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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

Star Trek!?

I know what all this means!


I know because I watched a episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that might be one of the best things I’ve seen on television, but might also be very problematic indeed. I watched more than my fair share of this show first time around, and I have been dabbling a bit recently, drawn in by Netflix and nostalgia. There are just about enough decent episodes that it is not only sustained by the strange mystery of Commander Riker’s galaxy-wide sex appeal (is no species immune?). I think I should be a little more interested than I am (i.e. barely at all) by the android Data’s attempts to be more human. Sometimes the efforts to portray the United Federation of Planets as, you know, nothing like the bad kind of travelling, settling, encountering-the-other times in history, just don’t work. Sometimes the portrayals of other peoples are clumsy as a result. But this episode, ‘Darmok’, has something special about it. It has a bit of low-tech / low-budget charm, a bit of low-tech / low-budget rubbishness, but most of all it has a script that seems to me to have some interesting questions about the way language works.
      The premise is that the crew of the Enterprise meet an alien species (the Tamarians) for the first time. Most unusually, the amazing Universal Translator fails. This tool is a brilliant convenience in science fiction (Douglas Adams equivalent: the Babel fish), generally coming with a rationale that the fundamental structures of nearly all languages have been decoded, so the rest is just details. Anyway, it’s rare for it not to work, but negotiations go nowhere, and in a surprising twist the Tamarians transport Captain Picard and their own Captain Dathon to a nearby planet for a seriously dangerous camping-and-bonding trip.

The team-building exercise is 50% fatal but 100% successful in creating mutual understanding. It turns out that the Tamarians have a language based on symbolic episodes in stories. Rather than saying ‘I am struck with sudden grief’, they’d say an equivalent of ‘Juliet, waking to find Romeo’s corpse’. The journey from perplexity to realization is well handled — it gets quite moving (if you like languages as much as I do) when at the end they come up with a new image: ‘Picard and Dathon, at El-Adrel’. This is all a bit shaky, though. Could an allegorical language like this really work? How would a child learn it? How would you tell stories in the first place? (Perhaps with a different written language; perhaps in pictures? Things do get a bit shaky when Picard starts passing on the Epic of Gilgamesh.) Is it compatible with a mind organized anything like ours, or do we have to imagine complementary cognitive structures? Star Trek fans, and authors of apocryphal works set in the same universe, don’t let things lie. You can find a lot more information here. The glossary is nice. Knowing that in one short story it’s stated that the Tamarian brain has a completely different architecture is actually a bit disappointing — I prefer to have that question open.
      Watching the episode over again, you see subtleties, but not too many (it’s not the most demanding bit of TV). Knowing more of the phrases changes the meaning of some threatening gestures, for example. ‘Darmok’ elicits questions about languages and minds as both social and personal matters; it doesn’t arrange these into an orderly argument, and it does seem to begin to fall apart when you think about it too hard, but the story makes it all matter in the fiction. One interesting thing is that the Tamarians appear to be more advanced technologically than the Federation (and also extraordinarily committed to making links with other people); this language has enabled them to achieve a great deal. So here we are in a hypothetical scenario far beyond the everyday or the laboratory, but pushing at possibilities that are also being explored when linguists and psychologists think about how different languages work in and on us. Trying out how different a language could be is a worthwhile way of addressing why the ones we know are the way they are.

There’s only one way to sign off: MIRAB, WITH SAILS UNFURLED!

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

Fourth Annual Round-Up

Can it really be four years? It’s anniversary time again. I wrote a review of the year for 2015-16 here, for 2014-15 here and for 2013-14 here, so here’s another. It seems like a good way of guiding occasional readers to what I think are the best bits.

Looking back I see that I have taken note of quite a few books and the odd film, as well as the usual run of interesting articles in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
* My favourite single post is this one about love. That’s partly because I have such a vivid memory of writing it, in a very good mood on a mostly empty flight (stealth boast) back from Geneva. It’s partly because it was nice to feel I was answering an invitation from the author of the article in question, to think about what poetry has to say about the matter.
* I got into a favourite topic with two posts on intentional mind-wandering (here and here), then rashly proclaimed an end to mind wandering here, before I inevitably got right back onto it here. And I am still thinking about wandering minds!
* I have a definite soft spot for the post on language repair and certain interesting sounds (‘huh?’ ‘ha’ …), which you’ll find here.
* And there is surely more to say in relation to the topic of cognitive offloading, which I merely nudged here.

Another year of more of the same, taking me up to five years, is quite possible, but I think I should try to think of ways of changing things (changing them up, whatever that means) before that point. I have some ideas. More guest posts would be nice. I am going to have A Proper Go at Twitter, to make it easier for a few more people to hear about what’s going on here. Most of all, many thanks for reading and please keep doing so.
      I like to include a gratuitous treat in the end-of-year round-up. Last year it was Dexys’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. This year, just in case it’s not something that everyone turns to at least once a week, it’s ‘Range Life’ by Pavement. In some ways (e.g. clothing) it could hardly be more different from the Dexys song, but actually in its general reflective mood, its way of mapping out the journey of life, it has some things in common. Shame they beep out the swear-word, but I am sure you can guess what it should be.

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

Embodiment, Skaters, Puppets, Life

* ‘Embodied Cognition Around 1800’, special issue of German Life and Letters, 70.4 (October 2017)

A couple of years ago I mentioned the conference on which this collection of essays, edited by Katharina Engler-Coldren, Lore Knapp, and my friend and colleague Charlotte Lee, is based. That was a very good event, and there are excellent essays here. The collection aims to bring some recent trends in cognitive science into the orbit of German literary scholarship, but it also aims to identify those trends in historical thought that were already pointing the way. While ‘4E’ cognition (embodied, extended, embedded, enacted) is often embraced as a game-changing way of uniting body and mind, the editors point out in their introduction that in the centuries since Descartes plenty of writers questioned the mind-body split (Herder, for example). The years around 1800 in Germany, the authors say, offer a particular concentration.

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Now everyone can benefit from Nadja Tschentscher’s introduction to embodied cognition. It was a great success on the day, and the written version (Embodied Semantics: Embodied Cognition in Neuroscience’, pp. 423-9) is more than just a brilliant reading list. It’s a careful evaluation of a key trend in the field, towards thinking that many aspects of our thought and language derive fundamentally from bodily sensations, postures, and movement. Tschentscher concludes that ‘no evidence has yet been found for a causal effect of perceptual and motor systems on the processing of abstract words, numbers, and arithmetic facts in the adult brain’. It is, however, a ‘powerful proposition’.

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The essays that connect most with the interests of this blog are…
* Charlotte Lee on ‘Movement and Embodiment in Klopstock and Goethe’, pp. 506-15. Klopstock’s poetry has a strongly physical dimension, its sounds and the physical objects they conjure interacting dynamically. His poem about a skater, ‘Der Eislauf’, includes a particularly rich ‘Schwung’, the ‘thrust’ of the skater phonetically captured, and Lee shows this is typical of Klopstock’s embodied style. One twist in the essay I particularly liked was the recognition that in this respect languages may be different: Klopstock certainly thought so. I’m not so sure – instinctively I think that other languages could find an equivalent of the tension and release you get in ‘Schwung’. It made me think also of Henry Raeburn’s famous painting ‘The Skating Minister’ (you can find it on Wikipedia), where (I think) the management of ‘Schwung’ is very interesting, and perhaps appropriately restrained given the skater in question.
* Terence Cave on ‘Dancing with Marionettes: Kleist and Cognition’, pp. 533-43. Cave sees Kleist’s dialogue on the marionette theatre both as an investigation into, and something illuminated by, ‘the critical borderline between the unreflective and the reflective’. The puppets cause some automatic reactions and associations in us, and they prompt reflections, and these may all inter-relate interestingly. They also operate on the boundary of life, lifelikeness, and liveliness: certain key, sometimes minimal signs, communicate vividly to us that something is alive. Cave discusses the work of modern puppeteer Stephen Mottram, whose work is well worth following up on his website, and via Youtube clips like this:

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

Neoclassical and Cognitive Poetics

Karin Kukkonen, A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics: Neoclassicism and the Novel (Oxford, 2017)

I said in my recent post about Andy Clark and predictive processing that I’d mention a literary scholar who has pursued these themes to good effect. I’ve already mentioned Karin Kukkonen’s work drawing on Bayesian probability (here), and her recent book puts this in a more ambitious framework.
      She approaches the 18th-century novel by means of interfaces between the neoclassical poetics of the time and the cognitive poetics being developed today. Where the former has poetic justice, the unities of space and time (i.e. limitations on the scope of stories), and decorum (i.e. proper behaviour of characters and plots), the latter has social cognition, embodied cognition, and predictive cognition. So the question of poetic justice is related to the ways that characters cooperate with one another, and benefit as a result, as humans have evolved to do; the question of artistic unity is related to the construction of imaginary story worlds into which both mind and body fit.
      The link between the predictive mind, the actions of characters, and the workings of genre, is highly suggestive. I think it works very well as a way of revealing and exploring the liveliness of neoclassical theories. They can seem rather dry to modern readers — Romanticism really got to us — but actually (for example) a commitment to verisimilitude is a commitment to liveliness, not just to lifelikeness. It also works well as a way of understanding novels as they unfold and progress, twist and turn: there is constant exchange between informed expectations and emerging information.
      Karin is my friend and I try to declare my interests, but, whether by friend or stranger, this is a great example of what a historically aware, cognitively informed, critically imaginative approach to literature can do.

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