* BAM: Brain Activity Map
I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality” (Martel, 2002, p. 424).
– Yann Martel, Life of Pi –
|Life of Pi, by Jonathan Burton
Readers who have experienced the turbulent voyage of emotions Yann Martel’s haunting survival odyssey evokes, will vividly recall Pi Patel’s distinctive narrative voice. A curious oscillation between wisdom and naiveté, the novel’s protagonist and intradiegetic narrator both invites the reader to maintain poetic faith in his remarkable tale, whilst playfully underscoring the narrative’s stylistic elements and eliciting introspection. I found this aspect of reader response particularly significant after thoroughly enjoying the cinematic adaptation.
Though equally mesmerising and thought-provoking, the life of Pi on screen effectively embodies the screenwriter’s personal truth. The novel allows us to choose between Pi’s initial chronicle of survival on a raft adrift the Atlantic ocean accompanied by 450-pound Bengal tiger and a second, more pedantic yet terrifying account, wherein Pi becomes the witness of murder and cannibalism amongst human passengers.
In its cinematic counterpart, Pi’s narrative of human brutality is interspersed with verbal trauma cues; Pi struggles to formulate his sentences and hyperventilates, while his emotionally charged intonation and tears suggest the second narrative reflects true experience. This disparity in interpretations may reflect the wisdom of those who read before they watch, however, it also attests to the constant transformation of memories and expectations, as readers resolve contradictions, actualise meanings, and assimilate or reorganise schemas and scripts. As the narrative progresses, readers modify and integrate information, extending behavioural schemas and encoding new memories.
What is fascinating about this process, is the unexpected interaction between memory and interpretation. Frederic Bartlett (1932), the British psychologist credited with theorising the schema concept, attributed the systematic errors and memory distortions noted when his subjects were prompted to recall details of a Native American fable (The War of the Ghosts) to an intrusion of their schematic knowledge; thus readers would either omit or distort information to aid interpretation (Bartlett, 1932/1995, pp. 47-63). On the other hand, our ability to process emotion in response to literature, even when reading opaque characters such as Pi Patel brings forth the question of how narrative emotions affect the reader’s empathetic response. If negative sympathy is frequently invoked in response to the plight or emotional distress of a character (Keen, 2010, pp. 41-42) would readers also readily empathise with villains or morally ambiguous characters?
Tania Singer (2006) conducted a series of experiments to investigate the correlation between empathic neural responses and positive or negative emotions/perceptions of others. As with her empirical research in pain-related empathy (2004), Singer and her colleagues measured the brain activity of female and male volunteers whilst they engaged in a sequential Prisoner’s Dilemma Game (PDG) against a team of researchers/game opponents.
During the first part of the experiment the opponents would engage in fair or unfair strategies. Following this first set of games, both female and male participants rated fair players as more likeable and attractive than unfair opponents. During the second set of trials fair opponents experienced a painful stimulus, following which male (and predominantly) female participants exhibited empathy-related activation in brain areas associated with physical pain. However, when unfair players were observed receiving pain, male participants exhibited activation in regions associated with reward processing, while female players displayed no significant reduction in empathic activity (Singer et al., 2006, pp. 466-469). Whether Singer’s results could potentially translate to a reader’s affective engagement with sympathetic or unpleasant literary characters remains to be investigated and comprises an intriguing enigma for cognitive literary studies.
In his recent State of Union address, President Obama proposed a three-billion dollar, decade long investment to rival the EU Blue Brain Project‘s quest to simulate the human mind. While the BAM (Brain Activity Map) project may seem overly ambitious, investigating the neuronal basis of human behaviour does not necessitate a simulation of the human brain in its entirety. In his recent New Yorker article, Gary Marcus suggested the Obama Administration pursues the no less ambitious goal of correlating human behaviour to neural patterns (the subject of Behavioural Neuroscience).
This ground-breaking pursuit invites readers and scholars of children’s literature to envision a plethora of research foci. If we could focus a decade of research into the laws that govern the child’s reading brain, what projects would we propose? A vast amount of research has thus far illuminated the triggers of empathetic engagement, the process of decoding and interpreting language, and even how cultural norms may influence our working memory. Some tantalising areas of scientific speculation lie within the largely unchartered territory of image and word processing. Research has distinguished between neural regions responsible for processing emotion, inferring the thoughts of characters, and encoding memories for future reflection (Blackburne, 2010, p. 31). Though researchers have observed the activation of space and goal-processing regions when participants read about characters changing position or moving with a purpose, we have yet to fully comprehend the ways in which narrative and stylistic elements serve as neural scripts.
From the moment our optic nerve transmits those multifarious character arrangements to the visual processing regions of our brain, the first hermeneutical cycle has already been set in motion; mental representations of imagined landscapes are illustrated through the reader’s knowledge and spacial-temporal awareness. Fictional characters are imbued with distinctive memories, emotions, intentions, moving beyond the page to reflect the reader’s understanding of human relationships. As interdisciplinary routes are increasingly sought to delineate these processes, we come closer to appreciating the universal role narratives play in extending the empathetic circle, ultimately leaving us changed.
Bartlett, F. C. (1932/1995). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keen, S. (2010). Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press.
Martel, Y. (2002). Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Singer, T. et al. (2006). Empathic Neural Responses are Modulated by the Perceived Fairness of Others. Nature, 493(7075), 466-469.
Pieńkowski, J. (2005). The Fairy Tales. (D. Walser, Trans.). London: Penguin.