Monday, December 26, 2011

How do we tell ourselves about the New Year?

With New Year's resolutions hanging fancifully around this week's corner, it's interesting to return to the recurring question of how we understand and narrate our own goals. New Year's resolutions are a fascinating example of the tricky nature of goals. On one hand, they seem dauntingly simple: we know precisely the sorts of things we think would make our lives better. On the other hand, the trope of resolutions that need to be revisited yearly because they have yet to be successfully achieved reveals a misalignment between the seeming simplicity of setting goals and the complication of achieving them.

When I hear people talk about the difficulties of achieving goals, they're usually lamenting the challenge of living up to their own expectations -- but rarely lamenting what seems to me a perhaps much more obvious problem of how hard it is to figure out what their expectations and aspirations should be. In addition to the (itself highly contested) Wikipedia entry on New Year's Resolutions, the literature on goal setting and received wisdom about resolutions both also suggest that it might be useful to reconsider the seeming obviousness of being easily able to access, understand, and set goals for ourselves.

While much of this literature appears to focus on teaching or reminding people to understand the systemic nature of their goals more analytically (i.e. to recognize that some goals may symbolize other goals, or may be more achievable with intermediate sub-goals), it seems equally useful to also apply this yearly reminder to other domains in which we may over assume the certainty with which we know our own minds. The reflective mode projected onto northern hemisphere year end holidays in part by the darkest days may proffer an opportunity to retell ourselves our goals stories with more patience than we may often have for their complexity and complication.

I, for one, realize that if I can store Christmas stories in my memory in the form of several dozen carols, I could probably indulge in a less reductionist process for considering what form of new year's narration might tell resolve.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Research Bulletin: The Brain's Generation of Creative Stories

Understanding how the brain operates during highly complex tasks is a daunting prospect. However, along with some interesting developments regarding story comprehension (Mar, 2011), there have some intriguing findings regarding the brain’s behavior during the creation of stories. Howard-Jones and his colleagues (Howard-Jones et al., 2005) asked a small sample of teachers-in-training to generate stories based upon a few key words. Importantly, these individuals were at various times instructed to be creative while generating their story, or uncreative. As well, the words presented to them were at times highly related to one another, or unrelated. For example, a set of unrelated words might be COW, ZIP, and STAR. In response to these words, and an instruction to be creative, one participant created the following story:
This cow got so fed up with people doubting that cows could jump over the moon that it decided to jump over a star. To do this, it wore a special rocket suit. The cow zipped up the space suit, lit the blue touch paper and flew up over the star.
In contrast, a set of related words (BRUSH, TEETH, SHINE) tended to produce a less creative story, particularly when the objective was to be uncreative:
The children were told that they must brush their teeth when they are young in order to make them shine and that they wouldn’t have any friends if their teeth weren’t shiny. So every single night, the children brushed their teeth to make them shine.
When individuals engaged in this story generation task while being scanned with an MRI scanner, it was found that factors related to greater creativity (relatedness of the words, instructions to be creative) were associated with activation in both the left and right hemisphere (i.e., bilateral activations in the prefrontal cortex) in comparison to more left hemisphere activations during uncreative conditions. This finding is consistent with a previous study that employed a slightly different imaging method (i.e., PET), which found that using unrelated words as a foundation for generating creative stories resulted in more bilateral activations compared to related words (Bekhterva et al., 2000). In sum, it appears that while language has traditionally been viewed as the domain of the left hemisphere, creative tasks such as generating a novel story appear to rely on the right hemisphere as well.

Bekhtereva, N. P., Starchenko, M. G., Klyucharev, V. A., Vorob’ev, V. A., Pakhomov, S. V., Medvedev, S. V. (2000). Study of the brain organisation of creativity: II. Positron-emission tomography data. Human Physiology, 26, 516–522.

Howard-Jones, P. A., Blakemore, S.-J., Samuel, E. A., Summers, I. R., & Claxton, G. (2005). Semantic divergence and creative story generation: An fMRI investigation. Cognitive Brain Research, 25, 240–250.

Mar, R. A. (2011). The neural bases of social cognition and story comprehension. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 103–134.

* Apologies for the late posting and for copies of any of these articles, please contact me (e-mail in profile).

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Enabling and the Persuasive

How are we to think about the tension in fiction between how a writer enables the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and how a writer persuades the reader?

Great writers have concentrated on the enabling so, for instance, John Keats said admiringly that William Shakespeare had a "negative capability" (letter to his brothers, of 21-27 December, 1817, p. 261) of writing not to express his own capabilities and preoccupations, but instead to lose his ego and enter the minds of his characters. People have wondered what Shakespeare's views were. Was he a Catholic? Was he a monarchist? This misses the point: Shakespeare was primarily interested in writing so that his audiences could reach their own conclusions. In the same way Anton Chekhov wrote, in a letter of 27 October 1888 to Alexei Suvorin that there are two things one must not confuse:
answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author… It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference” (Yarmolinsky, 1973, p. 117).
At the same time every artist has his or her own vision, and we are affected by it. When we read James Joyce's Dubliners we are invited to see the world differently than in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Yet more problematic: what are we to make of works such as Franz Kafka's The trial, which persuades us, overtly, of ways in which the societies in which we live are both inexorable and inscrutable? Kafka's work is no less art than is Chekhov's. The history of world literature can be read in terms of different cultures offering us images of a political kind: this is how to live or here's what we should change. They have offered knowledge of how cultures work, and hence of certain possibilities of cooperation.

Here's my current solution. The first part is to say, boldly, that art proper (as compared with pseudo-art, see Collingwood, 1938) does enable us to experience our own thoughts and emotions and even change ourselves by small increments. In art proper, the artist says: "Look at this. What do you think and feel about it?" In a lovely exchange in his 1990 film 102 Boulevard Houssmann Alan Bennett has Proust ask his housekeeper, Celeste, whether she ever reads novels. She says she does, occasionally: "To take me out of myself." Proust replies by asking whether a novel might take her into herself. This is the very centre of art, the offering of a gift in which as one loses oneself in a work of art one can be most oneself. In terms of our research results, this squares with our finding that art can enable changes of personalty, not of a kind in which an author has persuaded us, but of our own kind, where the author has enabled us (Djikic et al. 2009).

The second part is to say that enabling is not contradicted by the fact that every artist has an individual vision, and chooses to put to us certain questions. Many artists offer views from a dominant culture. Some are subversive. The artist's choices certainly affect the reader or viewer in a persuasive way. I now think this is all right (from the point of view of art being enabling) because there are many works of art so that, even if some are deviant, even destructive, as one reads one samples across the space of human possibility. This makes for pluralism. Of course pluralism, with its possibility of understanding many kinds of others from their points of view and even (nowadays) from the inside, itself carries a political conviction, that to engage in such sampling is better than any authoritarian stance, and that human individuality is of value. This position squares with our group's results that reading fiction enables us to understand others better, and to empathize with them (Mar et al. 2006).

Each artist achieves a balance between a work that is enabling (which the reader makes his or her own) and a vision that is persuasive (with its implications for how we might live). Science is the paradigm of the persuasive. In science one says, here is the evidence, and this is the conclusion, don't you agree? Art contains evidence, and most writers of fiction work hard on their research to make what they write accurate. But fictional art works not just by finding reliable correspondences with evidence of the outer world, but by suggesting resonances with what is within, in ways that may change as we come to recognize them.

Bennett, A. ((1990). 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Film in the set "Alan Bennett at the BBC."

Collingwood, R. G. (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. (2009). On being moved by art:  How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, 24-29. (Available in OnFiction archives, click here.)

Joyce, J. (1914). Dubliners. Harmondsworth: Penguin (currrent edition 1976).

Kafka, F. (1925). The trial. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1955).

Keats, J. (1816-20). Selected poems and letters of Keats (Ed. D  Bush). New York: Houghton Mifflin (current edition 1959).

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712. (available in OnFiction archives, click here.)

Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.

Yarmolinsky, A. (Ed.). (1973). Letters of Anton Chekhov. New York: Viking.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Travelogue: Conducive Buildings

Café Kapelli is a long glass pavilion, built in the 1860s and extended in the 1880s, which stands at the eastern end of a long garden with walkways that lead down towards the harbour in Helsinki, Finland. The building's central part is a classical entrance with Ionic pillars. Its wings are greenhouses that contain people instead of plants. The windows are of delicately leaded glass, in a diamond pattern. Perfect. One wing is a restaurant, the other a café. In the café wing, people sip coffee with a friend, perhaps have a sandwich, or tap on their Mac laptops. Here are bookshelves with novels in several languages. And, in case you've come during inclement weather, here also are coat stands. Over there is a piano. The most favoured positions are in the corners which are made of vertical glass cylinders some two-and-a-half metres in diameter, within each of which three of four people can sit on padded benches around a circular table.

The atmosphere of the café is that of a summer cottage by a lake, but far more convenient because it is in the centre of town. If one had this place to come to, for a coffee, or lunch, or to meet a friend, would one ever need anywhere else?

It is possible to make ratings of beauty, for instance on a scale of 0 (the ugliest) to 10 (the most beautiful). Although it is not grand in size or function I would give Café Kapelli a 10. (So that you can get the sense of this scale: to my eyes the most beautiful building in the world, to which I would give an 11, is the Alhambra, in Grenada, in Spain.)

When it's possible to make buildings that are conducive to human life and purposes and also beautiful, why don't architects say to themselves: "Ah, yes! Now I see how it can be done?" There are towns where this effect has occurred, where builders have taken up the spirit of buildings that have gone before. Venice is one such. Amsterdam is another.

In other places, this idea seems not to have caught on. Hampstead, in London, for instance, has some buildings that get a 10 (on my rating) such as the eighteenth-century houses in Church Row. Pevsner says of Church Row that it is: "the best street in Hampstead, and was better still before the wretched Gardner Mansions were built" (p. 195). Then there is the 1934 modernist Isokon building on Lawn Road (click here) which, although some of its reinforced concrete is slab-like, gets I think an 8.3 for verve. It embodied the idea of people being able to live comfortably, close together in small and convenient apartments. At the same time there is some unpreposessing stuff, worse than Gardner Mansions. I am holding a competition for the ugliest buildings in London NW3. Among contenders is the Tavistock Clinic at the corner of  Fitzjohns Avenue and Belsize Lane. (I'll be happy to hear of other contenders.)

What about the idea that buildings should be conducive to life, should have a social function (in the way Pevsner believed)? If we stretch ourselves mentally, we might think that the Tavistock Clinic, a centre for psychoanalysis, has an unsightly building to remind practitioners and patients, as they enter, of the unseemly nature of the unconscious.

Nikolaus Pevsner (1952). The buildings of England: London except the cities of London and Westminster. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Image: One end of Café Kapelli, from Google Maps.
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