Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (2)

This is the second of two posts gathering a few thoughts about my experience of trying to put together Proper Psychology Experiments in collaboration with brilliant scientist colleagues. The first of these is here. As I explained there, I am merging more than one attempt in this description, and I am keeping things anonymous and probably quite unclear. This is for a reason which is, in fact, the point of this post.
      You see, for a while I thought that the process of the experimental design led to interesting discoveries about the text, and a set of intriguing interdisciplinary thoughts, which could be an end in themselves. However, things looked quite different to my collaborators, people building careers from good and successful experiments. They didn’t fall in love with the intractable problems of turning literature, especially drama, into science, as I did. Instead, they saw unsolved difficulties in defining proper experimental protocols, and little prospect of a reliable and demonstrable experimental result (whatever it showed). It took a while, but I saw the point in the end.
      Designing a theatrical experiment was intoxicating fun. Working with actors to achieve a particular combination of text and gesture, for example, finding out what these skilled professionals were able to do, and not able to do, to fit a necessarily fixed idea about what had to be included in one version, and not included in another. The guinea-pig audiences were very helpful, but gathering them was rather hard. Students always have somewhere to be after classes. The process made me think again about what is important in a text: I got interested in the difficulty of adapting a passage, the things which affect the rehearsal process, the moments where it felt like an experimental effect could be hoped for.
      I gave a talk where I showed some bits of film, explained what was being worked towards, and the talk was a success (I think). I told a story about how one day, in a workshop, we made a stage ghost disappear just by not looking at it. A literary audience bought into the dream of experimental rigour, and recognised the critical questions I was addressing. When I spoke to friends about what we were trying to do, they saw the point, and wanted to hear more. I began to think that, even when a properly rigorous set-up did not transpire, and we didn’t get super-promising results in our first, sketchy efforts at trying things out on an audience, I could still write up an interesting article describing the insights gathered from the process.

      This optimism was squashed by two specific things. One was a grant application where I described a series of of workshops with actors wherein I proposed to test out, in rehearsal, some ideas about how Shakespeare manoeuvres the social cognition of theatre audiences. The funders, as far as I could tell, were nonplussed by an interest in dramatic process which wasn’t heading towards a dramatic outcome. The second was a discussion with one psychologist colleague who was also nonplussed, this time at the thought that I would parade our failures (OK, nobody said that), or rather that I would put my name to something that had never taken a full and final form. This wasn’t hard to understand.
      So in that previous post I described one lesson I learned: that isolating features of a literary text as experimental variables is an interesting thing to do but stores up objections for the future that are hard to argue against. And in this one, the second lesson is that even if an interesting interdisciplinary process might be absorbing and revealing at the time, and even if the kind of failure experienced is a noble and delicious one, you need secure and defensible results if you’re going to go public in a serious way. The journey, I said, the journey! Maybe only in a memoir; it wasn’t really memoir material; I don’t want to write a memoir.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (1)

In this post and another I am going to gather a few thoughts about what it has been like trying to do experiments in collaboration with colleagues from psychology faculties. This has been a brilliant experience, but it hasn’t led to a concrete clinching result, now published in Nature. I am going to be vague about some of the details, and will be writing about a sort of merged amalgam of multiple attempts. The next post, which will be entitled ‘Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (2)’, will actually be partly about why I am being vague in this way, rather than telling all.
      This one is about the consequences of trying obstinately to focus on the things I would normally want to focus on. To explain what I mean by that, first I want to cite something that, to good effect, did not take the same approach. As far as I can tell, I have never mentioned a recent essay that definitely counts as a proper collaboration between literary critics and experimental psychology: it’s ‘Cognition, Endorphins, and the Literary Response to Tragedy’, by Felix Budelmann, Robin Dunbar, Sophie Duncan, Evert van Emde Boas, Laurie Maguire, Ben Teasdale, and Jacqueline Thompson (Cambridge Quarterly, 46 (2017), 229–250). This is a major omission, because it’s an important piece of work.

They gathered a large audience (which I now know is a great achievement), got them to watch a film that all concerned agreed was a tragic story, and then measured their performance in a test of physical endurance. With appropriate controls and comparisons in place, they found that watching tragedy did actually increase people’s ability to put up with discomfort. So they offer an endorsement for the long-theorized idea that watching suffering affects our emotional make-up in some positive way. I like so much about this: it’s resourceful, thought-provoking work. However, it’s not really what I want to do myself. I have always wanted to focus on details (of the text, or of the play in performance, etc.) in my attempts to construct experiments, and this has — so far — led to intriguing processes but murky outcomes.
      I once spent a long time trying to show that a particular feature of the language of a Shakespeare play had a psychological effect on its readers and audiences. I would always, in my critical writing, be investigating at that level, rather than describing the effects of a play as a whole, and I, aided and abetted and inspired by others, wanted to carry on in that vein. We decided to see whether a film of the original version of a scene, and a film of the same scene ingeniously doctored to remove that particular feature of language, produced different results in an audience questionnaire. Although it is not the point of this post, I will tell you that it did somewhat, but not in a statistically significant way, and not encouragingly enough for us to redo the whole thing on a more massive scale.
      One reason why we stopped at that point was an awareness that the thing we had produced, the doctored text that removed the feature of the text about which we were hypothesizing, was a bit of a monster. On the face of it, it was cleverly done, absolutely recognisable, fitting into the play perfectly, but we never entirely believed, or looked forward to having to persuade anyone, that removing the whole of, say, one kind of trope, or one formal feature, or one semantic field, was really the equivalent of an experimental variable. The language of a literary work isn’t composed of discrete types of thing, such that you can remove one without complex consequences, not really traceable, for the rest. This paradigm — testing the effect of a textual feature by comparing the original to an altered version that eliminates the feature — was always going to involve some compromise, and a risk of misrepresenting the nature of a literary text.
      I suppose a more waspish person than I might say that this is sort of true of a great many things treated as discrete variables in psychology experiments — the unintended consequences of the interlocking nature of everything are a bit of a haunting presence. However, there are conventions that allow variables to be isolated in cognitive science, and there really aren’t in literary criticism, and I don’t think they’re particularly desirable anyway. So, yes, the fact is, I really wanted to get somewhere by isolating a feature of a text as a basis for an experiment, and it was an interesting and entertaining process, but didn’t turn out satisfactorily.
      I should note that the thing we focused on, and removed, was designed to speak to an idea being explored by a psychologist collaborator. Their take on it was optimistic, and they saw what we were trying to do. However, the question of the truly discrete variable was a problem from the psychological side too, though this was more focused on the overall experience of the films we made: were they really identical apart from the textual variation? Not absolutely, of course, and how satisfactorily? This post isn’t meant to sound melancholic. Hope springs eternal. But literary nuances as experimental variables: they’re a puzzler.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Hypocognition: Beyond Comprehension

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning, ‘Hypocognition: Making Sense of the Landscape Beyond One’s Conceptual Reach’, Review of General Psychology, 22 (2018), 25-25.

When we have to deal with ideas or experiences for which we have no cognitive or linguistic resources, we face the perils of hypocognition, which ‘impoverishes one’s mental world, leaving cognitive deficits in recognition, explanation, and memory while fueling social chauvinism and conflict in political and cultural spheres’. Hypocognition is not usually greeted with self-knowledge, Wu and Dunning say; instead people tend towards ‘hypercognition’, ‘the mistaken overapplication of other available conceptual notions to issues outside their actual relevance’.
      Two of the key stories used to illustrate hypocognition are anthropological in character. They cite Robert Levy’s work on grief in Tahiti: with no word for that emotion, it is restated as a strange feeling or a pain. Levy, they say, sees this as a coping strategy. They also tell the story of Frederic Tudor, who sailed to Martinique in 1806 planning to sell ice to the locals. This failed: ‘never having experienced a cold drink, the islanders could not fathom why ice held any value’. I’m not sure I get this, in that cold drinks are a matter of taste rather than cognitive capacity, aren’t they? Ice does have many uses, though. Wu and Dunning also cite the hypothetical 2-dimensional inhabitants of ‘Flatland’ who cannot conceive ‘up’ or ‘sphere’, and this seems to be a different kind of thing altogether, an ontological prohibition rather than something unlearned.
      The key concept comes across, then, as somewhat loose, but there is a reason for this, I suppose, in that this article deals with thought in the world, at the point where brain and body and culture and politics interact. It draws together evidence from behavioural experiments to enrich what the anthropologists are describing, those situations where for one reason or another people fall short of dealing with the truth. This is what I found interesting, although it doesn’t have the wow-factor of some of the articles featured in this blog.

How does literature expose the hypocognitive and the hypercognitive? I think these terms restate some common features of character and plot, where we see figures taken outside their cognitive comfort zones and faced with situations beyond their comprehension. Shakespeare’s tortured monarchs (Richard II or Lear) confronting the evaporation of their royal selves; his tragic heroes (Othello and Macbeth) incapable of disentangling their predicaments; his cross-dressed heroines encountering angles on life that they had not bargained for.
      It seems like an interesting satirical strategy. The Roman poet Horace has a satirical voice that often wonders why people behave so strangely — why they value the wrong things, why they persist in vices despite apparently knowing better. It has its own quality of hypocognition, in that it professes an inability to comprehend the follies of others. It also observes a kind of hypocognition among those who are unable to free themselves from bad behaviour. Perhaps it shows readers their own potential for hypocognition, confronting them with the paradigm shift required to reform society, a shift they may find hard to fathom.
      It might also make an interesting terminology for thinking through some aspects of science fiction (which themselves may at times have a satirical turn). Depicting strange minds from strange places gives us the chance to replay the cognitive problem suffered by Swift’s Houyhnhnms (the intelligent horses of Gulliver’s Travels) when they try to understand lying. Routine, inevitable things become incomprehensible. I am thinking a bit here of Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, which portrayed hypocognition-filled interactions between a world dominated by women and one dominated by men.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Live At The Globe / Psychology Reading List

This is going to be a super-hasty post. I am still reeling (and glowing a bit) after giving the British Academy Shakespeare Lecture last week. This happens at a brilliant venue, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre in London. I gave a paper that would never have happened without this blog, and the way it has kept me thinking about emerging ideas in cognitive science. It was all about mind-wandering, a favourite topic for posts, and fairly soon there’ll be an audio version available online.

Meanwhile, I read an article entitled ‘The Ultimate Psychology Reading List’. You can read it here, in the online version of The Psychologist. (I was led to it by a Tweet from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (from UCL) so it has some decent endorsement.)
      Over the last eight years or so, nearly 100 prominent people in the field were asked: which is the one book any psychologist should read? Needless to say I was thinking: do they think literature knows anything about their brains? Here are the results, organised by rough and ready categories:

Recent Psychology: 24
Classic Psychology: 17
Other Non-Fiction: 25
Fiction: 17
Don’t Know: 2

Now I was pretty sketchy in deciding what was ‘Recent’ and what was ‘Classic’, and what counted as ‘Other Non-Fiction’ and not part of ‘Psychology’. The proportion that interested me was the proportion of fiction, which seems to me decently high, not particularly discouraging.
      I couldn’t help noticing that the proportion of fiction shot up after 2015. It’s not for me to say that this was the influence of this very blog percolating into the psychology world. One reason for me not saying that is that it definitely is not the case. Nonetheless, an OK result with an interesting uptick, well, I can milk some optimistic from that.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Predictive Coding and Conceptual Thought

* Daniel Williams, ‘Predictive Coding and Thought’, Synthese (2018),
* Andy Clark, ‘Beyond the “Bayesian Blur”: Predictive Processing and the Nature of Subjective Experience’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (2018), 71-87.

So regular readers may have noticed that I’ve been taken by aspects of the Predictive Processing / Free Energy school of thought in cognitive science and philosophy. I posted about Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty here, I used it as a reference point in one of my posts about John Skelton’s poetry, and I wrote here about a conference in which various contributors to the field came to Cambridge and strutted their stuff. And that’s not all.
      Now one of the organizers of that conference has shown his philosophical hand in a very interesting paper. Predictive Processing seems to work very well as a model for perception and action, but it has been hailed as a comprehensive account of cognition that can include conceptual thought as well. Williams argues that the case is as yet incomplete in relation to two particular features of our thought: its generality (‘the fact that we can think and flexibly reason about phenomena at any level of spatial and temporal scale and abstraction’) and its compositionality (‘the specific way in which concepts productively combine to yield our thoughts’). And this seems fair enough, as does Williams’s analysis of the challenges facing the Predictive Processing model if it aspires to account for Everything.
      I really like, a lot, this kind of interface between a philosophical appeal to the characteristics of the ways we consciously think, and a scientific appeal to evidence of phenomena in brain scans and behavioural experiments. There can be ambitious pressure from either side, wary scruples likewise. From the semi-outside, enjoying paradoxes as I do, I like to think of my mind as a-machine-that-isn’t-a-machine. Whether or not you are more committed than I am to resolving such an impasse, I think this essay is well worth reading, and I am interested to see what response there may be.
      And also out now… Andy Clark himself tackling an interesting objection to the Predictive Processing approach, which is that our experience of perception is that it is not a matter of algorithms and probabilities: things are either there for us, or they aren’t, or so it seems. He finds a way round, via the slogan that perception is a ‘slave to action’. The field’s on the move; let’s keep up!

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]