TO SLEEP, TO DREAM

Where does dreaming fit into the information provided in “Quiet! Sleeping Brain at Work,” by Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen? Does dreaming interfere, improve or have no effect on sleep's enhancement of memory?

old curmudgeon
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com

ELLENBOGEN REPLIES: One proposed mechanism for how sleep leads to memory enhancement is that while we are asleep, the brain is busy replaying previously learned information—kind of like an actor rehearsing his lines. Is that a type of dream? Seen from this perspective, dreams do not influence the memory-enhancing effects of sleep, they are the memory-enhancing effect. But some researchers disagree. This debate will continue until we are able to experimentally manipulate the content of dreams and reliably (that is, objectively) record them during sleep. Stay tuned! For a great summary discussion of this topic, see the fourth edition of Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, edited by Meir H. Kryger, Thomas Roth and William C. Dement (Elsevier, 2008).

SKIPPING GRADES

Christian Fischer's statement in “Coaching the Gifted Child,” favoring placement of highly gifted children with age peers, ignores a large body of research supporting acceleration. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, in more than 30 years of research, has found that “acceleration has been shown to be an appropriate practice for meeting the needs of academically talented students; as a way to keep these students motivated and appropriately challenged. There is no evidence to support the notion of negative social and emotional consequences of acceleration for talented students as a whole.

Fischer also perpetuates the negative stereotype of highly gifted children as social misfits and indirectly condones the bullying of gifted children by using the example of a boy who is bullied because he bragged about being smart. In fact, highly gifted children are frequent targets of bullying simply because they are so smart. Recent research at Purdue University found that “by eighth grade, more than two thirds of gifted students have been victims” of bullying.

Social difficulties are not individual “shortcomings,” as Fischer implies; they are a result of developmental asynchrony common to highly gifted children. These children need help to find friends who understand them and share common interests and who are not threatened by their intellect; these friends are not easy to find among age peers. The highly gifted child will typically have no intellectual peers and endure both boredom and bullying when kept at grade level. Highly gifted children who find older intellectual peers (or other highly gifted age peers) can experience increased self-esteem, not feeling “inferior in every other realm,” as the article states.

Miss Prism
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com

REAL STORIES

In “The Secrets of Storytelling,” Jeremy Hsu speaks of “the human predilection for storytelling.” Although he mentions nonfiction, the weight of his article is on fiction. Hsu links the idea of story with “the safe, imaginary world,” “fantasy,” “folktales” and “narrative traditions”—these are descriptions of fiction. But the father who, putting his children to bed at the end of day, says to them, “Let me tell you the story of how I met your mother,” is engaging in storytelling and captivating his listeners just as much—and maybe even more so—as is the father who says to his kids, “Once upon a time there was a prince who lived in a land of dragons.” If we are going to study the fascinating world of stories, we must include in our discussion all acts of storytelling: fiction but also gossip, rumor, anecdotes, teaching stories, slice-of-life stories, personal histories, and so on. We must, uppermost, keep in mind that “story” refers to a certain mode of expression, not to a type of narrative.

David H. Morgan
Richmond, Va.

HSU REPLIES: I agree with Morgan's point. Storytelling clearly encompasses more than the formal works of fiction that we consume in books and on television. Studying the personal stories told among friends and family is also important for understanding storytelling. Nonfiction and fiction can both prove compelling, as I mentioned in my article.

I emphasized fictional stories because they present perhaps the most intriguing puzzle for scholars of the mind. Why should people care at all about a prince in a land of dragons or the mythical exploits of Greek warriors and gods of thousands of years ago? The process of answering that question is bringing together researchers across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

Hsu's article is strongly oriented toward socialization and romance. As such, it neglects the “cautionary tale” as an important reason—both practical and Darwinian—for storytelling. Throughout my career in the fire service I was exposed to (and told a few of my own) stories about “how I survived to tell the tale.” These were meant, and accepted, as lessons on how to be effective at the job while living long enough to be a silverback. Similar conversations broke out every year near the start of hunting season. Old soldiers’ tales and a myriad of other survival stories may represent an important reason for storytelling, beyond socialization.

fire1fl
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com

The comment by “fire1fl” raises a very good point. Stories have many purposes, and these recur cross-culturally at different levels of abstraction. My work has focused on recurring narrative structures in the most enduring stories, which commonly involve thematic concerns that bear on fairly broad issues of ethics or politics (for example, the value of loyalty). Yet the more directly prudential concerns of cautionary tales (relating to, say, hunting) may be more context-bound, more limited in their target audience and, therefore, more ephemeral—less likely to be written down, anthologized or translated. As a result, they would less likely turn up in research on cross-cultural patterns. This situation results in a certain kind of bias in the data.

Perhaps surprisingly, this issue of data bias bears on another issue in the article—literary Darwinism. My problem with certain aspects of the literary Darwinist approach is that writers in this school tend (in my view) to draw biological conclusions far too quickly from what is at best scanty evidence. Consider, for example, two very plausible preliminary hypotheses. First, stories commonly have political functions. Second, dominant groups have disproportionate control over the production and preservation of widely circulated stories. Given these hypotheses, one would expect, for instance, that the representation of men and women would develop in pretty much the ways literary Darwinists report. Thus, the data alone do not decide between social constructionist and biological views of gender.

These are all reasons it is important to be bold in researching possible patterns across cultures but also to be cautious in drawing conclusions about just what those patterns mean. For instance, recurring patterns in heroic plots may tell us something about human biology. But they may also tell us something about more malleable aspects of group dynamics and the ideologies needed to maintain group stratification.

Patrick Hogan
University of Connecticut
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com

ERRATUM In “Why Dogs Don’t Enjoy Music,” by Sandy Fritz [Head Lines, October/November 2008], we misspelled the name of Itzhak Fried of the University of California, Los Angeles.