Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Slippery Memories and the Tasks of Fiction, by Charles Fernyhough

The scientific study of autobiographical memory never much appealed to me. As a psychology undergraduate in the late 1980s, I was interested in those details of mind and behaviour that would submit themselves to formal analysis. Memory was too unquantifiable, too unreliable, too subjective, too fuzzed up with messy human detail. I wanted to get scientific about hard numbers (which I thought, at the time, was the only way of being scientific), and all memory seemed to offer me was personal stories.

Now, as someone who divides his time between scientific psychology and fiction-writing, these are precisely the qualities of autobiographical memory that appeal to me most. I am interested in it for some of the same reasons that a novelist might be: because it gives the richest illustration of the precariously complex acts of meaning-making through which human beings make sense of their own existence.

I have written elsewhere about the modern view of memory as a reconstructive process (click here), which sees memories as mental constructions created in the present, according to the demands of the present, rather than as immutable snapshots stored in some library of the mind. What surprises me is that novelists can be resistant to this way of looking at things. In her 2003 memoir, Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel is sniffy about the research in experimental psychology (click here) which has convincingly demonstrated that the vividness of memories bears no relation to their accuracy. In a subsequent article (click here), she responds to the criticism that she has underestimated memory’s power to loosen our grasp on the facts. For me, the most telling note in this compelling piece is her complaint against the reconstructive view: "I don’t know why people want to believe this." The answer, surely, is that scientists don’t simply believe what they want to believe; they believe what their method, and the evidence of their data, show them to be true.

And, in any case, why should a novelist be so concerned about what is objectively true? There are good reasons for clinging to the authenticity of early memories, not least because they can be so foundational for our sense of self. But embracing the constructed nature of memories can be liberating (click here), and I think this is particularly true for fiction writers. When I tell my own creative writing students about the reconstructive view of memory, I encourage them to abandon themselves to its slippery charms. We are all natural born storytellers; we engage in acts of fiction-making every time we recount an event from our pasts.

That is not to say that our memories are fabrications. Far from it: our memories are often very accurate, and only prone to serious distortion under certain conditions. To emphasize the narrative structure of memory is not to deny its potential veracity. Rather, I like to think that it’s a way of better understanding what we are trying to understand. The fact is that the processes of recounting a memory narrative bear important similarities to the processes of telling a fictional story. Psychologists often ask participants to imagine memories for events that could plausibly have happened to them, but didn’t actually. Although research into the phenomenological similarities and differences between these constructions is still ongoing, genuine and made-up memories can look very similar in many ways, and similar patterns of, for example, neurophysiological activation are shown in participants generating real and imagined memories1.

Mantel’s own writing is full of brilliant demonstrations of the power of imagined memories. One of the most striking things about her justly lauded novel Wolf Hall is the way she bestows a richly imagined past upon her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. A favourite scene for me is one in which Cromwell recalls an erotic encounter in a Cyprus gambling den, which merges, along a link of emotion, into another sexual memory, this time in Europe, with his lover Anselma.

Excuse me just a moment, she had said to him; she prayed in her own language, now coaxing, now almost threatening, and she must have teased from her silver saints some flicker of grace, or perceived some deflection in their glinting rectitude, because she stood up and turned to him, saying, ‘I’m ready now,’ tugging apart the silk ties of her gown so that he could take her breasts in his hands.

Student writers are told to imagine what their characters think, feel and perceive, but they are not reminded often enough to give voice to their characters’ memories. Paying attention to protagonists’ thoughts about their past (and future) is, to my mind, one of the ways in which great writers truly distinguish themselves. Mantel presumably bases her scene on some real biographical details about Cromwell’s life. For the rest, she fills in the gaps with her own magic. If we revert to being psychologists for a moment, fictional memory-making can be understood as the integration of multiple sources of information, orchestrated according to the constraints of the present act of narrativizing. Paying attention to how an expert novelist constructs a memory provides us with a pretty good model of how our own memories work. Accepting the narrative nature of remembering does not destroy its magic. Stories are precious, and that applies equally to our own stories of the past.

Conway, M. A., Pleydell-Pearce, C. W., Whitecross, S. E., & Sharpe, H. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of memory for experienced and imagined events. Neuropsychologia, 41, 334-340.

Mantel, H. (2009). Wolf Hall. London: Fourth Estate.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Quick Hit: Recommended Books

This time of the year brings a number of "Best of" lists and like recommendations. For your convenience, we have collected several here.
The New York Times has several lists, including The 10 Best Books of 2010, lists from their prominent reviewers (Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and Dwight Garner), and if that wasn't enough, the 100 Notable Books of 2010 as well as the Notable Crime Books of 2010. (And even more, here.)
For those seeking a decidedly Canadian bent, The Globe & Mail newspaper has its own recommendations, as well as its own lists, including strictly Canadian fiction.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 20, 2010

Research Bulletin: Detecting Scientific Inaccuracies in Movies

In a recent study conducted at Cornell University researchers working with 96 participants found that men and women differ in their detection rates of inaccurate science facts presented in clips from movies. Claudia A. Barriga, Michael A. Shapiro, and Marissa L. Fernandez (2010) show that men are better at detecting such inaccuracies when they believe that science is central to the plot of the film, while women detect more inaccuracies when they believe that science is peripheral to the film’s plot.

The study was based on psychological theory that opposes two different types of response to information presented through the medium of fiction. A reader or viewer may “incorporate” incoming information from a fictional source, such that it is tagged as true and used as a scaffold for new incoming information and a link to information stored in long-term memory, or “compartmentalize” it, such that it is not tagged as true nor entered into the bank of one’s world knowledge (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991). This theory further proposes that information presented in a fictional context may seem, nevertheless, to be context-free; and such information should be more readily incorporated, and less readily compartmentalized, a claim that has been supported empirically (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991). Barriga et al had thus expected to find a main effect for the centrality/periphery factor, in which incorrect information presented peripherally to the plot would be less likely to be compartmentalized and labeled as false, a pattern that only the males in the study demonstrated. The authors note that their result may be attributable to gender differences in interest in science, confidence in scientific ability, and attitudes toward science – factors not accounted for by their use of the general science knowledge control. The authors note, “The most intriguing result, and one worthy of exploration, is that people who are not usually attuned to science may be less likely to be influenced by faulty science, and more able to detect mistakes, when they are focused on other elements of the plot and consider the science secondary” (p. 19).

Another intriguing result, however, and one not directly addressed by the authors, is that, averaging across all viewers, out of a possible eight incorrect scientific “facts” that could have been detected, only a grand mean of about 2.75 (judging by the figure on p. 16) were detected. Doesn’t this suggest that it’s likely that most of us walk out of the cinema having subconsciously filed away as “true” 5 of the 8 incorrect scientific facts to which we were exposed? A sobering statistic to reflect upon...

Barriga, C. A., Shapiro, M. A., & Fernandez, M. L. (2010). Science information in fictional movies: Effects of context and gender. Science Communication, 32, 3-24.

Gerrig, R., & Prentice, D. (1991). The representation of fictional information. Psychological Science, 2, 336-340.

Image: http://fairchild24.com/bburg.htm

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 13, 2010

Simulation in the Mind and on the Page

Consciousness seems able to let us decide what to do, and then do it. But recent psychological evidence suggests this is misleading. At least some actions are initiated before conscious decisions to act can occur, and people can be induced by unobtrusive social maneuvers to act in certain ways, but be introspectively unaware of why they acted as they did.

Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo (2010) have been persuaded by evidence of this kind, and have proposed that the function of consciousness is not the immediate initiation of actions. Instead, it is to create simulations of ourselves that inter-relate memory, current understandings of the social world, and evaluation of future actions. Conscious thought enables us to explain ourselves verbally to ourselves and others, and also to compose our minds. Here's what Baumeister and Masicampo say:
The influence of conscious thought on behavior can be vitally helpful but is mostly indirect. Conscious simulation processes are useful for understanding the perspectives of social interaction partners, for exploring options in complex decisions, for replaying past events (both literally and counterfactually) so as to learn, and for facilitating participation in culture in other ways (p. 945).
(Baumeister and Masicampo cite a large range of studies that bear on their hypothesis for instance, one by Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, and Bertram Gowronski, 2008, for which I give more details in an appendix at the end of this post.)

For a long time fiction has been seen as augmenting the functions of consciousness. Baumeister and Masicampo give us a good way of thinking about how this might occur. Fiction consists of crafted and externalized simulations: twins of our internal simulations. Plays, novels, short stories, and films, can be internalized by us readers and audience members to add to the construction of our own inner simulations.

Baumeister and Masicampo gives an example of a use of consciousness in planning:
... when one has a plane to catch tomorrow, one typically engages in a simulation that calculates backward from the plane’s takeoff time, allowing for airport procedures, the trip to the airport, and perhaps the hotel checkout before that, so one knows at what time to commence the sequence of acts. All the information used for this simulation is already in the mind, so conducting the simulation does not bring in new information from the environment ... These simulations work remarkably well in enabling people to be on time for their flights without having to spend many extra hours at the airport (p. 955).
I call the means by which this kind of function is accomplished the planning processor, the mental device by which we arrange our projects in the world. It requires a model of how the world works, and it offers the opportunity to arrange possible actions in the form of a plan.

When tracking the actions of a character in fiction, a reader or audience member uses this planning ability within his or her mental simulation: an author gives the reader information about the setting and the protagonist’s goals, then starts readers off on a plan. Then the author says what is accomplished and what events occur, including those in the minds of the protagonist and other characters. As we put aside our own goals and plans, and take on those of a protagonist, we enter that character’s patterns of conscious thought and come to know outcomes of actions. But the emotions that result are our own.

Baumeister and Masicampo's theory of the simulations of consciousness is very similar to the theory of the simulations of fiction with which we (at OnFiction) work. How encouraging, then, that these two kinds of simulation are so closely interchangeable.

Roy Baumeister & E.J. Masicampo (2010). Conscious thought is for facilitating social and cultural interactions: How mental simulations serve the animal-culture interface. Psychological Review, 117, 945-971.


Appendix: Galdi et al. (2008) studied people's conscious thinking and sub-consciously activated associations about a controversial proposal to enlarge a US military base in their city. Conscious beliefs were assessed by a 10-item questionnaire on environmental, social, and economic consequences of the proposal. Associations were measured by an implicit association test, in which people pressed buttons in response to pictures of the military base and evaluative words. People's decisions were measured by them saying whether they were (a) in favour of the base's enlargement, (b) undecided, or (c) against the enlargement. For the decided people, their conscious thoughts were highly predictive (p < 0.001) of both their decision and their automatic associations one week later (p < 0.01); but these people's automatic associations at the time of first assessment were not predictive of their decision a week afterwards. By contrast, among undecided participants, their conscious thoughts at first did not significantly predict their later decision, but their unconscious associations did significantly predict their decision (p < 0.05) and their conscious beliefs (p. < 0.01) a week later. This study may seem rather complicated. My view is that it indicates that our conscious thoughts are affected by processes of which we are not consciously aware—including the processes that produce our emotions—and that, rather than conscious thoughts being always able immediately to control what we decide they can, instead, work over a longer term to affect the structure of our minds, for instance as we think about an issue, become aware of our emotions about it, and discuss it with others.

Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri & Bertram Gawronski (2008). Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers. Science, 321, 1100-1102.

Image: From Raymond Mar: pooled fMRI results to show overlaps in the human brain between areas involved in thinking about people and areas involved in comprehending narrative.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 6, 2010

Rules We Live By

On 11 October, I reviewed Decalogue 1 to 5 a set of one-hour films set in Warsaw and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski (click here). In this post I review one of the films, number 8, in the series Decalogue 6 -10. A review of all five of these films can be found in the OnFiction archives: Film Reviews (click here). 

The Decalogue films pose questions about how we should act in the dilemmas we encounter in life. This issue has excited considerable interest in psychology with the advent of trolleyology, the study of people's responses to vignettes based on ethical problems of what a person should do when he or she sees a trolley running along some rails in a way that it might kill one or more people.

In the basic trolley problem, participants are told that a trolley is running along some rails so that it will kill five people. Would they switch some points so the trolley runs onto another track on which it will kill only one person? Most people say yes.

Such problems seem to tap moral intuitions. One result that has caused interest is by Michael Waldemann and Jorn Dieterich (2007). They compared the above vignette with one in  which participants had to decide whether to push a very large person from a bridge onto the trolley line in such a way that this person would be killed but would halt the trolley before it could kill five people on the line. The researchers say that although people are willing to affect an inanimate object such as a trolley, by switching points, they have an intuitive reluctance to act on a person directly in a way that condemns him or her to death, even if it results in saving a larger number of people.

A trouble, as it seems to me, with vignettes of this kind is that they present puzzles in a very schematic way. By contrast, Kieslowski's films deal with comparable issues in works of art designed to put ethical problems to us so that we can experience the social world in relation to our fears and our yearnings to do the right thing. Several of the films in the Decalogue series are extremely moving so that  one feels oneself immediately into the positions of the people who must make difficult decisions.

Decalogue 8 for instance is about Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), a senior professor of ethics at Warsaw University. A researcher, Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska), visits from New York, and is invited to sit in on one of Zofia's classes. In a class discussion, Elzbieta poses a problem: a six-year-old Jewish girl in Warsaw in 1943 is taken to a family who have said they will be godparents so that the girl can be christened and adopted rather than be deported as prescribed by Nazi law. The putative godmother says she has changed her mind. She cannot be godmother: her religion forbids the bearing of false witness. It looks as if the six-year-old is being condemned to death. Did the woman refuse for the reason she gave?

It turns out that another family saves the six-year-old, who grows up to be Elzbieta, the researcher. The woman who was expected to be her godmother is Zofia, the professor. Why did Zofia act as she did? Is there anything Zofia could now say that would satisfy Elzbieta?

The question raised by this beautiful and thoughtful film is very well put, and well worth thinking about. This moving film (Decalogue 8) is worth much, much, more than the hundred words of a vignette.

Michael Waldemann & Jorn Dieterich (2007). Throwing a bomb on a person versus throwing a person on a bomb. Psychological Science, 18, 247-253.


Bookmark and Share
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...