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Reality Monitoring

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.

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

Understanding Other People (Or Not)

I am attending a conference this week, indeed I am there now, so this is the nearest I’ve got yet to whatever Live Blogging is. It’s about renaissance literature and ‘theory of mind’. It’s a rich topic and a great line-up, and I may report further. For now, though, I will mention something I noticed recently.
      Via the Human Mind Project website (https://humanmind.ac.uk/) I reached an interesting and related debate filmed by the Institute of Art and Ideas. The debate brings together a literary scholar (Robert Eaglestone), a philosopher (Anita Avramides), and a psychologist (Nicholas Humphrey), and the topic is our knowledge of other minds. Eaglestone piles in counter-intuitively, saying that literature is about not understanding other minds — indeed, we have literature because we don’t understand other minds — and likewise we have ethics and politics and conversations because we don’t know what other people are thinking.
      Nicholas Humphrey says the opposite: we have to give credit to the impressive ‘heuristic tools’ our minds exercise in their efforts to know what others are thinking. Anita Avramides also wants to give credit to our social thinking, warning against solipsistic introspection, and proposing that we should start our study of the human with behaviour and interaction, rather than with the interior world. They are divided by the different things that could be meant by ‘understanding’ others, ‘knowing’ others, and the things we do with people’s minds that aren’t knowing them. They have different ideas as to what should be the threshold for deciding that it’s worth calling it ‘knowledge’.
      I enjoyed this IAI debate too: ‘The Edge of Reason‘. Another case where the interaction between different intellectual perspectives outweighs the problem of terms: it’s not always clear they are talking about the same thing, but that’s how some of the thought-provoking suggestions arise.

* Joel Robbins, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds: Confession, Intention, and Linguistic Exchange in a Papua New Guinea Community’, Anthropological Quarterly, 81 (2008), 421-429.

This is one of the items on the conference reading list, and I found it intriguing. Many of the observations made in cognitive science are implicitly or explicitly species-level: it is taken for granted sometimes that findings in a population of university students in the USA or Finland or wherever apply to all of us. Anthropologists have a different expectation and a different focus for their attention.
      Robbins tells us that in some cultures it is widely agreed that knowing other minds is impossible. Among Melanesians this is related to speech: it is a commentary on the inability of language to convey innermost thoughts. He is arguing partly against those who say that even cultures full of ‘opacity statements’ are making assumptions about speakers’ intentions. Robbins says that in non-Western cultures intentions may be far from crucial to the meaning of speech. For example, there is a correlation between an insistence on opacity, and a lack of (or great difference in) concepts of lying, or thanking, where intentions and meaning are most entwined.
      A large part of the article is based on an absolutely fascinating discussion of the consequences when people brought up in an ‘opacity’ environment convert to Christianity, and thus find themselves in a culture where sincerity is often at issue. I don’t think this turns back necessarily or directly on the idea that mind-reading capacities are universally human, but it’s an interesting angle on a whole range of issues.

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

Semantics and the Brain

Joseph E. LeDoux, ‘Semantics, Surplus Meaning, and the Science of Fear’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 303-6.

LeDoux is bothered that the neuropsychology of fear, his own field, is a misnomer. There are subjective states, like fear, and there are ‘brain circuits that control them nonconsciously’, and there are links between them. However, if you call what the brain circuits are doing ‘fear’ then quite distinct things are being confused. This affects the popular reception of scientific research, and quite understandably scientists sometimes go along with it.
      LeDoux tells his own story: ‘The vernacular meaning of emotion words is simply too strong. When we hear the word “fear”, the default interpretation is the conscious experience of being in danger, and this meaning dominates. For example, although I consistently emphasized that the amygdala circuits operate nonconsciously, I was often described in both lay and scientific contexts as having shown how feelings of fear emerge from the amygdala.’
      Now he advocates only using fear to refer to the experience of fear — to the thing it inevitably evokes. The relevant bits of the amygdala are now called ‘a defensive survival circuit’. One of the important things LeDoux pushes against is the idea that the amygdala version of ‘fear’ is a more precise and concrete version of the subjective experience version of ‘fear’. They’re different things, he says, and the general use of ‘fear’ is suited to its task. He goes on to cite other similar terms: ‘motivation, reward, pain, perception, and memory’.
      It feels cheeky to write the phrase, ‘I have thought similar things myself before’, but I have. Especially about popular media reception of psychology, where they leap to tell us where love happens in the brain, and so on. On the other hand, I think that as long as the links between brain, mind, and world are made intelligently and with proper awareness, they are a source of good things too. I like the creative tension.

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Distinctive

Hans Alves, Alex Koch, and Christian Unkelbach, ‘Why Good Is More Alike Than Bad: Processing Implications’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 69-79.

This one’s been nestling in the pipeline for a while. I have been meaning to turn it into a substantial post without quite finding the way to do so. Anyway — fanfare — Alves et al. think literature knows something about your brain:

As noted by Leo Tolstoy in the opening of his novel Anna Karenina, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Recent psychological research suggests that Tolstoy’s observation even holds true in the broadest formulation that different pieces of positive information are alike whereas different pieces of negative information are negative in their own way. We argue that this similarity asymmetry is a robust and general characteristic of the environment humans live in, observable across various research domains, for which we provide examples in the following.

It has been argued before that negative information has a higher impact than positive information: it might have a great emotional effect, it might be remembered better. The point here is that this is not necessarily a property of our responses, but may tell us something about the information that is being processed in the first place. They offer ‘an alternative interpretation of valence asymmetries based on the observation that positive information is more similar than negative information’. Positive attributes are less extreme than negative ones. They suggest Aristotle was right all along when he said that the mean is desirable, and extremes not so: the good — the middle — strikes us less than the bad, the challenging outliers.


They cite research on language: people assess pairs of positive words as more similar to one another than negative words, as if distinctiveness in semantics is more a property of bad things than of good things. This scales up from individual words to descriptions. Alves et al. relate how descriptions of positive events were judged to be more alike than descriptions of negative events. Other research suggests that positive words are more likely to appear together than negative words, ‘which suggests that positive information’s higher similarity might in fact be a “true” property of the information environment’.
      They cite physical contexts, Goldilocks-style, to support the Aristotelian preference for the middle way. Human life exists best in the middle of various chemical and physical dimensions: not too hot, not too cold, and so on. Just right is less remarkable than an aberration high or low. The prototypical ideal tends to lie between things that our minds respond to more energetically.
      It’s no wonder, perhaps, that negative information, as they say, ‘attracts more attention’. Things that threaten the equilibrium by being new or extreme surely need to be acknowledged. So, if we need to understand how this quirk of human thinking works, to explain why we are more stimulated in certain ways by bad things than by good, it looks like environmental adaptation is a significant part of the picture.


This struck a chord with me for reasons that may become apparent when I quote a bit of an old lecture of mine. (This is actually taken directly from the handout, in which I offer a deliberately over-reaching description of Shakespearean Tragedy and Comedy as a way of getting what I hope is more detailed and nuanced stuff started.)

Tragedy and comedy are both hypotheses, the contemplation of which enriches our thinking about reality. They are equally valuable and profound, and they are opposites. Tragedy is a negative hypothesis, in that it imagines a world worse than ours, in which terrible things happen. But it has compensation for those who suffer and those who watch, because the characters at the heart of tragedy gain in distinction and individuality. Comedy is a positive hypothesis, in that it imagines a world better than ours, in which good things happen. It has compensation for those who benefit, and those who watch, because the characters at the heart of comedy lose distinction and individuality.

So you see, I also think there is a way in which good things merge while bad thing e-merge. And there may well be other ways in which literature works with, and perhaps tests, some of the subtleties: how (for example) certain language choices affect balances of sympathy and attention, and so on. Perhaps there’ll be more to say in the future.

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

Psychological Insight in Fiction

* J.G. Ballard, Running Wild (1988)
* Philip Larkin, Jill (1946)

Another squiblet post arising from two more random things I read on holiday. I had this urge to read a J.G. Ballard novel I hadn’t read before, and found myself reading Running Wild, which is a forensic psychiatrist’s account of a massacre, in which a group of privileged children kill their over-attentive parents and every other adult on an exclusive housing estate. And I also bumped into the realization that I had never read Larkin’s Jill, which is his novel about student life at Oxford in the early 1940s. Neither was a life-changing experience, but they brought to mind a general question I have about what makes fiction seem to be psychologically insightful.
      I think that if I were to ask a lot of people which literature they find offers them interesting and convincing depictions of the ways our minds work, I’d probably find areas of interesting agreement and areas of interesting disagreement. I think that quite a lot of that lot of people would give some sort of assent to the idea that literature has a claim to psychological insight (though some might well acknowledge that it would be controversial to claim too much), but it’s not obvious what characteristics of literature lead to that assent.

Ballard’s novel is difficult to pin down. I want to call it confrontationally evasive, which seems a bit ridiculous, I must say; its narrative voice is very concrete in the way it offers conclusions, but it seems like there are layers of irony, as if expertise and detection are revealing nothing (except the inert truth). Anyway, because it’s from the perspective of a forensic psychiatrist you’d think it might offer a strong impression of psychological insight, and yet it doesn’t really, or not of the children, anyway. They’re theorized about, and they fit the textbook mould that’s prepared for them well enough, but they’re mainly absent.
      Larkin’s novel is also elusive. The way the character of Jill / Gillian comes into the story, and then takes over as the hero begins to write his own fictions, seems to be underprepared and underexplained — but in a good way. There’s a gap there where, I think, a sort of psychological interest starts. The story is told; its causation isn’t completely revealed; that causation might be psychological in part (though there’s a lot of socio-cultural interest too), and so a direction of thought is created in the reader. By not answering questions, by giving us something strange and not necessarily realistic in a simple way, it got across to me a lot more that felt like insight into the mind than Ballard’s novel, in spite of that being written, as I said, from the perspective of a forensic psychiatrist.
      All I have here is a simplistic suggestion that there is no necessary correlation between explicit investigation and the creation of the (impression of) psychological insight in fiction. Perhaps also there is some interest in the way that underspecified things absorb our attention and generate a kind of readerly work that creates a sense of getting into a fictional mind that’s active rather than passive, work rather than reward. But the question in general is large and open.

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