifying or trivializing an observation. In a previous film (Beau Travail, 1999), for example, the homoerotic undertone of French legionnaires training in the desert is never equated with homosexuality—the cheap comparison sagely avoided. In 35 Rhums, we find a profoundly delicate portrait of the love that obtains between a daughter and her father, both living with the loss of the same woman; for one a deceased mother and the other a wife. Children who grow up in single parent homes often form a very different sort of relationship with their parent, something closer to a friendship than a normal parent-child relationship. This profound intimacy in the context of deep love can create a dependency that pulls against a competing desire to see the other person grow and develop as an individual. Both the father and the daughter in 35 Rhums wish for the other to find new love, to move beyond the cozy life they provide for one another, but simultaneously fear that this would mean losing what they have. Exposition cannot accurately convey the trembling nature of this dynamic, it is a place for poets. “If the cinema can be divided between its storytellers and its poets, Claire Denis unquestionably falls into the latter category,” writes Piers Handling, co-director of the festival. I would have to agree. 35 Rhums portrays the emotional tensions inherent in this form of relationship with profoundly subtle images. Her pacing of events will strike the average North American viewer as disturbingly slow, but after we have adjusted to this dolorous rhythm, comfortably cradled by its gentle rocking, events of emotional import arrive close on the heels of one another until we are almost overwhelmed. This is a gorgeous film, and hopefully more people will have an opportunity to see it. Currently, there is no North American distributor attached to this film, but copies are likely to be found in your local art-house movie rental shop within the year.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Paper Archive Update

A new article has been added to our archive of academic papers. Recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, this paper by Mar and Oatley proposes a theory of the function of fiction. This is a good overview of the current empirical research on literary fiction, and provides a nice summary of our current theoretical position. The abstract appears below.

Fiction literature has largely been ignored by psychology researchers because its only function seems to be that of entertainment, with no connection to empirical validity. We argue that literary narratives have a more important purpose. They offer models, or simulations, of the social world via abstraction, simplification, and compression. Narrative fiction also involves simulation in that readers enter a deep and immersive simulative experience of social interactions. Together these two forms of simulation make the communication and understanding of social information easier and more compelling, achieving a form of learning through experience. Engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves, and augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Fiction II

As mentioned in a previous post, we sometimes write small pieces of fiction as a group, often along the lines of some assigned rule or topic. Below is a story written under the constraint of producing a very short piece of about 200 words.

The Sad Sumo catering service was located four blocks East of my old apartment. Gamely hunched over a concrete stoop it leaned precariously, as if butter not mortar lay between those bricks. This was ironic, I suppose, since the establishment prided itself on health-conscious cuisine. About twice a month I’d stop by and chat a bit with Les, the owner, while grabbing an order of vegetarian chili. Les was an interesting guy. Rumour had it that he used to be in the mob, but found a new calling after one too many of his pals passed on thanks to fat and cholesterol-related injuries. Cardiovascular “accidents,” as they say. For a born-again vegetarian, Les was still a pretty imposing guy; not at all what you’d expect of an ardent carrot muncher. Whenever I came by he’d heave around the counter and pump my hand, his thick fingers leaving pale imprints for long afterwards. The day he disappeared, I found myself wondering how a guy with such substance could simply vanish. Sure, someone with a past like Les’s could be expected to disappear now and again, but there was a strange finality to this absence. Perhaps it was because the Sumo never really recovered from his exit. The entire place crumbled to the ground after only two days. It was almost as if the only thing keeping the place standing was Les’s presence at that counter; without him, the greasy bricks just slid off one another.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Festival Film on Memory

In studying the psychology of fiction, it is worth keeping in mind that fiction itself is a study of psychology. Psychologists and creators of narrative fiction are close kin: both are devoted to a greater understanding of the human condition, human psychology, and human behaviors. The Toronto International Film Festival provides a wonderful opportunity to explore this fact. We will be reviewing films of psychological import from the festival over the next couple of weeks. The first, Waltz with Bashir, deals explicitly with the vagaries of human memory. Written, produced and directed by Ari Folman, this film documents Folman’s struggle to recall his own experiences as a teenage soldier during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. A friend’s confession of a recurring nightmare sprung from these times leads Folman to realize that he has absolutely no recollection of what must have been a very emotional and disturbing period of his life. He knows, factually, that he must have been present during the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, but finds that he cannot remember anything regarding these events. This distinction between remembering and knowing the past has become a foundational concept in memory research, with “know” judgments reflecting an awareness of a past event that lacks the rich experiential information accompanying the remembering of an event (Tulving, 1985). Folman embarks on a journey to repair and reconstruct his memory of this time, visiting psychologists and tracking down fellow soldiers who must have been with him at the time to probe their recollections. The film deals explicitly with how memories change, are suppressed, and at times even fabricated, while also touching upon the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995). Waltz with Bashir is unique from the perspective of psychological science, as it includes explicit discussion of research on false memories (Garry & Gerrie, 2005); combined with the fact that this film raises so many issues related to memory, Waltz with Bashir would make an excellent pedagogical tool. Folman chose to create this film using animation, and the choice works brilliantly. The dream-like quality of our memories is accurately captured by the technique, and the method also serves to both buffer the audience from some of the horrors being portrayed while simultaneously accurately and creatively communicating the senseless aspects of armed conflict. These visuals are paired with a fantastic score composed by Max Richter, the composer whom Folman was listening to as he wrote the screenplay. In a rare turn, the score was completed before the animation, so the animators were able to compose the picture while listening to the final score. As a result the two are so well married that one wishes more films could be created this way. Waltz with Bashir is a truly outstanding film, and it is highly recommended. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up this film for distribution in the United States, and Seville Pictures will be responsible for distribution in Canada, so expect a North American domestic release at some point in the near future. The trailer appears below.


Garry, M. & Gerrie, M. P. (2005). When photographs create false memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14, 321-324.

Tulving, E. (1985). Memory and consciousness. Canadian Psychology, 26, 1-12.

van der Kolk, B. A. & Fisler, R. (1995). Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 505-525.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Dante's Love and the Vita Nuova

Dante was the author of the Divina commedia (The divine comedy), regarded as one of the world's most important works of literature. But he is almost as famous for his love for Beatrice, who was the subject of his small book Vita nuova (The new life), which was a step towards his greatest work. As well as 31 poems, Vita nuova contains pieces of autobiography saying how Dante came to write each of them, along with his critical analyses of the poems.

It is often argued that literary art is prompted by emotions, but how emotions contribute to this art is less frequently discussed. Vita nuova gives us a glimpse of this process. First, Dante's love for Beatrice not only kept him concentrating on her, and on writing poems about her, from 1274 when he first met her until Vita nuova was completed some time around 1292 (two years after Beatrice's death). Second, his love set him an urgent problem. Following an incident in which Dante recounts that he nearly fainted in Beatrice's presence and her friends laughed at him, one of these ladies told him he was deceiving himself in saying that he wrote poems only in praise of Beatrice; she pointed out that his poems were actually about his own anguish. This caused a profound crisis in Dante's ability to write. But with its resolution he began to write in a new way starting with a canzone that begins with this:
Donne ch’avete intelletto d'amore,
i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire,
non perch’io creda sua laude finire,
ma ragionar per isfogar la mente.
Io dico che pensando il suo valore,
Amor sì dolce mi si fa sentire,
che s’io allora non perdessi ardire,
farei parlando innamorar la gente.
(Ladies who have understanding of love, I will speak with you of my lady, not that I believe I may exhaust her praises, but in order to relieve my mind. I say that as I think of her worth, Love speaks to me so sweetly, that if I did not lose courage, I should make everyone fall in love by my words. Translation from Auerbach, 1929/2007, p. 47.)

Here is a beautiful expression, not just of Dante's love but of a theory of art which five hundred years later would be called Romanticism, in which deeply experienced emotions prompt their externalization in languages of words, music, or painting. It is made doubly significant here by a universalization: the idea that the poem will make everyone fall in love with the gracious Beatrice, whose existence thereby becomes a great benefit.

From this time onwards Dante's love became generous. He was the first to show how we can glimpse divine love by taking part in human love. He was able to show, too, how rather than assuming with Plato and his followers that everything important occurs in a world of ideals on a different plane than the human one, that earthly human life has value, and that its experience can be turned into verbal expressions such as poems that can come alive as earthly ideals in the minds of readers. Auerbach argues that it was Dante who depicted the first real characters in European literature: characters who are recognizable as human beings, with human experience, making human choices: with the implication that there is something worthy and important about the human form of life.

A discussion of Dante's poetic creativity in Vita nuova as it derived from his love for Beatrice has been published as: Keith Oatley (2007). Dante's love and the creation of a new poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 140-147, and you can access it in our archive of academic papers by clicking here. Auerbach's book, which may be the best introduction to Dante, is: Erich Auerbach (2007). Dante: Poet of the secular world (R. Mannheim, Trans.). New York: New York Review Books (Original publication 1929).

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Research Bulletin: The Nature and Nurture of Understanding Film

At the 2008 International Congress of Psychology, some very interesting research by Sermin Ildirar (Istanbul) was presented. Ildirar and her colleagues discovered a group of individuals living in very rural, mountainous, regions of Turkey who had absolutely no experience with moving picture presentations (e.g. television and film). Although they had been exposed to other forms of electronic media (e.g. radio), they had never before seen a television sitcom or sat in a movie theater. Ildirar wondered whether these individuals would be capable of understanding common editing techniques employed to communicate narrative in these visual media. For a comparison, people who had up to 5 years of TV viewing experience, and another group who had more than 10 years of experience, were also evaluated in this study. Two broad categories of editing were examined, simple techniques such as an establishing shot (e.g. showing the exterior of a house, then a person sitting inside a house, to establish context; the person is sitting inside the house that was just shown) versus more complicated techniques such as cross-cutting (i.e., interspersing scenes from two separate events in order to draw some relation between them). Surprisingly, the researchers found that individuals with no previous exposure to moving picture narratives did not understand the simple editing techniques, but were able to comprehend the meaning of the more complicated edits. Individuals who had some exposure to television (i.e. up to 5 years) were more similar to the people who had absolutely no experience with television at all, demonstrating that an understanding of these tropes takes some time to develop. Those with more than 10 years of experience had no difficulty understanding any of the editing techniques. These are fascinating results, as they demonstrate that our ability to understand cinematic techniques is by no means innate, and that contrary to our intuitions, more metaphorical forms of editing appear to be easier to comprehend than techniques we would consider rudimentary. A great strength of this study is its unique population, and the inclusion of two comparison groups, allowing us to examine in a cross-sectional fashion how experience leads to the development of this very specific sort of narrative understanding. The study is currently being prepared for submission to a peer-reviewed journal, and follow-up studies are planned. A copy of the conference abstract can be found here.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Art of a Gentle Lover

Could it be that art provokes transformation precisely because it does not demand it?

Reading often makes us change our mind. We thought one thing before reading a newspaper article on the practices of social cohesion among bonobos, now we think something else. We have learned something, perhaps, about that which was wholly unfamiliar, or we have changed our mind. Many of the things we read—newspaper articles, scientific reports, opinion pieces, pamphlets—mean to do precisely that, change our mind. Scientists and journalists, essayists and theoreticians, all are instructed to craft their pieces craftily, to persuade and cajole, lead their readers’ minds down a predictable path with deftness that would have made orators of the ancient world proud. The aspiration, the holy grail of the writer, is that by the time the final period has been reached, the mind of the writer has slipped comfortably, seamlessly, into the mind of the reader, the two becoming one.

It is hard, however, to escape the feeling that this kind of love-making between the writer and the reader has a dark, coercive, underside. One mind is taking hold of another, making it run precisely as it wishes. Yet is this, trying to persuade, not inherent in all writing?

Let us say no. Let us say that art, unlike more persuasive pieces, captures the artist’s exploration of herself, of the world that she inhabits. Let us say that it is witnessing this process that releases the art lover’s own exploration of himself and the world that he inhabits. Let us say that it is free, uncompelled, exploration that transforms those who will not be persuaded, not two becoming one, but each becoming more of their own, grown, fully separate, selves.
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