Chekhov’s “Home”: Part 3

This is my last post (for the time being) on Chekhov’s “Home.” For the introduction and previous two posts, see here, here, and here. (You can read along in English here and in Russian here.)

Seryozha has just asked his father to tell him a story. His father starts making up a story, as he usually does. He begins with some familiar conceit (“Once upon a time, in a certain tsardom, in a certain country, there lived an old, old tsar with a long grey beard and a mustache like this.”) He tells about the glittering glass palace, the garden with birds, glass bells, fountains…. and the tsar’s only son, who is good in every way, except for his one fault: he smokes….” The prince grows ill and dies; the tsar is left helpless and alone, and enemies kill him and destroy the castle. After that, there are no more cherry trees, or birds, or bells.

Seryozha listens seriously and then says, “I won’t smoke any more….”

After he is sent off to bed, the father stays up for a long time, pacing back and forth and thinking about the conversation and the story. He recalls being told that when a story has an effect, it’s because of the beauty and form, but this does not comfort him. He worries about what just happens; he wonders why it is necessary to coat morality and truth with sugar and gold, like a pill. “It is abnormal… Falsification, deception, magic tricks…”

He thinks about how this has played out in his work (with jurymen making “speeches”). It troubles him that humans have depended on lies since the beginning of time; on the other hand, perhaps this is just as it should be. Unsure to the bones, he sits down to work but keeps thinking and thinking.

And here, the beautiful and cryptic ending:

He sat down to work, and leisurely, domestic thoughts roamed for a long time in his head. Past the ceiling, there were no more scales to be heard, but the inhabitant of the second floor kept pacing back and forth….

Он принялся работать, а ленивые, домашние мысли долго еще бродили в его голове. За потолком не слышались уже гаммы, но обитатель второго этажа всё еще шагал из угла в угол…

Part of what I love about this story is its lack of a takeaway. It says something about home, about parents and children, about the life of the mind, but it leaves nothing settled. In fact, it puts the onus on us. Have we, the readers, blithely accepted some sugar-coated truth? Is there something here that we would not accept in another form? If so, what would it be?

It might be that no happiness is complete; even the most intimate moments come with pain. Or maybe even that is just a partial truth; maybe truth lies in the wandering from doubt to doubt. Maybe home is a state of wandering and seeking.

Chekhov’s “Home”: Part 2

doma3I continue now with Chekhov’s “Home.” (You can read along in English here and in Russian here.) Seryozha has just entered the room; the father, Yevgeny  Petrovich, must now explain to him that it is wrong to smoke. But he realizes that he has no idea how to do this.

He begins by declaring that he does not love Seryozha any more, that Seryozha is no longer his son. The little boy seems unaffected; the words have no substance for him. The father then proceeds to tell him about personal property: how each person has a right only to what is his own. As he speaks, he realizes he isn’t saying it right, that he is fumbling. He points out that Seryozha has little horses and pictures, and he doesn’t take them, even if he would like to. This logic does not work for the boy (or even the father):

“Take them, if you want!” said Seryozha, raising his brows. Don’t hold back, papa, go ahead and take them! That little yellow dog that you have on your table, it’s mine, but I don’t … It can stay there!”

— Возьми, если хочешь! — сказал Сережа, подняв брови. — Ты, пожалуйста, папа, не стесняйся, бери! Эта желтенькая собачка, что у тебя на столе, моя, но ведь я ничего… Пусть себе стоит!

Now the father tries to explain to him that once he gives something away, like the dog, it isn’t his anymore–and again he realizes he isn’t going about this properly. The words seem silly; his everyday logic seems illogical.

He now tries a different tactic; he tells Seryozha that smoking is bad for you–that granted, he (the father) smokes, but he knows it is not wise, and that Uncle Ignatiy might not have died of consumption, had  he not smoked. (Seryozha’s mother is deceased too.) At the mention of Uncle Ignaty’s name, Seryozha looks at the lamp, touches the shade, lets out a sigh, and cries, “Uncle Ignaty played beautiful violin!” He understands what death is, but not in the way his father intended. Terror has not been struck into his soul. Yet he does hear and respond to his father; there is a conversation below the literal.

As this conversation continues, Seryozha begins to draw. He tells his father about the cook, who cut her finger and, instead of washing it, began sucking it. Then he tells about an organ-grinder who passed through the courtyard with a girl who sang and danced.

Evgeny Petrovich sees not only that his attempts are futile, but that he, a prosecutor, skilled in argument, has been rendered an absolute novice. “He has his own train of thought!” he says to himself. He looks at the drawing: It shows a house with a skewed roof and smoke coming “like a flash of lightning, in zigzags” out of the chimney; and next to it, a soldier with two dots for eyes and a bayonet that looks like a number four. His logical urges get the better of him again:

     “A person can’t be taller than a house,” the prosecutor said. “Take a look: your roof goes up to the soldier’s shoulder.”
Seryozha climbed onto his knees and wiggled for a long time, so that he would sit more comfortably.
“No, papa!” he said, looking at his drawing. “If you draw a soldier small, you won’t be able to see his eyes.”

     — Человек не может быть выше дома, — сказал прокурор. — Погляди: у тебя крыша приходится по плечо солдату.
Сережа полез на его колени и долго двигался, чтобы усесться поудобней.

     — Нет, папа! — сказал он, посмотрев на свой рисунок. — Если ты нарисуешь солдата маленьким, то у него не будет видно глаз.

But what is going on here, throughout this dialogue? Yevgeny Petrovich finds some kind of comfort in his inefficacy. Here he is spending time with his son, who brings him a world unknown to him, or maybe long forgotten. Instead of getting angry, he observes the boy’s ways.  There are hints that the boy sees something he does not–that when drawing a soldier, one must make him big enough for eyes, because what would a soldier or anyone be without eyes? The father sees that there is more to see than he himself knows:

Was there a point in arguing with him? From observing his son daily, the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages, have their own artistic perspectives and requirements, which grownups cannot comprehend. Observing Seryozha carefully, an adult might think him abnormal. He found it possible and wise to draw people taller than houses, and to convey in pencil, not only objects, but even his sensations. Thus, in his drawings, the sounds of an orchestra took the form of spherical, smoky blots; a whistle, the form of a spiral thread. . . . In his understanding, sound was closely connected with form and color, so that, when coloring letters, he always colored the letter L yellow, M red, A black, etc.

Нужно ли было оспаривать его? Из ежедневных наблюдений над сыном прокурор убедился, что у детей, как у дикарей, свои художественные воззрения и требования своеобразные, недоступные пониманию взрослых. При внимательном наблюдении, взрослому Сережа мог показаться ненормальным. Он находил возможным и разумным рисовать людей выше домов, передавать карандашом, кроме предметов, и свои ощущения. Так, звуки оркестра он изображал в виде сферических, дымчатых пятен, свист — в виде спиральной нити… В его понятии звук тесно соприкасался с формой и цветом, так что, раскрашивая буквы, он всякий раз неизменно звук Л красил в желтый цвет, М — в красный, А — в черный и т. д.

From this wonder, the father moves into a state of ease. He is thoroughly at home: in in his house, in his study, in his thoughts, in the company of his son, and in privacy. His purposes fall away, and something forgotten comes through.

The prosecutor felt his son’s breathing on his face; his hair brushed against his cheek now and then; and his entire mood became warm and soft, so soft, as if not only his hands but his whole soul lay on the velvet of Seryozha’s jacket. He gazed into the boy’s big, dark eyes, and it seemed that from those wide pupils, they looked at him: his mother, his wife, and everything that he had ever loved.

Прокурор чувствовал на лице его дыхание, то и дело касался щекой его волос, и на душе у него становилось тепло и мягко, так мягко, как будто не одни руки, а вся душа его лежала на бархате Сережиной куртки. Он заглядывал в большие, темные глаза мальчика, и ему казалось, что из широких зрачков глядели на него и мать, и жена, и всё, что он любил когда-либо.

I remember long ago thinking that the story showed a man who was closed off inside himself, who devoted so much to his work that he was not sure what to do or how to think when he came home. I now read it differently. It does not take him long to come into his own; this home, while separated from the rest of the world, has a porousness of its own. He sees his arguments break down; he sees and hears his son; he feels his breathing and his hair; and he senses the presence of others.

But there is a hint of turmoil in the story; I will take that up next time. Today I leave off where the father tells Seryozha that it is time for bed and Seryozha asks for a story. In the next post, I will go to the end of “Home.”

(For the introductory post and Part 1, go here and here; for the Russian text and Constance Garnett’s English translation, go here and here. In these posts, I  provide my own translations of the quoted passages. The story itself is not divided into three parts, but this discussion is.)

Chekhov’s “Home”: Part 1

doma2Anton Chekhov’s “Home” is just ten pages long, but it will take me a few blog posts to do it a sliver of justice. This post takes us through Seryozha’s appearance. You can read along in English here and in Russian here.

In Russian the title is “Дома” (“Doma”), which can be translated as “home,” “at home,” or even “in the family.” All of those senses come into play here.

The father, who works as prosecutor for the circuit court, has just come home from work; the story begins with the governess’s voice, as she rattles off various news. People came by for a book, the postman delivered the mail, and now for serious matters (which she introduces with “kstati,” or “by the way”: For the third day now, Seryozha has been found smoking. Not only that, but when the governess tried to speak to him, he simply plugged his ears and started singing.

Amused by the picture, the father gathers some facts, as is his habit. How old is Seryozha? he asks. (What a question! we may think. But a judgment here would be too hasty.) Where did he get the tobacco? Having learned that he got it from his (the father’s) study, he asks to have Seryozha sent in.

Now come a series of subtle surprises. The story goes into the father’s own daydreams, which become the focus for a while. He starts imagining his little boy smoking, and for some reason the image makes him smile; yet the governess’s serious expression brings back childhood memories of adults reacting to smoking with horror, even though they could not explain what was wrong with it. (“This must be a law of society: the less an evil is understood, the more ferociously and crudely people fight it.”) He starts thinking about boys who were expelled for smoking and how this affected their entire lives; it occurs to him how little established truth there is, particularly in the great professions….

One might have perceived his thoughts as philosophical and morose, but the narrator takes a surprising turn. He (the narrator) reflects on the pleasure of letting the mind wander this way and that at the end of a long day. What seemed like sadness and depth now turns into air and light. I give my own translation here, followed by the Russian:

And similar thoughts, light and vague, the kind that come only to the exhausted, resting brain, began roaming in Yevgeny Petrovich’s head; where they come from and why, we do not know; they stay for a short time and, it seems, crawl over the surface of the brain, not going far below. For people obligated to think narrowly, in one direction, for entire hours and even days, these free, domestic thoughts become, in their own way, a comfort, an agreeable ease.

И подобные мысли, легкие и расплывчатые, какие приходят только в утомленный, отдыхающий мозг, стали бродить в голове Евгения Петровича; являются они неизвестно откуда и зачем, недолго остаются в голове и, кажется, ползают по поверхности мозга, не заходя далеко вглубь. Для людей, обязанных по целым часам и даже дням думать казенно, в одном направлении, такие вольные, домашние мысли составляют своего рода комфорт, приятное удобство.

In such a short time, Chekhov lets us know the father; he spends his day in court, thinking and speaking in rigid and bureaucratic terms, but when he comes home, he likes to let his thoughts go this way and that; and even melancholy thoughts afford a kind of pleasure, because of their very roaming. The adjective “расплывчатые” means approximately “vague, diffuse, dim” but also has the sense of spreading out over a large area. Later in this paragraph, the phrase “такие вольные, домашние мысли” (“these free, domestic thoughts”) depict these very thoughts as home.

But home is not sealed off; it has intrusions from other rooms, and even these have some good.

It was after eight in the evening. Up above, past the ceiling, on the second floor, someone was walking back and forth, and still higher, on the third, four hands were playing scales. The pacing of the man who, to judge from his nervous gait, was thinking of something troubling, or was suffering from toothache, and the monotonous scales gave the evening stillness a drowsiness that made way for lazy reveries. Two rooms away, in the nursery, the governess and Seryozha were talking.

Был девятый час вечера. Наверху, за потолком, во втором этаже кто-то ходил из угла в угол, а еще выше, на третьем этаже, четыре руки играли гаммы. Шаганье человека, который, судя по нервной походке, о чем-то мучительно думал или же страдал зубною болью, и монотонные гаммы придавали тишине вечера что-то дремотное, располагающее к ленивым думам. Через две комнаты в детской разговаривали гувернантка и Сережа.

So we hear the uneven beat of the pacing man, but then, farther away, the sound of scales played by four hands, a sound that adds to the dreaminess of the evening. There are numbers playing against each other too: the ninth hour, the second and third floors, four hands, the scale (with its implicit eight notes), the nursery two doors away, and the accompanied solitude of Yevgeny Petrovich.

I can imagine him shutting his eyes and hearing this mixture of music and everyday sound, of shaped and unshaped thoughts. Things come together in his mind and come apart. Troubles rise up and fade away. Then Seryozha’s voice:

“Pa-pa is here!” the boy sang out. “Papa–is–here! Pa! pa! pa!”

— Па-па приехал! — запел мальчик. — Папа при-е-хал! Па! па! па!

It is as though the piano, the pacing, and even the dreaming were all the overture for Seryozha; he enters, joyful, melodic, syllabic; climbs up onto his father’s lap; and kisses him on the cheek.

Now the father has to figure out what to say. I will pick up from here next time.

At Home

domabookstandFor the next few blog posts, I’m going to do something a little different from the usual. I plan to walk through Chekhov’s story “Home” (“Дома“), pointing out some details and favorite parts as I go along. In this story, a father (a prosecutor by profession) learns from the governess that his seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been smoking in his study. He now has to take up the matter with the little boy, but how? For the first post, I will discuss the story from the beginning to the boy’s entrance (“Good evening, papa!”). Subsequent posts will progress through the story. I will announce the passages in advance.

cardinal-book-propThroughout this reading, I will use a book prop manufactured by my great-granduncle’s company, the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., once located on Kent Street in Brooklyn. They were best known for the AN-6530 goggles, which the U.S. Army and Navy flight crews used in World War II. But Charles Fischer (1876-1946) invented and patented a host of other things, including a timer (Pat. No. 2,417,641), a handle for pipe cleaners (Pat. No. 1,782,871), a boudoir lamp (Pat. No. 1,639,493), a rack for boots and shoes (Pat. No. 1,603,382), a take-up spring (Pat. No. 1,578,817), a telephone receiver (Pat. No. 1,526,666), a magnetic speedometer (Pat. No. 1,467,031), a display stand (Pat. No. 1,437,837), and a telephone stand (Pat. No. 1,371,747). (The links take you to the drawings.)

The book prop has some marvelous features; it rests on the leg and clasps onto the knee, so that you can do other things with your hands; it has an indentation for the book’s spine, and it clasps the pages from below or from the sides. I don’t see a Charles Fischer patent for this device, but his company definitely produced it, and it resembles his display stand in some ways.

Charles came to New York City around age 14, with his parents and seven siblings, from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). My great-grandfather Max was one of his younger brothers. They were Jewish, and they spoke Hungarian at home. In 1900 they lived at 346 East 3rd Street, and Charles worked as a toolmaker. A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn; from there they dispersed to the various boroughs. In 1906 Charles founded his company (where some family members, including Max, would be employed for many years to come). In 1933 he was one of the charter members of the Spring Manufacturers Association.) In 1944 the Knights of Columbus named him among “public-spirited citizens who are always in the fore in striving to make our community a finer and a better place in which to live.” He died in 1946.

It seems fitting to use the book prop for Chekhov’s story. I hope you enjoy reading along.

A Harvest of Revisable Phrases

If yesterday’s post on gratitude and loss seemed melancholic, well, it was; no apologies for that! Melancholy has a place in the world. It needs no epilogue. But in this case it has a reason, among several: I finished a full draft of the book on Monday. That should be cause for rejoicing, no? Yes, but not entirely. Now the revision begins, and time rattles off its syllables. I have given myself from now until the end of April to revise the whole book. I will also be taking the second semester of the advanced cantillation course.

Why only until April? I have been invited to take part in a two-week residency at a school in Istanbul in late May. (I will say more about this later; it is a great honor and opportunity.) I return in the beginning of June, a busy month, then go in July to teach at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers.

After that, who knows. Depending on how things play out, I may be teaching again or doing something else. In any case these five months are all I can count on for revision. (That isn’t much for twelve chapters!) But I will not begin until Sunday; in the meantime, happy Thanksgiving again! On that note, see the wonderful comments I have been receiving on a post I wrote four years ago (and revised over time) on one of Pushkin’s poems. The poem itself has bearing here: “Poet! do not cling to popular affection.”

Gratitude and Loss

fort-tryon-5I enjoy Thanksgiving; it’s a sweet holiday, if taken simply. Whatever else goes into the day, there’s much to be said for the gratitude itself. Yet gratitude is a complex emotion; for me, it includes loss.

Gratitude and loss: how do they go together? It isn’t that I feel grateful only after things are gone. Rather, in receiving a gift, I know that I don’t possess it.

Gratitude goes against the logic of acquisition. By the logic of acquisition, I want something, go after it, and, if things work out, obtain it. With gratitude, there’s no acquisition; the gift is right there in my hands, but it does not belong to me. It is not that I may lose it one day; the loss and the gift are one and the same.

This may sound sad, but it’s the kind of sadness that makes room for everything else. The picture above is from one of my recent walks in Fort Tryon Park; I remember missing it even as I was taking it. It was one of the happiest walks I remember.

In honor of this, I offer one of my old poems, “Tower Song“; a two-year-old blog post, “Our Unwitting Teachers“; the song “Tomorrow” by Art of Flying; and “Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy.

A happy and warm Thanksgiving to all.

Where Personality Quizzes Go Wrong

Sometimes I take an online personality quiz for fun. It isn’t a good idea. Even flattering results leave me discouraged; I question the quiz’s authority but can’t talk back to it.

Of course some quizzes are meant for amusement, but others pretend to reveal some truth about your nature–even in ten or fewer questions. They even claim a scientific basis.

Here’s where such quizzes miss the mark. First, their claims far exceed their capabilities; they are crude instruments, yet their authors suggest that they can tell you something useful. There’s an inherent discrepancy between the pretension and the actual capability of such a quiz.

Second, the assumed categories (such as personality types) have inherent limitations. Such quizzes, by their very contents, tell only part of the truth. You might find out that you are “an” introvert when in fact you have a mixture of introverted and extraverted tendencies. (Now that Jonathan Cheek and colleagues are positing four kinds of introverts, there are quizzes to tell you which kind you are, as though you had to be one.)

Third, many such quizzes ask you what is “usually” true, when in fact your exceptions may play a large role in your life. For instance, I score low on neuroticism tests, because I do not worry much on the whole. When I do worry about something, I though, I can worry intensely. A quiz’s emphasis on “usual” or “average” behavior doesn’t capture this.

Fourth, the multiple-choice options may not apply to you at all. Sometimes they are directed at a different demographic from yours. Sometimes the authors didn’t consider all the possibilities. I find myself choosing the “least wrong” option instead of one that really suits me.

Fifth, many responses are contextual. Whether or not I enjoy a party really depends on the party. Whether I feel energized by others’ company depends largely on who they are and what else is going on. Sometimes it isn’t possible to give a true general response, yet the quiz requires it.

Sixth, the quiz may rest on shaky theoretical principles. For example, the MBTI was once standard fare but has come under heavy criticism. I will not be surprised if other tests come to a similar end.

Seventh, a questionnaire of this sort has value only when the results are analyzed intelligently. Doctors give questionnaires to help them with preliminary diagnoses; they treat the responses as a starting point, not the last word. No questionnaire should stand on its own as an arbiter of human nature.

Eighth, none of this comes close to the descriptions and characterizations found in literature. No personality test can approximate Pushkin’s poet, Melville’s Ahab, Gogol’s Chichikov, or Bellow’s Tamkin. The difference? In literature, you meet characters who may remind you of people you know, including yourself, but at the same time resemble no one. They let you do the same; when reading, you can find both affinity and liberty; you wake up into imagination.

Psychology has much to offer, but its quizzes tend toward hubris. Annie Murphy Paul says it well in The Cult of Personality Testing: “Personality tests take wildly different forms–questionnaires, inkblots, stories, drawings, dolls–but all make the same promise: to reduce our complicated, contradictory, changeable selves to a tidy label. These tests claim to measure not what we know, but what we’re like; not what we can do, but who we are.”

Even if they seem just silly, they make their way into workplaces, schools, and language. They play to the desire for “interactive” science and quick results; it seems cool to go online, take a test, and find something out about yourself in five minutes. They are basically the candy of self-knowledge, candy that too often gets served up as the main course.

Self-knowledge is much more than “I am this” and “I am that.” It requires long study of things outside the self; it requires participation in the world. A series of clicks won’t get you there.

Can You Prove a Theory True?

The question is partly rhetorical. You’re supposed to get affronted and say, “No, of course you can’t. Everyone should know that. You can only prove a theory false.”

But to dig into the question properly, you have to define “theory” and consider the difference between closed and open systems. The word “theory” is used in many different senses; as Marcelo Gleiser points out, you must observe its context to understand its meaning.

A theory is more than a hypothesis, which in turn is more than a guess or one-time prediction. A hypothesis is a tentative explanation of a general phenomenon: for instance, “Rain occurs more frequently where land is cultivated.” This can later be developed into a theory (e.g., “Rain follows the plow“). Sometimes there is disagreement over whether something should be called a hypothesis or a theory–but the distinction remains.

A theory must be well substantiated, have broad application, and explain a general phenomenon or class of phenomena. When a theory takes the form of an apparently unwavering principle, it may be called a law.

If I say, “There is oil on Mars,” I am not positing a theory; I am just making an untested assertion. If I were to say instead, “Where rocks on a planet show chemical composition X, there is oil beneath the planet’s crust,” that would be a hypothesis; with strong basis and explanation, it could be a theory. If I were to find a unifying principle predicting the presence or absence of oil, I might call it a law. Any of these can be refuted: assertion, hypothesis, theory, and law. Only the assertion can be proven true, in the case that oil is found on Mars. Even then, there are caveats.

Now, growing up in a family of mathematicians, I assumed in childhood that you could prove a “theory” true (provided that your axioms were true). Because mathematics works within a closed system, you can work logically from axioms to conclusions and thereby demonstrate that the latter proceed from the former. (In mathematics, it is a “theorem” that you prove, not a “theory.” The word “theory” in mathematics usually refers to a body of knowledge. The usage is not entirely consistent, though; one hears of Ramanujan’s theory of primes, for instance.)

In the natural sciences, you never have a completely closed system, except in the theoretical fields. This is where things get tricky. In theoretical physics, for instance, you can determine from your axioms and laws how  your model will behave. Models do not completely match the natural world, though. In the natural world, there are mitigating factors (and the truth of the axioms matters a great deal).

The social sciences may be the farthest from any closed system–because so many factors, past and present, can influence human behavior. You usually work with high degrees of uncertainty. What do you do? Do you just give up? There are those who believe the social sciences are pure nonsense, but I am not among them. I favor efforts to make sense of our lives from the standpoints of many different fields–including philosophy, literature, mathematics, theology, languages, statistics, physics, psychology, and more.  Each field contributes in some way to our understanding.

But how does one work with so much uncertainty? First of all, enjoy it now and then. It would be a dreary world if we could figure everything out. One doesn’t have to be perpetually cheery about it, but one can take courage from it. Second, find ways of working with degrees of uncertainty–not treating all uncertainty as alike, but determining which are greater than others. Models in the social sciences can bring much insight; one must just take care to observe their divergence from actual phenomena.

It’s important, when doing this, to avoid the null hypothesis fallacy. Some might say, “Well, I can’t prove a theory true, but I can prove its negation false, and that’s essentially evidence for the theory.” No, it isn’t. The two are not the same. When proving the negation false, one does not win evidence for the theory; one is still firmly fixed in the wobbles of doubt.  One must figure out how to view the doubt clearly.

In any case, the answer to the initial question is double. If you are working within a closed system, you can prove a theory (or theorem) true; within an open system, you cannot. However, in the latter case there is still much you can learn.

A mini-glossary:

Hypothesis: A proposed explanation for the way something works. (It is more than a “guess”; it must have a basis in evidence and reasoning, and it must be testable.)

Theory: A hypothesis that has been tested, substantiated, and extended, and that applies broadly to a natural phenomenon or class of phenomena.

Law: Like a theory, but unified into a general principle that unerringly explains a phenomenon (to the best of our knowledge and understanding).

Model: A representation of a real-world phenomenon, designed to assist with observation, testing, and explanation.

Note: I revised this piece substantially after posting it. In particular, I clarified the terms, changed the examples, and added some links. I cut the part about literature, since it needs a post of its own.

Interesting Studies with Hasty Conclusions

I recognize that I was a bit harsh on the calendar synaesthesia study–that is, dismissive in tone. What bothered me was the claim (right there in the paper itself) that this constituted the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. I sincerely thought, for a little while, that this might be a hoax.

The experiments of the study do not prove anything, nor do they have to. It would be far more interesting (to me) if the authors explored the uncertainties a bit more.

For instance, when you have a mitigating conditioned response, how do you tell what is synaesthesia and what isn’t? Say, for instance, that you have learned to read sheet music from a young age. Suppose, now, that when you hear music, you see musical notes before you. Is this synaesthesia, or is this a learned association between musical notation and sounds?

The calendar situation seems similar. We have all seen calendars (many times). They take different shapes but always arrange the dates in some pattern. In addition, we have seen clocks, season wheels, and other representations of time. If I can picture the months in an atypical (fixed) shape, is this synaesthesia, or is it a modification of learned associations between time and images?

I do not doubt the existence of synaesthesia (of certain kinds). I just see reason to try to delineate what it is and isn’t–and to refine the surrounding questions, including questions of methodology.

The other day, Andrew Gelman posted an (exploratory) manifesto calling for more emphasis  on–and better guidelines for–exploratory studies. The piece begins with a quote from Ed Hagen:

Exploratory studies need to become a “thing.” Right now, they play almost no formal role in social science, yet they are essential to good social science. That means we need to put as much effort in developing standards, procedures, and techniques for exploratory studies as we have for confirmatory studies. And we need academic norms that reward good exploratory studies so there is less incentive to disguise them as confirmatory.

The problem is twofold: (1) Exploratory studies don’t get enough respect or attention, so people disguise them (intentionally or not) as confirmatory studies; (2) Exploratory stories can be good, bad, and anything in between, so there should be clearer standards, procedures, and techniques for them. “Exploratory” does not (and should not) mean “anything goes.”

But then comes the question: What constitutes a good exploratory study? Gelman offered a few criteria, to which others added in the prolific comment section.

It would be encouraging if the social sciences (and other fields, including literature) worked carefully with uncertainties (and got published because they did so). Instead of iffy studies, we’d have studies that wielded the “if” with skill and care.

P.S. Speaking of Andrew Gelman’s blog, I had some fun responding to Rolf Zwaan’s “How to Cook Up Your Own Social Priming Article.”


Calendar Synaesthesia Hoax (I Wish)

hulaI wish it were a hoax, because then I could cachinnate without guilt. As it is, I still laugh, but with trouble in the belly. I am sorry about the gullibility in the world.

I learned about it from Cari Romm’s piece in New York Magazine. The title grabbed me: “There’s a Form of Synesthesia Where People Literally See Time in Front of Them.” I thought: That’s quite something, seeing time! I imagined some kind of visual perception of a non-spatial continuum of events. Some sort of visible yet invisible flow.

Instead, the “calendar synaesthete”–one subject in a study with eight controls–could picture the months of the year in geometrical arrangement. For this subject, they took a V shape;  for a subject of a previous experiment, the shape of a hula-hoop.

The authors call their paper (published in Neurocase) the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. Really? This got published in Neurocase and reported in New Scientist and New York Magazine?

Synaesthesia (also spelled “synesthesia”) is the name for what happens when an event that stimulates an experience in one sensory or cognitive pathway also stimulates it in a second (and unexpected) one. For instance, some synaesthetes see sounds, associate letters of the alphabet with specific colors, or smell numbers. The phenomenon exists. But does this particular study tell us anything about it?

This is one of several experiments that led to their “clear unambiguous proof” (the quote below is from the New Scientist article):

Next they asked ML and eight non-synaesthetes to name the months of the year backwards, skipping one or two months each time – a task most people find challenging. They figured that ML should be able to complete the task quicker than the others as she could read it from her calendar. Indeed, ML was much quicker at the task: when reciting every three months backwards, she took 1.88 seconds per month compared with 4.48 seconds in non-synaesthetes.

First of all, what does any of this have to do with visualizing time? From what I can tell, it’s about recalling and manipulating the sequence of months. There may or may not be a visual component in such calculation; either way, this experiment shows no synaesthesia per se. Second, who takes 4.48 seconds to recite every third month backwards? I can do it in under 2 seconds per month, without seeing any V shape, donut, hula-hoop, or Moebius strip.

Here’s what the paper says:

In control subjects, the average RT for reciting all of the months backward (n = 8) was 1.46 s/month. For skipping 1 or 2 months – the average was 2.54 and 4.48 s/month respectively. For ML, the average RT for the same 3 tasks were (A) 0.58 s/month, (B) 1.63 s/month, and (C) 1.88 s/month (see legends in Figure 2).

There were eight controls and one subject. Yes, just one. (Nor does the study explain how the subject and controls were selected.) Their study of  a second subject, HP, was incomplete: “We then studied the second subject – HP – but for practical reasons – were only able to conduct a subset of the experiments that we had performed on ML.” (She was able to recite the months as quickly as ML, though.)

To supplement the findings, perhaps, they mention EA, a subject from a previous study:

Indeed, on a previous occasion, we had informally tested a synesthete EA, who might have qualified as a higher calendar synesthete. Her calendar form was shaped like a hula-hoop (the most common manifestation of calendar forms) in the transverse plane in front of her chest. Unlike ML, though, when EA turned her head rightward or leftward, the calendar remained stuck to the body, suggesting that it was being computed in body-centered, rather than head (and eye) centered coordinates. The variation across calendar synesthetes, in this regard, reminds us that even in neurotypical brains there are probably multiple parallel representations of body in space that can be independently accessed depending on immediate task demands.

How did they get from the hula-hoop to “multiple parallel representations of body in space”–and from any of this to “clear unambiguous proof” of the existence of calendar synaesthesia?

I do not doubt that people can picture calendars; people can picture all sorts of things, and calendars are already visual representations of a model of time. I see no synaesthesia in the ability to picture something that is already a picture.

I recognize that this is the authors’ very point: that for this subject, the calendar  is something more than a strong mental picture. Yet the experiments do not prove this.

Note: I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it–and deleted one sentence that in retrospect seemed excessively sarcastic. Also see Shravan Vasishth’s comment and my response. I may have been too caustic overall–but I hold to my view that the researchers went too far in declaring “proof.” See my followup post.