Tag Archives: psychology

The story of ourselves

The New Scientist CultureLab blog is running an interesting set of pieces about storytelling in the (post-)modern world (for which there is, regrettably, no single unifying tag or category to which I can link you); it’s probably due to a global swelling of interest in such matters coinciding with my own self-education curve, but in the last few years it’s felt like everything has started to boil down to narratives – the stories we graft on to our experiences so that we can make sense of the world.

Of course, by the terms of the theory, that is a narrative in and of itself… but before we get caught in an infinite loop of meta, let’s skip to this article that wonders how the changing structure of the narratives we produce in our art and culture will affect the ones we produce in our heads.

Gazzaniga […] thinks that this left-hemisphere “interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. “The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.


If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we’ve come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative’s break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative – and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves – or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Or, to put it another way, “we just don’t know, so we’ll have to wait and see”. But it’s fascinating stuff, if only for the tantalising offer of a place where literary theory, anthropology and hard neuroscience might one day all meet up… and that would be an awesome place to spend one’s life theorising, don’t you think? 🙂

I always knew they’d prove precognition was real!

Well, not really (or at least not for a long time), but I couldn’t resist the title. So, here are some bits from Wired Science‘s piece on Daryl Bem’s new paper entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”… which purports to contain experimental evidence of precognition in human minds.

Bem’s experimental method was extremely straightforward. He took established psychological protocols, such as affective priming and recall facilitation, and reversed the sequence, so that  the cause became the effect. For instance, he might show students a long list of words and ask them to remember as many as possible. Then, the students are told to type a selection of words which had been randomly selected from the same list. Here’s where things get really weird: the students were significantly better at recalling words that they would later type.


The power of Bem’s paper is cumulative. In total, he describes the results of nine different experiments, conducted on more than 1000 subjects. All of the experiments revealed slight yet statistically significant psi anomalies, with an average effect size of 0.21 across all experiments.

However, the real contribution of this paper isn’t even these statistically significant results. Instead, it’s Bem’s attempt to create rigorous, well-controlled tests of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators. Because here is the dirty secret of anomalous phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance: They’ve been demonstrated dozens of times, often by reputable scientists. (Bem is an extremely well-respected psychologist, best known for his work on self-perception.) Why, then, do serious scientists dismiss the possibility of psi? Why do rational people assume that parapsychology is bullshit? Because these exciting results have consistently failed the test of replication.

According to a footnote on that article, the process of replication (or at least attempted replication) has already begun, and there are links to two sets of negative results.

Now, I’m no psychologist or statistician, but even so, I’m going to maintain a skeptical stance on “psi powers”. While I have vague theories that there’s more to the universe and our place in it than we yet understand, I think the notion of clairvoyance or “seeing the future” is – at best – a massive oversimplification of the sort of quantum weirdness that makes our brains work the way they do, or – at worst – what happens when unlikely but possible lucky streaks intrude themselves into the world of statistical probabilities. (That “slight yet significant” bit always sets my skeptic bell to ringing; how do we know how slight something has to be before it isn’t significant?)

But then you already knew I was I going to say that, didn’t you? 😉

Placebo buttons

Powerful thing, the placebo effect; it doesn’t just work (with increasing efficacy) with sugar pills for all your ills, but with the “close door” buttons in elevators, the “I want to cross the road” buttons at pedestrian crossings, the thermostats of office climate control systems

… makes you wonder what else we’re being placebo’d with, doesn’t it? The anarchist in me can’t resist pulling out the first comment from the SlashDot thread where I found the above links:

I keep voting and nothing new happens.


Telling stories: the evolution of fiction

Why do we humans have such an obsession with making up, telling and listening to stories? A chap called Brian Boyd, writing at Axess Magazine, attempts to piece together the reasons that we have evolved – and maintained – this unique form of social behaviour [via BigThink]:

Fiction takes minds that first evolved to deal with the here and now away from the here and now. Ape minds grew in order to deal with complex social relations, and human minds developed still further as we became ultrasocial. Our minds are most finely tuned for understanding agents, that is, any creatures who can act: animal, human, and by extension, monsters, gods and spirits.

In ancient environments, the agents we evolved to track were other animals as well as people, and even in modern urban environments children have a compulsive desire to learn the names of animals and to play with or make up or listen to stories about animals. Our minds want to and easily can track and differentiate agents, since other agents, human or not, offer the most complex, volatile and high-stake information we regularly encounter. We carry that motivation and capacity into pretend play and story.


As psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley remarks, fiction works as a social simulator, allowing us to stretch our scope beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible. We need not be confined to the given, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or to see how they could have been or might be. By building on our sociality, pretend play and fiction extend our imaginations, taking us from the here and now along tracks we can easily follow even offline because they are the fresh tracks of agents.

So next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time reading a book, you know what to tell ’em. 😉

At the risk of playing the “OMG EssEff is Special!” card, might science fiction be considered a further evolution (or maybe just a fork) of that basic storytelling impulse – not so much a refinement, but a specific extension of its utility suited to the changing needs of human societies? Is that, perhaps, why it only really arrived on the scene at a point in our social history when the idea of tomorrow’s world differing to today’s in radical ways was starting to become commonplace*?

[ * For the purpose of this argument, I’m pegging the dawn of sf to coincide roughly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; many critics – not least the good Professor Adam Roberts, late of this parish and others – have argued that the attitudes and imaginative leaps that characterise sf can be found in earlier texts, but that’s a debate to be had when there’s time, beer and barstools to spare. And of course, we’ll need to thrash out a definition of sf that we can all agree on before we start… ]

Metaverse therapy

New Scientist reports on psychotherapy in Second Life:

One of the first applications of avatar therapy was in treating social anxiety disorder, a crippling shyness that can confine people to their homes. James Herbert, head of the anxiety treatment and research programme at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was among the first wave of researchers to investigate avatar therapy. Encouragingly, clients generally rated the treatment highly, though there were exceptions. “Some patients and therapists reported frustration with not being able to see the individual’s face,” he says, and sometimes technical difficulties interrupted the sessions.

Avatar therapy has also helped people with phobias. In real life, the usual treatment is to gradually expose people to the source of their fear, but this can sometimes be difficult. An avatar therapist can introduce the phobia source while remaining in complete control, scaling the experience up or down according to the client’s reaction.

In fact, many of the conditions treated by face-to-face talk therapy can also be treated virtually, including depression and anxiety. Avatar therapy is proving useful for more diverse conditions too, such as traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome.