Friday, 29 January 2010


It crept up, fine as a thread, this one forbidden thought. I tried to dress it up, or bully it, or recant it. But it gathered strength, insolent and pernicious. It heeded me little, if at all. It reveled in its cruel pursuit.

I grew tired, then slow. I stopped, and turned - a trick that I learned somewhere along the way. It crashed surprised, into me. It split and shattered all over me. I wear its fragments, yet still, sometimes I miss the unbroken thing.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Effort after Meaning

In an interesting essay in this week's New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn writes about the difference between memoir and fiction in terms of truth and untruth. Members of the OnFiction group have (if I may speak for all of us) been a bit dissatisfied with the idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is untrue. We prefer to see fiction in terms of its subject matter: exploration of how selves make their sometimes problematic ways through the social world.

Mendelsohn starts his article with Freud's refusal in 1929 of an advance of $5000 for an autobiography, and he cites Freud's reaction to the invitation. "What makes all autobiographies worthless," Freud wrote, "is, after all, their mendacity." Mendelsohn discusses Augustine's Confessions as the first of the literary autobiographies in the West, and then confesses that he had signed up for a non-fiction book on contemporary gay culture in America, but had found that the more deeply he got into it, the harder it became "to isolate what 'gay identity' might be." Because he did not want to suggest that he somehow stood outside the tensions and instabilities of his subject matter, he thought he would write about himself: a memoir. It was published as The elusive embrace.

In his New Yorker article, Mendelsohn ranges across many issues, including journalists who just make stuff up, and of stories of holocaust survivors presented as autobiographies but written by people who weren't even there. His thoughts in the article conclude with him and his brother, Matt, sitting on a plane when some people behind them, members of a choir, started to sing a song. Matt said: "Remember we sang that in choir?" What Daniel remembered was that he had been in the choir but that Matt had not been in it. Daniel was in the process of writing a book based on people's memories from more than twice as long ago as those of his and his brother's boyhoods.

A psychological study that Mendelsohn mentions is that of Frederic Bartlett (1932). The study is well known in psychology but not nearly well enough known generally. In it Bartlett completely contradicted the idea that we can generally be accurate in what we recall. We can remember certain details, and we store these in memory along with an attitude and a sense of the whole. If we need to recall, we can sometimes retrieve some of the details plus our attitude, along with our knowledge of how the world works, and we construct an account of what must have happened. Bartlett explained that in remembering we are hardly ever entirely accurate, and usually it's not at all important that we be so.

Uncertainty about what really happened is an issue that rightly exercises historians and journalists. But the deeper issue, raised by Bartlett though not mentioned by Mendelsohn, is that when remembering or, indeed, when trying to make sense of anything for the first time, we are constantly engaged in an "effort after meaning" (Bartlett, p. 20). In his refusal to write an autobiography, Freud wasn't worrying about truth and untruth, but about truth and lying. He was suspicious of being cast into a situation in which he would find himself making willful distortions. The pressure to present oneself more-or-less favorably to a readership that could be unsympathetic may be too much. Of course it may. In his Confessions, Augustine made a cunning manoeuvre by taking up a purpose other than mere self-presentation. He depicted his life as necessarily sinful because we are all necessarily human. For the rest of us, it might be possible to confess to a loved one, to a psychotherapist, even to a priest, who will understand us as if from the inside. But confessing to the public about matters that were troubling even to ourselves?

Fiction, then, in which one searches for truths other than those of mere actuality, as if from the inside, may be the real expression of the human effort after meaning.

Image: Saint Augustine, detail from a stained glass window by Louis Tiffany

Augustine (circa 401). The confessions (G. Wills, Trans.). New York: Penguin (current edition 2006).

Frederic Bartlett (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel Mendelsohn (1999). The elusive embrace: Desire and the riddle of identity. New York: Knopf.

Daniel Mendelsohn (2010). But enough about me. New Yorker, January 25, pp. 68-74.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

It's Good

“It’s good, good, good. When it’s published people will say that it’s good, good, good.” This was F. Scott Fitzgerald speaking of his own book, the book he intended to be the great American novel of his time. He had written more than 400,000 words, only to throw out three-quarters of the manuscript, and then kept re-writing, convinced that once done, it would take the world by storm. He didn’t mind it took time – the whole nine years – to complete. Tender is the Night was finally published in 1934. The highly anticipated reviews were, at most, indifferent. Fitzgerald’s puzzlement over this comparative failure led him to dissect the book for its flaws. He believed that if only he could shift few scenes about, if only he could present the plot, the characters, a bit more clearly, then… then the world would finally get it. He did manage, in subsequent printings to move a few scenes about, but to no wondrous effect.

It is understandable why Fitzgerald may have thought the book promising. Dick Divers, a handsome, socially suave, gifted psychiatrist is driven to alcoholism and ruin by a marriage to a beautiful, schizophrenic, Nicole. The plot, thinly, if at all veiled, recapitulation of his own destructive marriage, is dense and glamorous. Fitzgerald’s startling aptness for a perfect metaphor does not flag either. The problem, the only problem, is that it is hard, somehow, to really care about Dick Divers. But why should this be so?

It could be the over-writing, or under-writing, or perhaps both. First, we are overwhelmed at just how handsome, suave, and nurturing Dick Divers is. So much injustice, and done to such a fine man! Some novelists can’t resist the fantasy of their own person, and by writing themselves into the leading men and women, end up crushing the lead character under the weight of their own immodesty. Or perhaps it is the lack of the shade and depth that comes from believing what is in one’s mind is already on the page. Novelists, like all others, have enough compassion and interest in their own lives that it is hard for them to understand why a character that resembles them so nearly should not automatically lay claim to interest and compassion of others. What results is a flat, unmoving and unmoved character, struggling to arouse enough interest to carry the reader on her voyage through the book. If only we could be more tender to Fitzgerald’s keen disappointments.

Fitzgerald, F.S. (1953). Three Novels. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Monday, 18 January 2010

Research Bulletin: Words that Make you Smile

There has been a growing body of evidence that language and other cognitive functions are embodied, that basic sensory and motor processes undergird more complex and abstract cognitive processes. Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that the parts of our brain devoted to action tend to become engaged when we read about actions, for example (see our previous post here). Recently this work has been extended to the realm of emotions, using a very clever paradigm. Francesco Foroni and Gun R. Semin (2009), two researchers from The Netherlands, examined whether reading verbs such as “to smile” or “to frown” would result in subtle smiles or frowns on the part of the reader. Movement of the facial muscles was measured using small electrodes (i.e., facial electromyography) as participants read action verbs pertaining to facial expressions or emotional adjectives (e.g., funny, annoying). For both sets of words, the muscles in the face appropriate for producing the corresponding facial expression were activated, but the effect was stronger for the action verbs. This is much in line with a previous finding that demonstrated similar responses in facial muscles when people looked at pictures of actual smiles and frowns (Dimberg et al., 2000).
Foroni and Semin extended these results in a second experiment, designed to examine whether these tiny facial movements impact our judgments. If reading “to smile” produces a tiny smile on our face, do these motor movements play a role in how funny we perceive something to be? What if these motor movements were inhibited, would we still see an effect on judgments? The researchers again presented adjectives and action verbs, but this time they were presented subliminally (flashed so briefly that the participants were not aware of what was shown). After each flashed word, participants then read a cartoon and had to rate how funny they thought it was. Importantly, half of the people were asked to hold a pencil in their mouth while making these judgments, effectively preventing them from producing the tiny smiles and frowns seen in the first experiment. What the researchers found was that subliminally-presented action verbs, but not adjectives, affected how funny the participants rated the cartoons. But this only occurred when they were permitted to make the subtle facial movements (i.e., those who did not have to hold a pencil in their mouths). So, not only does reading some words result in tiny facial movements corresponding to the appropriate emotion, these tiny movements also affect our subsequent emotional judgements. This clever experiment seems much in line with the idea that while reading fiction we undergo an embodied simulation of experience that involves real emotions (e.g., Oatley, 1999).
Dimberg, U., Thumberg, M., & Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 11, 86­–89.
Foroni, F., & Semin, G. R. (2009). Language that puts you in touch with your bodily feelings. Psychological Science, 20, 974–980.
Oatley, K. (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3, 101–117.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Revisiting Inoculation

In a post last summer, I broached the idea of narrative inoculation, and considered ways in which inoculation might take place:
In narrative contexts, inoculation refers to the function that opposing ideas may have in strengthening the ideas they critique.

For example, the desensitization of familiarity might complement the cognitive dissonance reduction of a concept too difficult, dissonant, or fear-inducing to fit into everyday governing narratives. ... Commodification ... exemplifies yet other paths by which symbolic mechanisms help to vaccinate us against the viral critiques and crises that might suggest problems with our current practices or explanatory frames.
With the circulation of H1N1 and our attempts to inoculate against the rapidly changing virus, the metaphor of inoculation has gained recent resonance. I saw the concept mobilized for the first time during the last month on an agriculture website, not exactly the place I'd expected it: the basic argument (not phrased in the vocabulary of inoculation, but using the concept) was that organizations like the Humane Society have been successful in their campaigns critiquing mainstream meat production practices in part because consumers have become unfamiliar with the stories that describe modern agriculture. In a fascinating rhetorical prescription, the essay author suggested that instead of promoting abstract agricultural products as symbolically desirable ("Beef, it's what's for dinner," Pork, the other white meat," and "Got milk?"), modern farmers needed to grab the narrative bull by the storied horns, and give consumers a taste of the same process-oriented story that has served critics so well.

This prescription is striking, and suggests some interesting categories of effect for the implementation of inoculation. At one extreme, inoculating someone with a story line could be likened to desensitization. What starts as exposure therapy, making the ascent of elevators an acceptable trajectory and experience, may end up inuring soldiers, for example, to situations that are understandably emotion-provoking. In the livestock case in question, this line of reasoning might suggest, give people enough of the stories of confined animal raising that form the backbone of the agricultural horror genre, and they will stop having such overblown (it is implied) reactions to cute piggies in concrete stalls. And I suspect that this is, in fact, the goal in mind. For many farmers and those close to them, a clearer sense of the story of the everyday life of farming puts the photogenic plight of livestock in a context where the difficult structural circumstances and human drama make the decisions that lead to particular livestock practices seem inescapable -- and perhaps familiar, inoculated against.

However, as much as this may well happen to some degree, looking at what appears to happen to many people as they are exposed to vaccination-level doses of stories coded as upsetting by many mainstream audiences, it appears that any analysis of narrative inoculation also has to consider the narrative structures that make things sayable -- or not. In the same way that "cancer" is said only in a whisper by some, talking about where food comes from -- particularly if its origins might elicit an emotional response -- is taboo for some, or at least not "table talk." This suggests the presence of guiding scripts, such as the film scripts to which I've linked above -- the narratives that make it ok to talk about raw meat and its origins, for example, or that give us exploratory guidelines for heading into such territory. This raises further interesting questions about what happens when someone is exposed to a story fragment such as "confined animals gain weight faster" vs. "confined animals pine for outdoors" -- each three word phrase evokes such vastly additional stories, and yet, would one inoculate against the other? If I had thought, "on the one hand, they do gain weight faster," does that moderate the resonance of the story I envision along with, "pining for outdoors"?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Lights, Cameras, Fiction

It is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the psychology of fiction in light of the blurring boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. This is particularly true of television, where reality TV has come to dominate programming. Although these shows were permitted to continue during the recent writer's strike in America, this decision seems suspect in light of recent admissions that the content of these shows is often more planned or "written" than not. The controversy surrounding James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, also exemplifies the public's thirst for a reality that embodies all the thrill of fiction.

A short animated collaboration between cartoonist Chris Ware and This American Life's Ira Glass (below) provides an additional facet for consideration. Admittedly, it does not deal directly with fiction, nonfiction, and how the two may be distinguished. What it does do is provide remarkable insight into how turning cameras on reality transforms us in some very fundamental ways. Given the direction that entertainment media is headed, these changes are certainly deserving of note and perhaps no small amount of concern.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Research Bulletin: A Sad Decline

In a recent post entitled "The Writer's Fingerprint" (click here), Raymond Mar discussed computer search over a corpus of an author's works to detect idiosyncratic uses of language. Using these methods, linguistic fingerprints have been found, left by particular authors at the scene of their writings.

Comparable methods have also been used to detect linguistic changes that occur to particular writers over their lifetime. Ian Lancashire and Graeme Hirst have used three measures of Agatha Christie's detective novels, written between the age of 28 (The mysterious affair at Styles) and the age of 82 (The postern of fate). The measures they used were the size of vocabulary, the number of repetitions of fixed phrases, and the use of indefinite words (such as "thing," "anything," "something").

Agatha Christie was born in 1890, and died in 1976. She was enormously prolific. According to Lancashire and Hirst, she wrote 85 novels and plays, and by 1990 two billion copies of her works had been sold. Each of her works was planned meticulously before she started to write it, and she received little or no input from editors. This last fact is important from the point of view of how far the writings that were analyzed were attributable solely to the author.

Lancashire and Hirst followed the method used by Peter Garrard and his colleagues (2005) in their analysis of the effects of early Alzheimer's Disease on Iris Murdoch. Garrard et al. found that changes of word-use by Murdoch indicated that when she was writing her last book she was already in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and that it was her word-use rather than her syntax that was affected.

For Agatha Christie, Lancashire and Hirst analyzed the first 50,000 words of each of 15 of her detective novels. They found that, in comparison with the detective novels she wrote between the ages of 28 and 32, those written between the ages of 81 and 82 showed a 15 to 30% loss in vocabulary and a 14% increase in the use of repeated phrases. Her last detective novel had 1.23% of indefinite words, as compared with 0.27% in her first. Lancashire and Hirst conclude that, like Iris Murdoch, Agatha Christie had started to suffer from dementia by the time of her last writings, perhaps Alzheimer's Disease.

Though we all decline in our abilities of recall with aging, Alzheimer's seems to have severe effects on cues for retrieval from memory. It is a sad decline, perhaps especially sad for writers.

Peter Garrard, Lisa Maloney, Jack Hodges, & Karalyn Patterson (2005). The effects of very early Alzheimer’s disease on the characteristics of writing by a renowned author. Brain, 128, 250–260.

Lancashire, I., & Hirst, G. (2009). Vocabulary changes in Agatha Christie's mysteries as an indication of dementia: A case study. Paper presented at the 19th Annual Rotman Research Institute Conference, Cognitive Aging: Research and Practice, 8–10 March, Toronto.

Monday, 4 January 2010

From Play to Fiction

Last year saw the publication of Brian Boyd's important book On the origin of stories, reviewed in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction (for which please click here). In it Boyd argues that fiction is a human universal evolved from play, already present in other mammals, and emphasized in humans.

I think that the first psychologist to suggest that fiction originates in play was Sigmund Freud. In 1908 he published an article in a Berlin literary magazine, entitled Der dichter und das phantasieren (Creative writing and day-dreaming). It starts like this:
We laymen have always been intensely curious to know ... from what sources that strange being, the creative writer, draws his material, and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which, perhaps, we had not even thought ourselves capable (p. 131).
The secret? It’s that the writer draws on the play of childhood, and on day-dreaming which is one of its adult continuations. In play, says Freud, children act out their wishes: of being grown up. Day-dreaming and night dreaming, Freud asserts, are also expressions of intense wishes. Writers—especially popular writers—offer such dreams which are typically of either (as Freud puts it in a slightly stuffy way) an ambitious or erotic kind. He uses these terms to indicate the motivations of what we now call action stories (liked mainly by men) and romances (liked mainly by women). He points out that in an action story a hero may lie “unconscious and bleeding from severe wounds” at the end of one chapter and find himself, at the beginning of the next chapter, being “carefully nursed and on the way to recovery.” One reads such stories with a sense of security. They are of what we wish for ourselves, to succeed in a grand way despite all adversity, and to be tenderly cared for. In raw form such phantasies in adulthood would seem too infantile for us to admit to others or even to our selves. Creative writers transmute such ideas into something acceptable.

A year earlier Freud had published his first work on fiction: Delusions and dreams in Jensen's Gradiva. In it he analyzes Norbert Hanhold, a fictional archaeologist who is the protagonist of Wilhelm Jensen's 1903 novel, Gradiva. In the story Hanhold obtains a copy of a Roman bas relief of a walking woman in a flowing garment, and starts to experience compelling phantasies and dreams about her … (Freud himself acquired a copy of this same bas relief in 1907, and it is still on the wall of his room in the London house where he died, now a museum.)

Freud points out that play in childhood is a source of intense pleasure. We don't give up such pleasures, Freud asserts, we exchange their sources for something else. So as play declines towards the end of childhood, it's exchanged for other things, equally pleasurable, that derive from it, such as fiction.

Brian Boyd (2009). On the origin of stories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sigmund Freud (1907). Delusions and dreams in Jensen's Gradiva. In A. Dickson (Ed.), Pelican Freud Library, 14: Art and literature (pp. 29-118). London: Penguin (current edition 1985).

Sigmund Freud (1908). Creative writers and day-dreaming. In A. Dickson (Ed.), Pelican Freud Library, 14: Art and literature (pp. 130-141). London: Penguin (current edition 1985).
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