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

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