Gargantuan Round-Up

My list of items to be discussed in blog posts has become rather long. Typically I like to describe the argument of a recent psychology article, to offer (perhaps) some sort of critical generalist thoughts about what I think is interesting or problematic, and then to make a literary connection, often ending in a bit of analysis of a passage or two, aiming to see What Literature Knows About Your Brain. This can take a while, and it means that it can take a long time to shift the stockpile.
      I feel motivated to speed through a few things, because in the new year I have some plans for the blog and I don’t want to delay them. This will be the last post before a Christmas break, and in the first one of 2018 I’ll set out the plan. Here, therefore, I am going to race through some things that might have merited more attention under other circumstances.
      It’s only fair to admit that this blog acts to some extent as a kind of diary for me: I often find myself searching for an idea or a scientist’s name, to find that post I once wrote. So I will be fulfilling that function. I also hope, of course, that it serves to share things with readers, so I’ll be doing that too. Here’s a list of the topics to be touched upon….

1. Unwanted Thoughts
2. Free Will
3. More Free Will
4. Fear
5. Distributed Cognition
6. Foraging Cognition
7. Reason
8. Detail

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1. UNWANTED THOUGHTS
Follow this link to find out about some research in Cambridge that explores how we control unwanted thoughts. I think it might be interesting to think about how literature might work with something like unwanted thoughts. There are all sorts of times when things haunt our reading, or get between us and what we think we should be feeling.

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2. FREE WILL
Itzhak Fried, Patrick Haggard, Biyu J. He and Aaron Schurger, ‘Volition and Action in the Human Brain: Processes, Pathologies, and Reasons’, Journal of Neuroscience, 37 (2017), 10842-10847.
You can find this essay here. How could an attempt to survey the science of free will not be interesting?

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3. MORE FREE WILL
Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, ‘Implications of a Culturally Evolved Self for Notions of Free Will’, Frontiers in Psychology, 30 October 2017: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01889.
This one says that our interest in free will relates to aspects of the self which are culturally specific: we need to think about how these concepts have evolved in societies as well as corresponding in some ways to biological mechanisms. How could an attempt to survey the science of free will in relation to the history of culture not be interesting?

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4. FEAR
M.S. Fanselow and Z.T. Pennington, ‘A Return to the Psychiatric Dark Ages with a Two-System Framework for Fear’, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 100 (2017), 24-29, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29128585.
This is a spirited retort to the ideas explored in this post, where I cited Joseph LeDoux’s proposal that scientists of the brain mechanisms related to fear should not present themselves as discovering things about the subjective experience of that emotion. Fanselow and Pennington see this as a big backward step.

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5. DISTRIBUTED COGNITION
I’ve mentioned the work of John Sutton before, and I’ve mentioned the Imperfect Cognitions blog before, and now there’s interview with the former on the latter, pretty much here. I think it offers some very good pointers in the field of distributed cognition.

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6. FORAGING COGNITION
Alexandra G. Rosati, ‘Foraging Cognition: Reviving the Ecological Intelligence Hypothesis’, Trends in Cognitive Science, 21 (2017), 691-702.
This article asks a big question — how did human intelligence evolve? — and offers an unexpected answer. Often sophisticated behaviour has been associated with the need to live in social groups: the need to keep track of, and make the the most of, complex interactions led to all sorts of smart adaptations. Rosati points to research that suggests that some qualities of human cognition may have evolved around foraging, a relatively solitary activity. Some of the key work focuses on other primates: it shows that some key cognitive skills used in finding food (e.g. ‘spatial memory, decision-making, and inhibitory control’) vary according to the particular foraging circumstances of different species. There is fascinating detail on lemurs, and on tool-use. As a result, Rosati proposes that an ‘ecological’ account of mental evolution, complementary to a social account, should be explored further. Could we maybe think about the evolution of certain genres in relation to this? Could, say, the characteristic shapes of epic and romance be seen as relics or adaptations of this link between thinking and foraging? No time to think about that too deeply…

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7. REASON
I enjoyed a little e-book by Tom Stafford (he does the Mind Hacks blog, and his homepage is here), called For Argument’s Sake: Evidence That Reason Can Change Minds. A lot of interesting work in cognitive science uncovers our habitual biases, the ways in which our decision-making is a lot less reasonable than we’d like to think. Nevertheless, Stafford shows, we are reasoners and we feel the benefit in all sorts of ways. I found this quite cheering.

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8. DETAIL
And finally… recently I cut the same material from one article and one conference paper. Evidently I have been trying to find a home for it and failing. Perhaps this is it.
      If you’ve read more than a few posts on this blog you’ll have noticed that I pay close attention to the details of literature, and therefore I must think that if literature knows anything about your brain, it knows it in detail, in the details, in the nuances and the subtle shifts. In this respect I find myself in tune with a quite recent article by David Davies, but out of tune with a quite recent article by Greg Currie.
      Davies makes a distinction between the rich texture of the scenarios created in literature, and the constrained clarity of those favoured by philosophy and cognitive science; ‘the detail seems central to how they are intended to work’:

The point of a scientific or philosophical thought experiment can be paraphrased in a way that allows it to be brought to bear on the more general cognitive concerns of the work in which it figures. But such paraphrases of the fictional narratives in canonical works of fiction threaten the distinctive kind of understanding we take such literary works to provide.
(David Davies, ‘Fictive Utterance and the Fictionality of Narratives and Works’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 55 (2015), 39-55, p. 53.)

Davies is arguing in his essay as a whole about the nature of fictionality, its specific properties and defining characteristics. As it turns out, detail is not in itself the hallmark of fictionality (since some brief fictions may lack detail). Nevertheless, the relationship of this quality to the ‘understanding’ offered in literary works is highly suggestive. It is in the thickness of representation, rather than its distillable core, that literature’s contribution to knowledge may reside, Davies argues. The myriad potential observations that could arise at any number of moments in the process of fiction are more arresting and disconcerting than a summative paraphrase, and they may also be a distinctive route towards insight.
      Currie turns, in an essay entitled ‘’, to the question of detail as he develops an argument about literary insight. He argues for the same criteria to be applied to literature as are applied to other fields offering insights into the mind: ‘It cannot count as the generation of insight merely that people have the feeling that insight has been generated’. Nor can the writer’s ‘creativity’ be relied upon as a source of relevant insights, because there is evidence that many successful artists have a poor grip on their own minds, let alone the minds of others. Complexity of style, ‘so often taken as a sign of cognitive richness and subtlety’, is seen as a problem: it may lower vigilance, and may increase literature’s ‘power to spread ignorance and error’.
      This offers a sharp qualification of Davies’s point about detail. Perhaps literature’s richness in this respect devalues its claims; any argument for the value of the subtleties afforded by details might need to acknowledge that they offer diversion as well as focus. Really, though, much as I enjoy Currie’s bracing and rigorous interventions against everything that I stand for professionally, I think Davies is 100% right, and I will continue to practise what he preaches.


… in The Philosophy of Creativity: New Essays, ed. Elliot Samuel Paul and Scott Barry Kaufman (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 39–61
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Cognitive Literary Science

Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition, ed. Michael Burke and Emily Troscianko (OUP, 2017)

I finally caught up with this collection of essays. I think it’s important, not least because it takes the two-way nature of the literature-and-cognitive-science conversation seriously. It also made me remember what still seems to me a worthwhile exchange (in the post and the comments) between me and Emily Troscianko, way back when. (It was about how much literary scholars should commit to scientific models of the mind.)
      The introduction to Cognitive Literary Science (pp. 1-16) does a good job introducing the interdisciplinary field, and makes a key turn towards seeing literature as a way of contributing to scientific debates. The editors make some noteworthy predictions (p. 13), as follows:

… there will be more truly collaborative projects in the future;
… 4E cognition (i.e. seeing the mind as embodied, extended, embedded, and enactive) will ‘stay big, but grow more differentiated’;
… there will be more work on variations between readers (there’s on this, and it’s an interesting can of worms);
… there will be new thoughts about whether reading makes us better people;
… people will develop more ‘ecologically valid’ ways of studying reading;
… there will be experiments in the 4E style on the ‘haptics, kinaesthetics, and ergonomics’ of reading.

All of this sounds like it might well come true, and I am also hopeful about collaborative projects; I have some irons in the fire myself. I can’t give the lowdown on every essay but I thought I’d note a few things that struck me.

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Patrick Colm Hogan’s is pleasingly upbeat about what Arthur Miller knows about your brain: ‘The play has implications for our understanding of the human mind. Specifically, it indicates that emotional memories are organized into stories, which is to say, particular causal sequences. These causal sequences are not necessary or law-like, nor even probabilistic. Nonetheless, they serve as models for construing and simulating later events: defining their causal configurations, filling in intentions or unobserved actions, reconstructing relevant memories, and so on. In consequence, the play suggests that one’s emotional responses are not responses to the current situation alone. They are, rather, responses to the current situation as organized and partially re-simulated by tacit references to narratively structures emotional memories.’

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Merja Polvinen’s has interesting things to say about the imagination, and in particular how scientific experiments sometimes simplify what is meant by imagination in theory and practice. Polvinen mentions a landmark essay by Kidd and Castano which argued that fiction makes us better people; it has been mentioned on this blog at least twice, here (where the point was that there had been a failed replication) and also here (in a very pertinent guest post by Emily Trosciano, whose essay ‘Reading Imaginatively: The Imagination in Cognitive Science and Cognitive Literary Studies’, Journal of Literary Semantics, 42 (2013), 181-98 is exploring similar themes to Polvinen’s).

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Karin Kukkonen some music for my ears when she says that the ‘literary genre of the fantastic… can serve as a repository of “found science”’.

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David Herman’s has given me great stuff to think about in relation to my ongoing interest in animal minds, mentioned most recently here. As he says, his aim is ‘to steer a course between the Scylla of the radical inaccessibility of non-human minds and the Charybdis of experiential homogenization or flattening, by arguing that mind-ascribing acts, rather than occurring in decontextualized, one-off acts of attribution, always unfold within particular arenas of practice, or discourse domains’. His analysis looks at how non-fiction and fiction aren’t so different in the language used, or how prolific they are, when attributing mental states to animals.

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These are a few highlights, then, but I’m omitting essays by some major luminaries. Overall, I think it’s a landmark collection.

Richard J. Gerrig and Micha L. Mumper, ‘How Readers’ Lives Affect Narrative Experiences’, pp. 239-57
‘Simulation and the Structure of Emotional Memory: Learning from Arthur Miller’s After the Fall’, pp. 114-33
‘Cognitive Science and the Double Vision of Fiction’, pp. 135-50
‘Fantastic Cognition’, pp. 151-67
‘Animal Minds Across Discourse Domains’, pp. 195-216
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

A New Theory of Reason (Again)

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding (Harvard University Press / Allen Lane, 2017)

A quick post before the one I meant to write. It’s admissions time so my mind is occupied by the many and varied achievements of this year’s applicants.
      I have mentioned this Big Idea from Mercier and Sperber before, here. Reason, they say, is not a special sort of thinking that happens in the abstract and applies to the world in theory. Rather, it is all about persuasion, argument, social life, and so on. This helps explain the strange strengths and weaknesses of our thinking, how slack we are at evaluating our own arguments, how keen we are when analyzing those of others.
      The book expands upon the article in a couple of key ways, I think (as well as, of course, arguing the main points more fully). Reason is seen as one of several inference ‘modules’ in human thinking: it’s the bit that reasons about ‘reasons’, they say, and we have other processes that draw inferences from sensory data, etc. Inference is a major theme for Sperber’s wider work; he is, for example, with Deirdre Wilson, one of the founders of the Relevance Theory of communication.
      The book also tells lots of good stories, especially about the foibles of famous reasoners, not just of reason itself. Mercier and Sperber take pleasure in showing that solitary scientists tend to gain a great deal from having someone to talk to, and that they are capable of thoroughly perverse thinking alongside their achievements in rational problem-solving. Linus Pauling’s commitment to the cause of Vitamin C is cited as an example of the latter. This makes it a pretty lively read for all its technicality at certain key moments.

In the earlier post I linked this interest to the history of rhetoric, and the idea that the art of persuasion, and examples of that art in practice, might be philosophically interesting in a new way. I still think there’s something there. Now I am thinking (no less obviously) about the countless representations of argument-in-action in literature. Take Shakespeare, for example. We may see Othello’s scrutiny of Iago’s arguments to be very ineffective; is this necessarily a failure of reasoning? What sort of inferences are going wrong? I would also be interested to look at how Iago generates these arguments. He does seem to be interestingly casual about evaluating some of his own thinking, for example his throwaway suspicion that Othello has slept with Emilia. He may just be pretending, putting a motive out like a smokescreen. Perhaps, though, he is a monster of the ‘Enigma of Reason’, spectacularly good at reading others, capable of being horrifyingly casual when generating a thought of his own. It seems to me that the problems of reasoning might take very strange forms in this play, and that this could reflect back on some of the patterns being described by Mercier and Sperber.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Telling Stories About Animal Minds

Michael Tye, Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious? (Oxford University Press, 2017)

So I’ve been reading a book. It is made up of dozens of stories about the boundary between the animal and human, and about the processes of change over time, and it ends with a discussion of the ethics of vegetarianism. So, this is that great Roman epic poem, my old favourite, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, right? Well, no, it’s Michael Tye’s book about animal psychology, with its cool title.
      The point of the title: can we identify mental states in other species that are equivalent to, or at all like, consciousness? An experiment shows that when bees are shaken (i.e. physically vibrated) they then behave in a way that looks like they are shaken (i.e. emotionally rocked, more pessimistic, wary, anticipating further perturbation). Just like we might. Bees! Not dolphins or apes or magpies but bees! Bees! The book is full of stuff like this, fascinating journeys into expected and unexpected kinds of behaviour.
      Tye’s goal is to persuade us not that it is certain that animals are conscious, but that it is a better hypothesis, more probable, that they have experiences. This relates to the question ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ (famously asked by Thomas Nagel, and blog-regulars will know that question has been on my mind before), and it relates to the question of animal treatment. UK MPs recently voted not to enshrine the sentience of animals in law, but if sentience is experience, then maybe they were wrong.
      There is some debate about that MPs’ vote, by the way. I have read some relatively wise heads saying that animal rights are protected by other legislation, and that the European law that was in question allows bull-fighting and foie gras so it’s not all that great. I have read others saying that the vote really was a bad thing, and that the rights of animals in general (rather than, say, pets) have been made less secure. The reality of politics, a huge number of amendments to a big bill, all of that hubbub and kerfuffle… I wonder what it’s like to be an MP voting on a philosophical matter? Any significant sentience there?

I made that opening link between Tye and Ovid for two reasons. Not long ago I gave a paper at a conference where I said some things about the ways in which non-human minds (what it is like to be a… bat / stag / lion / frog / wolf etc.) emerge in the Metamorphoses. Not a huge amount, is the first answer, since there is so much focus on change as it is experienced by the human involved. However, I think I put together some things that seem characteristic of animal experience as it is portrayed by Ovid: for one thing, there is a lot of angry complaining going on… animal minds seem unsettled.
      The second reason is what prompted this post. I think Tye’s book has a number of interesting things in common with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One of the traditions from which the Latin poem emerges is one wherein myths explaining the origins of species, or the nature of the cosmos (for example), would be told and then explored. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura is the most famous of these natural-philosophical epic poems. So in its playful, sceptical way, Ovid’s is a scientific poem.
      Perhaps it’s a bit less straightforward to say that Tye’s is, quid-pro-quo, a literary book. I read a good essay by David Herman recently, in a book called Cognitive Literary Science that I expect to write about in my next post, which pointed out that there is often a lot of similarity between the language used in fictional and non-fictional efforts to discuss non-human thought. In keeping with this, and as in, I think, a lot of crossover psychology books, Tye’s descriptions of experimental findings read like anecdotes, or stories really, and they manoeuvre readers around, testing confidence, delivering surprises, as fictions do.
      Not that there is anything wrong with that. For Ovid, the idea that you could do science and philosophy in the form of poems and stories would not have seemed strange. It should not to us, either. If you want to convey, and make sense of, the things that might be going on inside an octopus or a macaque or a fish, you need to bring them and it to life. You also need to find a language that can be trusted to communicate what you think is there, prompting the right thoughts in response. These are literary strategies, the pursuit of what was classically called enargeia (vividness), and an apt style as well. Not for the first time, there is common cause here, perhaps easier for me to embrace than a scientist or philosopher who might not readily self-identify as a storyteller.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Problems of Generalization

* Ed Yong, ‘How a Focus on Rich Educated People Skews Brain Studies’, The Atlantic, October 31st 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/how-a-focus-on-rich-educated-people-skews-brain-studies/544499/
* Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’, Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 33 (2010), 61-83.
* Neil Stewart, Jesse Chandler, and Gabriele Paolacci, ‘Crowdsourcing Samples in Cognitive Science’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 736-48.
* Lili Yu and Erik D. Reichle, ‘Chinese versus English: Insights on Cognition during Reading’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 721-4.
* Felix Sprang, ‘The Confines of Cognitive Literary Studies: The Sonnet and a Cognitive Poetics of Form’, Journal of Literary Theory, 11 (2017), 240-254.

That’s a lot of references, because the problem of generalization is interesting, and everywhere, and circulates between literature and cognitive science in a scary feedback loop (the video kind, not the management consultants’ diagram kind; don’t watch the video below, by the way). I don’t think this is all well known to readers of this blog, so I thought I’d work through some of it.
      From the outset in my attempts to connect literature with cognitive science, I’ve been negotiating a worry from the direction of the humanities, which is that it might not be possible, or desirable, to characterize the human across cultures or historical periods. The conclusions made in cognitive science often tend to do this, implicitly at least. However, when someone in the humanities wants to capture (for example) the particulars of Caribbean experience, or of Medieval memory, there is understandable push back against an interest in how ‘the mind’ works.
      Nevertheless, I have often come to feel that there are thoughts about the species-level human that must be inflected (sometimes greatly) by specific circumstances, but not invalidated. I like the creative tension involved, I try not to take things for granted, but I don’t deny myself the things that seem to persist across (in my case) historical distance.
      There are, though, voices within cognitive science that are raising concerns about the data-gathering practices that dominate, which seems an interesting and important angle from which to address my problem of generalization, so in the post I’ll mention a couple of recent instances, and I’ll link it back to literature as well.

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Ed Yong’s article in The Atlantic highlights the problem that research in psychology, and in other fields as well, is predominantly practised on people from WEIRD societies. (Cute acronym: WEIRD is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic; see the essay by Henrich et al. cited above.) Some fields seem to me more vulnerable to this than others; it’s true that at times I have felt that biggish conclusions in cognitive science are being drawn on the basis of a cohort of university students (standard experimental subjects) and that this is not acknowledged actively enough. This seems to me like something to be addressed in the processing of approaching those conclusions. Experiments that teach us something should not be disparaged because they don’t teach us everything, but claims can be made carefully, and with a lack of reach and diversity in mind. Future experiments could aspire to expand the scope, and to test the persistence of the effects; I have seen good examples of this sort of work.

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Stewart et al. raise a different problem with the cohorts examined in experiments. They explore some consequences of crowdsourcing data, i.e. using large online surveys. There are, it seems, people who regularly take part in psychological surveys, and who become rather expert: ‘the population which we are sampling from is surprisingly small and highly experienced in cognitive science experiments, and this non-naïveté affects responses to frequently used measures’. Larger samples are good, and not always using college students is good, but these screen-mouse-mind-warriors need careful thought. For example, Stewart et al. say, if you’ve taken lots of attention tests, that will affect future performance; if an experiment conceals from its participants what is really being tested (as many do), then experienced people will be wise to these strategies, especially if they have been debriefed before (as many are). They say this is verging on ‘a tragedy of the commons, where studies run in one laboratory can contaminate the pool for other laboratories running other studies’. It never rains but it pours.

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Don’t watch the video. It may actually be bad for you.


I told you not to watch the video.

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Yu and Reichle (see above) provide another warning against generalization. Their short essay is about how experiments on reading (how eyes move, for example) reveal differences between Englsh and Chinese as it is experienced on the page. They raise lots of questions about the shapes of characters and the role of phonology, and it’s clear that there is a great deal to learn about what happens to readers when they read.
      This is something that I have to think about all the time: not the eye movements themselves, but the paths and destinations that literature provides. There is a danger in generalizing about ‘readers’ and ‘the reader’: this might just mean ‘what I think’. It might offer a restricted view of who ‘readers’ are or should be; I am thinking here, for example, about claims about what might attract or offend them. For the most part this is a convention to be used well or badly: it can just undeceptively mean ‘what I think’, or rather, ‘my claim about what this work makes happen’ — not so different from what a poem ‘means’, and offered as a contribution to a conversation in which assent and recognition from others (or lack thereof) will determine whether the argument is a good one.
      As the essay by my friend Felix Sprang (also cited above) shows, there may be a temptation within the field of cognitive literary studies to feel that we are getting closer to saying what happens to ‘the reader’. Some scholars do get rather categorical in claiming that in the light of what an experiment shows about the mind, we now know what the effect of a given literary form is. I feel like I am almost always trying to handle this carefully, and not closing off interpretation in this way, but I probably haven’t avoided the trap every time.
      Sprang makes clever use of some eye-tracking research to suggest that readers differ from one another rather a lot; and that, interestingly, that difference expands in re-reading, rather than evening out as variant readers coalesce. So while we may have tools that can tell us about what happens to readers individually when they read sonnets individually, and that’s a good thing, we may not be able to get closer to what happens to ‘the reader’ in the abstract in relation to ‘the sonnet’ in the abstract. This is a very useful and interesting challenge, and all part of the anxiety of generalization that I’m tracing in this post.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk