Monthly Archives: September 2007

Selective Filtering and Psychotic Stories

As far as the history of literary forms is addressed as an evolutionary process, questions immediately arise concerning the ‘genetics’ of ‘effective’ novels. Aristotelian approaches based on mimesis may eventually suggest that mainstream western novels, as other adapted literary forms may be the ones that better represent ‘reality’ since they describe it by means of natural language speakers use in standard conversation. Approaches based on modern epistemology may maintain that they show better consistency when it comes to the build-up of fictional words. In the field of actual, contemporary story-crafting, it may even be interesting to notice that many ‘manuals’ provide clues and rules about «how to write a damn good novel» or «how to establish unforgettable characters». Unfortunately, the very same rules apply both to ‘effective’ and ‘uneffective’ novels, that is to the very celebrated ones as the ones nobody never even heard about.

Very likely, and hopefully, the sacred quest for the perfect exemplar able to overcome any possible selective barrier thanks to its perfect ‘genes’ is doomed to failure. Indeed, given cultural or social conditions may allow the survival and the breeding of a novel that may be labeled as shacky in different ones. Still, mainstream western novels typically shape stories in pragmatically limited forms among the potentially infinite narrative options storytelling might eventually adopt. Hence, an evolutionary approach to the history of the literatures imply that actual forms readers deal with survived and bred by adapting to current cultural and social conditions, that is overcoming selective barriers as other forms didn’t.

Suggestive clues about how novels manage to survive cultural selection may arise from an accurate investigation concerning what a ‘normal’ story is supposed to look like in respect of a psychotic one. Indeed, comparisons of stories uttered by normal and psychotic subjects referring to ‘same’ perceptual and action related events, not to mention their emotional correlates, may provide samples of selective options leading to actual narrative standards, usually given for granted as compelling forms narratives ‘necessarily’ assume. An interesting study by Elaine Chaika and Paul Alexander (1986) published some 20 years ago adapted the famous «Pear Story» conceived by Chafe (1980) so to compare strategies applied to the retelling of a filmed narratives in psychotic and normal populations. The authors basically found definable differences in encoding strategies between normal and psychotic subjects, supporting theories claiming that faulty filtering mechanisms, vulnerability to distraction, and attentional deficits account for psychotic subjects’ reactions. A follow-up study, focused on discourse cohesiveness (Chaika-Lambe 1989) basically led to similar conclusions.

In the paper discussing results of the original experiment, Chaika and Alexander observed that a big problem about stories narrated by individuals diagnosed with psychosis as schizophrenia too often «wanders off the point», so that «it is sometimes difficult to correlate utterances with intended meaning» (p. 308). Psychotic disorganization observable in schizophrenia often consists in glossomania, «typically a string of phrases or clauses, related primarily because individual words either chare syntactic, semantic, or phonological features with each other». Moreover, actively psychotic patients frequently have a short attention span» and they are supposed to misperceive veering from the topic at hand incurring in derailment, since the nature of schizophrenic malfunctioning is supposed to depend on filtering strategies (310). A typical problem researcher usually deal with while investigating psychotic language concerns cooperation, since production of deviant utterances may depend on intentionality. The authors assumed that deviant narratives «arise from impaired skills on narration, not from a separate language or an attempt to hide taboo desires or an attempt to convey what it means to be schizophrenic or the like» (314). Moreover, they provided compelling evidence of the fact that narratives collected from the psychotic subjects showed intentional behavior of fulfilling the requirement of the task, that is to retell the Ice Cream Story they actually listened to (pp. 314-315).
Zeroing-in tactics, as Chafe defined them, didn’t look very different between two populations, the retelling of the opening scene resulting uniformly very detailed, since individuals were still clueless about what the story were about (316). Basic differences between psychotic and normal narratives arose as soon as it came to encoding of ‘crucial’ events, their evaluation and placement into ordered linear series (317 and further). Normal subjects basically «gave the impression of play-by-play description», whereas psychotics typically showed lack of time and causal constraints, flitting from scene to scene, «leaving out important sequences». Furthermore, authors report that psychotic narratives contained many emotionally laden words», whereas «normal language was usually colorless» (319). Psychotics frequently seemed to have difficulty suppressing out-of-task associations. Sometimes deviation is based on glossomanic chains causing the psychotic narrator to get lost in his own narrative, being unable to return to the main story. Normal narratives clearly demonstrate that normal subjects retelling the story assumed the task to be separated from their personal reminiscences.

As Sally Swartz remarked (1994), the debate on the locus of dysfunction in psychotic speech or thought disorder tends to reflect assumptions about the relationship between language and thought. Circularity of the argument is inevitable, unless the encoding of narrative events starts to be addressed as mediated by embodied affordances of environmental features depending on more or less consistent/loose action-planning strategies entailing conscious evaluation and/or emotional appraisal. Accordingly, research may shift toward investigation about how psychotic narratives eventually differ from so called “normal” ones in ecological terms. Of course, direct investigation of psychotic narratives would be the more appropriate scientific approach to the issue. Still, some results of the Ice Cream story experiment may offer some starting point for an effective research plan. Indeed, results of original Chaika and Alexander experiment evidence logically-inconsistent intrusions of emotional contents derived from personal experience or very personal remarks based on peculiar thematic analogies. Indeed, as Chaika offered elsewhere, schizophrenics seem unable to suppress personal memories or words and phrases, including cliches inappropriate to the task at hand (Chaika 1982a and 1982b).

In ecological terms, peculiar understanding of character specific affordances and emotional correlates may play a crucial role, redefining the individual encoding of narrative events as the purpose of the story itself. Hence, it may be assumed as an hypothesis that psychotic subjects perceive special character-specific potential affordances of environmental features based on peculiar appraisal of emotional implications. That is, action-planning of narrative characters is understood by individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia as lead by differently-filtered needs, tasks, goals based on apparently ‘unfiltered’ emotional correlates.
Say, the description of a table very likely triggers action potential related to typical affordances of a table, that is narrative options featuring some character entering the place and placing stuff on it or similar. Still, the action potential triggered by the description of the table may be fulfilled in an unpredictable or unusual way by the storyteller, say introducing some character sitting on the table or sleeping below it. Indeed, the featured character would be actually ‘using’ the table as a chair or as a bed. Similar narrative affordances may be said to be exerting sort of ‘functional degeneration’, as far as ‘function’ is addressed as an object-inherent property of the described object. Besides an ecological theory of narrative perception necessarily implies a different understanding of the very concept of function, that has to be framed in darwinian terms, since it basically depend on cultural or social selection applying to potential affordances.

Basically, ‘function’ has to be redefined as the prevailing affordance of a given environmental feature among the infinite possible, though pragmatically limited, ones. Accordingly, narrative functions of objects may be more correctly defined as selected purposes among the ones potentially triggered by the description of given environmental features. Indeed, they usually correspond to ‘typical’ affordances of described things, say open-hand grasp for a bottle, precision-pick for a pencil. Very likely the description of a pencil and a bottle would respectively resonate by triggering fingertips and hand-related motricity, that is potential actions as precision pick and full grasp. Still, a bottle can be grabbed with knees and a pencil can be eaten, as children very often do, and sometimes adults too. Moreover, eventual narrative description of peculiar affordances may even rely on virtually-impossible motor schemes, as grabbing a bottle with ears or having a weird, monstrous creature using one of his tentacles to grab the pencil.

Accordingly, psychotic narratives may offer interesting clues about differential filtering of potential affordances and their emotional correlates. Indeed, Mis-proprioception, body-unawareness, multiple switching personalities and may cause peculiar emotional contents to be attached to narrative events entailing perception and/or action. Very likely more intense ones, as results of the original experiment performed by Chaika and Alexander seem to point out. Moreover, stories delivered by subjects affected by similar disturbs may even describe ‘psychotic affordances’ driven by special action-planning options exerting non-standard exploitation of tools, objects, environmental features in general. Descriptions of pertinent clinical cases have been provided by Els Van Dongen (2002, 2003), who describes his patients as «walking stories», embodiment of narratives providing them power to manipulate the course of events and the responsive actions of others, namely professionals. Indeed, «when the stories become alive, i.e. acted out, they show their power […] they put culture at work and become the ‘weapons of the weak’ in order to control what usually remains beyond their control».

So to verify such hypothesis, it may be interesting to investigate to what extent the planning of goal-oriented actions plays a crucial role in psychotic narratives when it comes to ‘narrative function’ of described things. Indeed, action planning regulates the choice of affordances “effective enough” to perform given tasks tools, objects, any kinds of environmental features are being ‘used’ for. Likewise, “learning” about “things” that can be or cannot be done with things in ‘real’ as in narrative actions depends on action planning.

On the wider scale of event-sequencing and episode concatenation, it may be very interesting to verify to what extent consistent filtering may actually be a major factor when it comes to discriminate normal from psychotic storytelling, as, more in general, stories fitting social standards from the sub-par ones hitting selective fences. Of course, storytelling in spontaneous conversation doesn’t always show high-level consistency when it comes to filtering narrative events so that they are streamed in tightly time-sequenced and/or casually connected flows. Even written narratives, filtered by very accurate textual editing, say novels, typically perform as spatial forms based on thematic analogy, according to Faulk. Still, ‘normal’ filtering may be intended as sort of an adapted feature individuals develop and adopt so to fit narrative standards required by social communication. As an example, to fit western mass-markets, a novel may hardly switch to a different story involving new characters after page 75, without giving any clue about the fate of previous protagonists, as it may hardly feature 45 pages-length digressions about personal reminiscences. The combination of both strategies may eventually lead to an highly experimental narrative product, barely suitable even for enthusiastic readers.

Storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western narrative mainstream standard could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats narratives can assume as reports of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? That is, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels?
Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. Besides, even very celebrated experimental novels hit the selective fence as ‘mutated individuals’ failing to breed and develop into new species. Indeed, they actually failed to set standards. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure? Some remarks Van Dongen (2003) offers about psychotic stories may offer some interesting clues:

«Mad stories are evocative and metaphoric. They are full of symbols, but we think that those symbols are used in very personal, even idiosyncratic ways. We consider them as incoherent and incomprehensible. They are not ‘rational’ and do not represent any ‘normal’ logic. They do not fit into categories. They escape every classification, save that of ‘psychotic stories’ or ‘mad stories’. They are matters out of place. They are viewed as signs of madness and therefore show how much we should value health and normality. They often belong to the underground world in mental hospitals and clinical interaction. This world of stories is feared; therapists and psychiatric nurses often act as if this world does not exist».

Narrative standards are usually given for granted as forms novels necessarily assume either as mimetic ones imitating (aristotelian stance) or translating (semiotic stance) a given ‘reality’ or arising from cognitive computational processes (classical cognitive stance). Consequently, an investigation about why stories are encoded into novels the way they are has never been established in scientific terms. Previous remarks suggest to do that on the basis of some very general queries.
For instance, what if novels are shaped the way they are so to define ‘normality’? What if they tell stories the way they do so to help readers feeling at ease in the safe field of ‘normality’? More in details, do novels play a reassuring role when it comes to the understanding of narrative actions based on ‘normal’ affordances of described tools, object, environmental features in general? Do they exert in narrative terms the extent of potential action ‘normally’ triggered by perceptual events? Moreover, do they filter pertinent emotional correlates of narrative events entailing perception and action?
Assuming that nothing can be told and narrated that never fell into the perceptual borders of human senses, such questions help defining the extent of an ecological investigation on the evolutionary processes leading to the actual narrative standards western mainstream novels fit in.


Chafe, W. 1980
The Pear Stories. Cognitive, cultural and linguistic aspects of narrative production, Norwood, NJ, Ablex, 1980.

Chaika, E. 1982a
Thought disorder or speech disorder in schizophrenia, in «Schizophrenia Bulletin» 8, pp. 588-591.

Chaika, E. 1982b
A unified explanation for the diverse structural deviation of adult schizophrenics with disrupted speech, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 15, pp. 167-189.

Chaika, E. – Alexander P. 1986
The Ice Cream Stories: A Study in Normal and Psychotic Narrations, in «discourse Processes» 9, pp. 305-328.

Chaika, E. – Lambe, P. 1989
Cohesion in schizophrenic and normal narration revisited, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 22, pp. 407-421.

Swartz, S. 1994
Issues in the analysis of psychotic speech, in «Journal of Psycholinguistic Research» 23, pp. 29-44.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» Volume 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.