‘Methought I Was’ [SER 3]

Time for the third in the ‘Subjective Experience of Remembering’ series (SER as in the title), and the last about A Midsummer Night’s Dream — it keeps on giving, but there are worlds elsewhere. In the previous posts I was interested in the way that memories seemed particularly vivid, and also whether fairy memories seemed in any way special. I think it’s more in the perceptions and attitudes than in the remembering that we see the specificities of fairy cognition in Shakespeare. This time the rememberer is not a fairy, but someone who has had a close encounter with the fairy world. This is Bottom the Weaver, waking up from something that seems like a dream, his time as the lover of Titania.
      As before, I’ll keep the intro minimal but I’ll try to put a bit of detail into commentary. Hover your mouse (or equivalent) over the highlighted phrases, and if the splendid Tippy plug-in is doing its work, then more words will appear. Next time: probably, Hamlet. But before I launch into this, I should say that the overall point here is that if we’re looking for the subjective experience of intense memories in literature, this might not manifest itself in detailed description. It might be that it is made evident in the effects on the person remembering, which are described or made evident somehow, and from which we can infer things about what’s going on unseen. In this case, it may be that things are all a blur for him, but I prefer to think that there are some things coming to mind that are piercingly clear, but very hard to believe.

When my comes, call me, and I will answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout, the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare . I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there is no man can tell what. ,–but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, , his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.

Bottom wakes up and picks up more or less where he left, in the middle of a play rehearsal. He announces himself ready, and back, perhaps covering up for his uncertainty as to what’s really going on.
The default sensory framework for a vivid memory is, as usual, visual. As his attempt to describe what he seems to be remembering, the mixture of senses is telling. There is more than just sight at stake.
The things he has been part of (having an ass’s head, being welcomed into the court of the Queen of Fairies, being her lover in some way or other) are so extraordinary that he cannot consciously, or at least vocally, acknowledge them.
An example of the brilliant scrambling of sense with which Shakespeare conveys… something. Perhaps just Bottom’s witty way of capturing something unbelievable. Or perhaps something like a sensory overload, components flooding back as more than just visual scenes, is being dealt with here. I think Bottom is rather charmingly discreet about the whole thing — he never ends up singing the ballad he promises, and maybe decides, on behalf of all concerned, to keep whatever it is he recalls, to himself.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

‘I Might See’ [SER 2]

This is the second in a series started in my previous, labelled SER 1 (it stands for Subjective Experience of Remembering). I am trying to gather a set of interesting passages that offer insights and provocations on the topic of memory, and specifically what it feels like to remember things. As in the first, I am interested here in what makes things vivid, and also in the ways that Shakespeare depicts the special ways that fairies seem to think. So it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream again, and here it’s Oberon telling — to some extent, reminding — Puck about how the ‘love-in-idleness’ herb came to be, and where it is. On to the passage we go, you can (I hope) move your mouse (or finger, or wand) over the highlighted bits to reveal whatever it is I have to observe.

Thou rememberest
Since I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
That very time I saw, but ,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In .
Yet I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; :
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

In the previous post I wondered whether intense memories needed to be single and specific, rather than repeating and generic. I still think they do not, but for what it’s worth, this is clearly fixed as a one-off. It’s interesting that Oberon uses Puck as some sort of vehicle here: rather than saying ‘I remember’, he passes it on.
I take it this is the imprecise use of ‘certain’, meaning ‘some or other’. However, the strangeness and enormity of the event suggests that the identity of the stars isn’t inconsequential, so ‘certain’ might suggest something sure and specific. I think maybe ‘certain’ is the kind of word that might capture something different about the ways fairies speak. Mortals have to observe a stark difference between casual and precise knowledge, but it may not be like that for the King of the Fairies.
This could be said in a number of different tones, but in general it’s clear that so far Puck remembers the occasion. Now Oberon goes on to outline aspects of the scene that Puck cannot have witnessed.
I take it this is because Oberon is a more powerful fairy, and has greater perceptual abilities. The possible importance of perspective in remembering was a feature of the previous post; here the uniqueness of that perspective is made quite clear.
As if to change our angle on the previous use of the word, now ‘certain’ means ‘sure and definite’. However, Cupid tends to be a bit casual in mythology; and the arrow misses. Perhaps again we’re in a fairy-ish world where precise and casual aren’t entire separate.
The modal verb ‘might’ is most straightforwardly an equivalent to ‘could’ here, denoting the ability to see. Perhaps it retains an element of a more uncertain sense — as if Oberon kind of could see, and kind of couldn’t. This attention to the experience of perception, rather than the thing perceived, might be part of what makes this a vivid representation of remembering.
The distracted thoughtfulness of the woman is an important aspect of the scene: perhaps her indifference to observation, and unawareness of what is at stake in the scene, bring a kind of richness to the scene. There she is, here the viewer is, the mismatch in their interaction might give the whole thing some edge.
More emphasis on the technicalities of Oberon’s perception.
This unprepossessing adjective doesn’t tell us anything very interesting about the flower, but it does tell us more about what it was like to witness the scene. Oberon’s supernatural vision can pick out a tiny object; the sense of focusing is perhaps more important than the
And… what was the function of the reminiscence? To inform Puck? There’s some exposition for the audience, which seems more necessary. I think it works quite well to think of it as a sort of spell — Oberon is preparing the magic of the flower as he describes its origins. And again, perhaps this is just how fairies talk to one another.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

‘We Have Laugh’d’ [SER 1]

It’s time to get started on a series of posts about the subjective experience of remembering. I have flagged this change of direction before, and noted that this interest of mine is shared by others, including my Cambridge colleague Jon Simons, whose Royal Institution lecture you can get to via this post, and Charles Fernyhough from Durham, whose book Pieces of Light got me thinking about this some years ago. I am going to mark each post in the series ‘SER’ (which stands for Subjective Experience of Remembering, nothing mysterious; I am your friend, remember) so that they can be linked up more easily by future readers.
      In these early posts I am just going to dive in to some moments where I think the SER is conveyed interestingly in literature. The idea is to build up a few thoughts and questions that might intersect with the emerging science and philosophy. It seems fairly uncontroversial to argue that writers might have some strategies for conveying this important part of human thinking. The plan is to offer minimal introductions but to use ‘rubover footnotes’ (i.e., highlighted bits in the passage below; you hover the mouse over them and they reveal a bit of explanatory text) to trace what I think is going on.
      I’m starting where I’m happy, going back to the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where this blog more or less started, more than five years ago. You see, I am very intrigued by the thought that Shakespeare depicts specific patterns of thought and feeling in his fairies, who are in some ways so human, but in others so not. In the passage that follows, I think there are hints of this, perhaps in the way that fairy memory works, perhaps in the descriptions of fairy experience.
      I feel the need also to say that I think this passage is just wonderful, it’s really one of my favourite things Shakespeare ever wrote. Titania is explaining why she is so insistent on getting back the Changeling Boy from Oberon. She says that this is out of allegiance to the boy’s dead mother, and in making this case she reminisces about what they shared, and what interests me in particular is the way that this memory comes across as vivid, and also authentic. Vividness is a really interesting part of the experience of remembering: what makes some memories more vivid than others? There is a lot of food for thought on this topic in literature, since vividness is a big concern for writers (understatement).
      Authenticity-wise, you could, I suppose, make the case that this is a piece of rhetoric, a performance to win people over. You could, but if you’re going to doubt that Titania really means this, well, what’s the point in anything? Without further ado:

His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the Indian air, ,
hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would , and sail upon the land,
To , and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And I will not part with him.

One theme in my thinking about the vividness of memory so far is the contribution of different senses. We might think of intense memories, intuitively, as pictures, but it seems also that other senses may make crucial contributions.
This seems somewhat particular, in that the reminiscence is located in time — but see next comment…
Does a vivid memory have to relate to a specific and single event? Can one have a vivid memory of a more generic kind, recalling the sensations of multiple similar events? In this instance, it seems like Shakespeare thinks you can: and I agree.
At this point, the reason why this is a funny vision isn’t quite clear. It gets explained over the next few lines. But even after that, there is a sense that you had to be there. And something of that quality — something that doesn’t quite work in the re-telling, something that depends on you having experienced the event from one vantage point — may be part of how vividness works.
A lovely adjective, not easy to visualise, and yet intensely visual: perhaps we know that we can never quite see the votaress as Titania did, and so we get an estranging encounter with what then seems like an all the more vivid memory.
Finally, perhaps, the point of the pregnant friend / trading ships image is revealed. There is some doubt as to whether she is definitely pretending to be a ship for humorous ends, or whether this was just a conjunction of people and view and mood. It’s probably the former, but again, you had to be there.
In my thinking about fairy minds before, I have often paused on moments where it feels like we might be getting an idea of what makes fairies different. I think these ‘trifles’ might be something of that sort. With everyday eyes, fetching trifles may seem like nothing much, playful but trivial; but perhaps for Titania the fetching of trifles is serious work, because fairies have different priorities. We see something of this in the scenes involving Bottom, and maybe in the whole Changeling Boy episode.
The vividness of the reminiscence is reinforced — I think — by this emphatic claim. The repetition of ‘for her sake’, arising from the place of the boy in a story of friendship, is powerful — to be honest I never feel like Oberon has a leg to stand on. Except, perhaps, fairies do things differently; and, also, patriarchy…
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

A Lack of Seasonal Warmth

Christopher F. Chabris, Patrick R. Heck, Jaclyn Mandart, Daniel J. Benjamin, and Daniel J. Simons, ‘No Evidence that Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth: Two Failures to Replicate Williams and Bargh (2008)’, Social Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000361 , open access pre-print here: https://psyarxiv.com/mvn9b.

In my last post I tried out a way of thinking about the replication crisis in psychology from a literary critic’s perspective. If social psychology is a very human science, I wondered, maybe inconstancy is inevitable, something to be understood as part of the conversation between experts trying to understand the mind. I didn’t end up satisfied with this attempt. It’s obviously not an appealing foundation for the scientists I talk to (I wouldn’t really dare to bring it up with more than a couple); the parsimonious way that conclusions are drawn and maintained is vital.
      And then today I read about this latest failed attempt to reproduce a famous finding in social psychology. Williams and Bargh found that physical warmth was associated with emotional warmth — specifically, that carrying a cup of coffee made subjects more positively disposed to new people. This finding makes intuitive and evolutionary sense (I mean: meet my cat, he really loves us in winter) but it’s also disarmingly counter-intuitive in the way it exposes what might be some very simple wiring in the embodied mind. And it’s very suggestive for literature too.
      Except… Chabris et al., in an essay that is critical about various aspects of the original experiments (sample size; statistical emphasis), report that they were unable to achieve the same results in a re-run of the experiment. Although a part of me is still thinking very slightly ‘yes but yes but yes but’, and wondering about when there’ll be a rejoinder from the warmed-up side of the debate, this feels like another palpable hit in this process.
      Shut-down until the New Year now — happy festive times to all — and then in 2019 it’s time to get properly stuck in to the subjective experience of remembering, flagged as a new direction in the annual round-up, not yet acted upon.

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

What Crisis?

Ed Yong, ‘Psychology’s Replication Crisis Is Running Out of Excuses’, The Atlantic, 19th Nov 2018: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/psychologys-replication-crisis-real/576223/

In my last post I forecast a new direction, but November isn’t really a time at work when new directions get going easily, so here is something more reactive.

This is an interesting report on a big new attempt, including hundreds of people, to reproduce some famous psychological experiments. It isn’t scornful in doing so, but it clearly thinks that the failure of 50% of these replications poses a severe challenge to the scientific respectability of psychology, and especially the behavioural sort of social psychology that’s most often at stake. One reason this matters is that the studies being put in doubt are often the kinds of thing that cross over and get mainstream attention. But generally the assumption is that if you can’t get the same results when re-running the experiment under sufficiently similar circumstances, then we didn’t have the knowledge we thought we had, at all.
      I have written about replication problems a few times, such as here and here. I’ve generally found myself feeling sympathy for those who, in good faith, have persuaded the psychological community of their findings, and have then found themselves exposed to various kinds of negativity, implicit or explicit. I’m wondering now whether this is more than just a matter of human sympathy. I think my assessment of the value of findings in cognitive science is not decisively affected by replication problems — I’m less bothered than I could be, or should be. So I thought I’d try to write about why.
      Perhaps exact replication is something that is basically at odds with a focus on human beings as your source of data? Is it at all tenable to see each psychological experiment as an attempt to tell us something about the mind, which uses certain methods to get there, but stands as an argument (like one in the humanities even more than in the social sciences). People can disagree with it, try their own methods, construct new views: there will be periods of convergence and settling, but there will also be times when the debate shifts rapidly and contentiously.
      Perhaps the question is not why certain effects cannot be repeated in another population of individuals, but whether ‘generalizability’ of this sort is a necessary or clinching criterion for the value of a finding? For example, I used a phrase above, ‘sufficiently similar’. This refers to the careful efforts made in psychological experiments to create the right conditions for an experiment, and in replications to recreate those conditions. But there will, of course, be many differences between those populations and their situations, and the priority given to isolating something undeniable and identifiable that they share may not lead to the liveliest or most truthful conversations about how our minds work alone, let alone socially.
      So I am wondering how actively and explicitly to think that the replication crisis reveals to me what I get from psychological research, and may even reveal things about how to understand psychological research. When human beings are the subject, when we’re looking at ourselves, maybe we have to take on non-reproducibility more positively? I would happily say about Hamlet that my arguments will not be convincing to some people according to their principles (many of which I would share), and they will be set aside by future generations, and (this is the point) that’s something that makes them worth having, not something that makes them pointless. Could that possibly also be true of studies focusing on a selected population of people turning up one day to answer questions in a lab?
      I realise, having said these things, that I’m rehearsing entry-level stuff in the philosophy of science. And that it may have nothing whatsoever — least of all reassurance — to offer anyone trying to solve the practical problems of non-reproducibility or to work out where some bits of Psychology go next. Nevertheless, it’s quite important for my interdisciplinary thinking to have gone through some of these steps, to have worked out what I make of scientific conclusions, what the deal-breakers are, and now I need to spend more time thinking about whether I am doing it right.

Update, some hours later: As I have been thinking about this, I have asked myself the question, does it make a difference to me if a result has been successfully replicated, or not? And the answer seems to be yes, which isn’t surprising, but cuts back a little against the grain of the post.

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