Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

Reading Voices in the Head

Ben Alderson-Day, Jamie Moffatt, Marco Bernini, Kaja Mitrenga, Bo Yao, and Charles Fernyhough, ‘Processing Speech and Thoughts during Silent Reading: Direct Reference Effects for Speech by Fictional Characters in Voice-Selective Auditory Cortex and a Theory-of-Mind Network’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32 (2020), 1637–1653: https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01571

This is a huge achievement, and I am proud to say that when my friend Charles Fernyhough described it to me, I felt no pang of envy, even though it achieves something I have dreamt of myself. Here we see an idea about how literature works tested effectively in brain-scanning experiments. I’ve written about the challenges faced in my own small adventures in this sort of direction in a few posts (this one was the first). Alderson-Day et al. managed both to retain the key characteristics of the texts convincingly, and to generate results that seem both solid and suggestive.
      This paper arises from the excellent the Hearing the Voice project, which examines the phenomenon of the voice in the head, and voices (plural) in the head, in a wide range of contexts and disciplines. Even if Charles weren’t my friend, I would still think this is a flagship for work spanning literature and psychology. I’ve touched on the project and Charles’s work in a couple of posts before, such as here and here. They have been working on the ways that a voice in the head might be caused and experienced and understood, and the key question in this paper goes to the heart of some important issues: when we encounter the written representation of voices, do we experience them differently from other written evidence?
      They found that there was more elevated activation in the auditory cortex when subjects read direct speech, than when they read indirect speech. The indication of a fictional present out-loud voice, in quotation marks or whatever, resulted in brain activity suggesting it was processed in the same way as speech. The variation in effect was not only observed in the auditory centres, but also in brain areas ‘previously associated with inferring intentions from communication’. Previous studies had suggested the first effect, but the further extension was new, implicating ‘higher-order processes associated with gauging character intention and meaning, for now at least’.
      They connect their finding works to the approach taken by , who is interested in how inner recreation of voices and thoughts in fiction work, and how they might be different. I suppose it is important to presume that while indirect speech and represented thoughts may not be activating brain mechanisms for interpreting and appraising speech, they are doing something else instead. ‘Speech in fiction may be special’, said the mysterious figure, ‘but we should probably think of this as a difference in kind, rather than in degree.’
      Writers of course have a kind of deep knowledge about the difference made by representing speech directly rather than reporting it. They find ways of making that distinction less clear, by having a third-person indirect representation convey more or less manifestly the words and demeanour of the voice itself. Direct speech may also be evasive, giving very limited clues about how the stylings of the speech event beyond the words. Such manoeuvres surely add nuances to questions about what may or may not follow from the emergence of a character’s voice within the prose. I think it’s in those grey areas, the not-quite-direct speech, that some extremely interesting things might be happening.

‘Enactivist’ approaches in cognitive science say that the mind in effect constructs, enacts, its environment through its sensory and motor responses. They related to ideas of embodied and extended cognition in that they posit a dynamic relationship between mind and world. The crossover of this way of thinking to literature is highly suggestive; an enactive model reading finds the world-making that happens between reader and text an interesting analogy for, informed by and informing, the world-making between individual and environment.
See The Experientiality of Narrative: An Enactivist Approach (Boston: de Gruyter, 2014)
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Back! / Cognition in a Dish?

I last posted here more than a year ago. A couple of months back I decided it was time to start again. One reason for stopping was having too much to do, and that hasn’t really changed. The other reason was feeling a bit lacking in the right kind of energy and curiosity, and that has changed. The great thing about blogging as I did for five years was regular exposure to new ideas in Psychology, some of which proved very helpful in my own thinking about literature. I can find time for it — I’m glad to be doing it again.

*

* Nicolas Rouleau, Nirosha J. Murugan, and David L. Kaplan, ‘Toward Studying Cognition in a Dish’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25 (2021), 294-304: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.01.005

versus

* H. Clark Barrett, ‘Towards a Cognitive Science of the Human: Cross-Cultural Approaches and Their Urgency’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24 (2020), 620-38: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.05.007

The first couple of things I noticed in my late-summer harvest from / plough through [choose another farming metaphor if you want] Trends in Cognitive Sciences were two articles about the things that cognitive scientists should study. They push in entirely opposite directions, and they raise complex issues.
      Rouleau et al. are excited by the possibility of advancing cognitive science using brain-style cells grown in the lab. Neural tissue engineering could ‘generate minimal cognition’, and that could be experimented on. Now, for the sake of anyone for whom this is not obvious, cognition doesn’t mean consciousness, but the ethical klaxons should probably be blasting out nonetheless. Still, the temptation is there: with the mechanisms out in the open, and no longer wound into the rest of life, maybe some new questions could be asked.
      Barrett, on the other hand, raises a problem that I noted a while back in this post. Instead of dealing with its current ‘unrepresentative samples of the world’s population’, the usual groups drawn into psychological experiments, there should more ‘cross-cultural cognitive science’, a turn towards more wide-ranging experimental subjects, a better representation of the people of the world. This could offer the prospect of a better grasp of ‘processes underlying human variation and cumulative cultural change, including mechanisms of social learning and cultural transmission’, and it might also prevent false claims about the characteristics of species when they are only the characteristics of relatively few groups.
      Although they don’t really see the problem in the same way, the entirely antithetical directions of travel they welcome are suggestive. While for me (and I can’t be alone) it’s easy to like the important idea of diversifying the field of experimental subjects, and difficult to like the idea that the science of the mind will zoom forward when it separates the cells from the brains (and the bodies), the thing that’s shared is some sense of dissatisfaction with the materials available to the scientists in the field. If only they were more tractable; if only they were more convincingly representative.
      For me there is always a lot to learn from, and a lot to like in, the creative tension between the need to get the data organised, and the resistant qualities of the minds and bodies that are meant to deliver the data. It’s partly the problem-solving skills of the scientists, and it’s partly the loveable and elusive complexity of their quarry. Most of all it’s the encounter with a discipline in motion, challenging itself, presenting me not with fixed points around which to organise my own thinking, but with contested patterns of understanding that give me even more to get my teeth into.

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

Progress

*UPDATE AUGUST 2020*
I have spent a little bit of time tidying up some formatting issues in various posts. My suspicion was that, having finished that process, I would decide that the blog was truly finished, and would write a nice grateful farewell saying what an interesting journey it had been. However, a phrase in this post, about an important career highlight, jumped out at me: ‘I gave a paper that would never have happened without this blog’. This, I think, is true, and therefore I don’t feel like declaring ‘What Literature Knows About Your Brain’ closed for ever. It would be great to feel properly back up to date with trends in cognitive sciences, and with Trends in Cognitive Sciences, but I have had too much on, and that might not change for ages. But perhaps it will. I will leave this door ajar. To find your way around all the stuff, you could start with the previous post, entitled ‘Closedown‘ (ha ha), which will send you on the way. This post, entitled ‘Progress’ (ha ha), reflects a nice moment of optimism a few months ago; while the plans described here have suffered an undeserved setback, hope springs eternal.
*UPDATE AUGUST 2020 ENDS*

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been helping develop a project on the subjective experience of remembering. I wrote some posts about this theme not very long ago…

‘We Have Laugh’d’ [SER 1]
‘I Might See’ [SER 2]
‘Methought I Was’ [SER 3]

And I may not have mentioned quite enough that this project promises to put literary criticism and experimental cognitive neuroscience into a kind of close conversation that I’ve been seeking all along. I’m hoping we can go even further than I’ve managed before. I wrote a bit about this in some other posts…

Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (1)
Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (2)

Anyway, I am thinking about this today because we’re about to put in an application to build a team and find the time to make this project work. It has blossomed into something very exciting, I think — sharp focus, big implications, a grand squad of people. It would be brilliant if it came together.

Regular, nay, frequent posting will resume one day. I know it will. It won’t resume because of COVID-19: that’s not making me feel very creative. But it will definitely be a small but enjoyable (for me!) aspect of the memory project, as it grows in the future.

Best wishes from me!

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