Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making the invisible visible; keeping the invisible invisible

Thanks to a wonderful collective of artists and geographers*, I have just had the opportunity to think in a new way about the relationship between the truth and the poetic, the known and the unseeable, and the functions of the kinds of stories that people tell each other in trying to make the world better.

In the context of the larger conversation about 'Intervention and Embeddedness, Art Practice and Environmental Discourse' at the American Association of Geographers conference going on in New York, David Haley, Christine Baeumler, and Simon Read shared thoughts on art as a process, and more, as Haley put it, an 'act of making a process manifest, making things possible,' and also of crafting maps for behavioral procedures that might help us deal with uncertain challenges -- and environmental prompts for them. Read showed his understated process for 'mapping issues that may need questioning,' to feel his way into it, and to document, for his own understanding -- and then for others' -- what that path into challenging questions is like, and how to embark on it, knowing where he came from, but explicitly not determining where to go.

The core theme that impressed me was this dialogue between telling strong directive stories that habits need to be relearned -- public processes need to be highlighted, and made equitable -- and creating spaces that prompt others' creation of exploratory stories. As Baeumler so brilliantly summed it up, as much as we are following that irresistible compulsion to make the invisible visible, we should also embrace a willingness to keep some invisibles invisible. The socially motivated and impeccably structured interventions they discussed highlight compelling parallels to the recurrent theme in OnFiction of the open supportive framework provided by fiction, and art -- poieses -- for creative exploration.

*Particular thanks to the organizers Karen Till and Simon Read
The image above is from Marcus Young's project, Don't You Feel it Too?, discussed in the panel by Christine Baeumler; the project is organized around the premise of 'dancing your inner life in public places.'
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Research Bulletin: Developing a focused mind for reading

There has been a growing interest in the neural correlates of narrative comprehension, but so far relatively little of this work has examined developmental issues. Part of the reason why this type of research has been slow to arrive is the difficulty of finding reading tasks that are equivalent (in difficulty, among other things) for both children and adults. A recent paper by Koyama and colleagues (2011) took a novel approach to circumventing this problem, by examining how reading competence relates to a different type of MRI measurement: resting state functional connectivity. Resting state functional connectivity examines the intrinsic associations between regions of the brain, as identified by associations in activity while the brain is at “rest,” or not engaged in any particular task. These associations are thought to reveal the strength of different networks of regions, with some brain areas more tightly coupled than others. This coupling, or association, between areas might represent the result of experience, with brain areas that are commonly co-activated during specific tasks (e.g., reading) becoming more and more “in sync” even when we are not performing that task. Koyama and his fellow researchers looked at the strength of associations for reading brain regions across individuals who varied in their reading ability, for both a group of children (8–14 years) and a group of adults (21–46 years). What they found was that better readers had a stronger coupling between language/speech areas of the brain (e.g., Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) and more strongly connected motor regions in the brain. They also observed a difference between the two age groups. One such difference was a stronger negative association between a word-recognition area and what’s known as the “default network,” a set of brain regions often linked to mind-wandering (Mason et al., 2007). The same was not found for children, however. One interpretation of this finding is that highly automatized reading, such as that achieved by adult expert readers, involves less mind-wandering whereas this might not be true of proficient child readers. A particular strength of this research is that it acknowledges the importance of examining differences across individuals (in this case, of reading ability) and how these differences might relate to neural measures.

Koyama, M. S., Martino, A., Zuo, X.-N., Kelly, C., Mennes, M., Jutagir, D. R., Castellanos, F. X., & Milham, M. P. (2011). Resting-state functional connectivity indexes reading
competence in children and adults. Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 8617–8624.

Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T. & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought.
Science, 315, 393–395.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Principles of Poetry

Maja and I have a project: to try and glimpse the inner core of poetry. So this is a follow-up to my recent post on Chinese poetry (click here) and Maja's recent post on short lines (click here). What are the psychological principles of poetry?

A first principle seems to depend on what Andy Clark pointed out, that the mind has a deliberative verbal processor and an associative intuitive processor which have utterly different properties. So the mind is a hybrid; we have to negotiate between the different modes. The verbal processor can enable thoughts themselves to be objects of thought. The associative processor is perhaps responsible for concepts and intuitions. A verbal utterance, received by the verbal processor can be purely semantic and syntactic. I can write: "There's a leafless tree outside my window." In these words I can communicate both to myself and you. Perhaps you can think of a tree of this kind. This isn't poetic: you know the sort of thing I mean by drawing on your experience of winter-time deciduous trees. A poetic utterance does this but adds something beyond the semantic and syntactic. It makes connections between and among the words themselves by means such as metres, metaphors, metonyms, multiple interpretations. The psychological effect of an evocative poem is to invite a certain density of reflective thought, which brings a thought feelingfully to mental presence, by its several links with the associative processor. (On this idea of reflectiveness, see Sikora, Miall & Kuiken click here.) If I read, in William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 the line: "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang," the words seem to become poetic by inviting links from the verbal to the intuitive processor that go beyond the semantic and syntactic because they are multiple and simultaneous. Rather than intuitions one-at-a-time, they invite concurrent intuitions. In this line, I enjoy the iambic pentameter because it's like a heartbeat; I think somewhat poignantly of my own aging as of ruined churches I have visited along the English-Scottish border, picturesque but sad, no longer of much use except as memories of a sort; I connect the singing of birds and the singing of choirs; I wonder what birds were doing, flying about in the churches before they were ruined. All in ten syllables: the span of a single conscious verbal thought. If I had merely written such thoughts (as I have just done), you'd read them one at a time, they'd not be linked, and they'd not be of much interest.

A second principle, as John Keats said in a letter of 27 February 1818, is that: "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity." (In North American usage: it should be unusual but not weird.) The principle was later proposed by Victor Shklovsky: defamiliarization. It was one of the first aspects of literature to be studied empirically, by Willie van Peer. Rachel Giora has shown that brain activation spreads beyond the language hemisphere not in response to metaphoricity, but to unusualness.

A third principle derives from Indic poetics, in which Abhinavagupta said that dhvani, suggestiveness, is the heart of poetry. Suggestiveness implies an intimate partnership: the poet suggests and the hearer or reader creates a shared meaning.

And, as Coleridge said, real "poetry brings the whole soul … into activity." How it does so is what we're trying to understand: trying, but not there yet.

Clark, A. (2006). Material symbols. Philosophical Psychology, 19, 291-307.
Coleridge, S. T. (1817). Biographia literaria, Ed J. Shawcross. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 1907).
Giora, R. (2007). Is metaphor special? Brain and Language, 100, 111-114.
Ingalls, D. H. H., Masson, J. M., & Patwardhan, M. V. (1990). The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Keats, J. (1816-20). Selected poems and letters of Keats (Ed. D.  Bush). New York: Houghton Mifflin (current edition 1959).
Shklovsky, V. (1919). On the connection between devices of Syuzhet construction and general stylistic devices. In S. Bann & J. E. Bowlt (Eds.), Russian formalism: A collection of articles and texts in translation (pp. 48-71). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (this edition 1973).
Sikora, S., Kuiken, D., & Miall, D. S. (2011). Expressive reading: A phenomenological study of readers’ experience of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Journal of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 5, 258-268.
Van Peer, W. (1986). Sylistics and psychology: Investigations of foregrounding. London: Croom Helm.
Vendler, H. (1997). The art of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Image: The ruined Jedburgh Abbey
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Emotion in stories

The prolific Patrick Colm Hogan published two books last year, both of great interest to readers of OnFiction.

The first of these is What literature teaches us about emotion. Hogan has an especial knowledge of Shakespeare as well as an extraordinary familiarity with world literature, and this expertise enables him to bridge between psychology and literary theory, by offering examples in which people interested in the emotions can discover important understandings of specific emotions such as romantic love, grief, and guilt. Such emotions are different from those usually studied in the laboratory; literary studies are thereby complementary to laboratory studies. One might say that literature has allowed a search over a much wider space of experience, and with a far deeper thoughtfulness, than is usual in psychology. The book is also a study of particular works, but with a perspective that is different from that of the usual kinds of literary analysis; it's a study of how these works function specifically to explore and throw light on emotion.

The second book is Affective narratology, the emotional structure of stories, in which Hogan shows that the structure of stories is a product of human emotion systems. In one analysis, Hogan focuses on time, and shows that it doesn't spread forward evenly like clock time. It's jagged, with times of intensity and times when nothing much happens. The intense times are the times of emotion. Stories are told in a way that follows this pattern, with a concentration on the moments of emotional significance, and omission of the rest. Although he doesn't discuss it in this book, I was reminded of Frank Kermode's The sense of an ending, in which he depicts the ticks and tocks of clock time as both inexorable and meaningless, so that stories which usually have the sense of an ending can offer us meaning which acts as a consolation. Though I find Kermode one of the most worthwhile of literary scholars, consolation seems such thin gruel. Hogan's idea is better, and closer to the truth. It's our emotional structures that give meaning to life in our loves, our strivings, our disappointments. Stories reflect such structures, and enable us to reflect on them.

In a further kind of analysis in his narratology book, Hogan recounts how life has periods of normalcy, which are interrupted by emotions. Story structure too, follows this pattern, tending to move from a normal period, or an implied normal period at the beginning, to a disruption, and then towards an ending in which a new normalcy is established. Hogan discusses how three emotional story themes are universal and occur throughout the world. He calls these stories of suffering, of the heroic, and of the romantic. He discusses, too, some themes that are less prevalent worldwide: interruption of attachment, the progress of sexual desire, trajectories of revenge, and criminal investigations, each of which is also a development of an emotional theme, starting from a state of normalcy which is disrupted. Hogan ends his book by suggesting stories help us understand and develop the structure of our own emotional lives.

No one has done more than Patrick Hogan to bring literary theory and cognitive science together. It's significant that the interface of this bringing together is emotion.

Hogan, P. C. (2011). What literature teaches us about emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hogan, P. C. (2011). Affective narratology: The emotional structure of stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Kermode, F. (1966). The sense of an ending: Studies in the theory of fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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