Category Archives: Goal-Oriented Action

Emotional Resonance and the Novel

As remarked in previous entries, evidence of effector-specific motor responses to speech and activation of mirror matching circuits during the processing of action-related words and sentences while speaking, listening and reading throws open the door to an ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics. In fact, the understanding of narratives seems to rely on the reenactment of described events, that depends on congruent effector-specific motor responses. Indeed, action potential emerging from direct environmental experience likely resonates in the body of the listener or the reader during the processing of corresponding narrative descriptions.

Of course, the assumption that the understanding of stories depends on embodied experiences recruited by means of sensory-motor resonance does not imply that narrative descriptions typically refer to automatic reflex actions. Evidence emerging from any page of any novel in any language from anytime and anywhere clearly shows that emotions play a crucial role in defining intentionality and purposefulness of consequent behaviors adopted by protagonists or other characters in the development of the story. Even in such respect novels actually work in the same way reality does, in terms that the understanding of narrative descriptions featured in a novel seems to depend on the very same interplay between perception, emotion and action which supports the decoding of behavioral patterns in the actual experience of natural and social environments.

Recent advances in neuroscience showed that emotions are environmentally situated and somatically marked states of the subject who feels them (Damasio 1994, 1996). Perceptual experiences or memories provide individuals with emotionally competent stimuli to be processed by a so-called ‘interoceptive sense’ (Craig 2002, 2008). Moreover, an action can hardly be defined as ‘planned’ and meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger.

Such findings are congruent with the so called Somatic Marker Hypothesis, which maintains that emotions are embodied responses to environmental changes which aim at placing the organism in circumstances conducive to survival and well-being (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000). According to such hypothesis, emotions are just the most evident part of a system of biological regulation that includes for example homeostatic reactions maintaining metabolism, pain, hunger and thirst signaling (Damasio 1994, 1996). Therefore, emotions such as happiness or sadness, embarrassment or pride depend on patterned chemical and neural responses to emotionally competent stimuli which emerge from environmental interaction.

Such responses even target the brain, but their main target is the body indeed, namely the internal milieu, the viscera and the musculoskeletal system. The result of the brain-targeting responses is an alteration in the mode of brain operation during the emotional body adjustments. The result of the body-targeting responses is the creation of an emotional state which involves adjustments in homeostatic balance, as well as the enactment of specific behaviors and the production of particular facial expressions. While feeling those emotions individuals elaborate the mental representation of emotionally-dependent physiological changes which amplify the impact of a given situation, enhances learning, and increases the probability that comparable situations can be anticipated.

Thanks to such integrated system which targets both the brain and the body, Emotions immediately respond to challenges and opportunities, allowing organisms to cope successfully with objects and situations that are potentially dangerous or advantageous. Basically, emotions provide the organism with a couple of integrated biological functions: the production of specific reactions to environmental situations and regulation of the internal state of the organism in order to prepare appropriate responses (Damasio 1999: 53). So, emotions provide embodied and somatically-marked responses to emotionally-competent stimuli which emerge from environmentally-situated experiences.  At the same time, they underlay the decision-making processes which make it possible to plan purposeful intentional actions to the point that an action can be hardly defined as ‘planned’ or meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger, that is an interoceptive background.

As Damasio (1999: 53-54) remarked, «emotions provide a natural means for the brain to evaluate the environment within and around the organism, and respond accordingly and adaptively». Researches on patients affected by frontal lobe damage offered strong support to such hypothesis, showing that internal states associated with emotional contents support response options and advantageous choice. Other studies indicate that the process of deciding advantageously starts even before knowing the advantageous strategy (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000), emotions should play a major role when it comes to action planning.

Assuming such perspective on emotions, it is not surprising that novels provide readers or listeners with descriptions of character-specific emotional states which reflect the response to perceptual events or underly the decision-making processes which lead to purposeful intentional actions. Indeed, the understanding of environmental descriptions typically rely on the contextual processing of its emotional rebounds. Likewise, narrative action are understood as purposeful and intentional because they rely on an emotional appraisal of  the circumstances.

Basically, the understanding of a story necessarily implies the understanding of descriptions which focus on the emotional rebounds of a given perceptual event or on the interoceptive modulations which underly purposeful action planning. Therefore, being descriptions of emotions that crucial to the understanding of a novel, how do humans recognize and process them while reading or listening? As it happens with the understanding of descriptions referring to perceptual events and actual actions, the correct response might be the one resulting from the application of theories of embodied cognition to emotions.

Indeed, neuroscience suggests that emotional resonance across individuals plays a crucial role in observational learning which is likely supported by a reenactment of the emotional experience of the model in the observer. For instance, Wicker and colleagues (2006) showed that observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion, as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, providing evidence which support the idea of a a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others. Moreover, Chakrabarti and colleagues (2006) investigated the influence of trait empathy on perception of different basic emotion expressions (happy, sad, disgusted, angry), finding common neural regions underlying empathy across different emotions, and regions that show an emotion-specific correlation with empathy. Other experiments performed by Olsson and colleagues (2007) suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.

Significant evidence emerged from studies concerning direct and social experience of pain. Singer and colleagues (2004) presented data suggesting that empathizing with the pain of others does not involve the activation of the whole pain matrix, but is based on activation of those second-order re-representations containing the subjective affective dimension of pain. Accordingly, they proposed that these cortical re-representations have a dual function: first, they ground human ability to form subjective representation of feelings that allow to predict the effects of emotional stimuli with respect to the self; second, they serve as the neural basis for human ability to understand the emotional importance of a particular stimulus for another person and to predict its likely associated consequences.

More recently Ogino and colleagues (2007) provided evidence supporting the idea that the imagination of pain elicited by viewing images which painful events may be based on representations of pain in the human brain, which reflects the multidimensional nature of pain experience including sensory, affective, and cognitive components. Even Lamm and colleagues (2007) showed that the perception of pain in others results in the activation of almost the entire pain-matrix, including its sensory-discriminative component. They even find that both the sensory-discriminative and the affective-motivational component is modulated by the context in which pain has occurred, and by the consequences the observer is focusing on.

Interestingly, other studies presented evidence which support the idea that even the recognition of emotional meaning in words and locutions which refer to emotions seems to be involving the embodiment of the implied emotion.  Namely, Havas, Glenberg  and  Rinck (2007) showed that  language referring to emotional states is only fully understood when those states are literally embodied during comprehension. Interestingly, the authors introduce the paper that presents evidence supporting such a view remarking that «reading a passage from a favorite novel makes it clear that language evokes emotion».

Actually, it seems that comprehension of emotionally-competent linguistic descriptions depends on the simulation of congruent emotional states. Basically, narrative descriptions of emotions are understood according to the way individuals feel them while reading a novel, based on their own experience of similar circumstances. Such hypotesis is congruent with the idea that «the body-sensing areas constitute a sort of theater where not only the “actual” body states can be “performed”, but varied assortments of “false” body states can be enacted as well, for example, as-if body states, filtered body states, and so on» (Damasio 2003: 117-118).

In Damasio’s view,  «the commands for producing as-if body states are likely to come from a variety of prefrontal cortices as suggested by recent work on mirror-neurons on both animals and humans». Basically, a mirror-matching mechanism might be even responsible of the understanding of emotions felt and expressed by others both is somatic and linguistic terms. In that case, as-if body states would be the ones experienced while processing and understanding the narrative references that emerge from the reading of emotionally-competent descriptions featured in a novel.

Hence, readers or listeners likely understand linguistic descriptions of emotions according to their own embodied experience of similar emotionally-competent events. Accordingly, philological investigations focusing on emotionally-related words or locutions would make it possible to study single literary works and their textual tradition or to compare different ones in respect to the more or less integrated semantic systems that support their emotional understanding in readers or listeners. Assuming that co-occurrence of words can be interpreted as an indicator of semantic proximity and/or interdependency, co-occurring emotionally related words can be aggregated so as to define the borders of relevant lexical clusters.

Of course, such approach to emotional resonance and the novel is just the preliminary step preluding to the study of the integrated descriptive system that joins together perceptual events, emotional modulations and proper actions in a narrative whole which works in the exact same way the actual human experience of nature and society does. Indeed, previous remarks imply that descriptions of the way emotions are experienced and felt does not consist in isolated narrative events situated in some secluded ‘interiority’ of a specific character.  Rather, novels typically describe emotional responses to perceptual events and emotional decisions which underly purposeful intentional actions.

Some narrative descriptions might emphasize the connections between emotions and action, but even the ones in which such connections may seem looser hardly describe character-specific feelings or states of mind as completely unrelated to environmentally situated decisions and actions.  Certainly standard novels tend to avoid redundant descriptions of emotional states which do not lead to purposeful actions, because they may sound distracting and disturbing.  Rather, such descriptions are typically included in experimental literary works which intentionally aim at broadening the borders of the genre or hybridizing the novelistic format with lyric overtones.

Conversely, even in extreme cases featuring robots or AI as the protagonists, novels can hardly tell the story of such characters without relating some of the described circumstances to emotionally-relevant events. Given that nothing can be told and narrated in a novel that never fell into the borders of human experience, novels tend to ‘humanize’ such extreme characters, so as to comply the requirements of the genre. Indeed, the presence of more or less detailed descriptions of emotional states is a mandatory requirement for a novel.

Specific investigations might provide interesting clues on the variable balance between perceptual events, interoceptive responses and purposeful actions featured by different novels.  Action-driven stories are typically perceived as dumb and silly because they mostly lack detailed descriptions of the emotional background which make characters act the way they do. On the other hand, stories which indulge in redundant descriptions of emotions and feelings are usually addressed as boring.

The hypothesis that the more even is the balance of described events, the more the novel seems to be convenient in current social terms triggers interesting questions about the development of the genre from its western medieval origins to contemporary developments spreading everywhere around the globe. Indeed, will it be possible to identify crucial turning points in the history of the novel based on the way emotions are described? Do critical transitions from a standard novelistic format to another depend and/or imply a different descriptive balance between perceptual events, emotional responses and decisions and actual actions?

Moreover, may the role played by classic novels in the global literary system be due or related to such effective balance of perception, interoception and action? Did such novels find the point of equilibrium between action-driven stories and hyper-psychologic ones while exploring the emotional background which underlay decisions and prompt characters to action? Did descriptions of activity patterns based on such balanced integration of perceptual events, interoceptive responses and proper actions define specific morphologies of the story which are effective-enough to emerge  as a standard and to be somewhat naturalized as ‘normal’?

Specific investigations focusing on novels which emerge as very popular or relevant ones from library catalogues might contribute to explain why novels which emerged as a global standards for storytelling are made the way they are.

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Bibliography

Bechara, A. – Damasio, A. R. – Damasio, H. – Anderson, S. W. 1994
Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex, in «Cognition» 50: 7-15.

Bechara, A. – Damasio, H. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, A. R. 1997
Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy, in «Science» 275: 1293-1295.

Bechara, A. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, H. 2000
Characterization of the decision-making deficit of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions, in «Brain» 123: 2189-2202.

Chakrabarti, B. – Bullmore, E. – Baron-Cohen, S. 2006
Empathizing with basic emotions: Common and discrete neural substrates, in «Social Neuroscience», 1, 3-4: 364-384

Craig, A. D. 2002
How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body, in «Nature Review Neuroscience» 3: 655-666.

Craig, A. D. 2008
Interoception and Emotion A Neuroanatomical Perspective, in Handbook of emotions, ed. by M. Lewis – J. M. Haviland-Jones – L. Feldman Barrett, New York, Guilford Press: 272-288.

Damasio, A. R. 1994
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon, New York.

Damasio, A. R. 1996
The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex, in «Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B (Biological Sciences)» 351: 1413–1420.

Damasio, A. 2003
Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Orlando (FL), Harcourt.

Havas, D. A. – Glenberg, A. M. –  Rinck, M. 2007
Emotion simulation during language comprehension, in «Psychonomic Bulletin & Review» 14: 436-441.

Lamm, C. – Nusbaum, H. C. – Meltzoff, A. N. – Decety, J. 2007
What are you feeling? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the modulation of sensory and affective responses during empathy for pain, in «PLoS ONE», 12: e1292.

Ogino, Y. – Nemoto, H. – Inui, K. – Saito, S. – Kakigi, R. – Goto, F. 2007
Inner experience of pain: imagination of pain while viewing images showing painful events forms subjective pain representation in human brain, in «Cerebral Cortex», 17: 1139-1146.

Olsson, A. – Nearing, K. I. . Phelps, E. A. 2007
Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission, in «Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access», 2: 3-11.

Singer, T. – Seymour, B. – O’Doherty, J. – Kaube, H. – Dolan, R. J. – Frith, C. D. 2004
Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain, in «Science», 303, 5661: 1157-1162.

Wicker, B. – Keysers, C. – Plailly, J. – Royet, J. P. – Gallese, V. – Rizzolatti, G. 2003
Both of us disgusted in my insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. in «Neuron», 40, 3: 655-664.

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

Random Icons – The Making Of

Random Icons – The Making Of
EPVS exposition in Roma
Spoliaculture
Spazio Bloomsbury
Vernissage feb. 27 2009 h. 19
Video Installation “Bubbling 4 you”
Open till March 9 2009

Dolls and Puppets

The making of an Icon might be explained in relativistic, chronotopical terms as subtraction of space and time a person is previously immersed into. In such terms, puppets and dolls have to be assumed as atemporal and atopic entities, deguisable in any possible fashion, since they do not belong to any specific here and now. Accordingly, the same dolls may be showing onstage as timeless princesses or nurses or whoever, as placeless puppets might be sitting on dinosaurs, into a train or wherever. So defined Icons are not limited to chronologically or locatively specific roles or behaviors. They fit any context, your next tv show, an advertising from the fifties, the seat next to yours on the subway, a horse riding in the far west.

kikkorave

The Ecology of Icons

As myths are deeply rooted in history, Icons were once people, more or less popular gals, ladies, cool guys or random blokes. That’s why a more radical approach may argue that in order to emerge as Icons, the individuals they once were have been deprived of opportunities for action that were initially provided by their original environment. Afterwards, the ecosystem of an Icon looks like a typical prison, an environment in which segregated subjects adopt random behavior on the basis of new circumstances over which they lack even the slightest control.

random-icons-copy1

Actions and Gestures

Accordingly, Icons perform gestures not actions. Indeed, their ecology is not defined by purposeful interaction with their own very narrow and deserted environment. Icons eventually move, but is that dancing? Icons eventually prowl sinuously, but is that seducing? Icons eventually move between balloons but why? Icons bump balloons on the floor; still, to what purpose? Icons are actually living somewhere on this planet, but they are confined to a locatively meaningless nowhere, places that may be anywhere on Google maps or, more likely, on the ‘Map of the Strange’. Just as in time, Icons are eventually now, or tomorrow, let’s say yesterday, but who cares? They don’t.

lexi_nuova

The Artist as an Icon

It is common sense that artists love to be famous and recognized everywhere, as they are eager to outlive their human experience as people. That’s why they might be very concerned by processes of self-iconization. Common sense is wrong, however, at least when it comes to real artists. Indeed, they are more likely to aim at joining their Icons in the very same prisons to which they themselves confined them. That’s what a self-portrait tries to be: an artist’s desperate, tentative attempt to feel the same way his own victims feel after he ‘treated’ them, ‘worked them out’, in short iconized them. Indeed, in order to iconize his victims in the most effective way, the artist has to experience first-hand how it feels to be deprived of opportunities for action that once defined the extent of the nostalgically neglected belonging to mankind.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.

Traces

Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.

Novels as Ecological Niches

Introducing the Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) described the concept of niche as a set of affordances an animal can cope with effectively. While redefining affordances as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms, according to his “situational” approach Chemero (2003) redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised. Chemero’s definition amazingly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as the animal is intended as the protagonist and his story is basically understood as the set of situations in which one or more of his abilities can be exercised.

Chretien de Troyes’ Chevalier au Lyon draws a set of situations entailing proper merveilles and avantures, meaningful features the environment affords to the knight. Cervantes simply feeds Don Quijote windmills instead of proper giants, exerting special abilities and needs of his hero while defining his ecological surroundings. Musil sticks his Mann ohne Eigenschaften into sort of a claustrophobic environment mostly providing commissions and meetings as opportunities for endless discussion and inaction. James Joyce follows his everyman through highly underrated challenges a very common urban environment provides him with.

The extent of the niche may be basically defined as the array of activity patterns characters, typically protagonists, perform throughout the story. Indeed, a narrative niche, as an ecological one, can be defined as the sets of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised, not as the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions, attaining goals. Struggling and failing are part of the process of surviving in both natural and a narrative challenging ecosystems. Accordingly, dramatic intensity of a novel may be basically addressed as the extent of the mismatch between character’s abilities and environmental features.

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Bibliography

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.