Fifth Annual Round-Up

It’s anniversary time again. Five years of the blog!

I wrote a review of the year for 2016-17 here, for 2015-16 here, for 2014-15 here and for 2013-14 here, and here’s another. This one announces a few changes ahead, though.

* I wrote four posts about the early 16th-century poet John Skelton, a maverick talent who seems to me to be revealed interestingly by a cognitively-tuned approach. The trail goes from here to here to here to here.
* I wrote a couple in which I reflected on my experience in trying to design experiments that answered my questions about literature at the same time as answering those of my psychology collaborators: this one and this one.
* The year was bookended by posts about the ways that generalised approaches, and individualised approaches, offered problems and opportunities to psychological research: the former, then the latter.
* I offered a few thoughts about predictive processing and the free energy principle, which offer interesting links with literary questions. Once, twice, thrice. Vera Tobin’s book on surprise, noted here, connects to that general theme.
* And finally, sneaking in under the radar at the time perhaps, was a post about memory, prompted by Jon Simons’s lecture at the Royal Institution. The post is here, and the lecture can be viewed on Youtube: see below. Jon gives a little namecheck to me and to Charles Fernyhough (website here), because we are plotting interdisciplinary work in which literary as well as psychological perspectives on the subjective experience of remembering will be brought together.

And it’s this last topic which is going to become the main focus of the blog for a while. I would like to do something focused that develops and grows over time. It may take a little while for this to get going, but it should be a nice change, for me at least, to have the blog aligning more clearly with my day-to-day priorities.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Boundaries in the Mind

Iva K. Brunec, Morris Moscovitch, and Morgan D. Barense, ‘Boundaries Shape Cognitive Representations of Spaces and Events’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 637-50.

For a while here I was thinking ‘I don’t get it! What’s even real and what’s even metaphorical any more?’ and then I thought ‘Hmmmmmm… this might actually be very interesting’. The set-up is that different parts of human cognition seem to rely on ‘boundaries’. Navigation, for example, ‘uses spatial boundaries to segment routes’: splitting things up helps us do them. Memory, also, relies on ‘shifts in spatiotemporal contexts to segment the ongoing stream of experience’ — this goes all the way back to the niches and plinths of memory palaces, an organised form in which we can contain more.
      So, they wonder, could this be a sign of common neural underpinnings, and a clue to the way that cognition tends to work when it faces — perhaps — an even wider variety of challenges? They make a big proposal, that ‘a fundamental event boundary detection mechanism enables navigation in both the spatial and episodic domains’, and this helps our brains create ‘cohesive representations’. They present evidence that this might be the result of ‘interplay between hippocampal and cortical dynamics’.
      This is all at a pretty early stage, but it made me think — you won’t be surprised to hear — about all the ways that literary form can provide us with spatial or quasi-spatial boundaries or quasi-boundaries that manage the unfolding of narrative or description (analogies for navigation and memory, perhaps): stanzas and rhyme-schemes and paragraphs and chapters and speech-prefixes and line-breaks and sentences and so on and so on to a point where it begins to be a bit everything. But the contribution of segmentation to thought, and the contribution of segmentation to literature, could speak to one another, I think.
      The curtailed nature of that last paragraph, and the feeling that things get a bit everything in these posts sometimes, both point towards future developments, which I’ll discuss in my next post, the five-year round-up (!). I just don’t have time at present to offer an example of how, say, different stanza forms create different patterns of metaphorical navigation. I don’t plan to punish myself about that, so I have a cunning plan for the blog.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Silent Reading, Inner Speech

* Vincent P. Brouwers, Christopher L. Heavey, Leiszle Lapping-Carr, Stefanie A. Moynihan, Jason M. Kelsey and Russell T. Hurlburt, ‘Pristine Inner Experience While Silent Reading: It’s Not Silent Speaking of the Text’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (2018), 29–54.
* B. Alderson-Day, M. Bernini, and C. Fernyhough, ‘Uncharted Features and Dynamics of Reading: Voices, Characters, and Crossing of Experiences’, Consciousness and Cognition, 49 (2017), 98–109.
* M. Caracciolo and R.T. Hurlburt, A Passion for Specificity: Confronting Inner Experience in Literature and Science (Ohio State University Press, 2016).

The first of these papers aims to be clear and categorical about what we do when we read. They say that we do quite a bit of inward ‘seeing imagery’ related to what we are reading; and there are ‘inner words’ as part of the reading experience; but there was hardly any ‘silent speaking of the text… where the text was directly experienced as spoken or heard while reading’. This is very different from some other results of this sort; it’s supposed to be counter-intuitive; is it? I honestly don’t know whether I think there is any ‘silent speaking of the text’ (poetry any different?), because once I start performing what-it’s-like-to-read, I wonder if I am actually a good witness on myself.
      I like the bit where they wonder whether there was something strange about their experiment. Did they have an anomalous set of participants? Did they used texts that stifled that inner voice? (It was Fitzgerald and Hemingway; nothing obvious to worry about there?) Maybe their experimental protocols ‘discouraged’ reports of inner speech? They think not, because the participants themselves expressed surprise that they weren’t reporting inner speech. Is it there but somehow ‘compressed’ out of range of conscious sampling, memory, and/or self-report? They don’t think that’s it.
      ‘Clearly there is much work to be done’, they conclude, and who can blame them? I’ve cited two of the sources they engage with, both important studies, one linked to the ‘Hearing Voices’ project that considers inner speech in a variety of rich contexts, and the other a collaboration between narratology and psychology that pushes the field in interesting directions. Sampling inner experience is very hard, but empirical studies of reading are currently pushing at new and very interesting ways of solving the problems.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Individual Differences

* Mohamed L. Seghier and Cathy J. Price, ‘Interpreting and Utilising Intersubject Variability in Brain Function’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 517-30.
* Daniela J. Palombo, Signy Sheldon, and Brian Levine, ‘Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 583-97.

These two essays both pose an interesting challenge to the habits of cognitive science. The first sets it out directly: what do we do with ‘between-subject variance in brain function’. Should it be treated as ‘data’ or as ‘noise’, that is, as something to tune out of your conclusions, which is the usual practice from scientists in pursuit of a generalisable conclusion? Seghier and Price are here to advocate the first course of action, because (for example) it seems that individual brains might differ in the networks of regions they recruit to particular activities. So, it might be interesting that everyone seems to use region A, but it might be a big mistake to omit that person X uses regions BCDE as well to a lesser extent, whereas person Y uses BCEF, person Z uses BCDG, and so on. Palombo et al. focus on the individual differences in autobiographical memory. This is partly a matter of superiority and deficiency, remembering more or less than usual. Do some people encode more, or forget less? They also acknowledge that it’s not just a matter of more or less.
      Our experience of literary minds often walks this line between the typical and the unique, I think. Some of their interest comes from things that are convincing because they resemble things we know or suspect of ourselves or others; but some of their interest comes from things that are challenging (and also, in another way, convincing) because they seem to be particular and strange, whether good or bad. I suppose the scientists may tend towards trying to understand the types of individual difference, which could look like a map of complex typicality rather than the full triumph of an interest in the individual (and who could blame them?). But overall this seems like an interesting turn to take.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Empathy and Replication

* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts’ (2016):
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Reading Literary Fiction and Theory of Mind: Three Preregistered Replications and Extensions of Kidd and Castano (2013)’, Social and Personality Science (2018):
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘Panero et al. (2016): Failure to Replicate Methods Caused the Failure to Replicate Results’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112.3 (2017), e1-e4.
* David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, ‘On Literary fiction and its Effects on Theory of Mind’, Scientific Study of Literature, 6 (2016), 42-58.
* Colin F. Camerer, Anna Dreber, Felix Holzmeister, Teck-Hua Ho, Jürgen Huber, Magnus Johannesson, Michael Kirchler, Gideon Nave, Brian A. Nosek, Thomas Pfeiffer, Adam Altmejd, Nick Buttrick, Taizan Chan, Yiling Chen, Eskil Forsell, Anup Gampa, Emma Heikensten, Lily Hummer, Taisuke Imai, Siri Isaksson, Dylan Manfredi, Julia Rose, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers and Hang Wu, ‘Evaluating the Replicability of Social Science Experiments in Nature and Science between 2010 and 2015′, Nature Human Behaviour (2018):

The question of empathy has been a thread throughout the five years of this blog. Indeed the blog is pretty much the same age as the 2013 article by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano which is so often cited in discussions of the topic. How could a person in my line of work not take an interest in an argument that reading fiction makes you better at empathy (reading others’ feelings, rather than feeling them too) in the real world? — Even more specifically, that reading literary fiction, the good stuff prized in university courses, has the most beneficial effects on performance in something as concrete as the famous ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test? The last time I touched on this was in my very last post.
      Overall, though, my reaction has been a bit skittish. The headline claim — though often not the nuances — seems a bit overwhelming, in the scope of its terms and the apparent simplicity of causation. Although I recognise it as a very important concept in literary study, and that it’s often implicit when it’s not explicit, I haven’t really tangled very much with the idea of empathy in my work, so I haven’t felt I have to take a proper view on these conclusions. And so, I have observed the attempts to develop and refine, but also to replicate, and sometimes then to deny or refute, at arm’s length. Since I find the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology interesting (but sometimes alarming, and depressing) I’ve noted in the blog some moments where sharp eyes have been turned on Kidd and Castano 2013 and other key essays.
      Have I done the topic justice? Probably not — there isn’t time for everything. Have I made do with a few eyebrows-raised but wishful glances? Maybe so. So, without claiming to rectify either of these things, but keen to share such a key topic, I am passing on some references I was sent by Emanuele Castano, who noted my interest and wanted to point out that he and David Kidd had responded to the replicators in the first four of the essays cited above. (The fifth is a replicationarama, full of interest, especially if you also read the responses from those whose work is being reconsidered.) There’s a lot at stake in the debate, key terms to consider, and bridges to be built, between the people who are saying ‘this is why literature’ and the people who profess it all day long.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]