* BAM: Brain Activity Map
know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That
will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see
higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile
story. You want dry, yeastless factuality” (Martel, 2002, p. 424).
Yann Martel, Life of Pi -
|Life of Pi, by Jonathan Burton|
who have experienced the turbulent voyage of emotions Yann Martel's
haunting survival odyssey evokes, will vividly recall Pi Patel's
distinctive narrative voice. A curious oscillation between wisdom and
naiveté, the novel's protagonist and intradiegetic narrator both
invites the reader to maintain poetic faith in his remarkable tale,
whilst playfully underscoring the narrative's stylistic elements and
eliciting introspection. I found this aspect of reader response
particularly significant after thoroughly enjoying the cinematic
equally mesmerising and thought-provoking, the life of Pi on screen
effectively embodies the screenwriter's personal truth. The novel
allows us to choose between Pi's initial chronicle of survival on a
raft adrift the Atlantic ocean accompanied by 450-pound Bengal tiger
and a second, more pedantic yet terrifying account, wherein Pi
becomes the witness of murder and cannibalism amongst human
cinematic counterpart, Pi's narrative of human brutality is
interspersed with verbal trauma cues; Pi struggles to formulate his
sentences and hyperventilates, while his emotionally charged
intonation and tears suggest the second narrative reflects true
experience. This disparity in interpretations may reflect the wisdom
of those who read before they watch, however, it also attests to the
constant transformation of memories and expectations, as readers
resolve contradictions, actualise meanings, and assimilate or
reorganise schemas and scripts. As the narrative progresses, readers
modify and integrate information, extending behavioural schemas and
encoding new memories.
|Hansel and Gretel, by Jan Pieńkowski|
is fascinating about this process, is the unexpected interaction
between memory and interpretation. Frederic Bartlett (1932), the
British psychologist credited with theorising the schema concept,
attributed the systematic errors and memory distortions noted when
his subjects were prompted to recall details of a Native American
fable (The War of the Ghosts) to an intrusion of their schematic
knowledge; thus readers would either omit or distort information to
aid interpretation (Bartlett, 1932/1995, pp. 47-63). On the other
hand, our ability to process emotion in response to literature, even
when reading opaque characters such as Pi Patel brings forth the
question of how narrative emotions affect the reader's empathetic
response. If negative sympathy is frequently invoked in response to
the plight or emotional distress of a character (Keen, 2010, pp.
41-42) would readers also readily empathise with villains or morally
Singer (2006) conducted a series of experiments to investigate the
correlation between empathic neural responses and positive or
negative emotions/perceptions of others. As with her empirical
research in pain-related empathy (2004), Singer and her colleagues
measured the brain activity of female and male volunteers whilst they
engaged in a sequential Prisoner's Dilemma Game (PDG) against
a team of researchers/game opponents.
the first part of the experiment the opponents would engage in fair
or unfair strategies. Following this first set of games, both female
and male participants rated fair players as more likeable and
attractive than unfair opponents. During the second set of trials
fair opponents experienced a painful stimulus, following which
male (and predominantly) female participants exhibited
empathy-related activation in brain areas associated with physical
pain. However, when unfair players were observed receiving
pain, male participants exhibited activation in regions associated
with reward processing, while female players displayed no significant
reduction in empathic activity (Singer et al., 2006, pp. 466-469).
Whether Singer's results could potentially translate to a reader's
affective engagement with sympathetic or unpleasant literary
characters remains to be investigated and comprises an intriguing
enigma for cognitive literary studies.
his recent State of Union address, President Obama proposed a three-billion dollar, decade long
investment to rival the EU Blue
quest to simulate the human mind. While the BAM (Brain Activity Map)
project may seem overly ambitious, investigating the neuronal basis
of human behaviour does not necessitate a simulation of the human
brain in its entirety. In his recent New
article, Gary Marcus suggested the Obama Administration pursues the no less
ambitious goal of correlating human behaviour to neural patterns (the
subject of Behavioural Neuroscience).
ground-breaking pursuit invites readers and scholars of children's
literature to envision a plethora of research foci. If we could focus
a decade of research into the laws that govern the child's reading
brain, what projects would we propose? A vast amount of research has
thus far illuminated the triggers of empathetic engagement, the
process of decoding and interpreting language, and even how cultural
norms may influence our working memory. Some tantalising areas of
scientific speculation lie within the largely unchartered territory
of image and word processing. Research has distinguished between
neural regions responsible for processing emotion, inferring the
thoughts of characters, and encoding memories for future reflection
(Blackburne, 2010, p. 31). Though researchers have observed the
activation of space and goal-processing regions when participants
read about characters changing position or moving with a purpose, we
have yet to fully comprehend the ways in which narrative and
stylistic elements serve as neural scripts.
the moment our optic nerve transmits those multifarious character arrangements to the visual processing regions of our brain, the first
hermeneutical cycle has already been set in motion; mental
representations of imagined landscapes are illustrated through the
reader's knowledge and spacial-temporal awareness. Fictional
characters are imbued with distinctive memories, emotions,
intentions, moving beyond the page to reflect the reader's
understanding of human relationships. As interdisciplinary routes are
increasingly sought to delineate these processes, we come closer to
appreciating the universal role narratives play in extending the
empathetic circle, ultimately leaving us changed.
F. C. (1932/1995). Remembering:
A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
S. (2010). Empathy
and the Novel.
New York: Oxford University Press.
(2002). Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Singer, T. et al. (2006). Empathic
Neural Responses are Modulated by the Perceived Fairness of Others.
J. (2005). The Fairy Tales.
(D. Walser, Trans.). London: Penguin.