Friday, February 27, 2009

Narrative Workshop in Vienna

A two day workshop on the psychology of narrative will take place in Vienna, on April 4th and 5th, entitled “Narrative Fact and Fiction: Patterns of narrative construction in media stories and differential effects.” Organized by Prof. Dr. Susanne Kinnebrock (University of Vienna) and Dr. Helena Bilandzic (University of Erfurt), the workshop covers an impressive number of speakers and topics in this short amount of time, and is surprisingly affordable (35 Euros) provided you live close to Vienna. A preliminary list of speakers and titles (subject to change) appears below, and those interested in registering should contact Timon Schaffer.

Keynotes
Daniel D. Hutto (Hertfordshire, UK)
Rick Busselle (Pullman, USA)
Raymond A. Mar (York, Canada)
Narrative Journalism
Margreth Lünenborg (Berlin): Journalism as Storytelling – Blurring boundaries between fact and fiction.
Vinzenz Wyss (Winterthur): No narrative – no journalism. The key factor of narrative by chaining discursive knowledge in journalism.
Television news as narrative
Ioanna Vovou (Athens/Paris): The ‘transparency’ of media discourse or the narration of the real world: about “Athens ‘on fire’” on December 2008.
Viktorija Car (Zagreb): Narratives in Croatian prime-time TV news.
Amir Hetsroni (Jerusalem): News from here and far: The impact of media narratives location on the cultivation effect.
Fact to Fiction, Fiction to Fact
Jürgen Grimm / Bernadette Kneidinger / Manuela Brandstätter (Vienna): Factual-Fictional-Transfers in the Integration Discourse. A comparison between an episode of the fictional crime series 'Tatort' and a documentary on migration conflicts in the Austrian village Telfs.
Manuela Glaser (Tübingen): Re-enactments in archaeological television documentaries and their influence on the reception process.
Narrative elaboration of events and social order
Lothar Mikos (Potsdam-Babelsberg): The Baader-Meinhof-Komplex between fact and fiction – narrative patterns and transmedia storytelling
Irena Reifová (Prague): Romance, ideology, seriality: on transfer of socialist television serial narratives into post-socialist Czech television culture
Advances in Narrative Persuasion
Anneke de Graaf (Nijmegen): The importance of identification in narrative persuasion
Hans Hoeken (Nijmegen): Scrutinizing fictional characters’ arguments: Do stories prohibit central processing?
Intuitive and rational thinking in narrative experience
Matthias R. Hastall (Erfurt): Narrative Media Use as Interplay of Unconscious and Conscious Needs: A Psychodynamic View on Narrative Experiences
Kim Toft Hansen (Aalborg): “Great intellects guess well”. Crime Fiction and Knowledge Based Readings
Affective and rational processing of narratives
Markus Appel (Linz) / Barbara Malečkar (Linz/ Ljubljana): Persuasive effects of non-fictional, fictional, and lie stories. A closer look at individual differences in the need for affect and the need for cognition.
Rose Thompson / Geoffrey Haddock (Cardiff): Narrative style and narrating source have different impacts on cancer-related attitudes.
Closing statement
Peter Vorderer (Amsterdam)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Confronting Our Making of Fictions

Fibbing. We recognize the tenuous boundary between the real and the fictional in children's narratives, and chide them to understand the difference: “are you fibbing?” adults ask when they want to verify a child's story, or point to the questionable moral nature of bending the truth.

Fibbing – making fictions, or fictionalizing pieces of "real" life – is a crucial part of the way that children piece together the world. The process fills in gaps in knowledge (think fanciful explanations for the origins or causal relationships of things), and this process clearly remains important for adults. But how do we manage the relationship between truths and fictions as our adult explanations for things become more complex?

As a researcher, I often wonder when interviewing people whether or how much they are aware of the complex interweavings that take place between what might be considered verifiable observations and the inventions they add on to their interpretations of these observations. Analyzing this relationship is part of the interpretive tradition, but I am increasingly interested in the manners in which people come to terms with their fictionalizations and with the ways that these assist them in navigating the unknown and irreconcilable features of their everyday lives.

For example, how much does the explicit appearance of a blatant fiction, which we can recognize with the label, "oh, I made that up," (or perhaps more likely, "did I make up that detail of the story she told me when I retold it?") point to an area of my life where extra creative effort is spilling over in an effort to figure out something unresolved? Or in contrast, how much are we inured to our own creative interpretation so that we might assert our fictions with that childlike confidence of certain explanation.

Psychoanalysts, I suspect, have long worked with inquiry along this axis of implictness or explicitness of the making of fiction. Further understanding would be quite useful, as it might facilitate the turning of attention to areas requiring fictionalization and perhaps suggest some additional ways to organize creative exploration in these areas.

Do others know of research published on this question?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reading as Mental Simulation

What are we doing when we read fiction? In a recent report in Science Daily (Washington University in St Louis, 2009), Jeffrey Zacks is quoted as saying: "Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story."

The Science Daily report is of an article by Nicole Speer, Jeremy Reynolds, Khena Swallow & Jeffrey Zacks, that is due to appear in Psychological Science. Until now, because subjects need to keep very still in an fMRI machine, most neuro-imaging studies of reading have used isolated phrases and sentences. Speer and her colleagues have devised a method of presenting words one at a time in rapid succession on a screen so that people can remain still while reading a 1500-word short story. In a previous study, Speer, Zacks, and Reynolds (2007) found that readers divide stories up into events, and that different brain regions are activated when, in a narrative, a new event occurs. In the study that is in press, this group has found that when they were reading about actions performed by a story character, activation occurred in the region of the reader's brain that is associated with doing that kind of action in real life. For instance, says the Science Daily report, "changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., "pulled a light cord") were associated with increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went through the front door into the kitchen") were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activate when people view pictures of spatial scenes."

This study not only offers new evidence of brain activity during reading beyond Victor Nell's (1988) Lost in a book (see Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here), but it seems to confirm in a striking way the idea of reading as simulation (see e.g. Mar & Oatley, 2008, which you can access by clicking here). The implication is that stories become vivid as they activate the same brain regions as would be activated if the reader were doing the things that a character does in a story.

Raymond Mar & Keith Oatley (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.

Victor Nell (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Nicole Speer, Jeffrey Zacks, & Jeremy Reynolds (2007). Human brain activity time-locked to narrative event boundaries. Psychological Science, 18, 449-455.

Washington University in St. Louis (2009, February 5). Readers Build Vivid Mental Simulations Of Narrative Situations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/01/090128214820.htm

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Art of Prose Fiction III: Virginia Woolf

In the development of the art of prose fiction, one can almost imagine that Virginia Woolf had read about the writing exercise that Gustave Flaubert set for Guy de Maupassant (see Wednesday's post, below): to depict in words "a grocer sitting in front of his door, a concierge smoking his pipe" in which the writer is asked to discover his or her originality and the reader is enabled to glimpse the individuality of the person who was seen.

Woolf describes her version of Flaubert's exercise in her 1924 essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.' It was to imagine what might be going on in the mind of someone she saw, as in the following anecdote. One evening Woolf was late for a train from Richmond to Waterloo, and jumped in to the first carriage she came to. "As I sat down," she said, "I had the strange and uncomfortable feeling that I was interrupting a conversation between two people who were already sitting there." They sat opposite each other. One, whom she called Mr Smith, aged over forty "had been leaning over and talking emphatically to judge by his attitude and the flush on his face." He was evidently annoyed to have been interrupted. Woolf called the woman, to whom the man had been talking, Mrs Brown. "She was one of those clean, threadbare old ladies whose extreme tidiness—everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up—suggests more extreme poverty than rags and dirt." Although Mr Smith was annoyed at being interrupted, Mrs Brown seemed rather relieved. Mr Smith, she surmised, was not a relative of Mrs Brown; he was, perhaps, a man of business, from the North. "Obviously," said Woolf, "he had some unpleasant business to settle with Mrs Brown; a secret, perhaps sinister business, which they did not intend to discuss in my presence" (p. 72). To give the proper impression to a stranger, they talked instead of how caterpillars can eat the leaves off of oak tress. And Woolf started to construct mentally a piece of prose fiction of Mrs Brown, of who she was, of a son who was beginning to go to the bad, of what might be going on between Mr Smith and her.

When, after the talk of caterpillars, the train approached Clapham Junction, Mr Smith said: "So about that matter we were discussing. It'll be all right? George will be there on Tuesday?" As the train pulled into the station, "he buttoned his coat, reached his bag down, and jumped out of the train before it had stopped" (pp. 73-74).

Virginia Woolf and Mrs Brown were left alone together. "She sat in her corner opposite," writes Woolf, "very clean, very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely. The impression she made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning" (p. 74).

Woolf's essay is famous as a manifesto of modernism in literature. She started it by discussing character in fiction. In everyday life, too, she said that everyone, more or less, has to be a judge of character. But a novelist's obsession is somehow to get hold of character. Then she said: "... in or about December 1910 human character changed" (p. 70). The older novelists among whom she took, as an example, Arnold Bennett (Mr Bennett of the title of her essay) would tell us about Mrs Brown by describing what kind of house she lived in, whether it was paid for, what other houses she saw when she looked out of her front window, and so on. But, said Woolf, since 1910, there had been a throwing away of the older tools of novel writing, which were mostly made to deal with exteriors, and had nothing to do with the interior lives of the Mrs Brown she had seen on the train, or of any other Mrs Brown. For it was by way of inner lives that we could really understand character. This understanding would not be so much about material circumstances, but of inner experience much like yours and mine. Here is how she put it.

In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe [with Mrs Brown in the train]. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder (p. 86).

Even Flaubert's exercise, we may now see, was of how the grocer or the concierge appeared to the outside observer. There had, said Woolf at the time she was writing, been a good deal of clumsiness in modern literature with the throwing out of the old tools and conventions. She thought such clumsiness was inevitable, because new tools to depict inwardness had not yet been fashioned, new traditions not established. She thought James Joyce too indecent, and T. S. Eliot too obscure. It was Woolf, a year after her essay, who published the first non-clumsy novel of interior character: Mrs Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf (1924). "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown." In A woman's essays (pp. 69-87). London: Penguin (this edition, 1992).

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Art of Prose Fiction II: Flaubert & de Maupassant

In the February 26 issue of the New York Review of Books there is a review by Graham Robb of Guy de Maupassant's Afloat, translated and with an introduction by Douglas Parmée. In his review, Robb extends Parmée's introduction. A matter to which both Robb and Parmée draw attention—fascinating for the psychology of fiction—is the relationship between the young Guy de Maupassant, who became arguably the greatest writer of short stories in French, and Gustave Flaubert, who formulated the principles of writing prose fiction (see Monday's post, below). For seven years de Maupassant sent Flaubert everything he wrote. On the Sunday after each manuscript had been sent they would discuss it over lunch.

One piece of Flaubert's advice was recorded by de Maupassant in the preface to his novel, Pierre et Jean. Here it is (from Parlée's introduction to Afloat, p. xvi):
When you pass a grocer sitting in front of his door, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab rank, show me that grocer, that concierge, their attitude, their physical appearance and by the skill of the picture you draw of them, their whole moral nature as well and do this in such a way that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or concierge; and with a single word show me how one cab horse is different from the fifty others ahead or behind it.
Flaubert stressed the importance of originality. "If you have any originality," Flaubert said, "you must first dig it out. If you don't have any you must get some." So Flaubert set de Maupassant exercises like the one above. He thought that even common things contain some element that has not been noticed by anyone else, "because we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them" (p. 34). Robb goes on to discuss some of Flaubert's other precepts, for instance, from Flaubert's introduction to Bouilhet's Dernières chansons.
Art should neither "teach, correct, nor moralize ... denouements are not conclusions; no general inferences can be drawn from a particular case ... Prose, like verse, must be written so that it can be read out loud. Poorly written sentences never pass the test: they tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart ... style goes straight to the point and leaves no impression of the author himself: the word disappears in the clarity of the thought, or rather, by sticking so closely to the thought, leaves it entirely unhampered" (Robb, p. 34).
Another aspect of Flaubert's syllabus was lifestyle. Here, Flaubert was severe on his young friend.
"You must—do you hear me, young man?—you must work harder," Flaubert told him in 1878. "Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that's right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe ... For an artist there is only one [principle]: sacrifice everything to art. Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more” (Robb, p. 33).
In this respect, apparently, de Maupassant was not such an apt student.

I had read some of de Maupassant's short stories—wonderful—but I had not heard of Afloat. It is a novella disguised as autobiography, in which the narrator alternately admires nature and grumbles about humanity as he cruises in his sailing boat, Bel-Ami, along the south coast of France. I immediately went out and bought it. I am enjoying it quite a bit.

Guy de Maupassant (2008). Afloat (D. Parmée, Trans.). New York: New York Review Books (originally published 1888).

Graham Robb (2009). Cruising with genius. New York Review of Books, 56 Feb 26, pp. 33-35.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Art of Prose Fiction I: Flaubert

This week I shall make three posts on the art of prose fiction; Gustave Flaubert seems to have been the first to develop an explicit theory of how to create this kind of art. Pierre-Marc de Biasi (2002) describes how Flaubert proposed that style cannot be separated from content, that it is a way of seeing things, and that a line of prose should be like a line of verse, incapable of being paraphrased. In 1850, Flaubert began work on his masterpiece Madame Bovary, which took him five years to write. He thought the genre of the novel had only just been born, and was awaiting its Homer, perhaps himself.

For Flaubert, the style of this new form:
… would be as rhythmical as verse, as precise as the language of science, and with the undulations, the humming of a cello, the plumes of fire, a style that would enter your mind like a rapier thrust, and on which finally your thoughts would slide as if over a smooth surface …” (Tony Williams, 2004, p. 167).
Flaubert problematized meaning, so that readers were encouraged to think, and he emphasized the need for the writer to remain impersonal: one should not write oneself. He thought his notes and drafts would show “the complicated machinery [he used] to make a sentence” (Williams, p. 166). De Biasi explains that the machinery consisted of five phases.

• First, came what Flaubert called the “old plan,” which would change as the project developed. In this stage, Flaubert would daydream around his subject, imagine his characters and their psychology, imagine key scenes, choose locations, and perhaps do some research such as reading, visiting places, interviewing. He continued until he could see the story in his mind’s eye.

• Second, Flaubert wrote what he called scenarios, which contained main lines of the narrative but in a very unfinished fashion, with semi-formed phrases, and with names and places signified by x, y, z. In this way he explored vast territories and created, as it were, a set of signposts.

• Flaubert’s third stage was to write expanded drafts. Sentences and paragraphs started to take shape as he explored many possibilities of the narrative. The pages of these drafts were thick with corrections and insertions between the lines and in the margins. At this stage he might do more location work, less to check for accuracy than to see scenes through the eyes of each of his characters.

• In the fourth stage, the labor of style began. In a series of drafts, elimination occurred: a page might be reduced to a phrase, and large parts of the expansive drafts were deleted. At this stage also, the text was subjected to the test of reading aloud. Further drafting occurred until everything fitted together, like a musical score, to be heard by an imagined reader.

• Fifth, a final draft was produced, with no further corrections.

Flaubert described how he thought the artist recapitulates human history during the phases of creation:
At first, confusion, a general view, aspirations, bedazzlement, everything is mixed up (the barbarian epoch); then analysis, doubt, method, the arrangement of the parts, the scientific era—finally he returns to the initial synthesis executed more broadly (Williams, p. 167).
(This passage is taken from Oatley and Djikic, 2008; about which we will write a research bulletin at a later date.)

Pierre-Marc de Biasi (2002). Flaubert: The labor of writing. In A.-M. Christin (Ed.), A history of writing (pp. 340-341). Paris: Flammarion.

Gustave Flaubert (1857). Madame Bovary (with an introduction by Mary McCarthy, M. Marmur, Trans.). New York: New American Library (current edition 1964).

Keith Oatley & Maja Djikic (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.

Tony Williams (2004). The writing process: scenarios, sketches and rough drafts. In T. Unwin (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Flaubert (pp. 165-179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

You Talkin’ to Me?

You are reading a novel, watching the characters and their actions, sometimes privy to their thoughts, empathizing, sympathizing, and enjoying the pretense, and then unexpectedly, you, the reader, are noticed by the narrator. You are spoken to. I remember the first time I read Denis Diderot’s Jack the Fatalist and His Master, written some time during the 1770’s. The piece starts like this: “How did they meet? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What do you care?” The narrator addresses the reader again a page later, “You see, reader, I’m well on my way here, and it is completely up to me whether I make you wait one year, two years, three years, for the story of Jack’s loves…” I thought, “Hey, you’re not supposed to see me! Let’s just get on with the story!”

Kendall Walton suggests that the inability of the reader to act within the story is part of the power of the work of art: “The convention that prevents Harry… from leaping to the defense of a damsel in distress may result in his reflecting more deeply on her predicament; he does not interrupt his reflections to intervene, nor do worries about whether he should (fictionally) intervene intrude. Since the game is such that it cannot be fictional that he intervenes, it is likely to involve a richer collection of fictional truths about his thoughts and feelings.” It could be, then, that by calling attention to the reader’s presence by direct address the narrator causes her to feel obliged, if not actually to take action, at least to feel as if she should take action. If Walton is right, when the narrator addresses the reader, she may impede the development of the reader’s reflections and alter the depth and quality of feelings she would otherwise have experienced.

If this were the case, though, how are we to respond to entire fictional narratives written in the second person? “You asked the baker for the almond croissant, your favorite, but he gave you the plain one.” Or “You have just glanced out the window and noticed that the engine is engulfed in flames. You scream but no sound is forthcoming.” Will the reader reflect more, or less, deeply on what is fictionally her own predicament and not that of another fictional character? Will she empathize with her fictional self as convincingly as she would with other fictional others? In my experiences of reading novels in the second person, I start thinking of the “you” as someone other than me, almost as if “you” were a name for a third person. Even with such an unintentional shifting of the referent of the “you,” I remember not engaging emotionally very well with this “you” character.

But what if, instead of finding oneself as a reader inscribed in a fictional narrative as “you” or as “reader,” one found oneself addressed directly, by first name, by a narrator? This is just the sort of completely original (to my knowledge) way of presenting fictional narrative that Marie Laberge, prize-winning novelist and playwright from Québec, is now employing in her project, entitled Des nouvelles de Martha [Martha’s News]. Laberge presents an epistolary novel in installments sent out to subscribers via conventional post. Subscribers receive 26 letters (in French) across a twelve-month period (January to December of 2009), from her narrator Martha. In a recent (January 22) radio interview with Radio Canada’s Christiane Charette, Laberge explained that each letter of three or four pages will begin with Martha greeting her subscriber by first name. Then, Martha, a woman with grown children and young grandchildren, who is making some important realizations about herself and her life, will present the world from her perspective. Two different letters will be created for each mail-out, one for female readers and one for male readers, although the essentials narrated will be the same. Laberge has already received subscription orders from approximately 36,500 readers from around the world, of whom about three quarters are women, and one quarter men. At present, Laberge has not decided whether the collected letters will later be published as a novel. Those interested in the project or in subscribing to receive Martha’s news should check out Laberge’s website, www.marielaberge.com. The deadline for subscribing is soon: March 1, 2009.

How might reader response be influenced by this unique method of narrative presentation? First, we may be less likely to believe that the narrative is unraveling toward a conclusion already known and recorded by the author – and this is so whether or not Laberge has the plot planned out. When one reads a novel in book form, even an epistolary novel, one can flip to the end and read the end of the story at will. Not so in this case. And if I believe that the author does not know what is going to happen, I, as the reader, may experience more or less thoughts, feelings and memories than I otherwise would have. Second, there is that personal address at the beginning of each installment of Martha’s story. How might it influence empathy and sympathy for Martha and her family and friends? How might it influence the degree to which readers experience other emotions and memories associated with the narrative? Will readers experience more insight or less when reading a novel presented in this way? Kudos to Laberge for offering readers the chance to find out.

Denis Diderot (1951/1773-1775). Oeuvres. André Billy, Ed. Paris: Gallimard, p. 475. The translation is mine.

Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 228.

Beneath the Surface

The novel in English that commanded the widest attention in the literary papers in 2008 was Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, who—the cover says—was born in Ireland and was raised mainly in the Netherlands. Now he lives in New York, and this is where he has set his story. The protagonist is a Dutchman, Hans van den Broek, a successful oil analyst in a big financial firm. He is married to an Englishwoman, Rachel, who is drifting away from him. They have a child, Jake. In part, the plot traces the fortunes of this marriage, through separation to a kind of reunion. It's done in a muted way that reflects the muted tones of the relationship. More vividly—in the interstices between the marital events—there occurs Hans's growing friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, an amiable and expansive man from Trinidad. Chuck has various money-making business schemes, some of which may be legal. He has as a partner a Jewish man, whom no-one likes very much but whose existence in the partnership enables Chuck to buy commercial real estate from Jews, and also to run a Kosher sushi business. Another scheme is to establish cricket as a popular sport in America.

The novel is about being outside society, looking in, trying to puzzle out what is going on, trying to find one's place. It is about the question of what gives meaning to life. It is set in the years following the destruction of the World Trade Center. The disruption of this event acts as a background for the disruption of lives of immigrants, thrown into a place that looks as if it might be partly familiar, but which is often bewildering. It is a fine novel, which belongs in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction, for which you may click here.

And cricket! What an improbable subject. Hans says he first started to play cricket at school in Holland. I had no idea that the Dutch play cricket. Hans takes up cricket again when his wife separates from him and returns with their son to England. Cricket is seen not just a game but an engine of meaning about equality and fairness.

Cricket is tremendously popular in many parts of the world, across many cultures. On the only occasion when I visited Singapore, I went for a walk one afternoon near the harbour and there, on a closely mown green field, a game of cricket was in progress. I dawdled and watched, as one does when one sees a cricket match. A fast bowler bowled. The batsman with his bat straightish but slanted slightly backwards, pushed forward a bit to his right, and the ball ran at a controlled pace towards mid off, who was standing deep. "Yes," yelled the batsman. He ran, and the man at the other end, who was backing up, ran with his bat outstretched to reach for the crease. The fielder at mid off came in fast. In one movement he stooped while on the run, scooped up the ball, and threw to the wicket keeper, who caught the ball and flicked off the bails. The square leg umpire was unmoved. Not out. Another spectator, also apparently taking a walk, was dawdling towards me. "Good cricket," he shouted towards the middle of the field. Extraordinary that I should remember the incident after 15 years. Extraordinary that the language of cricket, which to outsiders seems nonsensical, seems straightforward to everyone who has been brought up with it. "Double Dutch" is a term the English use for something they can't understand. For foreigners, just the singular, "cricket," is enough.

In the novel, Hans is mildly surprised that the men in the New York region cricket team for which he plays—from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka—should make the game the occasion of affection and of caring for each other. On the surface, the novel is about the integration of foreigners into American society, about the taking up of new customs, about whether one can transform old habits to suit them to the new place. Or might the games of our childhood, perhaps, catch on? Underneath, in the netherland, the novel is of wistfulness and melancholy. Cricket represents youth, and a past that constantly infuses the present with meanings that may or may not be appropriate as the protagonist steps warily into a culture that he does not quite want to join. For Hans, the future might be to settle in America, or to live alone, or to return to a wife he doesn't understand, or to take as central to his life a son he doesn't yet know. Is it possible that meaning can be formed in the new, even though its structure can be only vaguely seen, and when we have as yet no words?

Joseph O'Neill (2008). Netherland. New York: Pantheon.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Instinctive Art

On 14 January 2009, Denis Dutton gave a talk at Google headquarters, to discuss his recent book The art instinct. You can view Dutton's talk by clicking here, and you can read a micro-review of his book in our archive of Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here. Dutton asks: where do the intuitions of art come from? They are adaptations, he says. This makes it possible to understand art across the range of human cultures.

Here is a list of some of the characteristics of art, of a kind that emerge if one looks across cultures in this way. Works of art:
• provide people with direct pleasure, they are ends in themselves
• require the exercise of skills and virtuosity
• tend to be made in styles
• are characterized by creativity and novelty
• have a special focus, and often involve expense
• involve expressive individuality, each has someone behind it
• are surrounded by critical commentary
• involve intellectual challenge, they use a lot of the brain
• tend to be characterized by emotional saturation
• provide imaginative experience and make-believe worlds.

With a list like this, says Dutton, you can see unity across cultures. You can then also see the list in terms of an ensemble of adaptations. We are descended from beings who had these adaptations. Three important indications are that art gives pleasure, it is found in all cultures, and it develops spontaneously. In the Pleistocene, human personality was formed: our likes and dislikes. Our ancestors avoided snakes and high places. They enjoyed sex, puzzles, and stories. Stories allow for forecasting, but at low cost. They enable us to learn lessons, for instance about hunting but without the danger of the hunt. They encourage us to explore points of view of others. We are the descendants of the survivors in evolution, and the survivors were those who had these inclinations. Those in the past who did have these dislikes and likes were not our ancestors, because they did not survive.

You can think also, says Dutton, in terms of sexual selection. Story-tellers are virtuosi, who squander resources and brainpower. They offer displays that are like the peacock's tail, which is a signal of fitness. Peahens choose the peacocks with the most impressive tails. So alongside natural selection, is sexual selection. Many of the values seen in art are seen in courtship, for instance the wasteful display of useless things like flowers for someone taken out to an expensive meal. Works of art are often made of expensive materials. They have usually taken time and skill to create. These features implies status. Women prefer men who have resources, skills, and status.

What about women artists? Maybe that's for the next book.

Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Emulating Fictional Habits

Ever since reading Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, I find myself at odd moments absently flicking the blade of my pocketknife open and closed, open and closed. This seems a slightly dangerous and unfortunately attention-drawing habit, so as soon as I notice I'm doing this, I usually re-pocket the knife (and hope no one's noticed). But the habit is always the same: holding the knife in one hand, and opening the blade with the other just enough to be able to let it snap back into place — just, I realize, as I image Peter Walsh playing with his knife in Mrs. Dalloway, a very characteristic and somewhat loaded habit.

What are we doing when we adopt such fictional habits? I catch myself (and others) at this mimicry after movies, too: a particular way of holding the mouth, or of turning the head becomes habitual for an hour or a day, and I can often tell when friends are reading favorite authors by habits of speech or turns of phrase. Business coaches suggest that emulation of speech and habits can smooth communication by making us seem more familiar to the people we emulate — and psychologists suggest such emulation may reveal who's taking cues about how to behave from whom. Emulation clearly has some social functions.

But the way that fiction inspires emulation suggests that this kind of imitation is not only relational or about persuasion — and (in case this was in question) is not necessarily under conscious control. Instead, I suspect that mimicking the set Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle's mouth takes when he is figuring out a case somehow helps put me in a mood that enables me to approximate Foyle's abductive genius. Fiddling with my pocketknife just so perhaps signals that I'm feeling a bit lost for words. (Tipping my head to the side like Kidman's Woolf in The Hours might just signal my affection for Virgina Woolf — but it might also represent an aspiration to the kind of stark one liners her character usually delivers with head tilted, or a search for the subtle perspective her character appears to possess.)

Paying attention to these little ways we draw the experience of fiction into our non-reading experience of everyday life may tell us more about how what we read provides us new models for thinking about things — and even new things to do with our hands.

Benedict Carey (2008). You Remind Me of Me. Feb 12, The New York Times.

Stephen Daldry, Michael Cunningham, & David Hare (1998/2003). The Hours. Paramount Pictures.

Virginia Woolf (1927). Mrs. Dalloway. Hogarth Press.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Research Bulletin: Television as a Social Surrogate

Last year we reported on a study by Wendi Gardner and Megan Knowles, on how favourite television characters can influence us in much the same was as real peers. In a similar vein, Jaye Derrick, Shira Gabriel, and Kurt Hugenberg have recently reported on how favourite television programs can serve as a social surrogate. Their article, accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, describes four experiments that investigate this question from a number of different directions.

Study 1 employed a correlational approach and a large sample (N = 701) to demonstrate that when people are feeling lonely, they are likely to prefer watching a favourite television show. Importantly, this activity is more preferred than simply watching whatever is on television. This is consistent with the idea that when feeling lonely people are likely to seek out situations that entail a parasocial relationship, and that this is a more powerful drive than mere escapism. Also in line with this idea, and in this same study, people reported that they feel least lonely while watching a favourite television program, as compared to watching whatever is on. In Study 2, the researchers experimentally manipulated how much their participants felt a need to belong with others, and then examined how long they would write about a time when they watched a favoured television program compared to a time when they simply watched whatever was on. Those primed to feel a greater need to belong with others (i.e., by writing about a prior conflict with someone close to them), spent more time writing about favoured television shows than those who were not primed in this fashion (i.e. , they completed a control task). Importantly, a difference was again observed with regards to favoured programs and television in general, so that those primed with a need to belong wrote more about the former than the latter. For Study 3, the researchers replicated the design of Study 2, but limited how long each participant wrote about favoured or non-favoured television programs. What they found was that people reported lower self-esteem in the condition whereby belongingness needs were primed (i.e., writing about a personal conflict), even if they subsequently wrote about non-favoured television viewing. However, when participants were given the opportunity to write about watching their favoured television shows, no decrease in self-esteem was found following the belongingness prime. Thus, writing about watching one’s favoured shows allowed people to recover from the blow to their self-esteem incurred by thinking about a past personal conflict. Lastly, in Study 4, it was demonstrated that participants who thought about favoured television shows were less likely to have thoughts of social exclusion compared to those who thought about watching television per se, or another control task.

As a whole, this article provides a very nice example of how programmatic research into this topic should be undertaken, with a myriad of approaches (i.e., correlational and experimental), that are then shown to converge on a single coherent result. These studies also illustrate the importance of studying the effects of fictional products that are personally relevant, which clearly have different influences than exposure to fiction per se.

Jaye Derrick, Shira Gabriel, & Kurt Hugenberg (in press). Social Surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. (published online: December 24, 2008)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Parallel Planes: Review of Pan's Labyrinth

Although the adjective "surreal" has entered everyday language, the movement of surrealism in literature, and even more markedly in the visual arts with such painters as Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, seems now to be located in a particular place and time: Europe in the 1920s. The movement was one of liberation of society and of the imagination. Psychologically, its aim was to explore the marvelous, freed from such rational constraints as mere contradiction, for instance between fantasy and reality or between life and death. Pan's Labyrinth, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, has travelled in time. It is set in Spain, in 1944, and combines the political and psychological themes of surrealism. It is a protest against political repression, and a liberation into the fairy-tale fantasies of an eleven-year-old girl, Ofelia.

The film is a psychological exploration of life as it shifts back and forth between two parallel planes. One plane might be called the ordinary world. With her mother, who has recently married the cruel Captain Vidal, Ofelia has moved to the headquarters of a military outpost in the north of Spain, where Fascist government forces commanded by Vidal are trying to put down a resistance force of guerillas left over from the Civil War. The other plane is of Ofelia's fantasies, derived from fairy tales that she reads, in which she is a princess who has to prove her worth, and reach her dominion, by completing three seemingly impossible tasks. Making two planes explicit is an engaging process in art: one plane can afford meaning to the other.

Guillermo del Toro is wonderfully accomplished as a visual thinker, and many of the images of the film are striking and thought-provoking. The film is true piece of modern surrealism. Several friends, whose judgement I trust, were very moved by it. I was not so moved, but I admired its artistry. Combining my friends' and my own judgement, I think it gets four out of five stars. You can read a longer review by clicking here.
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