Ecological Validity

* Roel M. Willems and Arthur M. Jacobs, ‘Caring About Dostoyevsky: The Untapped Potential of Studying Literature’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 243-5.
* Roger E. Beaty, Mathias Benedek, Paul J. Silvia, and Daniel L. Schacter, ‘Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 87-95.

These two essays are both concerned, directly or indirectly, with literary matters, and they both worry about ‘ecological validity’. This is, more or less, the requirement that the conditions of an experiment should resemble those of the real-world situation behind explained. My sense is that cognitive scientists are often prepared to surrender a lot of ecological validity in order to achieve experimental clarity. It’s hard to see ecological validity in the belly of an MRI machine, but it may be a price worth paying, a lot of the time.
      Beaty et al. are interested in the relationship between creativity and cognitive control. They conclude that a hybrid approach must be necessary, since different aspects of creativity (‘idea generation’, ‘idea evaluation’) seem to require different levels of control. One of their outstanding questions turns to the issue at hand: ‘How can neuroscientists study creativity while maintaining ecological validity?’. It is indeed difficult to see how some key parts of the usual narratives of creativity (e.g. the idea that strikes like lightning) can be recreated in measurable conditions. On the other hand, the complexity of human thought shouldn’t be allowed to discourage attempts to understand it.


Willems and Jacobs think that reading fiction offers a ‘unique window onto… mental simulation, emotion, empathy, and immersion’. They acknowledge the difficulty of constructing experiments on reading, some of which are obvious enough. We read at home, at work, on buses, in bed, for pleasure, for relaxation, to improve ourselves, and so on; but not in laboratory conditions. More interestingly, they note the scruples of researchers in relation to texts: they ‘typically do not alter literary texts, in order not to make crucial changes to the carefully crafted original’, which ‘is in contrast to most cognitive neuroscience experiments in which the variable of interest is manipulated in the materials’.
      I find this very interesting, and I don’t think I’ve seen scientists considering it before. I mentioned one ingenious but problematic version of such alteration in this post. Experimenters created a variable by saying for some participants that a text was a fiction, and for others that it was a piece of journalism. More subtle means of producing variant texts (e.g. a Shakespearean tragedy without any comic moments, Macbeth without the porter) could be tested, to suggest what factors influence audience responses or enjoyment. Obviously they’re right to be wary of upsetting balances and tensions in complex artistic constructions (imagine a memory game played by removing one object at a time from Holbein’s Ambassadors). But perhaps it could be done thoughtfully.
      In the end Willems and Jacobs are quite optimistic, saying that ‘it is an understatement to conclude that the research so far has not done justice to the richness of literature’, but advocating more effort to understand ‘the story-liking nature of the human mind’, and ‘a much more intimate collaboration between cognitive scientists and scholars in the humanities’. Well I am all for that, even though I’m a bit twitchy about the emphasis, understandable though it is, on story: there is more to the literary than that.


The author Willems and Jacobs invoke as an instance of the kind of story humans like, and the phenomenon that should be understood, is Dostoyevsky. There’s no particular reason why, I don’t think, he’s just a well-known novelist who seems a long way from the everyday concerns of their scientific colleagues. But my mind was turned to Dostoyevsky recently when I re-read (for the nth time) a passage in Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information.
      I think this is a brilliant novel in general, but the passage where the unsuccessful hero visits his more successful friend on a plane is one of its high points. With misanthropic snobbery the narrative voice, and the character’s viewpoint, survey the passengers’ reading matter. Dostoyevsky features in a surprising way, listed disparagingly among the ‘incautiously canonized’. I’ve been meaning to share this passage with someone for a while, and suddenly it makes sense to do it here.

The stewardess escorted him down the length of Economy, and then another stewardess escorted him through Business World; he ducked under a curtain, and then another stewardess led him into First. As he made this journey, this journey within a journey, getting nearer to America, Richard looked to see what everyone was reading, and found that his progress through the plane described a diagonal of shocking decline. In Coach the laptop literature was pluralistic, liberal, and humane: Daniel Deronda, trigonometry, Lebanon, World War I, Homer, Diderot, Anna Karenina. As for Business World, it wasn’t that the businessmen and businesswomen were immersing themselves in incorrigibly minor or incautiously canonized figures like Thornton Wilder or Dostoyevsky, or with lightweight literary middlemen like A.L. Rowse or Lord David Cecil, or yet with teacup-storm philosophers, exploded revisionist historians, stubbornly Steady State cosmologists or pallid poets over whom the finger of sentimentality continued to waver. They were reading trex: outright junk. Fat financial thrillers, chunky chillers and tublike tinglers: escape from the pressures facing the contemporary entrepreneur. And then he pitched up in the intellectual slum of First Class, among all its drugged tycoons, and the few books lying unregarded on softly swelling stomachs were jacketed with hunting scenes or ripe young couples in mid swirl or swoon. They all lay there flattened out in the digestive torpor of mid-afternoon, and nobody was reading anything — except for a lone seeker who gazed, with a frown of mature scepticism, at a perfume catalogue. Jesus, what happened on the Concorde? Scouring the troposphere at the limit of life, and given a glimpse of the other side — a glimpse of what the rest of the universe almost exclusively consisted of (unpunctuated vacuum) — the Mach II morons would be sitting there, and staring into space. The space within. Not the space without. In the very nib of the aeroplane sat Gwyn Barry, who was reading his schedule. (pp. 288-9)

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