purposeless people eaters

by blakey vermeule 12.06.2010

Plenty of research shows that our minds have evolved to over-attribute agency to the surrounding world and patterns to the shape of human affairs. Several researchers have begun to explore how we attribute purposes and design to other people (e.g. when we say about a romantic partner that he or she was put on earth [...]

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meet my good friend anna k

by blakey vermeule 12.06.2010
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What your literature professors tell you is true after all:  reading narrative fiction helps make you more socially skilled. You become a better reader of other people’s minds and better able to navigate your complex social world. On the other hand, reading non-fiction does not seem to improve your social abilities.

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dead poet society

by patrick house 12.05.2010
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“All poets are mad.” Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1601 There is a pile in front of you — the collected works of 18 dead poets. Your task is to figure out from the text and the text alone, which ones committed suicide and which didn’t. How would you do it? What would you look for? [...]

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this is your brain on Kafka

by natalie sudikoff 12.03.2010

Reading Kafka improves pattern-finding! In fact, any absurd or uncanny literature may be able to do this, a recent study from UC Santa Barbara suggests. According to the study, patients who read a nonsensical story performed better on grammatical pattern-learning tasks than did patients who read a similar story with a logical structure. One theory [...]

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beauty makes you pain-tolerant

by joshua landy 12.02.2010
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I know that having beautiful things around me makes me happier, but I don’t think I would have predicted that it makes me more immune to actual physical pain.  That, however, is exactly what a 2008 study shows.  When you look at a painting you consider beautiful, your tolerance for pain increases.  Makes you wonder [...]

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hero or spectator?

by joshua landy 12.01.2010

When we read fictions, are we inside the mind of the protagonist?  Some fascinating studies show that we instinctively orient ourselves—even spatially and temporally—around the protagonist’s standpoint.  Here’s one by Rinck and Bower; here’s another by Black, Turner, and Bower.  Still, as Noël Carroll rightly noted, when the young woman is swimming happily at the [...]

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who’s a precursor of virginia woolf

by melody dye 12.01.2010

“Jane Austen’s famous prose may not be hers after all!” declares the headline of this week’s Telegraph. But the truth is kinder than the fiction: as Prof Kathryn Sutherland explains, Austen’s finished style may owe as much to the machinations of a kindly editor as to her own inventions. Sutherland stakes her claim on careful comparison between Austen’s [...]

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tell tale R

by melody dye 11.09.2010
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“The Raven” is one of the great classics of American literature. But how did Poe intend for it to be delivered? Linguist Geoff Pullum has ruffled some feathers among lit crits by suggesting that the ‘nevermore’ refrain should sound like the cawing of a crow, as pronounced with the “non-rhotic” r standard to Oxford and New [...]

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‘nine personality traits’ by j.d. salinger

by melody dye 11.09.2010
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Tell me a story and I’ll tell you who you are is the oracular title of an article published in August’s edition of the Journal of Research in Personality. The German research team found that when readers were asked to judge the personalities of the writers of several short essays, they were surprisingly accurate on three [...]

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your brain on books

by melody dye 11.09.2010

While the first writing system was invented almost 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, literacy rates were extremely low in most countries up until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In some instances, that state of affairs continued on well into the 20th century. In India, for example, the literacy rate was just 12% in 1947. [...]

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verbing weirds language

by patrick house 11.09.2010

These days we call it a functional shift. It used to be ‘enallage, or the figure of exchange.’ It is when a writer verbs a noun, when a dialogue becomes to dialogue, when a bench becomes to bench, when friend becomes to friend. An article and another muse on a study noting the high frequency [...]

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why fiction is never anonymous

by blakey vermeule 11.09.2010

It is intention all the way down: in a series of experiments on how young children understand artistic intention, Paul Bloom and his collaborators have discovered an extremely vibrant intentionality heuristic. In one example, two year olds were asked to figure out what an experimenter was drawing. They reliably inferred the name of the object [...]

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doomsayers

by joshua landy 11.09.2010
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Video games are good for you.—Well first of all they’re not bad for you.  A meta-study by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson (Harvard Medical School) suggests  earlier fears were overblown.  See also here.  In addition, Daphne Bavelier has found, they’re also good for you, improving your visual capacities.  Get gaming!

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believe first, reflect later

by blakey vermeule 11.09.2010
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We can’t help believing what we read. Spinoza said as much 400 years ago. Belief is not something that happens after we encounter some new information, but rather something that gets disrupted by later reflection. A study teases apart understanding and belief.

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imagine the imagined

by blakey vermeule 11.09.2010

The puzzle of fiction remains unsolved.  Why do we experience real emotions such as terror and joy in response to situations that we know are unreal?  The question grows more pressing, though, as we consume fiction in ever greater amounts. By one account, Americans spend on average four minutes a day having sex and over [...]

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to move or not to move

by blakey vermeule 11.09.2010

Contra Hamlet, why are we often disposed to act, even in ways that defeat our efforts, when not acting would be better for us? A classic study examines why Soccer goalies should stay put.

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hercule who?

by melody dye 11.08.2010

In a sad bit of news, scientists have found that for great novelists, the ravages of old-age and dementia may manifest in deteriorating verbal dexterity. While previous research by James Pennebaker and his collaborators has shown that writers’ word use and style remains relatively consistent over the years, this is not the case for writers in the [...]

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adaptation or exaptation?

by blakey vermeule 11.08.2010
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The puzzle of fiction remains unsolved.  Why do we experience real emotions such as terror and joy in response to situations that we know are unreal?  The question grows more pressing, though, as we consume fiction in ever greater amounts. By one account, Americans spend on average four minutes a day having sex and over [...]

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the sublime makes you pain-tolerant

by joshua landy 11.04.2010

Earlier we reported on a study that shows beautiful images reduce our sensitivity to physical pain.  The same team have since shown that the images in question don’t have to be images of happiness.  (Unicorns bouncing around under rainbows, gurgling children on swings.)  Even depictions of unpleasant situations, if aesthetically pleasing, can have the same [...]

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help for actors

by joshua landy 09.24.2010
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It’s not easy, after a hundred successive performances, to act as though you are hearing the news of Ophelia’s death for the first time.  It turns out there’s a particular state of mind you need to be in; scientists not only know exactly what this state is but can train you to achieve it. The [...]

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grim grimm reality

by melody dye 09.09.2010

Is literature a means of cultural transmission? Stanford Professor Jeanne Tsai has reason to think so. In past research, Tsai and collaborators have found significant differences in how adults from Western and East Asian cultures understand and express emotion. Now, tracing the causal chain back, she’s found that children’s literature may play an important role [...]

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our inner homer-unculus

by melody dye 09.09.2010

Surprising new findings in the field of neuroscience suggest that as we listen to a story unfold, our brains actively mirror that of the person telling the story, and the better we understand them, the stronger the connection. Strikingly, these ‘mirroring’ effects are not merely seen after the fact. It also appears that listeners are actively [...]

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