Jon S. Simons, Jane R. Garrison, and Marcia K. Johnson, ‘Brain Mechanisms of Reality Monitoring’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 462-73.
I’m back from the excellent conference I mentioned in my last post. There will be some follow-up posts, but I’ll delay them a bit because this one’s been hanging around for a while. It’s a big topic, potentially very interesting, perhaps too big to come to much of a literature-related point.
Simons et al. are interested in how we distinguish between ‘internally generated information and information that originated in the outside world’. We need to be able to tell what comes from our imaginations, what we’ve actually experienced, what we’ve been told about, and so on. This is ‘fundamental for maintaining an understanding of the self as a distinct, conscious agent interacting with the world’. Errors can have serious consequences; impairments likewise, and are associated with major mental illnesses (e.g. schizophrenia).
Their work is aimed at finding where in the brain this is handled (‘a network of brain regions involved in the recollection of source information, which include prefrontal, medial temporal, and parietal cortices’). They are also interested in showing and developing the link between reality monitoring and hallucinations. What catches my interest is the sense that patrolling the boundary between images and voices from inside and outside
is a significant, precarious job for our minds. I’ve already mentioned an excellent book on the voices part by Charles Fernyhough, back here.
Does this relate to literature in any interesting way? Are this capacity and its vulnerability things that could usefully be thought about in relation to the way we enter the worlds of novels or plays or poems? Do writers themselves have anything to tell us about the ways they see their readers (or their characters) navigating the real and the unreal?
Two possibilities at the moment, and a third thing:
(i) Absorption: is there any interaction between our tendency to become absorbed in fictions, and the reality monitoring mechanisms? Is there a limit to absorption, or can we switch off our scruples in some way? Is the origin of a literary world always clear enough, and not really part of this inside / outside dynamic?
(ii) Realism and Poetics: from Aristotle onwards, there is a tradition that values literature as an imitation of the world that doesn’t break certain rules of realism. For Aristotle, a good play had to keep to limits and proportions, and it couldn’t strain credulity too far. Is there any relationship between this and reality monitoring? What’s missing is the internal generation, but there’s still a sense that we’re sensitive to the boundaries of reality, things that could have come from it, and things that couldn’t.
(iii) A little story, related to the previous point, that I may have told before. A few years ago I was in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, with my family. We were a long way from home. There we bumped into some friends who live in Michigan, who live thousands of miles away from us, and were themselves thousands of miles from home. We all exclaimed at this coincidence, but I said ‘well, I suppose this sort of thing happens all the time’, and one friend said ‘maybe, in novels!’. Only later did I work out what I should have said, which was… ‘You wouldn’t dare, if you were writing a novel, would you? Only reality would dare.’
A reality-monitoring moment, of some kind, I think, though again it wasn’t coming from inside anyone’s head.