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Choice and Memory

Jonathan Phillips, Adam Morris, and Fiery Cushman, ‘How We Know What Not To Think’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23 (2019), 1026-40: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.09.007

This is another post picking up on an article where the question is not so much ‘why?’ as ‘why not?’. I’ve been swept along with wondering why we aren’t flooded with involuntary memories, and now I am enjoying asking in the negative why we don’t make certain choices, rather than we do make other ones. There is a pattern here: the brain is not a simple input-output machine, and one way that modern science can engage with its complexity, when so many things could happen, is to work out why most of them don’t.
      Phillips et al. are interested in the human capacity to plan and communicate countless unrealized things. They wonder how possible and appropriate actions are selected from such a plethora. The bare bones of the conclusion aren’t that arresting — it’s about what is probable and what is valuable — but the finesse is neat: ‘we suggest that the shared sampling mechanism essential for modal cognition — one biased towards valuable and probable actions — was principally designed for decision making. In short, our most basic sense of which actions are possible reflects a first draft of what we would choose.’
      They make a nice turn towards language, by recognising that in English a great deal of hard work is done by modal auxiliary verbs: ‘must’, ‘can’, ‘may’, ‘ought’, etc. These are aimed at ‘non-actual possibilities’, and they do a lot to explore the area of the probable and the valuable as noted above. They deal with necessity, possibility, things that should be, things that could be, and so on. So Phillips et al. take modal verbs as an analogy for the way the mind works, again with a finesse: ‘a core component of ordinary modal cognition may not be possible worlds, but practical worlds – those involving actions that are typically worth considering’. It’s important to note that lots of languages do their modal work in very different ways, though (as far as I know, which isn’t that far) they all do it in some way.

And also…

Natalie Biderman, Akram Bakkour, and Daphna Shohamy, ‘What Are Memories For? The Hippocampus Bridges Past Experience with Future Decisions’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24 (2020), 542-56: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.12.002

This paper is based on experimental findings suggesting a significant role, indeed a ‘pervasive role’, for the hippocampus, a brain region associated with long-term memory, in decision-making. They go further: this ‘challenges the way we define what memory is and what it does, suggesting that memory’s primary purpose may be to guide future behaviour and that storing a record of the past is just one way to do so’. They suggest that some familiar failures of memory are only such if we think of remembering as retaining a record of the past. If we think of it as future-oriented, aimed at improving responses and choices, then its characteristics make more sense. This fits with the more dynamic models of memory that I’ve come across and written about, where in other ways it’s not just a matter of a stored record. Decisions: they are very interesting. Even though the brain isn’t a simple input-output machine, it still really has to come up with output — action — one way or another.

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

‘Flooded’: Virginia Woolf

After my post about Claudia Rankine I was talking to my daughter about other writers who might have interesting things to show us about flooded and unflooded minds. She swiftly noted that three of her A-level texts could fit the bill very well indeed. So here I am, following her lead, taking advantage of her suggestions, and starting with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. This novel could stand for quite a few other modernist works (by Woolf herself, Joyce, and others) which are often thought to have found new ways of representing the turbulent workings of the mind. One of the things with which such novels might generally be associated is something like ‘flooding’ in the sense I set out here. The ‘stream of consciousness’ technique can be an overwhelming flow, and often it is made up of memories and projections of the type discussed by Barzykowski et al.
      In Mrs Dalloway there are many moments where characters are beset by thoughts of the past. Traumatised Septimus Smith suffers terribly; in the case of Clarissa Dalloway herself things are more benign. As she goes about her business, and makes her plans, she has many thoughts about the past. Some come into the category of the sort of involuntary interruptions that constitute the more worrying version of the ‘flood’ of thoughts, but others are musings, a kind of play with memory. The circulation of this mental energy does get quite dark, though:

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre, which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. (p. 202 in my 2000 era Penguin Classic)

The moment I want to focus on is the parenthesis, kind of an aside, where she notes that the day has passed, at least partly, in repetitious reminiscence. This is in contrast with something ‘that mattered’, which is whatever Septimus was trying to catch and/or defy in his suicide — this whole paragraph describes her response (in private, having stepped out of her own party) to hearing about the young man’s death. We could take ‘chatter’ to be the trivial hubbub of social life, but we could also take it to mean the trivial hubbub of mental life. So while Clarissa may have the privilege of a comfortable enough existence that her mental wanderings are mostly quite enjoyable, she also feels the lack of some sort of focus, something to which she must commit absolutely at the expense of all other thoughts.
      For another character, Peter, Clarissa herself becomes that focus in the novel’s wonderful conclusion. He finds himself absolutely centred and present, unsure why and then entirely certain:

What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with this extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

This is a moment where it seems he has nothing else on his mind but what is ‘there’, and after all the complexities of thought and syntax in the novel, we are left with simplicity, for a moment at least. Why are we not flooded? The interesting question I’m engaged by is what keeps the capacity to remember and project within boundaries. Woolf’s novel seems to be saying that we often are, more or less gently, flooded, if we are in the right state to receive the signals. It also seems to be saying at times that the things which can mostly take us out of that state are powerful, tending towards terror and/or ecstasy, everything you want and unbearable. It’s easy to be disparaging about ‘chatter’ as opposed to ‘matter’, but chatter is a medium in which to muddle along, at least.
      I really have just scratched the surface here and recognised the fairly obvious, which is that writers of streams of consciousness present us with interesting questions — and kinds of knowledge — about the flow of those streams. More A-level texts soon, probably.

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

‘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