Category: Cognitive

The Comets of Literary Cohesion

Every few years, with the hyperbolic regularity of Kahoutek’s orbit, I return to B.R. Myers’ 2001 Atlantic essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, where he plays the enfant terrible against the titans of serious literature. With savagery Myers tears out the elliptical heart of Annie Proulx and then beats regular holes in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo in a conscious mockery of the strained repetitiveness of their sentences.

I return to Myers because I currently have four novels in process. I return because I hope to be saved from the delirium of the postmodern novel that wants to be written merely because there is nothing really left to write about, at least not without a self-conscious wink:

But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

Myers’ essay hints at what he sees as good writing, quoting Nabakov, referencing T.S. Eliot, and analyzing the controlled lyricism of Saul Bellow. Evaporating the boundaries between the various “brows” and accepting that action, plot, and invention are acceptable literary conceits also marks Myers’ approach to literary analysis.

It is largely an atheoretic analysis but there is a hint at something more beneath the surface when Myers describes the disdain of European peasants for the transition away from the inscrutable Latin masses and benedictions and into the language of the common man: “Our parson…is a plain honest man… But…he is no Latiner.” Myers counts the fascination with arabesque prose, with labeling it as great even when it lacks content, as derived from the same fascination that gripped the peasants: majesty is inherent in obscurity. Anyone who has struggled with trying to translate foreign prose or tried to transcribe music from one instrument to another rapidly understands why the problems are unassailable cliffs to the outsider. So it is with literary prose. The less I understand, the more I feel it.

But what more is there to this? We break now away from literary criticism and to the psychology of text comprehension itself, bobbing and weaving a bit to avoid falling into the cliché of the postmodern novel. First, we know that reading comprehension is affected by two obvious factors: (a) our background knowledge of the topic, and (b) the cohesion of the text. We intuitively understand (a) when it comes to scientific texts. If we have a degree in the topic we have more background knowledge than if we don’t, for instance. (b) requires defining “cohesion” a bit. Cohesion can be measured by looking at repeated nouns and bridging concepts from one paragraph to another. Highly cohesive texts tie concepts together across sentences and paragraphs, reinforcing the relationships that are expressed in one sentence with those in others, forming semantic bridges to enhance the text. Less cohesive texts are more scatter-shot, leaving the reader to infer the relevant bridging principles.

The interaction between (a) and (b) could hardly be more interesting. When (a) is high, readers learn better and retain more when (b) is low. Repeat: low coherence texts are better for high knowledge learners. If one knows a lot, one gets easily bored by all the carefully chained concepts of high cohesion texts. Or, as a friend once said about software and hardware manuals, “They are for the weak of mind.” The opposite is obviously true. If you know little about a subject, the semantic bridges help get you from knowledge Midgard to Asgard, but they are just road noise for the knowledgeable.

It is aspirational, then, when obscurantist language and metaphors pile up like proton parts in the Large Hadron Collider. The authors are asking their readers to search for the God Participle. They want to be Latiners. They want Cormac McCarthy to transform the bloody mess of westward expansion into Exodus. They want it because they want low cohesion texts and the feeling of sailing through the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, like Leary on acid, like penitentes against the whip, like gurus stinking of enlightenment. Then the gentle readers can finally bask among the deconstructed mists after the dream has faded, waiting for the next cycle of literary critics to anoint the next round of elaborated prose and, as Kahoutek returns, so the gentle rush of spring will come again to the countryside.

Eusociality, Errors, and Behavioral Plasticity

I encountered an error in E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth where the authors intended to assert an alternative to “kin selection” but instead repeated “multilevel selection,” which is precisely what the authors wanted to draw a distinction with. I am sympathetic, however, if for no other reason than I keep finding errors and issues with my own books and papers.

The critical technical discussion from Nature concerning the topic is available here. As technical discussion, the issues debated are fraught with details like how halictid bees appear to live socially, but are in fact solitary animals that co-exist in tunnel arrangements.

Despite the focus on “spring-loaded traits” as determiners for haplodiploid animals like bees and wasps, the problem of big-brained behavioral plasticity keeps coming up in Wilson’s book. Humanity is a pinnacle because of taming fire, because of the relative levels of energy available in animal flesh versus plant matter, and because of our ability to outrun prey over long distances (yes, our identity emerges from marathon running). But these are solutions that correlate with the rapid growth of our craniums.

So if behavioral plasticity is so very central to who we are, we are faced with an awfully complex problem in trying to simulate that behavior. We can expect that there must be phalanxes of genes involved in setting our developmental path (our nature and the substrate for our nurture). We should, indeed, expect that almost no cognitive capacity is governed by a small set of genes, and that all the relevant genes work in networks through polygeny, epistasis, and related effects (pleiotropy). And we can expect no easy answers as a result, except to assert that AI is exactly as hard as we should have expected, and progress will be inevitably slow in understanding the mind, the brain, and the way we interact.

Mental Religious Math

The Los Angeles Times reports on an article from Science that shows that analytical thinking and religious belief may be inversely proportional. That may not be news to some, but at least one of the example problems (that the religious failed to complete at higher rates than the non-religious) is quite interesting:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Here there is an initial intuitive leap that says that $1 more than 10 cents is precisely $1.10. Therefore, the ball costs $0.10 or 10 cents. It is easy and clear, but the math undermines that result:

Bat + Ball = $1.10

Bat = Ball + $1.00

(Ball + $1.00) + Ball = $1.10

2*Ball + $1.00 = $1.10

2*Ball = $0.10

Ball = $0.05

Bat = $1.05

This result makes sense if one considers that the cost of the bat must be greater than $1.00 because it is $1.00 more than the ball (and not $1.00 itself). But it is obscured by the initial intuitive leap based on simple subtraction.

But that example is a pretty hard one to reconcile concerning historical and faith-based judgments. I doubt that there is good reason to suspect that mathematical prowess and intuitive dispositions about the costs of things correlates with faith decisions because I suspect that there are other reasons that the faithful believe what they believe. Specifically, most religious faithful believe because they were told to believe by their parents or community. The fact that they do so doesn’t seem to translate into mathematical prowess or ineptness. They may very well score more poorly on these kinds of results because of other individual differences like that those who are more predisposed to critical analytical skills are less likely to have come from highly religious backgrounds, and vice versa.

Interestingly, the subsequent reported experiments appear to show that religious belief might be mutable by more analytical tasks, which is a different sort of argument altogether, but one that shows that belief is more variable than our folk psychology often seems to suggest.

Fiction and Empathy

The New York Times reviews the neuroscience associated with reading fictional accounts, concluding that the brain states of readers show similar activation patterns to people experiencing the events described in the book. This, in turn, enhances and improves our own “theory of mind” about others when we read about social interactions:

[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that the advent of the printing press is where we see the start of a shift in European societies’ attitudes about violence. The spread of reading and the growth of political satire correlate with reductions in state violence through the 19th Century and into the 20th (yes, he argues the 20th shows a reduction in violence, despite our intuitions about WWI and WWII). Think Voltaire. Think All Quiet on the Western Front.

AntiTerran Metatextuality

Intertextuality is a loaded word. It covers allusion and parody and reference. For some authors, it is the motivation to write, from Umberto Eco’s semiotic indulgences to Nabokov’s vast, layered palimpsest in Ada. I create deliberate allusions to Genesis in Teleology and references to Nabokov’s Ada in Signals and Noise.

The opposite of intertextuality might be centrality or concreteness, but it might also be the extension of the literature or artwork as references in other works that extend or reimagine the original work, creating a literary chain of sorts. Your intertextual references are referenced by my metatextual extensions.  Outertextuality? Whatever the term, we get a kind of referential landscape like a network that builds on an artificial landscape, the lives of imagined characters, and the universe of ideas that they inhabit.

Dieter Zimmer, who appears to have done the German translation of Ada, has a brilliant example of metatextuality in his Geography of AntiTerra. With methodical precision, he translates the textual descriptions into a map of the imagined world–a kind of fan cartography that solidifies the strange geography into a complete realization. I’m reminded of the Elven dictionaries in The Silmarillion or the detailed online fan fiction from adoring readers of current bestsellers.

I think there is likely a strong connection between the psychology of religious belief and the same motivators towards metatextuality. Imagined worlds are always interesting and plotted. Even when characters are harmed or injured, we feel only fleeting sensitivity to the idea of their injury. Moreover, the intertextuality is a network of coherence-supplying support for the narrative’s epistemology. The more detail, the greater sense of clarity of the imagined world, and the more buy in as to the reality of mysteries described therein.

Interestingly, there is both supporting and counter-evidence for this idea.  The previously discussed work on apophenia leads the way, but we can drill in even more closely on these notions by looking at experimental methods that show relationships between New Age belief and schizotypic personality indicators (although not traditional religious belief, interestingly), as well as the evidence that semantic association is greater among schizotypic personalities.  Building that palimpsest of associations is carefully-controlled madness.

Creativity and Proximate Causation

Combining aspects of the previous posts, what proximate mechanisms might be relevant to the notion of artistic fitness? Scott Barry Kauffman at rounds up some of the most interesting recent research and thinking on this topic in his post, Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?

Touching on work by luminaries like Susan Blackmore and others, Scott drives from personality assessment concepts down through the role of dopamine in trying to identify whether there is a spectrum of observable traits that are linked to creativity and artistic achievement.


Daniel Nettle and Helen Clegg found that apophenia was positively related to a higher number of sexual partners for both men and women, and this relationship was explained by artistic creative activity. Similarly, in a more recent study conducted by Helen Cleff, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell, they found that more successful male artists (who are presumably higher in apophenia) had more sexual partners than less successful male artists.

Apophenia means seeing patterns in the environment where none may be present, a central theme in my second novel, Signals and Noise.

We can hypothesize also, based on the distribution from schizophrenia through schizotypy, through to “normal,” that there must be a large complement of interacting genes involved in these traits. This is supported by the evidence of genetic predispositions for schizophrenia, for instance, but also by the frustrating lack of success in identifying the genes that are involved.  This distribution may, in fact, be one of the most critical aspects of what it means to be human:

Were it not for those “disordered” genes, you wouldn’t have extremely creative, successful people.  Being in the absolute middle of every trait spectrum, not too extreme in any one direction, makes you balanced, but rather boring.  The tails of the spectrum, or the fringe, is where all the exciting stuff happens.  Some of the exciting stuff goes uncontrolled and ends up being a psychological disorder, but some of those people with the traits that define Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and other psychological conditions, have the fortunate gift of high cognitive control paired with those traits, and end up being the creative geniuses that we admire, aspire to be like, and desperately need in this world.

Evolutionary Oneirology

I was recently contacted by a startup that is developing a dream-recording app. The startup wants to automatically extract semantic relationships and correlate the narratives that dreamers type into their phones. I assume that the goal is to help the user try to understand their dreams. But why should we assume that dreams are understandable? We now know that waking cognition is unreliable, that meta-cognitive strategies influence decision making, that base rate fallacies are the norm, that perceptions are shaped by apophenia, that framing and language choices dominate decision-making under ambiguity, and that moral judgments are driven by impulse and feeling rather than any rational calculus.

Yet there are some remarkable consistencies about dream content that have led to elaborate theorization down through the ages. Dreams, by being cryptic, want to be explained. But the content of dreams, when sorted out, leads us less to Kerkule’s Rings or to Freud and Jung, and more to asking why there is so much anxiety present in dreams? The Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming by Finnish researcher Revonsuo tries to explain the overrepresentation of threats and fear in dreams by suggesting that the brain is engaged in a process of reliving conflict events as a form of implicit learning. Evidence in support of this theory includes experimental observations that threatening dreams increase in frequency for children who experienced trauma in childhood combined with the cross-cultural persistence of threatening dream content (and likely cross-species as anyone who has watched a cat twitch in deep sleep suspects). To date, however, the question of whether these dream cycles result in learning or improved responses to future conflict remains unanswered.

I turned down consulting for the startup because of time constraints, but the topic of dream anxiety comes back to me every few years when I startle out of one of those recurring dreams where I have not studied for the final exam and am desperately pawing through a sheaf of empty paper trying to find my notes. I apparently still haven’t learned enough about deadlines, just like my ancient ancestors never learned enough about Sabertooth Tiger stalking patterns.

Jingles and Thought

In the last post the issue of inductive inference was the focus, but human cognition, as Luke pointed out, is not just fallible but is unreliable by its very nature. Recent work has been revelatory in the ways our minds fail us when confronted with new information, and in the many ways that our experiences influence thought.

The idea that language and thought are tightly intertwined and that language may influence thought has been of interest since Sapir-Whorf‘s many flavors of snow, but became academically disreputable in the mid-20th Century as universality dominated linguistics via Chomsky. But the notion that language and thought are intertwined has continued to be investigated and recent work shows remarkable interactions.

Watching the messaging of the GOP Primaries between Gingrich and Romney (with Paul’s Libertarian dogs barking in the background), reminded me that there are other meta-cognitive strategies at work in our minds that are being exploited by the negative ads as well as the anti-Obama sentiment. But what is interesting is that some of the easiest ways of building positive sentiment are not being exploited. For example, a memorable jingle might be cheesy and retro, but would exploit the tendency for rhymes to be regarded as true. Using big, bold fonts for the message also helps.

I think it is time for the political jingle to return.