Art & empathy

October 13th, 2014

I’m trying to choose reading material for our upcoming vacation, and am debating whether or not to give the “Game of Thrones” books a whirl. I like political intrigue and family drama and dark, violent themes in my books–I also read fast, so a nice long read is a good thing, for a trip. (Even with a Kindle, it’s nice to stay in the same fictive world for a while, when your external environment changes every day.) On the other hand, I’m terrible at visualizing while reading, so extended battle sequences are a no-go, and also I can never follow espionage plots, so there’d better not be any of those.

I’ve asked my friends to chime in, but of course they aren’t going to take any of that into account, they’re simply going to tell me whether or not to read the books based on whether or not they liked them.

It’s a real cognitive load, apparently, to regenerate your memory of a particular experience and judge it against someone else’s criteria. I got interested in that idea a few years before I finished grad school–the idea that most people, even thoughtful and other-oriented people, find it very hard to recommend books (or movies, leisure activities, or restaurants) that will appeal to someone else. The mind defaults to a kind of distributive property of affection: If I like Friend, and I like Book, Friend will surely like Book!

Recently I was in D.C. and had dinner with a writer friend and his wife, a lovely and gracious couple, and mentioned to them after dinner that I was planning to visit the Smithsonian Museums the following day. I must, I was told immediately and enthusiastically by my friend, must see the Air & Space Museum. As he extolled its virtues I made eye contact with his wife, and in her dancing eyes I read the following: “You’re all about the First Lady dresses and the Great Hall of Mammals, aren’t you?” Yes, yes I am. Technology and machinery do not excite me, and I think my friend probably realized that on an abstract level, but his enthusiasm got the better of him. The kind of arts-empathy I was looking for really is difficult to generate and maintain.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is the unconscious assumption mentioned above, that everything I love must also love each other. The other is that memory doesn’t work like a video recorder. We remember what we encode, and we encode what is relevant to us. When my friends with kids ask me if a particular book or play would be appropriate for their child, I usually can’t answer, because I wasn’t watching or reading through that filter in the first place. So the stuff that I’m looking for, or looking to avoid, in an artistic experience might not even exist in your memory of that experience.

I think, though, that the basic reason people are terrible at predicting what other people would like is simply that they’re not trying hard enough. Almost all social reasoning–figuring out who to trust, what social cues to mimic, etc.–is done through rough, semi-aware heuristics. You can improve your reasoning through active effort. Social interaction is so much the water in which we fishies swim that half the time we’re not even fully conscious of it.

I used to randomly shove books that I loved at people I loved, and sometimes it would “take” and sometimes it wouldn’t. In grad school, my dissertation was on mental models of literary genres–or how people think about different kinds of stories–and started using my own research to better predict what I, and my good-read-seeking friends, might enjoy. It’s a fun exercise.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about what types of books (or plays, movies, television shows–stories are stories, to some extent) you enjoy.

Do you prefer

… stories about a complex individual or stories about a whole society?
… stories in which people compete with each other or in which they cooperate to solve a problem?
… stories that are universal in theme or stories that paint a vivid picture of a particular time and place?
… stories about extraordinary, unusual people and events, or stories about the ordinary and everyday?
… stories in which people are from very different walks of life, or stories about groups of equals?

It’s a different way of thinking than the usual “mystery,” “science fiction,” “romance” categories. See if it helps you make better recommendations!

Sunday column: Ladytax edition

October 12th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s one of those odd ones with one serious and one not-so-very question. I hope they balance all right to the reader.

The first is from a woman who has overheard neighbors fighting, and seen the relationship end and then, unfortunately, renew itself. What struck me when I read it the first time was how much mental energy the LW had put into the situation already. I wrote, “First off, I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this. Intimate-partner abuse doesn’t only affect the direct victim but that person’s family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors?—?it’s not merely a private concern, but a public health problem.” The immediate evil of domestic violence, or rape, or harassment, or discrimination, is apparent, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of energy even women who are not victims spend in thinking about these things. The waste of all that energy.

And this week Amanda Taub wrote a piece in Vox that sums up everything I was thinking:

Which brings us to the ways in which these sorts of attitudes disadvantage all women. When our society treats consent as “everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance,” that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.

As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.

Taub’s piece focuses on rape and sexual crimes, but her point can be taken more generally. A smart analysis, and a sobering one.

“All About Emily” and acting natural

October 8th, 2014

This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

(You can read part of the story here.)

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)

“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.

What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.

A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.

Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.

Stephen King is making Ebola worse

October 7th, 2014

Salon addresses Ebola panic:

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.

Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.

Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.

I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:

… and I believe it, I really do.

But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.

I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.

And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”

This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.

And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.

Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.

Sunday column: Everyone’s Poor Edition

October 5th, 2014

Today’s column is online here and, like last week’s, features a story of cheapness. Last week’s LW wanted to skimp on paying a babysitter the going rate–this week’s LWs have been “invited to spend a weekend with friends at their Cape vacation home. In addition to the request to buy and cook dinner one night, we are also asked to bring a roll of toilet paper, paper towels, our own beverages, including bottled water, and provide our own lunches throughout the weekend.”

I’ve got a few more like that in the pipeline, too. I try to keep the column balanced, with not too many questions in a row on the same topic, or too many where I say the LW is wrong, or so on. People like variety. But the money questions are coming in fast and furious. In the next couple of weeks I’ve got one about how much one should contribute to a group gift, another one about cheap hosts that I discussed on my Facebook page, and one about what to do when you’re hit up for donations by friends.

I’ll believe the recession is over when I stop having to worry about running too many money questions in a row.

Science informing theater: Autism-friendly “Lion King”

October 1st, 2014

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook* and I found it fascinating. “The Lion King,” playing in Boston through October 11, will be doing an “autism-friendly” performance on October 10. From Boston Magazine:

The show is still the same production that we all know and love, but with some slight tweaks in order to create a sensory-friendly and, most-importantly, judgment-free environment. Some of the unique elements include: a reduction of jarring sounds and overall intensity and volume level; the elimination of strobe lights focused on the audience; the addition of a “calming area” for audience members; and trained staff and volunteers to provide real-time support.

“They leave the house lights up so that people can come and go,” [director of state government affairs for Autism Speak Judith] Ursitti says. “That’s a big accommodation that they provide. Many times, people with autism need a sensory break and they need a place to go. The production itself, what you see on the stage, the changes are subtle. It’s mainly sound and lighting changes. The scene with the hyenas in the elephant graveyard where there’s a lot of little geysers shooting up and there lots of light and noise, they only do one little light, and special effects like that are reduced.”

Now that’s science theater! The idea that autistic kids might enjoy plays, but have a hard time coping with the sensory overload and the social rules of theatergoing, is frankly groundbreaking. Until recently–I mean until very recently–we were thinking of autism only in terms deficits in social reasoning. And if autistic people didn’t understand the games people play and the motivations that led them to play those games, what on earth could they possibly get out of going to a show? Increasingly, though, researchers are looking at the autism spectrum in terms of sensory processing. This is clearly the model that the modified “Lion King” is using.

This article in Salon–an excerpt from Gregory Hickok’s book on neurology and cognition–is a heavy read, but does an outstanding job explaining the various controversies in the field. Here he is on the logic of the sensory-overload hypothesis:

This kind of effect—hyper-responsivity leading to avoidance— is observed regularly and uncontroversially in the sensory domain. Autistic individuals often cover their ears when even moderately loud sounds are present in the environment and exhibit other forms of avoidance behavior. As with the rock concert sound system example at the beginning of this chapter, if an autistic person failed to get information out of moderately loud sounds or simply left the room, we wouldn’t say that he or she had a diminished capacity to hear the sound. The response is more readily explained as an increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation. As autistic author Temple Grandin said in a radio interview, “How is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside the speaker at a rock ‘n’ roll concert and it’s hurting their ears?” Good question.

One piece of evidence cited for autistics’ supposed lack of concern for other people’s mental states is that autistic people often do not look at faces, either in social situations or in lab experiments. However, what if faces contained too much information for them to focus on?

Also consistent with the alternative, emotional hyperreactivity hypothesis are statements from autistic individuals themselves. Here’s a sample gleaned from a paper covering face processing in autism: It’s painful for me to look at other people’s faces. Other people’s eyes and mouths are especially hard for me to look at.

My lack of eye contact sometimes makes people, especially my teachers and professors, think that I’m not paying attention to them.

—Matthew Ward, student, University of Wisconsin

Eyes are very intense and show emotions. It can feel creepy to be searched with the eyes. Some autistic people don’t even look at the eyes of actors or news reporters on television.

—Jasmine Lee O’Neill, author

For all my life, my brothers and everyone up ’til very recently, have been trying to make me look at them straight in the face. And that is about the hardest thing that I, as an autistic person, can do, because it’s like hypnosis. And you’re looking at each other square in the eye, and it’s very draining.

—Lars Perner, professor, San Diego State University

These are revealing statements for two reasons. First, they provide a clear indication of an intact theory of mind in these individuals (“my lack of eye contact . . . makes people . . . think that . . .”). And second, active avoidance of eye contact provides just as much evidence for sensitivity to the information contained therein as does active engagement of eye contact. If you can’t recognize that there is information in the eyes, why avoid them?

In this piece from the New York Times, a father recounts how Disney movies have enabled him to connect with his autistic son. Owen Suskind’s extreme affinity for Disney movies gave him an emotional vocabulary, a set of images and metaphors and models for being that he could use to interact with the world around him. He learned to read by sussing out the credits.

Owen’s chosen affinity clearly opened a window to myth, fable and legend that Disney lifted and retooled, just as the Grimm Brothers did, from a vast repository of folklore. Countless cultures have told versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” which dates back 2,000 years to the Latin “Cupid and Psyche” and certainly beyond that. These are stories human beings have always told themselves to make their way in the world.

But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.

The latest research that Cornelia and I came across seems to show that a feature of autism is a lack of traditional habituation, or the way we become used to things. Typically, people sort various inputs, keep or discard them and then store those they keep. Our brains thus become accustomed to the familiar. After the third viewing of a good movie, or a 10th viewing of a real favorite, you’ve had your fill. Many autistic people, though, can watch that favorite a hundred times and seemingly feel the same sensations as the first time. While they are soothed by the repetition, they may also be looking for new details and patterns in each viewing, so-called hypersystemizing, a theory that asserts that the repetitive urge underlies special abilities for some of those on the spectrum.

Disney provided raw material, publicly available and ubiquitous, that Owen, with our help, built into a language and a tool kit. I’m sure, with enough creativity and energy, this can be done with any number of interests and disciplines. For some kids, their affinity is for train schedules; for others, it’s maps. While our household may not be typical, with a pair of writerly parents and a fixation on stories — all of which may have accentuated and amplified Owen’s native inclinations — we have no doubt that he shares a basic neurological architecture with people on the autism spectrum everywhere.

The challenge is how to make our example useful to other families and other kids, whatever their burning interest. That’s what Team Owen seems to be talking about. How does this work? Is there a methodology? Can it be translated from anecdote to analysis and be helpful to others in need?

Yes, parents of neurotypical kids, there are children who want to watch “Frozen” over and over again in a way that makes your daughter look like a quitter. Let it go!

From laboratory to stage to family rec room, scientists and artists and parents are using stories and theater to understand the human mind–and using our increasing knowledge of the human mind to tell stories in new ways. Ways that more of us can understand.

This kind of thing excites me, and fills me with great hope.

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Thoughts on science theater from a local actor

September 29th, 2014

Casey Preston, a local actor who excels at playing men who are not very intelligent, is in fact very intelligent (that’s the “acting” part, you see!) and wrote an absolutely brilliant response to the beginning of my science-theater manifesto. He’s a little bit skeptical of the endeavor. Here’s what he had to say–much to chew on and I wanted to make sure no one missed it:

I have a number of thoughts floating around in my head about science theater due to being an actor, having a graduate degree in the sciences, having done dramaturgy and acted in science based shows, and having watched more than a few. Mostly, I think theater about science is a trap.
Here are just a few brief thoughts:
1) Almost invariably, actors speaking about scientific concepts sound like they do not understand what they are saying. It is like speaking in a foreign language and having a vague idea of the concept, but not a firm grasp or conceptualization of the actual words.
2) When a show is about competing ideas, the director and actors often try to enhance the drama of the debate. After all, theater is about conflict, right? But, if you are having a passionate argument about science, you are doing science wrong. The scientific method is about testing ideas, not arguing about them. Turning science into a competitive debate is fundamentally misunderstanding and doing a disservice to science. This is how we end up with the fiascos of climate change and vaccinations.
3) The vast majority of audiences don’t want to go to a show whose fundamental purpose is about teaching them about science. Most people don’t enjoy science. Sure, they like entertaining shows that touch on scientific themes, but actual scientific research is boring.
4) Science and research is a very introverted activity. Therefore, shows about these topics have to find artificial ways to make it interesting. Of course, this is the nature of theater, but it also fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the scientific process. Also, most scientists are quite introverted and this can make public presentations by scientists boring.
5) Almost all scientific based shows seem to have this eureka moments of discovery. “Oh my goodness, I just cured polio!” Great theater, but it misrepresents how almost all actual science works.

All that being said, the scientific shows that seem to get produced the most and are the most successful are generally biographical in nature. The scientific themes are not driving the plot and it is still a character based show. Often these shows fall into the trap of having big arguments and conflict around scientific concepts and eureka moments of discovery, but it is still entertaining.

Most people with a decent science education have long ago learned to disregard all science in movies and television so that they can still enjoy the story. The science in entertainment is always junk. I realize that this is the basic point of your blog post- that it doesn’t have to be junk. But, as any decent writer will tell you, the reality of the situation is driven by the emotional life of the characters, not the external physics or processes of the environment. This is why I, personally, preferred the absolute scientific unreality of Snowpiercer, to the almost reality of Apes. I kept questioning the science in Apes, like why people all congregated in the fort and how their power worked, whereas in Snowpiercer I could just accept that the physics served the story and the characters.

Finally, I think the real market for science based theater is educational theater for elementary and middle school. Parents and some schools are willing to pay for theater if they think their kids will learn something. Much more so than they are willing to pay to go see science based theater themselves. Also, the basic science at these levels is much more exciting and the joy of discovery more immediate.

Good luck with your endeavor. I think it is a worthwhile cause, but I also think it can be very hard to do science theater well.

I don’t think Casey has put the bullet through the head of science theater, but he’s certainly identified a lot of the problems with it. His first point, about actors not knowing what they’re saying … yes. I’ve seen that. But I’ve also seen Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It’s not inevitable. One thing I’d like to see happen in Boston would be for actors to know where to go to research science-heavy roles, and for local scientists to open themselves up to be “shadowed” by actors looking to learn.

His points about the tension between science and story are harder to reconcile. One of the reasons I chose to study narrative in grad school was because of my increasing realization that the human mind puts events in story form–it just does–but reality is under no obligation to conform to narrative constraints. We see stories even when they aren’t there. Show people a bunch of shapes moving randomly around a screen and ask them to narrate, and you’ll get a story–”The big circle is chasing the little triangle so it’s hiding with the squares …” And we have culturally conditioned expectations of what a “good” story is. And that high-conflict, big-moment, dramatized “good” story, as Casey rightly points out, is often very untrue to the science of the thing.

Does it have to be? That’s the question. Must story always traduce science? This is what Central Square Theater’s “Emilie” is about.

And if you can tell a story about whether “storifying” is a problem in science, then obviously stories aren’t all bad. But are we making a mistake to get the concept of “science theater” all hung up on stories anyway? Maybe stories aren’t the way to do science theater. Casey is right that tales of great discoveries that are realized to be such in the moment, and scientists with bigger-than-life personalities, and vivid yet comprehensible-to-the-layperson arguments are thin on the ground in real science.

But both science and theater operate under the rubric of demonstration. Scientists have to show their results. They set the stage for a thing to happen, and watch to see if that thing does happen, and try their best to make it happen in a way that will convince everyone else that they, too, saw the same thing, and it means what the scientists said it meant. If that’s not show business, I don’t know what is. There has to be something in that.

Sunday column: Never Mind That, Go See This Play Edition

September 28th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a scorcher–I don’t often come down hard on Letter Writers, even when they’re wrong, but I did on this one. You just don’t argue a teenager into taking less money than she thinks is fair to babysit your kid for a whole day. That’s just wrong:

But I’m not fussed that you didn’t know the current market rates. What I am fussed by is that you verbally bullied a teenager into giving up an entire Saturday for an amount of money that she clearly felt wasn’t worth it. Oh yes you did. Don’t you play all innocent with me. When an adult dumps a whole load of facts over a kid’s head like a verbal ice bucket challenge, that’s bullying?—?the polite, civilized kind that leaves the victim feeling like the bad guy. Have you read any of the studies about how women don’t negotiate their salaries as aggressively as men do? The next time you’re sitting down over the latte and cronut that you bought with the $16 you saved by haggling a teenager down to minimum wage, you might want to catch up on that literature. And ask yourself where, exactly, young women get the notion that their labor isn’t worth much and that assertiveness doesn’t pay off. And ask yourself if that’s the world you want your daughter to grow up in.

I’m glad people are still talking about the ice bucket challenge. That’s the problem with writing a hip, “now” advice column that has a four-week-advance deadline–I do sometimes throw in pop-culture references and hope that we’re still doing that thing, or no one has found out anything horrible about that instant celebrity, in three more weeks when the column runs.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s freaking gorgeous production of “Comedy of Errors,” which we saw last night (and which also illustrates the character-eroding dangers of treating one’s household help poorly). Director David Gammons conceived the play as the production of a small number of off-hours circus sideshow performers–sisters Ariana and Luciana, for example, are played by a pair of “conjoined twins,” Sarah Newhouse and Richard Snee. (Yes, Richard. Because it’s a madhouse circus!) It’s hilariously funny–there is usually more going on onstage than you can fully take in–and surprisingly moving. Mostly, though, it’s breathtakingly inventive and fun to watch–the showbiz hilarity of “30 Rock” with the creepy vibe of Tom Waits and Amanda Palmer layered over it.

If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before because you thought it would be boring, or that you wouldn’t understand the language–go see this one. The actors are all playing characters who also think that about Shakespeare, see! So it’s all extremely clear and vividly illustrated.

Basically, with this production, ASP just did for Shakespeare what Joss Whedon did for horror movies in “Cabin in the Woods.”

I’m going to shut up about it now and leave you with a picture and a link to the tickets page.

Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

Dramatic readings from science reports, and other events

September 26th, 2014

So many science events! Tonight, Mr. Improbable will be doing “Improbable Dramatic Readings — brief public readings from bizarre — yet genuine — scientific studies” at 7pm at Porter Square Books. Per Mr. I:

The studies — which we will treat as if they are dramatic literature written for actors to perform — are things I wrote about in my new book This Is Improbable Too.

The guest readers are:
Robin Abrahams (“Miss Conduct” columnist, and assistant opera director at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony)
Jean Berko Gleason (Boston University Professor Emerita of Psychology, creator of the Wug Test, and deliverer of the “Welcome, Welcome” speech at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony)
Gary (pork-up-his-nose) Dryfoos (Majordomo at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and new Internet celebrity and press darling because of his photogenic demonstration, at the recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, of how and why doctors stuffed cured pork up a patient’s nose)

We did a similar event at Harvard Bookstore earlier this month, with Harvard physics professor Melissa Franklin, BU prof Corky White, and Emperor of Ice Cream Gus Rancatore–and me–as guest readers. Here’s the WGBH film of the event!

The outstanding science playEmilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight” continues at Central Square Theater this weekend through October 5.

On Monday I’m going to an afternoon lecture on “Science/Fiction: Dramatic Arts as a Medium for Translating Science” by Benjamin Morris, a member of the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT. This talk is part of the Science, Technology and Society series at Harvard, also featuring a lecture on “Ecologies of Paradox: A Typology of Scientific Surprise in the Anthropocene” later next month. I can’t wait to go to that one.

Next weekend, MIT presents Hacking Arts 2014:

“In a world… that increasingly values sensory experiences over physical things, interactions between the arts and technology are producing more moving, interactive, personal and immersive experiences than ever before. To extend these capabilities and inspire new advances in the creative industries, we present… Hacking Arts”

This looks fantastic–dig this crazy schedule for Saturday, featuring all kinds of lectures and live performers–but it’s Yom Kippur, dammit. But you, you should go ahead and go. I’ll stay here and atone. In the dark.

Coming up–

Tickets to BAHFest, the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, are on sale and selling quickly, so get yours now! BAHFest, coming to Boston on October 19, is one of the best nights of science comedy I’ve seen. I’ll be seeing it again this year, as a judge, onstage, so come say hello afterward.

Finally, the Cambridge Science Festival is accepting submissions for its 2015 Festival, running April 17-26. Proposals are due December 5:

The Cambridge Science Festival team is busy planning our 9th annual festival! Every year, awesome people, companies, labs, businesses and organizations host events and programs to celebrate science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) at the festival. Now is your chance to join us! Submit proposals for lectures, performances, activities, exhibits, tours, debates, workshops, or creative new ideas we’ve never imagined.

We look for events that offer audience appeal and technical feasibility while we also consider site availability and funding. You are encouraged to involve community organizations in the planning and production of your events so that we can make sure as much of the community is involved in and benefits from the festival as possible. Don’t worry, the whole process is curated so that we can ensure the highest quality festival.

So, hey! Come join us!! There’s a heck of a lot of really cool science out there and it’s time we celebrated the good stuff!! Submit an event or contact us with questions and ideas!

Miss Conduct needs your workplace questions!

September 25th, 2014

I’m doing a special column for an upcoming issue on “Best Places to Work,” and am looking for office-etiquette or career-planning questions. You can leave them in comments or email them to

Autobiographical memory and H.M.

September 24th, 2014

Do women remember life events better than men?

A better question might be, do little girls get taught to remember better than boys? According to Slate, this might be the case:

Researchers are finding some preliminary evidence that women are indeed better at recalling memories, especially autobiographical ones. Girls and women tend to recall these memories faster and with more specific details, and some studies have demonstrated that these memories tend to be more accurate, too, when compared to those of boys and men. And there’s an explanation for this: It could come down to the way parents talk to their daughters, as compared to their sons, when the children are developing memory skills.

To understand this apparent gender divide in recalling memories, it helps to start with early childhood—specifically, ages 2 to 6. Whether you knew it or not, during these years, you learned how to form memories, and researchers believe this happens mostly through conversations with others, primarily our parents. These conversations teach us how to tell our own stories, essentially; when a mother asks her child for more details about something that happened that day in school, for example, she is implicitly communicating that these extra details are essential parts to the story.

And these early experiments in storytelling assist in memory-making, research shows. One recent study tracked preschool-age kids whose mothers often asked them to elaborate when telling stories; later in their lives, these kids were able to recall earlier memories than their peers whose mothers hadn’t asked for those extra details.

But the way parents tend to talk to their sons is different from the way they talk to their daughters. Mothers tend to introduce more snippets of new information in conversations with their young daughters than they do with their young sons, research has shown. And moms tend to ask more questions about girls’ emotions; with boys, on the other hand, they spend more time talking about what they should do with those feelings.

A few years ago, I was leading a post-show talkback after a production of “Yesterday Happened,” a play at Central Square Theater about Henry Molaison, better known as “H.M.” H.M. was a man born in the 1920s who suffered from severe epilepsy, and the surgery used to cure it–removal of most of his hippocampus and amygdala–also prevented him from ever forming new memories. He lived in 10-minute increments, much like the man in “Memento.” Much of what we know about how human memory works is because of experiments performed on H.M.

Anyway, one of the audience members who stayed for the talkback pointed out that H.M. seemed to have a notable lack of memories from before his surgery as well, and what was up with that?

I said that I didn’t know, but that H.M. reminded me of my father in many respects–the same generation, general ethnic background and social class, IQ and intellectual ambitions, overall temperament–and he hadn’t had a lot of specific memories, either. I pointed out the fact that memory isn’t an automatic recording of events, and that my father simply never bothered to encode a great deal about his own experiences, and you don’t remember what you don’t encode. He was taught to value facts, observable phenomena, and social expectations–not his own personal mythology. He didn’t make a big deal about his life story and the various chapters thereof, the way people do today.

After the talkback, an older man in the audience came up to me and said I was exactly right about the psychology of men of his generation and station in life.

There’s a new play about H.M. in town, if I’ve managed to pique your curiosity! The guy was important–they never write science plays about the subjects of experiments, for heaven’s sake, and H.M. has been the star of two, now! The new one is “The Forgetting Curve,” by Vanda, a Bridge Rep production playing at the Boston Center for the Arts. This weekend they’ve got some great memory experts to lead post-show conversations:

Wednesday, 9/24 – Dr. Howard Eichenbaum; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter
Thursday, 9/25 – Dr. Ayanna Thomas
Friday, 9/26 – Bob Linscott
Saturday, 9/27 – Dr. Bonnie Wong

“The Forgetting Curve” runs through this Saturday. Check it out!

“Cartoon dramas,” political & personal

September 23rd, 2014

The Globe published a good op-ed this weekend by Meta Wagner, a writing instructor at Emerson, about “cartoon dramas”:

But, now there’s a new, popular TV genre that somehow pulls me in while preventing me from becoming fully invested. I’ve come to think of it as the cartoon drama.

With cartoon dramas, the people, the storylines, and the situations are so unreal — or perhaps hyper-real — as to be laughable, which perfectly befits cartoons but not traditional dramas. These shows (their precursor is “24”) take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion. It’s television for an age where we’re concerned and terrified yet simultaneously suffering from compassion fatigue: the age of ISIS, ISIL, the beheadings of two American journalists, war in Syria, a do-nothing Congress, the militarization of our police forces, the Ebola virus, etc.

And so viewers not only turn to sitcoms and reality TV to escape, we also turn to cartoon dramas to confront the ugliness of current events, but in a way that can leave us ultimately untouched. Murder, torture, corruption — none of it sticks.

She identifies “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” as three of the biggest offenders, or perhaps I should say “delighters.” Ever since Bertolt Brecht, we’ve known that while drama inherently draws people in, there are also techniques it can use to push an audience away–not in the sense of disengaging, exactly, but in the sense of making people aware, suddenly or stubbornly, that they are watching a piece of staged entertainment. Brecht called it the “alienation effect.” If you’ve ever seen a show where you can see all the ropes and pulleys backstage, or where the stagehands move the furniture around in plain sight, not trying to be unobtrusive–that’s a little Brechtianism, right there.

Television can’t simply show you the wires and hired help, like theater can, but it has other ways of reminding the audience that this is just a show. (Besides the most obvious one, commercials–which to this day no one has employed to better Brechtian effect than Alfred Hitchcock in 1950s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program.) Television can get the alienation effect by being over-the-top, or self-referential, or–and no stage director would dare try this–simply not very good.

I wrote a similar analysis to Ms. Wagner’s about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which I still consider, pace “Scandal,” to be the finest exemplar of the genre.

An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called “epic theater.” It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today.

“L&O: SVU” achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good.

Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them–those are often very good indeed.

In the episode “Disabled,” for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed–even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out.

After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. “I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister.”

YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in “The Good Woman of Szechuan.”

This is how “L&O: SVU” works. It doesn’t distance the viewer with theatrical “breaking the fourth wall” tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the “Duh” response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing.

Whether the fears are international terrorist threats or the psychopath next door, “cartoon drama” helps you put them in a box and cope. You can read the whole thing here.

Story Collider at Oberon tonight (and my own science story)

September 23rd, 2014

Story Collider has a show at the Oberon tonight at 8pm, on the theme of “Survival of the Species.” Story Collider is one of those “paratheatrical science events” I’ve talked about, and it’s a good one. From their website:

Science surrounds us. Even when we don’t notice it, science touches almost every part of our lives. At the Story Collider, we believe that everyone has a story about science—a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We find those stories and share them in live shows and on our podcast. Sometimes, it’s even funny.

Tickets to tonight’s show are only $12–$10 for standing room–and you can drink, and meet interesting people, and walk around Harvard Square before or afterward. What are you waiting for?

I did a Story Collider last year, and I hope it was funny. It was about two baby rabbits that I raised as a child, and what I learned from them. Here’s the podcast–it’s about nine minutes long. The theme of the show I was in was “It Takes Guts.”

And a transcript:

Nine years old, and the next-door neighbor comes over with a big cardboard box. In the box, hasty handfuls of freshly mown grass. In the grass, two baby rabbits, the size of mice.

Do I want them, he says. He found them in his lawn, and picked them up before he thought twice, and now feared the mother would reject them. Did I want to try my hand at raising them.

Do you not understand that I am a nine-year-old girl? Some part of me wondered, as the rest of me shrieked agreement in a pitch so high a dog began barking across the street. Of course I want the bunnies!

My mother was ready to sue the guy. A Depression-era baby from Queens, she was like some deeply religious primitive who looks at animals with no grasp of their differences in locomotion or dietary requirements, only of their ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness. There were the horses in Central Park, which were Nice, and there were all other animals, which were Not Nice. Intellectually, she was capable of recognizing differences in species, but emotionally, every animal was either Horse or a Cockroach to her.

She was furious at the notion of Not Nice animals in her clean house, but the love of a nine-year-old-girl for small baby animals is a love that burns too bright to be denied. So she got her revenge another way, by explaining in graphic detail exactly why our neighbor had picked them up in the first place, and the connection between the unusually small size of the litter and the presence of that freshly mown grass in their box. The horror! Oh, the rabbinity!


Which, on the metaphorical level, one of my little rabbits had to a far greater extent than the other. And this was where a psychologist was born. I would put my hand in the box—one would crawl in and explore, the other would race in panicky circles. One was tame and calm, the fat bunny Buddha of his cardboard world, happy to be petted, to eat bits of apple right off my fingertips. The other one treated me like I was a war criminal. My footsteps signaled terror. The day I took the box to a vacant lot and tipped it over, one dashed for cover—the other lingered, unwilling to leave.

Two rabbits. The same litter. The same rabbit upbringing, disrupted by the same nightmarish slaughter, the same miraculous rescue. And they were so tiny! Their little brains smaller than pencil erasers.

Somehow everything I had ever noticed about how the same song could make one person happy and another person sad, or how the kids in the Oklahoma school were nice to me but when we moved to Kansas I got bullied, or how Sunday School teachers could sometimes draw opposite conclusions from the same Bible story, crystallized around those rabbits and their impossible, irreducible difference.

Two years later, I read Watership Down, Richard Adams’ saga of a band of brave, bonny, British bunnies escaping existential threat for a better life. I cried for a week. (My mother was like, “Honey, it’s just a book. About cockroaches.”) I took to imagining the adventures my own foster rabbits’ adventure in Watership Down style, and it occurred to me that if those rabbits could tell their own stories, what very different versions they’d tell. Were their happy early days the source of a sustaining faith, or a childish illusion to be ripped away? Were the mysterious giants benevolent rescuers or only more subtle tormentors? Did the tipping over of that box into that field represent long-dreamed-of freedom, or expulsion into a savage and chaotic wilderness?

Personality is story. The story of a glass half empty or half full, if nothing else.

A friend of mine is a developmental biologist who works with all kinds of small lab-able animals, from mice to fruit flies. I asked her once how simple an organism could be and still have anything akin to personality.

She said she had worked with flatworms that can do one of two things with their lives: plank on the bottom of the beaker, or hug themselves against the side of the beaker. This is the big existential choice you face as a flatworm; being a career counselor for flatworms gets boring fast. Cut a flatworm in half, each half will regenerate into a whole, equally traumatized flatworm, identical to the original. And frequently, one half will be a side-hugger, the other, a bottom-planker. Planaria personality! Flatworm flair!

We once thought that humans were the only animals who used tools. No. Who made tools. Not that either. Who possessed language, an artistic instinct, morality—one by one, we are nudged from our exclusive pedestals. But still, still, we are the only species that tells stories. Homo narrativus. Who express that willful nubbin of self we call “personality” through planking plot, side-hugging symbolism. Tell me your stories, and I’ll tell you who you are.

My own stories have always been those of wanderers, of the ones born in the wrong place who must seek a new home. And the day came that like Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver from Watership Down, I too began to sense that the place where I lived (Missouri) threatened my well-being. So like those brave and bonny bunnies, I too set out for a better place: Boston. Where I would become a psychologist who studied the science of stories. And that is my story of science.

Sunday column: Being the grownup

September 21st, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions have a similar theme–knowing when you’re the grownup, the person in charge, the buckstopper. Knowing when it’s on you to set the tone. In the first question, two young couples seem to have developed a pattern where the slightly older couple plays host more often, and more comprehensively, than they would like. They need to back off and create some space for their younger friends to step up:

From the gentle condescension of your description (“only boyfriend and girlfriend,” and so on) it sounds as though your differences, though minor, have created a psychological rift, with you and your wife building your fortress as the wise, established couple on one side and your friends as the junior proteges who goof and frolic and provide occasional comic relief on the other. It’s entirely possible that all four of you are a bit tired of that dynamic. Moving to a more equal footing doesn’t require some dreadfully awkward Relationship Talk, fortunately. But if you and the missus want your friends to unlearn the habit of relying on you to provide space, food, and labor, then you will need to learn the habit of asking them to pitch in.

The second question was one of those Rorschach questions: “Should my son’s girlfriend who’s in town call me or should I call her?” Quick, what’s your impression of the Letter Writer? How do you envision the girlfriend? There, that just told you more about yourself than a dozen “Which Great House in Westeros Would You Belong to?” quizzes. I answered it as objectively as I could, but I’m sure my own unconscious biases came into play.

“Emilie” and the theater of science

September 19th, 2014

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” at Central Square Theater gets at the heart of the science/theater conundrum better than any play I’ve seen so far.

I was on the board of Underground Railway Theatre (one of the two companies operating out of Central Square Theater) and we struggled, sometimes, with what a play about science is, and what audiences are expecting and will accept. “Emilie”–sorry, that full title is a freaking albatross and I don’t know what the playwright or her initial producers were thinking–is in many ways a classic “science play,” that is, the biography of a particular scientist. In this case, Emilie du Chatelet, a French mathematician and physicist who was the mistress of Voltaire, among others. Emilie was one of life’s great winners, an energetic woman whose social rank allowed her a vast amount of privilege and the ability to spend her time as she would.

“Having it all,” Enlightenment style. (Lee Mikeska Gardner and Steven Barkhimer. Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography)

What excited me about the play, though, was the underlying theme of the relationship–the correct relationship–between science and theater. Emilie is a scientist, and her lover Voltaire a playwright, and theater and hard science are frequently compared by her, during their arguments, to the disadvantage of theater. Science is about finding out the truth, Emilie implies, while drama is about creating what you want to see. Playwrights invent, actors lie, but scientists discover.

Except scientists have to do more than discover, don’t they?

Scientists demonstrate.

Without the demonstration, no one else can understand the discovery. If no one else understands the discovery, it doesn’t become part of the canon. If it doesn’t become part of the canon, it doesn’t help guide other people’s discoveries.

Discovery without demonstration is a solo epiphany.

Discovery with demonstration is science.

Science needs theater.

If “Emilie” has anything as simple as a moral, it is that uncovered truth must be transmitted–demonstrated–to other people in order to reach its full worth. Emilie comes to realize that drama and science, like love and philosophy, are not opposed, but are necessary complements.

We put on the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony the day after I saw “Emilie,” and that is all about the theater of science, although our demonstrations of prize-winning articles and inventions are usually called off at the last minute by our onstage V-Chip Monitor. This year, the Medicine Prize went to Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork. Here is our distinguished Major Domo, Gary Dryfoos, gamely stuffing bacon up his nose by way of demonstration. Science isn’t always as sexy as Emilie.

(photo: Charles Krupa, AP)