Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Talk on What Makes Experiences Compelling: May 12, 2011

Mind Matters
Why You're Compelled By Certain Experiences. A Conversation with Jim Davies

May 12, 2011 | Carleton University | 6:30 p.m.

Why is it that your attention lingers on certain works of art? What makes you want to keep listening to a song, and then want to hear it again? What makes a conspiracy theory so engaging? Jim Davies has an idea.

Davies, a professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, studies what makes certain experiences undeniably compelling. He is the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory at Carleton and is a card-carrying member of both the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science. He is compelled by computational analogy, visual imagination, and creativity as well as the potential of the human mind.

Using concepts and examples from his forthcoming book, Davies will explain how a few key elements of human cognition explain a great deal of what we find compelling in art and ideas.

On Thursday, May 12, this outstanding Carleton researcher will deliver a special talk as part of Alumni Week 2011, an annual celebration of the outstanding achievements, lifelong connections and exceptional ideas brewing at Carleton University. For more information and a full list of events, visit

The Carleton University Alumni Association invites you to An Evening with Jim Davies.

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Cognitive Science Seminar Room, 2203 Dunton Tower
Carleton University
Reception: 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Presentation: 7:30 p.m.

Register in advance online.

Paid parking is available in Lot P1. (Campus map)

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Letting the Audience off Easy

Last night my beloved and I went to see a show at the National Arts Centre called Lauchie, Liza, & Rory. To give a brief review of this play, it was funny, clever, and takes excellent advantage of the theatrical medium. If you live in Ottawa I recommend seeing it. If you plan to see it, come back and read the rest of this blog entry only after you have, as it contains spoilers.

I had a criticism of the script, and it's a criticism I have of a lot of scripts, and that is that it lets the audience off too easily. What I mean by this is that the story sets up a tragic situation, and rather than making the audience really feel the tragedy, the plot somehow concocts an unrealistically positive outcome. I'll discuss a few examples.

In Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the protagonist, Kiddo, murders a mother as her young (5 years of age or so) daughter watches. In the film, the daughter watches, wide-eyed and frozen in shock. This choice lets the audience off easily. Rather than dealing with the terrible anguish of a child seeing her mother murdered, which would have been done by having the child screaming and crying, Director Tarantino allows us to continue to enjoy the memory of the fight scene without the uncomfortable pain that tends to come with murder. He's letting us off easy. We can sort of believe that the child would be in shock, so it kind of works, but it allows the violence on screen remain enjoyable.

In the play Lauchie, Liza, & Rory, Liza marries Lauchie but is in love with his twin brother Rory, who also loves her back. She stays with Lauchie for 20 years, until their son is off to college, and then takes off with Rory. Much of the play takes place over the course of these 20 years. It's a bit hard to watch. There is never any cheating, physically, anyway, but there are lots of longing looks and references to crying (however, there is no crying). It's a terrible situation for people to be in, and one that, in the real world, would cause enormous pain. But what happens at the end? When Rory and Liza take off together, leaving Lauchie without his wife, he says something along the lines of how it was all for the best and should have happened long ago. It literally takes a line or two to wrap up what I was expecting, hoping, to be an enormous amount of pain. What is this play trying to say? That if you leave your husband after 20 years, he just might be fine? That if you steal away your twin brother's wife, he'll say it's for the best?

I think one of the things narrative art can do is teach us about the world. We learn from narratives. And anything we learn from has the potential to teach us things we should know, and things we shouldn't. Narratives that portray human beings in ways that are unrealistic teach the audience things about the way human beings interact that are wrong. This can lead to problems. Readers of romance, for example, probably believe more strongly in the ``swept away by romance'' trope. This is possibly why they have negative ideas about using condoms, have used them less in the past, and plan to use them less in the future (Marsh & Fazio, 2006).

I don't like what this play is teaching. Situations like this, choices made like this, have enormous moral and emotional consequences. I'm not saying that Liza and Rory should not have been together. Maybe they should have been. What I'm saying is that just because something has a good net effect does not mean that there won't be collateral damage. I think a narrative has a responsibility to show that damage.

Tim Burton's film Corpse Bride has almost the exact same problem. Victor is going to marry a human, but falls for a dead woman who's a lot more fun. In the end, he decides that he needs to be in the world of the living, and the Corpse bride actually agrees with him.

I'll finish with a third example of letting the audience off easily, but narrative arts are rife with these problems. In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, there is a final battle to the death. Battles to the death are serious. Most people think it's ok, but not ideal, to kill someone in self-defence. But what happens at the end of this film is that the bad guy, Gaston, kills himself in trying to kill the protagonist. What a nice ending. The good guy never actually kills anyone, even though the story kind of demands it, and he gets just lucky that the bad guy does himself in. What if he hadn't? If the good guy maims the villain, causing a permanent disfigurement, that's even harder to watch than a clean death.

Disney loves these endings. In The Lion King, Simba throws Scar off of a cliff. Not to his death, mind you, but to his... wound. At the cliff bottom Scar is killed by hyenas.  The Little Mermaid is a good counter example-- Eric impales a giant Ursula with a boat. This kind of kill is easier to pull off in a kid's movie when the villain looks like a monster. That's how Hercules gets away with it too.

I think that if an author sets up a tragic, complicated situation, she owes it to the audience to display the complications of whatever resolution she comes up with in a realistic way. We learn from narratives, as the Marsh and Fazio study shows (2006), even when we don't mean to.

Authors have a moral responsibility for psychological realism in their stories. You can't string two people in love along and get away with one of them being okay with it when you finally make your choice.

I want to see that corpse bride wailing in pain. Now that would be a satisfying ending.

Pictured: A publicity shot from Lauchie, Liza, & Rory, and a still from Corpse Bride. 


Marsh, E. J., & Fazio, L. K. (2006). Learning errors from fiction: Difficulties in reducing reliance on fictional stories. Memory & Cognition, 34(5), 1140-1149.

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