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Neurological Analysis of Narrative Experience

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"Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest." News about developments in the study of brain reactions of readers of stories, through Emma Kafalenos on the Narrative-L. Some answers:

Michael Kimmel: 
The reference to cognitive linguistically inspired experimental research is highly relevant, yet it seems that most empirical work still needs to be done on literary simulation. I'd just like to touch on a few issues in this exciting field and mention how multifaceted I think the notion of simulation is.
   There is an important difference between simulations of figurative language (as in much of Gibbs' own work), of more abstract notions (e.g., protagonist emotions and introspections) and of simple action descriptions, as in this important fMRI study. All of these need to be addressed in specific studies. In addition, along the gamut from words/ phrases to whole scenes we need to understand experimentally what in a text makes readers simulate most vividly (cue structures, personal interest, etc.).
    Another open issue concerns whether reading activates quasi-percepts in all relevant respects, or only some. If I remember correctly, experiments by Rolf Zwaan and his colleagues with very simple narratives indicate that spatial storyworld "tracks" are not as obligatorily encoded as causality and intentionality. I wonder how these perhaps more abstract aspects of narrative would relate to changes in a scene's objects , if one would expect less vividness under some conditions, but not others, or if fMRI would be sensitive to any of this.
   I've recently begun working a bit on the simulation of causality scaffolds (via conceptual metaphors) as well as on the phenomenological differences between textual simulation cues, and would appreciate getting a discussion started with colleagues who share an interest in either of these topics.

Tony Jackson's commentary: there's substantial evidence that when we see others doing certain kinds of actions, we have brain activity that in a way mirrors that activity, which is to say that our motor centers are activated as if we were doing the action. Typically the observer's brain activity does not produce actual action, though there is the effect of almost taking action upon seeing for instance an engrossing action scene in a film or in a sports event, and also the tendency to yawn when others yawn, etc. in fact some cognitive psychologist types claim that this built-in imitative-ness is fundamental to human being, to the point that it has to be repressed in order to become a regular kind of mind (infants imitate other's faces within 48 hours of daring to come into our world).
—so this research on reading is leading to the idea that alphabetic signs can induce brain activity of a similar kind? interesting if true (though i confess with some relief that i never read in such conditions as these guys used to get the data), especially because it does not involve actually looking at an action. evidently just the concept communicated verbally can produce a similar kind of brain activity? 
—now  I wonder what literary types might do with such knowledge?

J. A. García Landa—
Thinking about these narrato-neurological studies of "brain activity that in a way mirrors that activity, which is to say that our motor centers are activated as if we were doing the action. Typically the observer's brain activity does not produce actual action, though there is the effect of almost taking action"....
---This sounds to me like the experimental confirmation of what I. A. Richards called "attitudes", as a cornerstone of his materialist psychology in Principles of Literary Criticism (1924)---"imaginal and incipient activities and tendencies to action"; "imaginal action and incipient action which does not go so far as actual muscular movement are more important than overt action in the well-developed human being" (84-85).

It's great to know about the experimental confirmation, but for some of the aesthetic consequences waiting to be drawn out, perhaps Richards and others "been there, done that"! 

(Not to mention Aristotle on the mimetic nature of man....)

—and finally a great post by Don Larsson (after a skeptical post by Peggy Phelan on the difficulty of  "reading" the brain and on the problematic hermeneutic moves in assigning meanings to those brain scans):

It seems to me that a common element in all of the various directions of this conversation is the brain's propensity to seek and use patterns (or models or templates, etc.--yes, those are metaphors too!), which would logically derive from an evolutionary necessity for survival.  If one could not "read" certain signs in nature--animal tracks, rock formations, cloud patterns, etc.--or "read" facial expressions and "body language"--of animals or humans--then one was less likely to survive.  Millions of people around the world still practice such "reading" every day, but in the modern era daily survival is less of an issue (or at least a different kind of issue) than it was thousands or millions of years ago.

Inherent in the recognition of patterns is the formation of links between cause and effect.  If I continually see tracks of a certain size and shape, I will assume the presence of some animal in the vicinity.  If I have encounters with those animals, I learn (or am taught by someone) to recognize the tracks as signs of a particular animal and as a threat of danger, a promise of dinner, etc.  Superstition (or religion, if you prefer) stems in part from such causal links.  The scientific method arose in part as a way to verify cause-effect relationships with greater certainty, but science also depends a great deal on different forms of pattern recognition.  With the proper training, one learns to "read" brain scans, infer the existence of sub-atomic particles, detect tumors, etc.  There can be social and political dimensions to such readings.  If one learns to read only certain patterns, one may not detect, say, certain kinds of tumors that tend to appear in X-rays of women.  !
 If one insists on a particular historical narrative as a model, one assumes that aerial photographs follow the detection of the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the discovery of ICBMs in Cuba and extrapolates that they prove that Saddam Hussein harbors weapons of mass destruction.

My own simplistic way of thinking about the "evolution" of literature and of brain activity suggests to me that literary criticism has also "evolved" in its own right as a way of creating new forms of pattern recognition, whether that pattern is formal, aesthetic, social, psychoanalytic, etc.  As this conversation has suggested, those patterns may mirror the actions of the brain and the physical self (a possibly fundamental evolutionary function), but reading also recognizes the patterns and models of literature itself and of the many sources of information that inform literature.  And this is why there are literature departments and majors!  At the heart of all our critical debates and culture wars lies the question, What kind of patterns, what kinds of models do we and our students need in order to live in this world? (however you care to interpret the question).

Literary criticism as pattern recognition... a promising notion, that one.  Although in some cases I would settle for literary criticism as APOPHENIA.


Jueves, 19 de Febrero de 2009 14:26. José Ángel García Landa Enlace permanente. Semiótica

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