Category Archives: Perception

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.

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.

Disembodied Novels

Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.

Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.

Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,

investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:

He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.

The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ’empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.

Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.

Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:

Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).

Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.

In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.

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Bibliography

Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .

Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.

Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.

Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments

Philology and criticism usually apply to literary works that have been written and published or documented literary systems as actual genres. That is, literary studies typically focus on past or present state of the art but they hardly offer predictions, prefiguring forms that will play a role into the future development of cultural landscapes. Making a remarkable exception in respect to the norm, the present contribution aims to forecast potential development in storytelling based on locative media. That is, as part of a more general inquiry on the Ecology of the Novel and Hybrid Ecologies, it will investigate potential literary applications based on Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS) or similar geotagging standards.

People living in European cities are very familiar with tourists looking puzzled while trying to figure out why they spent a couple of paychecks to find themselves speechless in front of a pile of old stones or a very long marble sculpted pillar, say the Colosseo or the Colonna Traiana in Roma. By labeling perceived items with annotations, guidebooks and tour guides aim to orientate, to locate tourists by regulating their sensory experience of the landscape. In a looser way, the contextual reading of novels taking place in the very same place a traveler is visiting complements the sensory experience with narrative reference. Indeed, descriptions of urban or natural landscapes define potential ‘presences’ triggering a variable amount of action potential. So, bidirectional flow connecting narrative references and actual perception define an hybrid ecology, making it possible to inhabit natural landscapes by means of stories and, conversely, causing environmental features to trigger resonance of narrative references. That’s why the interplay of narrative contents and environmental experiences supported by locative technologies potentially allows a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and the environment through narratives.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
In a few years narrative artists and storytellers’ communities will be likely writing or taping stories to be broadcasted by locative media mining 2.0 websites for contents delivered by Location-based media on GPS or GIS enabled portable wireless devices. Textual narratives as podcasted stories will will invade laptop computers and mobile phones, providing readers and listeners with pertinent references or analogical interferences aimed to enriching natural environments. Presences triggered by the mirror matching of references entailed by symbolically encoded narratives, both in audio and written text formats, will invade urban and rural environments, forests and deserts, islands and hills, mountains and beaches, enhance the sensory experience of perceived landscapes. So, questions arise. What formats may be forecasted as the standards ones when it will come to the implementation of socially shared narrative art with locative tagging? Will these new narrative standards reshape interactions between subjects and environments?

While providing a permanently operative level of interaction between narrative contents and natural environments, geotagged stories will likely play a crucial role in a very fragmented and user-oriented literary system. Still, the rise of socially-networked locative narratives will hardly doom the novel to marginality, not to mention extinction. As an unifying, very generalist mainstream narrative point of view establishing the very parameters of how so-called ‘reality’ is supposed to work, the novel will outlast the next technological revolution as it did with previous ones. Potential evolution of novels may imply geocoded editions of both classic ones from the past and brand new ones intentionally developed so as to fit and be implemented into locative media. Such a process may be supported by further locatively implemented releases of wireless digital readers such as the Sony PRS-500 or Amazon’s Kindle.

However, new plastic forms will very likely arise. For instance, locative Keitai Novels, or different systems, eventually exerting collaborative web-logging tools as comments and annotation systems alongside locative technologies and defining new borders for narrative art. Certainly, web 2.0 communities of narrative artists may play with landscapes, tagging them with stories providing peculiar, literary affordances of geocoded environmental features. Being part of a community may imply writing, annotating and commenting on locatively tagged stories, that is sharing a peculiar perception of natural environments or cityscapes marked by narrative tags. In addition, being the node of a given network may entail the embracing and the adoption of peculiar locative tags to be applied to shared narratives. Both the sensory assessment of places and the reading of stories will very likely be part of an integrated, plastic, ever changing immersive experience, redefining the whole concept of storytelling and human presence in the environment at the same time. Policy-makers would eventually be required to avoid that the array of disposable geocoded stories may cause “narrative pollution”, infesting as undesired spam both the individual and collective ecological interplay of people and landscapes.

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Aknowledgments

The full paper on «Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments: Narrative Art in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media», a first draft of a potential contribution to a collection of studies about Hybrid Ecologies, has been originally presented at KERG in Tallinna Ülikool, Tallinn, Estonia. Some of the topics have been discussed during the Mobile City workshops (Rotterdam, NAI, Feb. 27-28 2008).

Action Potential and Urban Fiction

Xing Danwen’s work in progress named Urban fiction features a series of photographs shot both on film and digitally, manipulated with various computer techniques. Despite the 2dimensional framework supporting it, Urban Fiction provides very interesting samples of ecological art based on the action potential triggered by the placement of people into an urban landscape.

The statement of the artist provides some interesting hints about the purpose of her work. Namely, she offers that «When you face these models showing such a variety of different spaces and think about the life-styles associated with them, you start to wonder: is this the picture of life today? Do we really live in this kind of space and environment?». Basically, Danwen seems to establish her atwork in a traditional fictional framework that goes back to aristotelian mimesis, in terms that she aims to make people compare the artificial life of her artistic environment with the ‘real’ one they actually run.

Moreover, Danwen maintains that «people live in cubes that are squeezed next to one another, separated only by thin walls. This physical proximity, instead of leading to greater closeness and intimacy between people, can often create psychological distance and loneliness». Hence, an ecologically grounded approach emerges, since issues as proximity and spatial closeness arises and, interestingly, are asymmetrically paired with emotional correlatives as intimacy and loneliness.

An ecological approach seems to arise even more strongly when Danwen describes the urban setting she sets her fictions into:

«the sculptural form of these new residential buildings, the floor plan of the apartments, and the various interior designs are all related to the inhabitants and their “individual” taste and needs. The models of these new living spaces are perfect and clean and beautiful but they are also so empty and detached of human drama».

Indeed, landscape is shaped according to tastes and needs of characters performing in it and it’s even designed so to mark a sharp detachment from their feelings and emotions. Danwen offers that «when you take these models and begin to add real life–even a single drop of it–so much changes», since «this entire body of work is playful and fictitious, wandering between reality and fantasy». Basically, her art is described as going back and forth from ‘reality’ to ‘fantasy’ all the way back.

Even the chose of characters performing in the urban landscape contributes to the blending of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, since the artist explains that «all the figures in this series are images of me, playing different characters», so to establish another paradox: «“I” am real but at the same time “I” am unreal» and to reshape the subject according to the urban surroundings they are immersed in. Indeed:

The figures act out totally imaginative roles as part of different plots and in different spaces that I visualize when I look at these models. For example, “I” am sometimes a white-collar office worker brought to despair by job pressures and spiritual emptiness. Sometimes “I” am a materialistic woman enjoying a life of pleasure and dissipation. Or “I” am a young girl who has accidentally killed her lover in a mood of anger.

Danwen conceives the various scenes as part of a general vision aimed to represent «represent the state of urban life today». Indeed, «together the resulting pictures compose the episodes of the urban fiction». The point of view of the observer matters, since future and Past are associated with age and growth, as modern life is: «In our childhood, skyscrapers were buildings that we had to raise our head to look at. Now we can imagine our future by bending down to examine tiny models of buildings».

From an ecological point of view, urban fictions matter in respect of the action potential triggered by still frames referring to ‘fictive’ people caught in the act of performing various action. Potential affordances of environmental features define the extent of the interaction between characters and landscapes that may be understood in a single framework based on common coding of perception and action. The very sharp detachment of landscapes from people’s feelings can’t help ruling completely out of the picture emotional correlates based on very subtle evaluation of environmental elements, as it will be shown in the following detailed appraisal of given episodes.

Murder Scene

The actual action is not represented in the making. Besides, the portrait of the wounded corpse laying into the blood puddle joint with the woman standing, his arms in the air, suggests that she just committed the crime, hitting him on the tummy with the weapon that is now on the floor.

Car Crash

The cars crashed into each other are necessarily the result of a motor action that took place in the very recent past, since the woman, eventually one of the drivers, seems still in a frenzy, her legs in motion, while looking for help. Even tho the landscape looks completely unreactive, the emotional state of the woman can be easily mirrored by the viewer exactly because it features given environmental items. Indeed, taking the crashed cars out of the pictures it would be impossible to clearly understand why the woman looks so hurried and afraid, all the eventual explanation being at that point equally suitable.

Condo People

The women on the roof look like they are sharing some kind of secrets, the one in the black dress wispering something in the ear of the one with blue hair. Sure thing, intimacy between them can be given for granted on the basis of spatial proximity and gesturing. The fact that they actually are on the roof may eventually imply some sort of secret going on between them, eventually concerning the other people set in the vicinities. Indeed, they could be talking about the gal who’s leaving with her bike, as they may be sharing some secret about the guy smoking by the window. Likewise, both of them may be concerned. The relative positioning of characters distributed in the urban landscape define actual and potential connections going on between them.

Bikers from the Window

Same as above. What do the smoking guy is thinking while staring at the couple on the bike by the window? Why is the gal almost crying? Are the three people connected in some way? Are their actions related?

Cliffhanger

Extreme action potential triggered by the woman on top of the skyscraper is a typical sample of cliffhanging suspence. Of course the question is: is she about to jump? And, eventually, why?

Affair

Relative positions of characters are in this case very interconnected. The woman has seen from the balcony his husband/partner, who probably just got off his blue car and is now strolling his troller while heading to the entrance of the building. The naked guy is just making his way out of her place. The whole scene looks basically like a crucial frame extracted from an episode featuring some sort of adultery.