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"Marks of Spectres: Mind, Morality, and Religion in Cultural Discourse"

Final Report Summary - MARKSOFSPECTRES (Marks of Spectres: Mind, Morality, and Religion in Cultural Discourse)


This project’s knowledge objectives centred on the use of new results in cognitive science to gain insight into literary and cultural materials, as well as the reciprocal use of literary and cultural materials to suggest new directions in cognitive science. Its training objectives were designed to bring the primary researcher into a position of professional maturity by complementing his training in the humanities with training in quantitative and experimental research methodologies. Its socio-economic objectives consisted of providing policy-makers with knowledge of how different modes of representation are likely to impact on the general public.

1—Knowledge objectives:

The project’s knowledge objectives were met by way of a programme of research that incorporated several disciplines (literary studies, anthropology, experimental psychology) and methodologies (qualitative analysis, experimental evaluation, historical research). Areas of focus included popular culture, detective fiction, nineteenth-century fiction, Indo-European legend, psychoanalytic discourse and reader response. This eclectic range of topics was built into the project from the outset as a way of demonstrating the value of humanities-science collaboration across a wide range of areas.

1.1—Results of pursuing knowledge objectives. The project’s results endorsed the idea that collaboration between the humanities and sciences is a key growth area for future research. By showing that a cross-section of humanities research can be usefully illuminated by cognitive and experimental science (and vice versa), a case was made for extending the same approach to a wider variety of areas. Moreover, dissemination activities (below) cultivated interest in this programme of research on the part of academic colleagues, professional users and the general public, thereby furthering the ‘cognitive humanities’ as an emerging paradigm.

1.2—Knowledge conclusions. The project delivered the following major conclusions concerning its chosen research topics. (i) Secular literatures reproduce religious intuitions about supernatural agency, punishment and the violation of moral norms—but only when population size increases beyond the human ability to intuitively monitor. This represents a real advance on the motivating hypothesis of the project, which did not anticipate that group size would play such a role. (ii) Popular genres—detective fiction, comic-book literature—are deeply implicated in the cultural attempt to resolve the social problems of large-group living by way of counterfactual reasoning. This result connects results on counterfactual fabulation in religion with research on secular fabulation in an important and entirely novel way. (iii) The human representation of the mind states of others is neither exclusively mediated by narrative nor absent from narrative; instead, it is differentially mediated by the genre of the narrative in question. This nuances a major debate in cognitive science, which focuses on whether the ability to understand other minds is innate or culturally transmitted through narrative.

1.3—Knowledge impact: Though the project’s full impact will take time to completely materialise, it has already created new reference points on some of the fields it has engaged with. For instance, no future research on detective fiction can ignore the project’s results, just as the overwhelmingly historicist orientation of popular cultural studies is provocatively challenged by the results on comic-book fiction. Upon publication, the results on narrative and social cognition are likely to have a major impact on cognitive science.

2—Training objectives:

The project has been an overwhelming success in expanding the researcher’s professional skill-set. This is likely to benefit both the researcher personally (in terms of career progression) and the field of interdisciplinary social-sciences/humanities research (by way of enhanced capacity).

2.1—Results of research training: In addition to his humanities training, the researcher now has expertise in experimental design, statistical analysis and the use of scientific software packages (SPSS, Limesurvey, R). This has resulted in the publication of lead-author papers in scientific journals (PLOS ONE; see dissemination), as well as the retention of the researcher as a Research Associate in the Department of Experimental Psychology of the University of Oxford after the conclusion of his fellowship. All of this has helped accelerate him as an important critical voice in the cognitive humanities paradigm.

2.2—Results of professional training: The researcher has been trained in personnel management, grant financing, public outreach, interview skills and career development while at his host institution. This has valuably augmented his research training by giving him the necessary expertise for dealing with large, collaborative projects—the next most likely step in his research career.

3—Socioeconomic objectives:

As an exercise in establishing how cognition translates into cultural representations and vice-versa, the project has an obvious value for the pursuit of commercial and policy objectives. This has been materialised in the following three ways:

3.1—The climate science debate: The researcher co-delivered the ‘Seeing Yourself See’ workshop on the climate science debate for climate scientists in London in July of 2013, which explored the cognitive biases implicit in thinking about climate change. He was also co-author of the follow-up report, ‘Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered’ (UCL Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science, 2014) which has been taken up as a policy document by the UK Labour Party.

3.2—European space science: In August 2014, the researcher was invited as a keynote speaker to the European Space Agency (ESA) workshop on narrative and science at the ESRIN facility in Frascati, Italy. The aim of this workshop was to explore how knowledge about narrative and cognition can be used to frame the project of European space science as a ‘story’ for the general public. The results of the workshop are being published as a report for the ESA Director-General and are likely to be circulated in the wider space science community.

3.3—Commercial activity: The researcher has cultivated a partnership with Purpose ( a London-based branding agency. This partnership constructs narrative identities for progressive commercial and social organisations.