Category Archives: Uncategorized

‘Flooded’: Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)
Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (2020)

A quick post… It’s a busy time, but something has been on my mind.
      Recently I wrote a post inspired by a psychological study trying, and interestingly failing, to demonstrate the reason why our minds aren’t constantly assailed by memories of the past and projections of the future. This must be the result of inhibitory mechanisms, the idea was, so perhaps we could just find a way of dialling down those mechanisms and the floodgates would open. It didn’t happen. So we’re left with the question, why it is our minds are ever free from all the things that could crop up?
      It might be interesting to think of these three collections by Claudia Rankine (mingling poetry with prose and images too) as explorations of the ways that specific social circumstances can affect the capacity of the mind to restrain the flood. Rankine presents the contemporary African-American experience as a constant battle with racism, and as well as featuring stories of victims, she tests out some of the many pathways an individual could take through life, facing or trying to avoid the pressures. I took two complementary things away from them: first, a sense of the myriad emotions, stories, sources, disciplines, tones, and tactics that a thoughtful person might sense as pressures on their own thinking, and second, a sense of what it might take, and what it might be like, to find a moment of reprieve.
      The point might be an implicit hypothesis: one reason why our minds might not be assailed by thoughts of past and future is that social comfort, a feeling of being in place and protected, quietens things. The alternative — a feeling of being constantly pressured and doubted (it was in reading Rankine that I really got my head round the idea of a microaggression) — might lead to the sort of sifting, worrying, raging, hybrid forms in Rankine’s work (including, for example, in Just Us, an apparently anxious but often pointed facing-page fact-check of the text). So these works make me think that the question of why any ‘I’ may not be flooded with thoughts has some relation to whether the relevant sense of ‘we’ is precarious or not. Rankine’s works also offer depictions of what it might be like, as a certain sort of person, to experience the flood.

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

Mirror Neurons Update

Cecilia Heyes and Caroline Catmur, ‘What Happened to Mirror Neurons?’, Perspectives on Psychological Science (2021): DOI: 10.1177/1745691621990638

This is another catch-up post in this restart phase of ‘What Literature Knows About Your Brain’. What, indeed, has happened to mirror neurons, which used to be the talk of the town? They were the talk of the blog back in the day, too: several references here and an update here. As I mention in the latter post, I wrote an article (this article) in which I thought a bit about the implications of this field for understanding hand-holding in Shakespeare.
      The science of mirror neurons, for the uninitiated, is associated most of all with Vittorio Gallese, especially by those in the humanities, because he has been so open to dialogue with people working on art and literature. The key phenomenon observed in early experiments was that that there was activity in brain regions associated with movements when those movements were observed, as if the brain responded to actions in others with a kind of inward mirroring. The function of that mirroring became the focus of adventurous thinking: is this the mechanism for inferring intentions and/or achieving empathy? Is this the key to artistic experience?
      Even in those early days some were sceptical about this push beyond more basic kinds of action appraisal. Now, in a round-up of recent work, Heyes and Catmur give a steady assessment of what they think is a reasonable level of excitement. We shouldn’t go too far, they think: in relation to action understanding, ‘mirror-neuron brain areas contribute to low-level processing of observed actions (e.g., distinguishing types of grip) but not to high-level action interpretation (e.g., inferring actors’ intentions)’. There is a similar pattern in other aspects of cognition: speech perception, imitation, autism, and more. As they say, ‘mirror neurons contribute to complex control systems rather than dominating such systems or acting alone […] at a relatively low level’.
      It’s not doom and gloom at all, as these are still remarkable features of the neural architecture: ‘Although disappointing relative to some early claims, we argue that these discoveries should not discourage further research on mirror neurons. […] Mirror neurons should not be tarnished; they are yet to fulfill their true promise’. On their own, their contribution may not reach the heights of the early hopes, but as part of larger networks, they are still fascinating. I think probably there were some over-excited responses to mirror neurons from people in the arts when they first became widely known. There were also some measured ones, and there is still room for more of those.

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

DMN Again and Again

* Jonathan Smallwood, Boris C. Bernhardt, Robert Leech, Danilo Bzdok, Elizabeth Jefferies and Daniel S. Margulies, ‘The Default Mode Network in Cognition: A Topographical Perspective’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 22 (2021), 503-13.
* Yaara Yeshurun, Mai Nguyen and Uri Hasson, ‘The Default Mode Network: Where the Idiosyncratic Self Meets the Shared Social World’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 22 (2021), 181-92.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) has been with me all the way through this blog. It is a set of brain regions which earned its name when it was noticed that activity continued there when other attention-demanding tasks were not in progress — when the brain reverted to a sort of default mode. It became associated with inward-turned processes such as mind-wandering, for example, and I got really keen on that, writing various posts (e.g. here), and a lecture that got published in the Journal of the British Academy.
      Naturally I am interested when there is further research on the DMN, and here we have two recent papers in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that show scientists still tackling quite fundamental questions. Smallwood et al. consider the ‘topographical characteristics’ of the DMN — what do its component parts seem to be linked to by proximity? — and zero in on the auditory system which, they suggest, ‘allows these regions of the DMN to capitalize on the capacity for language processes to organize cognitive function, perhaps through the vehicle of inner speech’. So when our minds wander — or perhaps in dreaming — there may be some sense of an ‘inner voice’ involved, or so the physical contiguities suggest, at least.
      Yeshurun et al. are interested in how the brain ‘integrates incoming extrinsic information with prior intrinsic information to form rich, context-dependent models of situations as they unfold over time’. They propose that the DMN is not simply involved in looking inwards; instead it is ‘central for integrating external and internal information, allowing for shared communication and alignment tools, shared meanings, shared narratives and, above all, shared communities and social networks’. And as they aptly notice, this is about as ‘default’ as it gets, a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Scientists are interested in the ways that the DMN links things up — and so am I. It appears that many key questions are open, though.
      There is still a process of catch-up in these posts; it is enjoyable sifting through the things I have been missing. I am allowing myself to hope that soon I will feel able to take The Turn and begin putting some literary examples into the mix, with their own questions to ask and answers to give.

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

Realism in Psychology

Jacqueline C. Snow and Jody C. Culham, ‘The Treachery of Images: How Realism Influences Brain and Behaviour’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25 (2021), 506-19: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.02.008

‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, wrote Magritte, next to une pipe; Snow and Culham quote him as they set out some issues in the use of pictures of things, rather than things themselves, in cognitive neuroscience experiments. This is another post from me picking up on methodological papers, as I gently get back into the blog-swing.
      The point is that experimental design often sacrifices ‘realism’ (meaning, basic authenticity and resemblance to real-world experience) in order to create more clearly defined tasks and variables. However, evidence suggests that ‘images evoke different behaviour and brain processing compared with the real, tangible objects they aim to approximate’. As they put it, ‘only real objects can be acted upon’ and sometimes that makes a difference. It may only be une pipe if you can smoke it. (This is interesting partly because sometimes, in my reading, I have found the opposite claim — that there is less difference between actual, visual, imagined, and metaphorical, in various configurations, than you’d think. But the differences may vary according to the task and context in question; affordances matter.)
      The pursuit of ‘ecological validity’ has been on my mind before, not least when I wrote a post with that very title. Control over the experiment means that perfect lifelikeness can never be achieved, but better reconciliations may be possible. In order to get past the pas-pipe problem they propose further investigation into ‘immersive neuroscience’ combining Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality into more vivid simulations of human experience.
      More ambitiously, I think, they suggest reversing the usual process of creating experimental stimuli. Rather than ‘building up ecologically valid stimuli from simpler components’, they would rather ‘use reality as the gold standard and tear down various components to infer their contributions to behaviour and brain processes’. I love the aspiration to discover ‘which aspects of reality matter?’ empirically — which things can’t be dispensed with. That seems a lot more demanding than putting VR or AR into the experiment.
      I gave one working definition of realism above and there are other definitions, including the complex concept that is often invoked in literary studies (Wikipedia calls it ‘the attempt to represent subject-matter truthfully’; you think I’m going to define that!?). I think it might be interesting to reconsider the history and/or theory of literary realism as an attempt to (as above) ‘tear down various components to infer their contributions to behaviour and brain processes’, or to think of realism in art as something that might involve tearing down as well as building up. I will try to think of some examples.

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

Why Aren’t We Flooded?

Krystian Barzykowski, Rémi Rade, Agnieszka Niedzwienska, and Lia Kvavilashvili, ‘Why Are We Not Flooded by Involuntary Thoughts About the Past and Future? Testing the Cognitive Inhibition Dependency Hypothesis’, Psychological Research, 83 (2019), 666–683: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1120-6

Let me tell you about myself and this. A while back I was assailed, as I often am, by an embarrassing memory. I was just walking along the street, and for some reason I was catapulted back to an awkward moment a long time ago. It’s innocuous, the sort of thing that the other people present almost absolutely certainly will not remember, and if they could be badgered into remembering, it would be meaningless. I am confident that lots of people would recognise this phenomenon, because I have done some reading about it; I also assume it varies from person to person. Some are struck more than others. But what sort of things are contained in that ‘more’, and what is their significance?
      I conducted a brief self-analysis and came to the following hasty conclusions. One, I think I am probably more prone to these than other people. Two, a rough estimate of my repertoire of embarrassing memories suggests that there are dozens of them, but I can’t summon up very many to order. Something between twenty and one hundred in regular rotation? Third, when in private they make me swear or wince or something, but I can control it in public.
      And fourth, well, that starts with a question: how often does one of these occur? And related to that, how often does any individual one occur? Well I thought a bit about the one that I had suffered most recently, and the adventurous best guess I could come up with was that I am having that memory pretty much all the time. Once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t really persuade myself that it is ever truly absent. Of course, I acknowledged, sometimes it becomes more present and can no longer be ignored, but these memories are anything but deeply buried. They are always on my fringes, or I am always on theirs.
      Having revealed my findings, I should reassure you that I consider myself a happy and generally functioning person and I hope others would more or less agree. My memories aren’t doing me any great harm. Some people must suffer much worse, and their perspective on the issues would have a different urgency. For my part, I wouldn’t mind being without embarrassing recollections, but they might have a function. I suppose they are serving as a legacy of a process of self-definition and socialization, little warning signs of the consequences of not watching my actions carefully enough. I think most come from teenage years or thereabouts, which would make sense. They are complemented by some recurring nice or neutral memories, which are less striking but still part of the pinball machine of personality. It’s an odd thought that some people might only have the reward equivalent, little flashbacks of moments of social success causing moments of quite smug joy as they get on with their lives.
      The question being asked in the paper cited above comes from an angle I hadn’t seen before. It is not why these intrusive unpleasant experiences occur, or why they can become a problem for some people, but why they are not occurring all the time for everyone, given that they arise for no strong reason at no particular time. Having decided that some of my own favourites are always there or thereabouts, why do I get to think about anything else? Barzykowski et al. start with a hypothesis, which is that possibly ‘activated thoughts are suppressed by the inhibitory control mechanism, and therefore depleting inhibitory control should enhance [their] frequency’. So they decided to create experimental situations in which inhibitory control was generally less active, such as when subjects were very tired, or when they had completed a collaborative task shown to decrease inhibition in previous studies, to see whether this resulted in more memories (and future thoughts too — the study took in different kinds of mental time travel).
      Well, they did not find a significant effect. Their reasonable hypothesis, that it is inhibitory control that stops us being swamped, was not rewarded. So what is it? It may be that it is quite difficult to make people do, or not do, such things outside the flow of regular experience, where our environments provide so many tiny triggers. Or it may be that the explanation for us not being overwhelmed with these thoughts is quite different, and potentially very interesting. I want to know more.
      The move I like to make in this blog is to say ‘well, literature has interesting examples of some related phenomena, and if we look at them closely enough we can pick out some interesting conclusions’. And I would like to make it in this case, but this post is quite long already, and I don’t have an example I am ready to cite yet. It may be too obvious to turn to those modernist writers who found ways of representing the flow of purposeful and purposeless thoughts, and see how they portray the conditions under which minds admit strong and strange memories — but I hope I will, at some point soon. You’ll be the first to know (if you ever come back to the blog, follow @WhatLitKnows on Twitter, or put your e-mail into the box on the right).

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