Friday, April 29, 2011

I Love You

When do characters say "I love you"? And how do they feel about it? And does it reflect this new research?

Our Own Status Affects the Way Our Brains Respond to Others

Recent research shows that our own status affects the way our brains respond to others. It seems we give more weight to the opinions of those with the same status as we perceive ourselves to have than to those with either higher or lower status. Such status is not just monetary, but power, merit, etc.

Such research is only just beginning, but it should be of interest to those who study literature. We should see these status interactions playing out in literature, and the investigation of different kinds of -- and the evolution of what is considered to be valid -- status levels beyond mere Marxist materialist or postmodern power divisions should be of great interest. What variations and status evolutions might one see in society and in literature?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals

Jason Palmer at the BBC reports that a paper in Nature, Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals, casts serious doubt on Chomsy's univeral grammar. It does not. But Palmer's understanding of the paper does highlight the degree to which people do not understand the relationship between the contraints created by our genetic system and the evolution we see at the social level. The presence of spontaneous order, or self-organization, at the social level certainly does not mean there is an absence of genetic contraints as expressed in fixed-plastic neural pathways in the brain.

The article is looking at word-order evolution, and discovers that word-order demonstrates social evolution. The conlusion seem to be that this disproves universal grammar. But this is hardly the case, as word order in and of itself is not an example of deep grammar. Universal grammar involves the universal presence of certain linguistic elements, such as nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. With these constraints, and considerably flexibility in word-order and vocabulary, which could (and do) evolve at the social level, it is easy to generate the diversity with unity that constitutes human language.

Here is how it works. The genes set constraints on the layout of the neural pathways as the brain develops. Thus, for language, certain elements must appear, such as nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, etc. These neurons are partially plastic, allowing the brain to adapt to the environment. For a languaging species, langauge itself becomes part of the environment. Elements such as vocabulary and word-order may be more adaptible if more flexible, and so remain in the social sphere. This social sphere is a spontaneous order, meaning that an order emerges, as the patterns of word-order evolution observed in the study shows, yet it is a changing order. This emergent social order interact with each individual's brain to adjust those plastic elements so that individual can learn the specifics of the langauge in that time and place to be able to communicate with others.

In other words, this Nature paper described elements of the spontaneous order of language, but did nothing to overturn universal grammar. We have to remember that we are both genetic and social simultaneously. The presence of diversity in culture does not mean there is no such thing as cultural universals. The presence of diversity in literature does not mean there is no such thing as literary universals. And the presence of diversity in language, let alone a social pattern of evolution of certain elements of language, does not mean there is no such thing as universal grammar.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Origins of Language

The New York Times reports on a recent analysis of the origins of language, which suggests that language began once, in southern Africa, around 50,000 years ago. Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, used mathematical analysis and "what biologists call a serial founder effect. Each time a smaller group moves away, there is a reduction in its genetic diversity," which he used by analyzing phonemic diversity.

Who knows what, if anything, this has to do with literature, but it seemed to be something that would be of interest to those of us interested in evolution-based analyses of literature.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Unleashed Mind

Scientific American has an interesting article on the connection between creativity and eccentricity. It notes that artists have a high incidence of depression, but also a high probability of having a schizotypal personality, which comes in a variety of forms, including magical thinking ("such as belief in telepathic communication, dreams that portend the future, and memories of past lives"), unusual perceptual experiences, social anhedonia (a preference for solitary activities), and mild paranoia. I write plays, poems, and short stories, and I myself am mildly bipolar, remember having had dreams that portend the future when I was younger, and I even have a mild form of synesthesia in that the texture of foods give them different flavors to me (spaghetti and fettuccine actually taste completely different to me).

The author argues that the reason creative people exhibit these features is because of cognitive disinhibition.

Cognitive disinhibition is the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival. We are all equipped with mental filters that hide most of the processing that goes on in our brains behind the scenes. So many signals come in through our sensory organs, for example, that if we paid attention to all of them we would be overwhelmed. Furthermore, our brains are constantly accessing imagery and memories stored in our mental files to process and decode incoming infor­mation. Thanks to cognitive filters, most of this input never reaches conscious awareness.

This is less active in creative people, meaning they actually experience more of the world. As noted, this can be overwhelming. It is not uncommon for artists to be overwhelmed -- and to thus go crazy. Most stay sane by funneling it into their creative works. The occasional voices become characters in a story and are thus controlled, tamed. Thus, the ability to control one's thoughts is a necessary part of the creative process. One needs self-control and discipline as much as cognitive disinhibition to make art and literature.

One must wonder, however, what effect, if any, this has on the reader. Or how understanding this might affect our understanding of an artist's works. How should this affect the way we analyze works?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Identifying Criminals in Literature

Can we identify criminals on sight? It seemswe can to a certain degree. Something else to look for in works of literature.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yor Eye Color Makes You Beautiful -- or Not

Beauty in others is found in the whites of the eyes: "people with bloodshot eyes are considered sadder, unhealthier and less attractive than people whose eye whites are untinted, a cue which is uniquely human." Another thing to look for when you're reading and analyzing your favorite novel, poem, or play.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sympathy Yawning

Contagious lawning is a sign of empathy, and it turns out that chimpanzees sympathy-yawn too. More, they do so with familiar chimpanzees, but not with strangers.

Are there any literary examples of sympathy-yawning? If so, are there examples of characters who do not participate? It would seem to me that non-participation in sympathy-yawning would be very telling of a character or characters -- whether they are non-sympathetic, or the one yawning is a stranger.

Bonobos, Chimipanzees, and Humans

A comparative analysis of chimpanzee and bonobo brains has shed some light on human social behavior. Not surprisingly, human behavior is between bonobos and chimpanzees, with the average human male closer to bonobos in behavior, but status-striving males closer to chimpanzees. I will also note that sociopaths are almost identical to chimpanzees in behavior. In any case, humans vary between the two.

The first article notes that bonobos separated off from the chimpanzee line after the chimpanzee/bonobo line split from what would become humans. I doubt that. There is good evidence that chimpanzees split from the human/bonobo line, and then the humans and bonobos split. Superficially bonobos look more like chimpanzees than humans, but the fact that bonobos share several neotenous traits with humans, including vaginal angle (allowing for more comfortable face-to-face copulation), suggests such a branching. This would also make sense of the similarities in brain activity/behavior as well as the fact that bonobos are genetically closer to humans than are chimpanzees.

What does all of this have to do with literature? Well, if we understand the fact that humans behaviorally are between chimpanzees and bonobos, then it suggests we should try to understand both species to understand better our own. Perhaps we can make more sense of characters' behaviors by understanding their closeness to chimpanzee or bonobo behavior.