7 September 2012

Literature as Cognitive Pornography

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:43 pm

Excerpted from Gregory Currie’s TLS commentary “Let’s pretend: Literature and the psychology lab”:

I do not say that the literary world is complacent about the mind. Literature loves the mysterious, the unexplained, the thought that there are deep facts not available to ordinary awareness. But it takes its lesson from the humanistic psychology we get from Freud, his rivals, successors, popularizers and distorters. That lesson has been read as an encouraging one. To understand the mind’s depth is hard and probably can’t be completed. But to make progress, we do not have to move far from literary modes of interrogation. Some myth-derived terminology, intense conversation, narrative construction: these are what we need, all amounting to a reassuringly qualitative approach. Above all, psychological depth is measured by increments of meaning: hidden motive and unconscious desire are the things we drill down into. And meaning is what literature thrives on…

One thing that psychological research these days does systematically is reduce the flow of meaning on which so much literature depends. Take that staple of literary psychology: character; character explanations are top predators in the hunt for meaning: show that someone’s action flows, not just from their wishes but from their character, and you have the best example there is, short of invoking the deity, of behaviour found to be meaningful. But a lot of evidence suggests that character plays a surprisingly insignificant role in human behaviour, which is highly sensitive to small, even trivial changes in circumstances. Certainly, our own ordinary treatment of the notion of character is close to paradoxical. We put down our own failings to circumstance, and those of others to bad character – an error as crazy as thinking that wherever I happen to be marks the centre of the universe…

Writers are rewarded in proportion to their success in capturing the bit of the market they target, and they do that by giving the people in that region what they want: thrills and the exercise of sentiment at the less demanding end, and an emotionally vivid sense of serious moral and psychological engagement at the other end (there’s a lot in between, of course). But satisfying either market (or some combination of or compromise between them) is not evidence that we have a serious claim to knowledge. Unless, that is, we have strong reason to think that readers’ emotional responses track the real causal relations between things. The evidence, however, is all against this idea. Emotions are good when it comes to forming and maintaining a relationship with your baby, but they are as easily triggered by sentimental ballads and horror movies. You might hope to find some special emotional reactions, highly sensitive to the truth about human psychology – let me know when you have found one.

[T]here is a reasonably well-evidenced relation between creativity and milder forms of schizotypy and bipolar disorder. The first of these is notable for a tendency to overinterpret the meaningfulness of things, as when a patient reads a veiled threat into a harmless conversational remark, while bipolar individuals cycle through periods of emotional distortion, alternating mania and depression. Dean Simonton, an expert on creativity, has suggested that people in the arts are more prone to such disorders than those in the sciences, and especially prone if they are operating at high levels of originality… Might great writers be better than average at using their imaginations? Perhaps they are better in some ways, sustaining imaginative activity more consistently and more productively. But it would be rash to think of them as resistant to the illusions that imagination creates for the rest of us…

Finally, note that creative writers often seem to be rather distanced from the reality of their subject – understanding between persons. “The creator rarely cares much for others” is the brutal summary of a survey in this area by Emma Policastro and Howard Gardner. It is striking that we tend to credit a certain group of individuals, prone, apparently, to over-interpreting the meaningfulness of things and to emotional disruption, with a deep insight into human nature and conduct, and are not discouraged by the fact that many of them seem to have little experience of or interest in the corresponding reality…

So here’s a suggestion about how to read the literary canon. Treat it as an exercise in pretence, accepting as a basic rule for the pretence the reliability of the point of view from which the work is given… The suggestion is that we give up the idea that what is going on in literature-land is true learning, and make do with the pleasures of pretended learning. Literature is starting to sound like cognitive pornography… At most, I am urging a clarification, a recognition that when we engage seriously with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, better abilities, clarified emotions or deeper human sympathies. We do exercise capacities that let us explore a fascinating, demanding conception of what human beings are like – probably a wrong one.



  1. Reading the T.L.S. page:
    He is wrong in detail and wrong in principle. He even offers the dope trope: ‘But a lot of evidence suggests’ aka studies show. Blaming circumstance not character as explanatory in our own case is not true for me as I tend to accept that circumstance has found the weakness. I think that’s common in the non sociopath. Maupassant as free from psychopathology when he had tertiary syphilis, hardly. Freud mined Greek mythology and literature, Jung mined everything everywhere. ‘When I was Jung and easily Freudened’ (Joyce)

    Literary Trivia: Henry James admitted to Ford Madox Ford that he based the character of Morton Densher on him.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 September 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  2. “He is wrong in detail and wrong in principle.”

    Says you. On what basis do you stake your claim?

    “He even offers the dope trope: ‘But a lot of evidence suggests’ aka studies show.”

    What’s dopey about it? Studies produce evidence, no?

    “Blaming circumstance not character as explanatory in our own case is not true for me as I tend to accept that circumstance has found the weakness.”

    Of course I presume you also include credit for strength. Would circumstance find the same weakness/strength in others? If so, then circumstance trumps character.

    This article prompted me to read Currie’s book, but the article is more interesting. Not until the last two chapters does Currie delve into the issue of character. He’s overstating his case here about there being no such thing as character, which he acknowledges in the book. Even the empiricists find consistencies in response patterns to types of circumstances, on which basis are proposed the more evidence-driven personality categorization schemes. But there is a tendency to attribute consistencies in personality to “type” or “trait,” as if there are coherent core essences to be identified rather than mere tendencies with lots of variation from one circumstance to the next. No doubt this is a characteristic of human cognitive limitation: too much variation is hard to grasp and hard to respond definitively to, so overgeneralization proves adaptive. People tend to overgeneralize — that’s a good one. I like Joyce’s joke even more.

    I have long discerned in myself what Currie calls the “tendency to overinterpret the meaningfulness of things, as when a patient reads a veiled threat into a harmless conversational remark.” I can arrive at twenty possible motivations for someone doing (or failing to do) something. Typically when confronted with these interpretations the person denies them all, insisting on some disappointingly shallow self-assessment. Maybe they’re in denial, but more and more I think they’re likely telling the truth. People probably aren’t as deep as I want them to be. But in a fictional context I could ascribe all sorts of imaginary motivations to characters, making them as deep as I want them to be, which is probably deeper than real human beings.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 September 2012 @ 7:32 pm

  3. Here’s something I wrote in my notebook yesterday:

    “I’m more interested in designing situations and seeing how characters respond to them than I am in designing characters and seeing how they respond to situations.”

    So while I don’t agree with Currie that fiction writers have/reveal no psychological insights, my particular fictional project aligns with his remarks. It’s a complementary relationship: situations may reveal the essence of character; characters may reveal the essence of the situation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 September 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  4. John:
    If you had offered in a 3,000 word essay for your professor, ‘studies show’ , your effort would be returned incarnadined. Within the confines of a blog comment I offered some indications of the influence of literature on depth psychology i.e. Freud and Jung. Of course to write that would bring a ho-hum from your target audience, a paradox must be devised. ‘Indeed sir down is up when you are standing on your head’. Sam. Johnson never said this but studies show that this is the sort of thing that he might have said.

    Forget about literature, without the power of character where would the movies be:(From Rocky V)

    Anyway, we’re late for school.
    Paulie, I wanna talk to the kid private like.

    – Like I got no feelings.
    – Oh, come on.

    – That’s how wars start.
    – Relax, would you?

    – So anyway, everybody’s got an angle.
    – Tough break, Rock.

    Everybody’s got a hustle. These kids have
    got street brains. That’s how they live.

    These kids ain’t like no personalities
    that you’ve grown up with.

    – So you gotta stay very sharp round here.
    – I intend to.

    Later when Rocky and his son turn up at the school he says to him:
    -I used to go to this school when I was
    a kid. Nice bricks. It was real tough then.


    One thinks of Hem in ‘Fifty Grand’ – ‘be yourself’.

    I agree that the writer has to put the character into situations that find out the character but it may also be sometimes true, is that qualified enough, that characters take their author by surprise. Flannery O’Connor relates such a surprise. ‘I didn’t know he was going to say that until he said it’.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 8 September 2012 @ 7:33 am

  5. Currie does synopsize the results of a few studies pertaining to character. I counted six such studies, marking them with a red pencil on my hard copy of the article; he touches on more in his book. But one does get the sense that he’s using these studies not as a source of evidence against which to evaluate and refine his theory but as proof texts fortifying his idée fixe. He never quite gets around to defining what he means by “character,” which is a term derived not from empirical psychology but from literature and philosophy. Is “character” the same as “personality,” or the “self”? Or is it something more like “moral agency” or “soul,” in which one’s virtues and vices can be discerned and from which one’s good and bad actions flow?

    Let me see if Currie defines character in his book, which includes a chapter entitled “Narrative and Character”… He associates various constructs with character: the contribution of individuals to events; a vital determinant of events; personality; the ways in which the mind controls events; the mind as structured, orderly, and robustly in control. Ah, but now he hazards a definition: “In this chapter, ‘character’ will refer to an agent’s distinctive psychological profile.” Again though, does “psychological profile” refer specifically to personality, to patterns of action, to decision-making agency? Moving on, Currie associates character with the inner source of action, something related to personality and temperament, intention derived from traits — I think we get the idea.

    Returning to Currie’s deployment of evidence or lack thereof to support his position, he asserts that “recent work in social psychology has been unkind to the notions of character and personality.” I don’t see recent empirical work as being particularly unkind to personality. To be sure there has been a dismantling of personality as a qualitative core essence, focusing more on patterns of responses to particular kinds of situations. In the more familiar questionnaire version of personality profiles the respondent is asked to remember responses they’ve generated, to generalize across types of situations, or to imagine situations. This self-response questionnaire format can be regarded as a kind of fictional template, a collection of mini-narratives into which the respondent is asked to insert himself as the main “character.” In contrast, social psychologists tend to stage actual situations and to observe subjects’ responses to them. Often the results of these personality studies clash with self-report, but that’s an unkindness directed less at the construct than at the methodology for evaluating it. And as Currie points out, character in narratives “often comes in part from what we are to infer from what is described: actions and events. In that case, stories of Character require us to work back and forth between behaviour, intention, and Character.” This iterative procedure fairly adequately describes empirical method, doesn’t it? I see no fundamental contradiction between fictional and empirical approaches to Character or the subconstructs Currie associates with Character.

    Oddly, Currie begins his book by replacing “narrative” with the variable property of “narrativity.” For Currie, narrativity corresponds primarily with the author’s intentionality in setting in motion a coherent cause-effect sequence. I.e., narrativity derives from the author’s “character” — a concept which he debunks in the last two chapters. Say, isn’t this how deconstructive criticism works?


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 September 2012 @ 10:35 am

  6. “characters take their author by surprise”

    This phenomenon argues against strong “narrativity” in Currie’s sense of being the product of the author’s conscious intent. Empirical work in social and cognitive psychology have been kind to the unconscious processes that might surprise — and hopefully delight — the fiction writer.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 September 2012 @ 11:08 am

  7. A few remarks on the excerpted passage:

    “Certainly, our own ordinary treatment of the notion of character is close to paradoxical. We put down our own failings to circumstance, and those of others to bad character.”

    “We” is too broad here. There are also those who blame themselves for failure and who regard their successes as lucky and unmerited. Arguably it’s better for one’s self-esteem to take credit for the wins while deflecting blame for the losses. Is this difference in attribution pattern based in personality difference, or in broader life circumstance? Some studies have demonstrated that self-esteem correlates negatively with competence and performance.

    “Emotions… are as easily triggered by sentimental ballads and horror movies.”

    Recent fMRI studies show that neural pathways topologically associated with emotional empathic response are activated more by behavioral cause-effect sequences of the kind exploited in sentimental ballads and horror movies than by Jamesian penetration of deeper feelings and motivations and meanings. Do these studies need to discriminate more between responsiveness of sensitive highbrow souls versus crass entertainment cravers, or is the response to insightful character exploration activated more broadly across the cortex so it’s harder to detect with still-crude imaging technologies?

    ““The creator rarely cares much for others.”

    Isn’t there merit in the contention that creators, scientists, artists, and analysts cultivate a degree of detachment from their subjects? Empathy is predicated on an unconscious blurring of distinctions between self and other tending toward flat characterization and stereotype, whereas on the opposite extreme the Aspergers people are so socially and emotionally insulated from others as not to care much about the aliens by which they are surrounded. In emotional responsiveness the creator is perhaps more like the gourmet, building on but intentionally going beyond gut preferences to cultivate broader and refined tastes, a subtler and more diverse psychological palette. Certainly James fits the description of emotional gourmet, increasingly precise and remote and in his delectations.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 September 2012 @ 9:34 am

  8. “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
    – Henry James

    Why not this: What is character but the illustration of incident? What is incident but the determination of character?


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 September 2012 @ 5:47 pm

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