Indieacademix: in the mix, academically. Irreverent and relevant was always the aim. Jack studied Psychology at St. Andrews and English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Excerpts from both Jack’s BA and MSc can be found here.
MSc Psychology Excerpts
From Evidence of increased reaction times with increased positive affect in a study of visual attention and recall
How we process information affects our responses – our thoughts, feelings and actions – to that information (Baer, 2011). How we feel when we process information appears to affect both what information is attended to and also what information can be later recollected (Clore & Palmer, 2009; Morgan, 2010). On the one hand, studies of depression with autobiographical memory have asserted that the lower, or more negative, our moods and emotions, the less able we are to recall specific episodes (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Williams, 2006). On the other hand, visual attention studies have associated negative moods and emotions with stimulus-specific, detailed, ‘local’ cognitive approaches to stimuli, and positive moods and emotions with heuristic, associative, ‘global’ cognitive approaches (Basso, Schefft, Ris, & Dember, 1996; Gasper & Clore, 2002). Independently of each other, these studies have correlated lesser specificity with opposing feelings. Based on a paradigm that assessed the relationship between self-reported affect and performance differences in tests of local and global visual stimuli processing (Gasper & Clore, 2002), this study introduced an episodic recall element in an attempt to reconcile these hitherto contradictory findings.
From Desert Island Kids, a thought experiment based on a New Scientist article
Islander see, islander do
When infants see others acting in a way that is similar to how they have acted in the past, acting “like me”, infants project that others have the mental experience that is concomitant with those behavioural states themselves. This gives infants a window into understanding others before spoken language can be used (Meltzoff, 2002).
As motor control increases, the babies will be able to sit-up and properly see one another. The children will begin, when completely relaxed, to not just smile but mirror others smiling too (Freedman, 1964 in Freedman, 1977). As a child recognises in other children actions they too have felt, the child may then begin to recognise other children as similar to itself (2002). In 1996, Meltzoff presented a sample of 18 month olds with a toy he knew they would not be able to open in the same way as an adult model might. He wanted to test two things. The first: whether his sample would recognise intention: the model’s hands slipped before they could open the toy. The second: what these toddlers would do if they could not directly imitate the intended action. The infants due to their smaller hands, could not un-assemble the toy with their hands either end of it as the model demonstrated – although they did at first attempt to. Instead, some of the children wedged the toy between their legs and then used their hands to pull it apart. Contemporaneous developments in neuroscience attributed specific neural regions to the observation and execution of movements. These regions were termed the ‘“mirror system”’ (2002). A general understanding of the ‘“mirror system”’ in monkeys was furthered with the discovery of individual ‘mirror neurons’ that fired in the same circumstances (Winerman, 2005). These findings suggest that learning in primates is hardwired.
Indeed, Whiten, Custance, Gomez, Teixidor and Bard found that children may over-imitate, at times to a fault (1996). In their study, kids aged between two and a half and four and a half years old and ‘nonenculturated’ chimpanzees – which is to say apes bred in captivity – were presented with a clear box, or ‘artificial fruit’ (1996). Both groups sat opposite an adult model who ‘demonstrated’ how to open the box. Neither group was directed to imitate, but, having seen their human model perform the task and wanting the same outcome, both groups over-performed. The children imitated the model’s superfluous actions and proceeded to repeat them, in some cases over 200 times more than the model had actually demonstrated. The chimps also over-imitated but to a lesser extent (1996). The study indicates that apes bred in captivity are at a disadvantage due to a predisposition to imitate humans and also their lack of enculturation, of learning from other chimpanzees like them. The experimenters intimated that ‘enculturated’ apes would simply do what was necessary to obtain or de-shell their fruit, that wild chimps were more likely to emulate successful human actions rather than imitate them. Where the latter experiment indicated that children – and to some degree ‘nonenculturated’ apes – because of a desire to please an adult and even be like the adult, would over-imitate, Meltzoff’s study implied that once children recognised the goal, and not the process, as the desirable outcome they would then strive to achieve that (2002). On the adult-less island, the action is purely selfish: the child is hungry and food abates hunger, there is no performance or need to please anyone else. When one child realises that the inside of an object is edible (and enjoyable) – a banana, for example – and they then find other sealed fruit like it, they will do what is necessary to open it. Watching children may copy the original child’s actions, because they are ‘“like me”’, and, should Meltzoff’s study be a better fit, maybe go on to discover an extraction process that works better for them. Important for the infant islanders was that both studies employed non-verbal cues. And ‘action’, according to Meltzoff, is the ‘lingua franca, that does not depend on words’ (2002). In the case of our currently wordless children, I hope this to hold true.
From Mirror Self-Recognition in Young Children
Of the children who passed the MSR task in our study, many often appeared to look in the direction of the sticker but then carry on playing before finally interacting with it. There are two concerns to be raised here. First, we might ask: were these toddlers really only self-aware if they touched the sticker? Were they definitively not self-aware if they did not touch the sticker? Indeed, if they did touch the sticker, was that then an absolute confirmation of their self-awareness? Robinson, Connell, McKenzie and Day (1990) found, for example, that 22-month-old infants did not need to identify themselves in a mirror – much less see themselves in a mirror – in order to use solely that mirror (and not peripheral vision) to locate a toy near to them. This might suggest that subjects would not need to recognise themselves as the object the sticker was attached to in order to spot it and then touch it. These toddlers would then likely pass the MSR paradigm because they would be able to interact with the sticker while looking in the mirror.
In a variant of the MSR task, Johnson (1983) positioned his infant subjects in front of a television that displayed alternately live images of the infant and pre-recorded footage of other young children. He found that even when the video image was non-contingent – which is to say that of another infant and thus not explicitly mirroring the present subject – when an image of a child with an experimenter-applied mark on their face appeared on the screen, subjects would often rub their own faces, but were not likely to if the displayed infant (live or pre-recorded) did not have a mark on their face. De Veer and van den Bos (1999) appositely advised in their review of nonhuman primate MSR studies that it was just as easy to over-read significance into a subject’s actions as it was to dismiss – or simply miss – genuinely significant behaviour. For instance, Norm condition children might be quicker to demonstrate MSR simply because the sticker is more obvious and then more salient when more stickers are visible. Akin to Robinson et al.’s study, the adults, to the infants, might simply not be as interesting as the stickers they are attached to, so that lower Norm group latency might actually indicate increased sticker saliency rather than greater self-awareness or normative understanding. Indeed, where latency has been used as an indicator of subject hesitancy, and paradigm passing children seemed to recognise that they had a sticker on their heads but carried on playing, we might actively question in those instance whether the delay was a result of normative unsurety or simply subject indifference towards the sticker.
If mirror self-recognition is to be maintained as a generic assumption of self-awareness then a recalibrated assessment framework would be prudent for further studies (Nielsen, Suddendorf, & Slaughter, 2006). So that ‘false negative’ subjects who are distracted, lacking task-awareness rather than self-concept, and ‘false positive’ subjects who absent-mindedly look in the mirror while touching the mark are better recognised and incorporated into analyses.
BA English Literature Excerpts
From ‘My only sin is in my skin’, or Otherness in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s anonymous storyteller is ultimately figured in the novel as its eponymous hero. The protagonist is named in the story – though this is never disclosed to the reader – but it is not until the tale’s conclusion (which is also its prologue) that he finally establishes his own identity. He is not a name given to him by anyone else, nor is he simply a black man; Ellison’s narrator is the prototypical Invisible Man. From the extract’s outset he is keen to assert his alterity in relation to the reader:
Since you never recognize me even when in closest contact with me, and since, no doubt, you’ll hardly believe that I exist, it won’t matter if you know that I tapped a power line in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see.
This excerpt depicts Invisible Man’s forgone conclusions of what he presumes will be a white readership. The anaphora ‘you’ is squared directly at the reader; it is accusatory and inescapable and ‘Since’, the first word of this sentence, becomes the first indicator of his resolve. He is not assuming that his reader does not ‘recognize’ him; he is telling them that they do not. This then coupled with ‘no doubt’ is a further affirmation of this belief. The statement ‘you’ll hardly believe that I exist’ is not so much a signpost to his distinct Otherness as it is him bating the reader to not believe in him. The line ‘it won’t matter if you know’ then highlights a belittling of his audience. He does not see his readership as a threat: they are necessary for him to assert his status as Other against. By then insinuating that he ‘was chased’ into his subterranean dwelling he evokes images of lynch mobs and implies that his alterity is something that both has been feared and should still be feared. Indeed, the very notion that he, a human, lives underground also suggests an unnatural, misanthropic existence.
Invisible Man tells us that he was chased but now he sees. He has ‘illuminated the blackness of [his] invisibility’. This has been achieved by tapping the ‘power line’, which both literally lights up his dwelling and becomes a metaphor for his own intellectual enlightenment. He realises a paradox: that because he is black he is not seen – something he attributes to the man that bumped into him – and that he is not seen because he is black. The man he collides with is described prior to this passage as a ‘tall blond man’ (p.4) evoking images of the Aryan blonde idealised by the fascist Nazi regime. It is because the blonde man, the white man, controls the ‘dream world’ that the black man is rendered invisible – because the white man does not want to ‘recognize’ him and therefore accept the existence of the Other. Invisible Man’s use of ‘my’ then compounds the idea that this recognition is solely his own.
The narrator’s consciousness of this contradiction becomes a positive aspect of his identity. He acknowledges that he ‘was’ but no longer is an orator – this is fine – he has become instead, like Louis Armstrong playing on his speaker system, a music maker. ‘[T]he invisible music of his isolation’ was only heard by the rabbles he roused as an orator for the ‘Brotherhood’ (p.13 and throughout) and this African folk tradition of spoken stories did not sustain him. It is through writing and not speaking his thoughts that his words have become effectively embodied. Just as ‘only musicians’ see music, because it is represented in notes on the page, he asserts that by putting his thoughts ‘down in black and white’ – and importantly not just one or the other – his invisibility will be seen transliterated by blackness onto the white page. He takes the dominant and literal ‘master’ narrative of writing – the same writing used by white men to file slave receipts – and appropriates it to assert his own receipt of identity.
From Representations of Illness in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?” She answered, “I want to die.”
The preface to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (here translated) is perhaps the poem’s bleakest image. Eliot alludes to the Cumaean Sybil, who once a gifted oracle is shown in 1922 to be desiccated, defeated and desperate for death. Eliot’s society was afflicted by a condition known as modernity – particularly the advancement of technology – that drove nations to the first global war and humanity to distraction. The Waste Land is a barren post-World War One panorama, whose symptoms are a preoccupation with replication and an inability to naturally reproduce.
In 1924 Eliot foresaw in his essay ‘Marie Lloyd’ the demise of the Melanesian people due to an affliction caught from the ailing West, what W.H.R. Rivers termed “Civilization” (Eliot 1986: 459). Due to the introduction of cinemas and gramophones in their archipelago, Eliot suggested that the Melanesians were ‘dying from pure boredom’ (1986: 459), that they were becoming sterilised by the ‘senseless’ and ‘too rapid’ (1986: 458) technology of recorded image and sound. The reader is presented with an example of this desolation in ‘The Fire Sermon’ of The Waste Land:
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces around her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
In his essay ‘Death by Gramophone’, Knowles deftly notes the mechanisation of the typist’s actions: ‘a woman who after using machines for a living has mechanical sex in mechanical quatrains following which she smoothes her hair with automatic hand’. Eliot images the typist as an automaton, a deceptive embodiment of spontaneous movement, who, surrounded by machines for both work and leisure becomes a soulless machine herself; a replication of human existence, which, as the gramophone, lacks the humanity it imitates. Moreover, the author this time is not depicting an illness exclusive to a far-off region, this ‘lovely woman’ could be any one of Eliot’s contemporary society decidedly not caught up in the excitement of the Western ‘Jazz Age’ but instead isolated and ‘alone’ in their room. In The Waste Land, Eliot pits head against heart as somatic enemies, where feeling becomes sublimated by automatic thought. The metrical form of this segment is further indicative of illness. The four lines preceding read:
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad its over.’
Eliot rhythmically establishes what could be a Petrarchan sonnet – the lines are written in iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme is conventional abab alternate rhyme – but first subverts the amour expected by depicting the woman as both ravished and relieved that her ‘lover’ has left her alone. The quatrains even though they are ‘mechanical’ are rooted in tradition and yet there can be no affirming volta simply because there is no love. The sonnet like the Sybil in 1922 is rendered emaciated or, as Christina Hauck more brutally puts it, the form is ‘aborted’.
From Smokes and Volcanoes
There’s a new white car on the pavement outside Andy’s house. The railings are now red not ‘forged black’ as we had painted them and his mum had given us a fiver each for doing. I can see that the silver blinds his mum liked to always keep shut are gone. There aren’t any blinds. I knock on the front door and see a little kid in striped blue and white dungarees run into the front room. The kid picks up a tennis ball, finds his balance using a taped-up cardboard box, and totters back out.
There’s a shout from upstairs. I turn around and there’s a collapsed ‘for sale’ sign nestled into the shadow cast by the low wall under the railings. I’m halfway down the posh-brick road of The Stripe when I hear the door of 83 open, its letterbox clanging, and then shut and clang again as the new people see that there’s no one to answer to.
The sun’s set now and I zip up my thin, green, check jacket as I walk down the High Street past the Panda and the waft of prawn crackers and hoi sin and I turn left to follow the Leven up to Suicide Bridge. I climb on top of the cool cast-iron railings and sit down in between the rivets to finish my last Marlboro Light. What an idiot! The lad had landed eight feet below in the Leven and all that had happened was that he’d sprained his ankle. He passed out because he’d popped too many paracetamol and when he woke up his face was covered in nettle stings from the bank. If I ever get like that – not able to kill myself – I want someone to shoot me.
Andy was right; it was daft calling it a ‘River’. The Leven was just a trickle from the Hambleton Hills, a stream at the best of times. Don’t get me wrong, I used to love paddling about in it every Saturday afternoon when I was growing up and getting bread with our nan to feed the ducks while we ate our custard slices. Just before the river bends round and into the shade I can see the bank that our dinghy got shored up on; there’s a traffic cone leaning there now like a monument to our endeavor. I take out my battered Nokia and find Andy’s number at the top of the phonebook. I dial it and swat away the midges that have smelled me from the nettles. The phone keeps ringing and then, ‘I’m sorry, but the person you are trying to reach is currently unavailable. After the tone, please leave –’, I can’t bring myself to leave a message.
From Perdition: A Critical Self-Analysis
In order to produce a cogent, contiguous structure to my poems I elected to pursue the notion of ‘perdition’, that is to say the state of absolute ruin or the intermediary journey to ruin. The instances in this collection vary from surveying dilapidated buildings to dilapidated people while always trying to find some form of still-unrepressed life in each of them. I have attempted to capture these moments as I saw them and relay them as objectively as possible to the reader; thus my aim was to de-sentimentalize experiences that have had some significance in my life.
This is not to say that my aim was always so clear. I had originally intended to write a sequence of five to six longer poems centered on detached narrators and the difficulty of introspection when one spends so long following others but found that this psychoanalytic poetry was not only already well covered but was also quite limiting in terms of writing original and engaging narratives. Though potential collection titles came in abundance, the poems inspired by the theme simply lacked intrigue.
The notion of imaging ruin however was sparked by a seminar project in which we were asked to walk around Sheffield, preferably to places we had hitherto not been, and simply see what we could find – irrespective of whether or not these places were initially remarkable. As a concept I found the notion of limbo fascinating. It derives from man’s inability to know what – if anything – happens after death. It is however, I feel, not limited to a state of post-life but also experienced in our daily routines, where even the word ‘routine’ makes me shudder, as Samuel Beckett reminds us: “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” Through an exploration of memory, place, structure, pared-down diction and punctuation I have attempted to turn seven distinct experiences into seven gradations of this perpetual state.