24 February 2017

Verbs and Nouns

A sentence in John Pyles and Emily Grossman’s excellent review of ‘Neural Mechanisms for Biological motion and Animacy’ (in People Watching, OUP, 2013) catches my eye. Having presented solid evidence to support a finding that the superior temporal sulcus (STS) region is involved in encoding information relating to not just human biological motion but also abstracted representation of human social actions, they add: “A recent study by Bedny et al. (2008) found greater activation on STS for verbs than for nouns. This region was largely different from the region of STS selective for biological motion, but there was partial overlap.”

It reminds me immediately of something Basil Jones of Handspring likes to say – that (and I paraphrase) “as puppeteers, we are trying to turn nouns into verbs,” that is to say, to animate the objects. It is likely that this idea is quite literally active – that the animated puppet triggers a different brain region than those activated by the sight of the puppet lying on the table. I shall try to find out if it can keep them both in play.

Burial and weirdness

I have been a bit quiet over recent weeks because I have started meeting the researchers involved in the project and am starting to realise how much there is to know and how little I understand even my own questions. I am hoping to emerge from my cell eventually in an enlightened state – but suspect that even if I did, I would still only be aware of new, more refined levels of confusion. I’ve made my first few steps into understanding some of the processes by which we perceive people, bodies, agency and emotion, and am delighted to find that questions of self, other and empathy are close at hand. Perceptually, I wonder if I still need to find a researcher who works on instances when our perceptual expectations are confounded or inconsistent – a psychologist of feeling weird.

Frames

In a broader sense it’s clear that there is much to take into account about the particular situation of the puppet being visible as part (typically) of a dramatic narrative. I’m sure that this is even the case when the puppet is interacting directly with a perceiver (is that what the theatre historians call a post’-dramatic’ scenario?) – we still interpret this as a relationship with a fictional character, the puppet is never really perceived as ‘real’. [An exception to this might be in young children]. But in most cases we are ‘reading’ the puppet in a specific way, where all of its outputs are not just meaningful, but likely to have metaphorical and relational significance within a work of art. So we are substantially aided in perceiving life by context. It’s great to see that there is research showing that context affects perception – and therefore must affect theory of mind too.

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