Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It’s all in your mind

Sharon Wildwind

Or is it in your brain?

I can’t remember who was in vogue when I studied literary criticism. I have a hazy recollection that we studied Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and possibly Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, with a sidebar on Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces for the archetypal stuff.

Whoever we discussed, it may not matter any more. Reading and literary criticism may be all in your head.

A Yale University team composed of scientists and literature professors has plans later this year to hook up students in New England to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, have them read specifically-designed texts, and measure the blood flow and neuro-firing that happens as the material is read.

This is part of neuro-literary criticism (neuro-lit crit for short), which is looking for the physiological basis of why we love to read. One goal for the project is to discover and use a scientific basis to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

People on the other side of the question argue that it’s the artistic experience of literature rather than the fired neurons that is more important. Does reading happen in the mind or the brain?

In that weird way that the Internet has of clapping two seemingly-unrelated things together, no sooner had I read the article on neuro-lit crit than I happened on another article about the Canadian military’s plan to use a 3-D full-immersion virtual reality platform to rehabilitate injured soldiers with spinal cord injuries, amputations, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Think the holo-deck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Being immersed in a controlled virtual simulation can help people relive and rework traumatic experiences. It might be possible in the future for counselors to kibitz as the person relives the experience. “I know what you mean” would take on a whole new dimension.

For people who have to learn new skills, such as a person with a spinal cord injury learning how to transfer from a wheelchair to a car, programming the holographic experience would allow trying many different parameters. Could he get into a Ford or Chevy easier? How would getting into a car that has been sitting in the July sunshine different from one parked outside at forty below? He would have the option of trying a lot of scenarios without harm, rather like student pilots who can crash a flight simulator multiple times without killing themselves or their instructors.

What if—twenty minutes in the future—neural stimulation and holographic immersion programming are two hallmarks of a great book?

Remember that fast-food jingle: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don't upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!” The word is already out there that if your audience is under thirty-five you have to write a different kind of book than for an audience that is over thirty-five. What if the reader could pick details and the order in which plot points happened?

For this reading, I want the protagonist to interview the strawberry-blond chanteuse first. Setting: a diner. Menu: burgers and fries. Turn on the appropriate neural receptors and the reader would hear background diner noises and smell diner food.

I can imagine the questions on the writing lists:

Does anyone have an opinion on thalamic stimulations? How do you judge the amount of stimulation needed to produce visual or aural sensory experience versus putting the reader to sleep?

My first 3-D effect happens on page 32. Is this too late in the book?

Has anyone else heard that XYZ writers’ group won’t consider a book for their award if you stimulate artificial flavor receptors instead of natural ones?

My detective has to interview five suspects. I can’t figure out how many total versions I need to write. Does anyone have that formula for calculating in how many different orders 5 people can be interviewed?

My editor hates cinnamon and says I have to change it, perhaps to chocolate. But I think cinnamon in this scene is essential. Do I listen to my editor’s suggestions or my gut feeling?

Quotes for the week
Reading is a very hard-wired thing in our brains. There are brain cells that respond to reading and we can study them.
~Professor Richard Wise, neuroscientist; Imperial College, London.

Knowing the science behind the movement of a comet through space does not degrade the beauty of the night-time sky.
~Professor Jonathan Gottschall; Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

The patient actually feels like they're in that environment. You can actually get completely immersed in your virtual environment to really push yourself.
~Commodore Hans Jung, surgeon general for the Canadian Forces.


Sheila Connolly said...

Brilliant (especially that list at the end).

If I may hark back to your observation about the age of the reader, I worry about the younger generations because I think they've been deprived of opportunities to exercise their imagination. If you read happily and can enter the world of the book, you don't need that kind of external stimulation.

But kids now have little time for creative interactive play with others, and their entertainment is increasingly limited to sitting in front of a screen, where the sights and sounds are spoon-fed to them.

The brain is a muscle, and you have to exercise it.

KK Brees said...

Fascinating stuff here. There is/was a series for kids "Choose Your Own Mystery." They'd come to a decision point and make said decision from several choices. Decision A would have them next turn to p. whatever, while Decisions B,C,D, etc, would take them to other sections of the book. Probably the first interactive YA reader.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Sheila, there is already discussion out there about younger brains being hard-wired different than our slightly-more-experienced brains. It may be that kids are physically incapable of enjoying a book the way that we do.

I remember those books, K.K. There was also a movie called "Clue" which has three endings. The DVD selects an ending at random each time you watch it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Children's brains are not fully developed, something a lot of adults don't seem to realize. I think it's a miracle when any kid chooses to sit quietly with a book, reading for hours. The constant change and visual stimulation of computer games seems better suited to the thought processes of a lot of kids.

kathy d. said...

I don't know about this. I loved books starting as a young child when I got a library card at 3 and loved trips to the local library.

I know of many children now who love to read who started out doing this at young ages. Friends with twin teenage boys remember how they would come downstairs at 3, 4, 5 years of age, with books in their hands, pleading to be read to--before the parents had coffee! Now they and their older brother are readers.

One friend, who is now 14, is never without a book.

I think parents need to instill this when children are very young.

My parents limited tv watching every week so unless one was outside with friends or at an activity, we read or I did anyway. There wasn't computer distraction; the only electronic gadget I had was an fm radio so I read Steinbeck (and others, including mysteries) and listened to the top popular songs.

It was fine. Even now I'd rather read than see a movie or else I read while something is on tv.