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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 25 August 2016

"Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity" by D. E. Berlyne

One of the classics of the last behavioral school, Berlyne focuses on the things that animals do when they are not directly trying to survive. As he puts it: "The higher mammals, at least, when temporarily freed from tasks connected with survival, will usually spend no more time on rest and inactivity than the minimum required for recuperation." (pp 4 - 5)

One of the joys about this book is that, while still addressing issues that are unresolved and are, indeed, of importance to psychology, you get the feeling that this is delightfully old fashioned (even his use of initials rather than a first name speaks to this, as well as the fact that he refers to humans of unspecified gender as 'he', he cites references from the nineteenth century as if they are still relevant, work on rats running through mazes form the mainstay of his evidence, and the Russians are major contributors to the field. He also ascribes drives to almost everything and gives wonderful names to things that have commoner names: play, for example, or recreation he calls "ludic behavior"!

This book felt very quaint at times.

But it is important. After all, as he points out, the leisure industry is vast and "ludic behavior ... may well affect prospects of survival ... animals will often not live long in captivity ... how long human beings survive after retirement is frequently thought to be influenced by whether they can keep themselves occupied." (p 6)

He suggests that play is a type of exploration and that "locomotor exploration appears to be universal among higher vertebrates." (p 104). What we want to do is to reduce uncertainty. We dislike uncertainty. People will watch election results all night even though they could go to sleep and "know the final outcome for certain almost at their next moment of consciousness" (p 206) He quotes Farber (1944): "prisoners who had hopes of a parole suffered much more than those who knew that they would never be released." (p 207) It made me think of the reactions of passengers whose flights have been delayed, seeking information as a priority, and the way bereaved relatives  are often desperate to know how and why their loved ones died. 

Animals are even prepared to take risks to satisfy their curiosity and learn information. He paints a beguiling image of young monkeys faced with a strange object in their cage who "will survey the object from a certain distance, apparently alert and delicately poised, perhaps even oscillating, between advance and withdrawal." (p 122). He tells us that "a fleeing animal will slow down or stop from time to time and look back at its pursuer" (p 114). He points out that we find fear fun and he cites fairground rides and horror films (p 198); this was written before bungee jumping took off (if you'll pardon the oxymoronic metaphor).

He is brilliant on art. "The art of all major civilizations shows fluctuations between the classical ideals of serenity, tranquillity, and discipline and the romantic taste for excitement, color, and drama. But the extreme cultivation of one extreme has been rare and usually followed by a violent swing in the opposite direction." (p 240) "The baroque work intentionally amazes with its continual deviations from the obvious, the straightforward, and the plain and by the very scale of its pretensions. As the eye runs along a line, the observer is left with a high uncertainty about what he will find around the corner, and his expectations come in for some jolts." (p 240) "Perplexity is resolved as the observer comes under the sway of the general texture and ceases to attach undue importance to its whimsical details." (p 241) "The fauve painters ... while foregoing the arousal value of ambiguity and complexity, they substituted the arousal value of gaudy coloring." (p 241)

Music, too, is analysed in terms of uncertainty and expectation. "The repetition of exactly the same sounds over and over again ... is, in fact, regularly used to build up excitement. This may be because of some primitive, physiological response to rhythmic reiteration, explaining its incantational use for the induction of mass irrational behavior or ecstatic states. But ... there is a mounting expectation that the repetition cannot go on for much longer, but it is not clear exactly when it will come to an end and what will replace it." (p 249) This made me think of Ravel's Bolero. But expectations also involve melody. "In modulating from one key to another: a chord which can belong to either key, and thus has an ambiguous status, is used to effect the transition" (p 250); modulation causes expectations not to be met creating "transient surprise and confusion" (p 250)

In literature "the curiosity of the reader or spectator is set astir and then satisfied." (p 253)

"The value of a joke ... depends on its formal structure, with the author alternately keeping in line with our learned anticipations and sharply diverging from them." (p 253) He points out that "the word 'funny' is also used to mean strange or perplexing." (p 259)

Despite its age, and 56 is ancient in social sciences, this book has many fascinating ideas and is deservedly a classic in its field.

August 2016; 303 pages

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