Cognitive Poetics and Future Learn
I recently studied Peter Stockwell’s two-week course on cognitive poetics via Future Learn, a free online study resource. Cognitive poetics is a tool of literary criticism that applies some elements of cognitive psychology to understanding of literature, and particularly how readers engage with and understand a text. In this article I’m going to talk a little bit about what cognitive poetics is, and then briefly about Future Learn as a useful tool for the writer.
Cognitive poetics begins with the idea of the “Theory of Mind”. This is our capacity to recognise other entities as having beliefs, perspectives and world views of their own. Somewhere in our earliest childhood we begin to recognise that those around us might be thinking, feeling creatures like ourselves. But how do we know that they are people? And how can we figure out what their individual beliefs and perspectives are?
Well, our only real example of what a person is at this point is ourselves. So we begin a process of what is known as mind-modelling. Starting with the assumption that the thing we are interacting with has a mind, we start trying to figure out how that minds works either by collecting external evidence of their beliefs (theory-theory) or by imagining ourselves as the other person (simulation-theory), then comparing the hypothetical person against ourselves to check if they are enough like us to be people.
This means that not only people get modelled as people, because when we start the process of modelling we don’t know it is a person or not. During the process of identifying (theorising) or imagining (simulating) person-like qualities we move the subject up and down what cognitive linguistics describes as an empathy scale, ranging from pure abstraction, through plants, machines and animals up to specific people we know well. Ever wonder why the internet is filled with pages of wondering why cats behave so much like us? Well now you know.
When the subject passes a certain level of empathy it becomes “impersonified” and we begin to react to them as if they were another person. The first thing to recognise from this is that we have greater empathy with close friends than we do with our neighbour, and even more so than with somebody we have only heard about and never met. The second is that anything we try to model will exist somewhere on this scale, not just people but also, including the dog barking in the middle of the night or the computer that keeps eating your backup files, and many of these things will be more like people to you than actual human beings. This is not a moral question: it is a psychological reality. Your pet cat is almost certainly more of a person to you than a stranger whose name you read in the paper.
Cognitive poetics posits that the same is true of characters in literature. Presented with the right signals, we begin to mind-model fictional characters in exactly the same way that we model people in reality. Given enough time, and enough data that we recognise as being the sort of things that people do, then fictional characters can become as real, or even more real, than people we have actually met. What’s more, because mind-modelling is an essentially empathetic process, there is a great deal of emotional investment involved. An impersonified character in a text can make us laugh or cry, can make us miss them and make us grieve in a fashion that is psychologically as real as the loss of a friend.
This makes creating characters (be they ‘people’ or otherwise) that the reader will impersonify a powerful or even essential quality in a writer’s work. This, however, can be achieved in only a few sentences – it usually has to be – because as mind-modellers we are used to have to fill up the gaps with ourselves. The meaning in the stories we write steps beyond denotational meaning (the dictionary meanings of the words) as the reader brings their connotational knowledge – their culture, their experiences, their understanding of what it means to be a person based upon their previous experiences of those things that they have impersonified.
This might seem like it makes the process of encouraging impersonification is impossible. After all, so much of what the reader experiences of the text is brought to the text by the reader. If you start a passage “You put down the cigarette and run your fingers through your hair”, what gender does the reader think your character has? What colour hair? Does a smoker experience the text differently from a non-smoker? Will the reader be disappointed if you break that illusion, telling them that the hair was long and not short, that they were a man and not a woman?
Just to make things even more difficult, our physical environment impacts how we respond to a text, and a text will change our experience of a physical environment; we read books differently if we are cold or hot, if we are comfortable or uncomfortable; Professor Stockwell even claims juries that sit on hard benches convict more often.
Given all these determinative elements that are external to the text, how are we to write in such a way as to encourage someone to believe our characters are people? Direct descriptions of appearance and actions, or speech, or illustrating their thoughts can all work. We are able to pull significance from someone staring out of the window while doing the washing up in the same way in text as we do in real life. But we need to describe the characters doing things that will signify to the reader that they act and think like a real person.
As a writer, that probably means going through the same process of mind-modelling with your characters as your reader will. Simulated mind-modelling involves imagining what you would do if you were that person, so you need to indulge in more than a little daydreaming for you characters; you need to think about these characters enough that they become real people to you as well. Theory mind-modelling involves looking for signs that indicate personhood. I can’t help but feel that this must link to the old show-don’t-tell axiom. Show your characters doing things that you remember other people doing when they felt the way your character feels. It seems round about, and it is much harder work for the writer than saying “Peter was sad”, but it is a much more direct and effective way to stimulate impersonification.
Do it well, and this can reach a stage where the character has what is known as portability – the reader becomes able to imagine them having a life of their own existing outside of the book. This ultimate lack of control over an impersonified character is actually a good thing; just like in real life, the reader fleshes your character out with their own personality, beginning with the key movements, actions, things they recognise as actions they might take themselves if they were in that situation. Successful characters must be loved and then set free, for the reader to make their own, for reader to love (or hate) for themselves.
Cognitive Poetics is something of a young discipline (by academic standards), and there’s an awful lot of potentially pretty dodgy multidisciplinary neuroscience going on in there which I have ignored for the purposes of this article. But the particular course I was studying was an example of the extraordinary quality of free, flexible resources available for writers. Professor Stockwell used a excellent series of videos and anecdotes to explore the idea of how we deal with transitions of time and identity. He is a senior professor at the University of Nottingham, where I read law somewhere on the other side of the hill from where they keep all those crazy arts students, and also a leading figure in cognitive poetics, so this isn’t just some random bloke on the internet.
Future Learn offers free online courses from British Universities. Visit the website and you can browse the available courses; the top three today were a course on Kitchen Chemistry from the University of East Anglia, one on Innovation and Enterprise from Loughborough University and another on Community Journalism from Cardiff University. I’ve already signed up for another one, a fiction writing course with the Open University that you can find here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/start-writing-fiction.
If you’d like to know more about Cognitive Poetics, then Peter’s introductory book on the subject is worth a read*, and future learn has a list of courses at www.futurelearn.com.
*** Stockwell P, Cognitive Poetics – An Introduction, Routledge (London: 2002)