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
5. Distributed Cognition
6. Foraging Cognition
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.