What pictures have you got in your mind right now as you read this?
Between thinking about cognitive responses to poetry for the PhD and preparing a lecture on e-books for children, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what actually goes on in our heads when we encounter texts, and how that differs according to whether we read or listen, and according to the kind of text. It seems to me that it’s one of those things, like breathing, of which we’re barely conscious until someone points it out.
Of course it’s generally accepted that when we read something like a novel, we have images of the characters in our mind’s eye. We don’t have to deliberate about appropriate features or hairstyles; they silently slip in. Yet they may also be quite shadowy, lurking in peripheral mental vision – so that we might not really notice that we have a mental image of Mrs Bennett until we see Pride and Prejeudice on the big screen and realise with a jolt that Alison Steadman is absolutely not the Mrs Bennett in our personal cast list. Like pictures on radio, the pictures in the novel are better – because they are our pictures.
I’m describing here what happens for me, and I’m think it’s probably similar for lots of people, not least because of the heated conversations that arise about characters in film adaptations.
But what about non-fiction? It seems a funny question, but I ask because I’ve realised that, in my head, at any rate, there’s something funny going on.
When I read, for instance, an academic book, what I get in my mind’s eye are images of a very specific geographic location. It’s quite hard to convey exactly what this experience is like, but I’ll try. Earlier this year, for example, I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, and every time I picked it up I’d instantly alight on the small patch of road at the end of Sidgwick Avenue in Cambridge. Not the whole of Sidgwick Avenue, just the junction by Ridley Hall, with occasional forays as far as the traffic lights to look down Silver Street and Queens Road. In fact, it’s really quite like being in street view on Google maps; I can look around but within boundaries.
The Master and his Emissary
And as I read, I keep going over and over the same bits of ground, the ideas in the text becoming woven into the various vistas. Moreover, if the text is relating a bit of a story, then that story will appear within the location. At the moment, for instance, I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, and in one chapter he describes visiting one of his musician subjects in his home and listening to him play the piano. In my mental theatre, this little scene is played out, piano and all, on the grass in New Square, the top corner near Fitzroy Street. And as with the oddities of dreams, nothing in this seems remotely untoward.1
I have absolutely no control over this process. As with the characters with which we furnish our mental fiction, there’s nothing chosen or engineered about location. Strange as it sounds, I only become aware of it when I’m well into the book, even though at that point I also know that I’ve been there for some time. And though the location is always tied to the book – I can pick up a book read a year ago and instantly be back in the same place – there are no obvious links between the location and the subject of the book. Though I wonder if, as with the songs that spontaneously intrude into consciousness, if there isn’t often some oblique or punning connection at the back of it.
Over the course of the PhD I’ve read a lot of subject literature, and I’m not sure if all this has been a help or a handicap. Not that I can do anything about it, either way. But suddenly, I am struck by the oddity of it all. Suddenly, I’m very, very curious. Why does my brain do this? Does it serve some purpose? Is it a form of synaesthesia,2 connected in some way with my word–colour associations.3
And, most importantly, is it just me? I’ve mentioned this only to a few people, and all have been surprised, not to say incredulous. But I can’t imagine I’m really the only one. So I guess this is a bit of an appeal. If anyone out there knows anything at all, or knows anyone who knows anything at all … I’d be delighted to hear from you!
1. Though now I come to think of it, we have had pianos out in the streets of Cambridge recently. Very cool it was, too.
2. Reading about some other, more unusual forms of synaesthesia in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia made me wonder if this was in some way related. A quick bit of research indicates that synaesthesia can take many forms, but I haven’t found anything quite like this mentioned.
3. I think it’s fairly mild: the sensations of colour and texture I have with certain words probably aren’t as strong as some people’s. But they’re definitely there, and absolutely consistent: what colour, would you say, is Wednesday? Well clearly, it’s a mottled mossy green, a bit lumpy in middle. Three?