Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Friday, September 28, 2007

Feminist Perspective on History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich - New York Times:
The title of this newly released book is from an observation Ulrich made in a 1976 article for American Quarterly in which she noted all that is known about colonial women comes from the funeral eulogies written about them. Ulrich's comment became a famous quotation often printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers. This slogan presents a critical truth:
Much of what is characterized as female “misbehavior” is a matter of voice — of a woman insisting she be heard, paid not only attention, but also the respect due a being as fully human and necessary as a man.

In this review of Ulrich's book Kathryn Harrison says that Ulrich uses three classic feminist works to examine the theme of "bad" behavior:

  1. "Book of the City of Ladies" written by Christsine de Pizan in 1405
  2. "Eighty Years and More" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, published in 1898
  3. "A Room of One's Own," based on two lectures delivered by Virginia Woolf in 1928

In her examination, Harrison says, Ulrich "brings a female sensibility to what is more typically the linear, cause-and-effect formula of history, a majority of which, Ulrich points out, is written by men."

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Gaining Perspective on Autism

Being Autistic, Being Human [Speaking of Faith from American Public Media]:
One child in every 150 in the U.S. is now diagnosed to be somewhere on the spectrum of autism. We step back from public controversies over causes and cures and explore the mystery and meaning of autism in one family's life, and in history and society. Our guests say that life with their child with autism has deepened their understanding of human nature — of disability, and of creativity, intelligence, and accomplishment.

This week on her radio program Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett talks with Paul Collins, a literary historian, and Jennifer Elder, an artist, who are the parents of a young son with autism. The Web site contains a wealth of information to supplement the broadcast. You can also download a podcast of the broadcast and an audio version of Krista's uncut, almost two-hour interview with Paul and Jennifer.

This is a program that could offer us a new perspective on autism and those who live with it.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Quotation of the Day

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"As we grow to adulthood (at least in Western culture), we become increasingly adept at seeing the same set of events from multiple perspectives or stances and at entertaining the results as, so to speak, alternative possible worlds."

Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (p. 109)

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Gender Perspectives on Reading

From National Public Radio (NPR) comes this article about why women read more than men do.

“Surveys consistently find that women read more books than men, especially fiction. Explanations abound, from the biological differences between the male and female brains, to the way that boys and girls are introduced to reading at a young age.”

Americans of both genders are reading a lot less than they used to. The article reports on a recent poll released by the Associated Press (AP) that found that last year the average American read only four books and that one in four adults read no books at all. The poll further found that the average American woman read nine books last year, whereas the average American man read four. “Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.”

The gender gap is greatest for fiction, with men accounting for only 20% of fiction sales, according to surveys conducted in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Book group participants are predominantly women, and, according to the article, most literary blogs are produced by women.

The article discusses several theories that attempt to explain the fiction gap. Cognitive psychologists say that women are more empathetic than men, a trait that makes fiction more appealing to women. Another possible explanation, offered by Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, is that girls are able to sit still for a long time at a younger age than boys; girls therefore are more suited to the sedentary activity of reading. Yet another theory focuses on “mirror neurons,” brain cells that are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch actions being performed by other people; the presence of these mirror neurons may explain why we feel pain when we see someone else in pain. Although research on mirror neurons is still quite new, preliminary findings suggest that women have more of these cells than men do and that mirror neurons are the biological basis for empathy, a capacity necessary for the appreciation of fiction.

Finally, according to the article, young people read much less than do older people, a fact that has publishers and booksellers wondering what will happen as the population ages.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Perspective: A Classic Study

Pichert, James W., and Richard C. Anderson. “Taking Different Perspectives on a Story.” Journal of Educational Psychology 69(1977): 309-315

In what has become a classic study Pichert and Anderson investigated whether readers’ perspective can influence their determination of the significance of information and ideas presented in written texts. The researchers wrote two different stories, the House story and the Island story. The House story was about two boys playing hooky from school, with one boy convincing the other to go to his house; the story contained some details about the house that would interest a potential burglar and approximately the same number of details that would be significant to a prospective home buyer. The Island story, about two gulls flying over a remote island, included approximately the same number of details about the island’s exotic flora and its ability to sustain a shipwrecked sailor. These stories formed the basis of two experiments.

In the first experiment, all study participants were told to read first one story, then the other. For each story the participants were divided into three nearly equal groups. For the House story, one group was instructed beforehand to read the story from the perspective of a burglar, one group was told to read from the perspective of a potential home buyer, and the third group, the control group, was given no instructions. For the Island story, one group was told to read from the perspective of a florist looking for a place to raise flowers, another group was told to read from the perspective of a shipwrecked sailor trying to survive on the island, and the control group received no pre-reading instructions.

After reading each story, study participants for the first experiment were asked to rate the story’s idea units in terms of importance on a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 5 (essential). Non-control-group participants were reminded to keep in mind the role they had been assigned when rating importance. The results demonstrated that perspective did influence the readers’ evaluation of the relative importance of particular details of the story.

The second experiment used the finding of the first—that perspective influences what details are considered important—to examine the following questions: “(a) Are the more important idea units in a story better learned or (b) better remembered than less important idea units? (c) Does whether an idea unit will be learned depend upon perspective?” (p. 311). In this experiment participants, none of whom had participated in the first experiment, were randomly assigned to one of three perspective groups (the same groups as defined in the first experiment) for each story.

Participants were given two minutes to read a story; they then worked on a vocabulary test for 12 minutes. After the vocabulary exercise they were asked to write as many details from the story as they could remember (the free-recall test). The free-recall test was repeated seven days later.

The researchers compared the number of details remembered in the first free-recall test to the number remembered in the follow-up recall test. Results indicated that perspective can influence what details readers decide are important, and that importance in turn affects learning and memory.

So our perspective influences not only what details of an experience we notice, but also what details we remember later about the experience. These findings help explain why two people present at, for example, a family holiday celebration may years later tell quite different stories about the event. To understand each other’s interpretations, we must be willing to consider the other person’s perspective.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
"Writing about yourself and those in your life can help you view a situation--and yourself--in a new, clearer way. Turning the people in your life into characters, writing from their point of view, viewing yourself in the third person--all these devices are ways of allowing you to ‘see’ again."

Lynn Lauber, Listen to Me: Writing Life into Meaning (p. 52)

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Quotation of the Day

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative--whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative,' and that this narrative is us, our identities.

“If we wish to know about a man we ask 'what is his story--his real, inmost story?'--for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us--through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives, we are each of us unique.”

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,
and Other Clinical Tales
(p. 105)

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Quotation of the Day

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“. . . we need stories that normalize our suffering and show us we are part of a community of pain, sin and suffering. We need to be known, to be understood. Fellow sufferers who can empathize contribute to the process of normalization.”

Joseph Gold, Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support System (pp. 353-354)

Thank you, Joseph Gold. This is exactly what I was trying to say a few days ago in my review of The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood. During the course of the novel Mary Baxter learns that other people have also experienced pain; each one’s pain has been just as deep as Mary’s, and each has lived to tell the story. Our individual stories differ, but they all illustrate the great abstraction of suffering that is an inevitable part of the human condition. Telling our stories to each other helps us to cope with and heal from the traumas of our lives.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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