The Frontal Cortex

Harold and the Purple Crayon

One of my favorite aspects of the modern cognitive sciences (and a big part of the reason I can’t stop writing about them) is the way they shed new light on old rituals. Why, for instance, are so many games for young children centered around impulse control? (Consider “Simon Says” or “Duck-Duck-Goose” – these activities are all about being primed for action but still finding a way to exercise restraint. You have to be ready to be the goose and run quickly around the circle, but chances are you’re going to be a duck. If that’s the case, then you have to sit still.) As I explained in this recent article, such impulse control is one of the most important skills we learn as young children.

All of which leads me to Harold and the Purple Crayon, one of my favorite childhood books. (The book is written for three-year olds.) The conceit of the book is that Harold has a magic crayon: whenever he uses this purple Crayola to draw, the drawing becomes real, although it’s still identifiable as a childish sketch. For instance, when Harold wants to go for a walk, he simply draws a path with his crayon – this fictive path then transforms into a real walkway, which Harold can stroll along. When Harold’s hand wavers and he draws a mass of squiggly lines the end result is a stormy sea.

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Harold is a perfect example of what’s known as “double-scope integration”. This is a fancy term for something we all do everyday, and have been doing since preschool. In essence, double-scope integration (aka “conceptual blending”) is the ability to combine two completely distinct concepts or realities in the same blink of thought. For instance, even young children are able to seamlessly blend together the world of actual space-time (in which purple crayons don’t create walkways or moons or oceans) and the world of Harold, in which such things are possible. The text only works because such cognitive mergers are possible: after Harold draws a new object, the rules of the real world still apply. So when he draws a mountain (and then climbs the mountain), he still has to make sure he doesn’t slip and fall down. When he does slip – gravity exists even in this crayon universe – Harold then has to draw a balloon to save himself. The influential cognitive psychologist Mark Turner (who eloquently interprets Harold and the Purple Crayon using double-scope integration) was the first (along with Gilles Fauconnier) to emphasize the importance of this mental skill. Here’s Turner:

Double-scope integration integrates two mental assemblies, two notions, two thoughts that conflict in their basic conceptual organizations, because they are based on conflicting frames or conflicting identities. The result of this integration is a new conceptual array, a “blend,” that has a new organizing structure and emergent meaning of its own. In “double-scope” integration, there are two input menial spaces that we typically keep quite separate, but there is also the invention of a blend that draws crucially on both of them. For example, you might think that it is indispensable that you not confuse yourself with another person. But, in fact, human beings are exceptionally good at making elaborate conceptual constructions involving themselves and other people. They say “If I were you I’d quit my job because if I were you I’d have your courage”; “If I were you I’d quit my job but you won’t because you’re timid”; “If I were you I’d quit my job but then I’m independently wealthy so I wouldn’t need it”; “If I were you I’d quit my job because you have another one”; “If I were you I’d quit my job be cause I have another one”; “If I were you I’d quit my job because your beloved boss has another job offer and he is going to leave.” Notice how all of these “If I were you” expressions receive different projections from the I and the you. The resulting blend does not erase our knowledge of the difference between “I” and “you,” but it is not merely a weird, escapist fantasy, either. On the contrary, these blended conceptions are put together for important purposes such as making real choices.

And it’s not just books for kids and social counterfactuals that take advantage of double-scope integration. Turner has also argued (in his excellent essay “The Art of Compression”) that great visual art, such as Picasso’s cubist work, also depends on conceptual blending. It’s only because we can effortlessly merge the real and the abstract, the actual and the pretend, into something else entirely that we’re able to enjoy looking at Picasso canvases, watching sci-fi movies and reading about Harold and his purple crayon.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 17, 2009

    Nice post, holmes!

  2. #2 Phillip Mummah
    August 17, 2009

    I have noticed this but now it makes a lot more sense. When i stare at a painting that has stairs that magically return to the top without going up it makes me analyze it. And when i truly try to see that the stairs are giving this illusion and perception that they are traveling both up and down while not really going in either direction it becomes complex and confusing. However if i just enjoy and (well i think this is what happens) and i do not look at it from the science side of me but i just look it is quite enjoyable to see and i do not have to try to blend it automatically just happens. I believe that what i have done is taken something imaginary and combined it with the reality. I love to do in depth research about how the brain works and how each specific part and all the tissue and neurons work together and apart along with why these functions work. I have never really thought about why i could create vast imaginative worlds when i did not know what a video game was and how i could blend it back together with my life. This is a really cool post and i enjoy having a better understanding.

  3. #3 Gray Gaffer
    August 17, 2009

    M.C Escher immediately pops into mind. As does this mechanism as a under-pinning to humor, I would guess.

  4. #4 royniles
    August 17, 2009

    “For example, you might think that it is indispensable that you not confuse yourself with another person. But, in fact, human beings are exceptionally good at making elaborate conceptual constructions involving themselves and other people.”

    But I’d argue that we don’t think that way to begin with as our behaviors as social animals depend on our ability to see how they are reflected in others behaviors and especially how others will judge our behaviors through their own abilities to “mirror” ours.

    Quite likely the “cognitive merger” had merged early on in our evolutionary history, as part of a series of incremental mergers that cobbled our cognitive structure together.

  5. #5 Sans Talbot
    August 17, 2009

    I’m skeptical of the utility of ‘double-scope integration’ as a concept.

    As a quick mental experiment to illustrate why, imagine that Harold and his crayon were real phenomena, rather than fictions, and rather than being told about them, you experienced them directly.

    Would you still be using ‘double-scope integration’ to think about them, or would it be considered a single scope (‘reality’).

    Or suppose that in reality, nobody ever used a crayon to draw, before. You read a story book about a little boy who uses a crayon to draw. Would this be ‘double-scope?’

    The more important insight, I think, is simply that we’re able to construct hypothetical realities out of an almost any arbitrary selection of mental components, and to classify them as non-factual. It seems to me that ‘double-scope integration’ is merely a single, special case in this more general skill of constructing internal realities, and not a particularly interesting or enlightening one.

    BTW, Jonah – you’re my favorite blogger. Thank you for posting such consistently interesting material, and for transmitting your own passion for these things.

    I’m looking forward to both of your books.

  6. #6 Ryan Linehan
    August 18, 2009

    hi I liked this.

  7. #7 Jeff
    August 19, 2009

    @Sans Talbot

    I’m glad I can name what I’ve used all my life to invent things. This is how most of the ideas that later became patents, inventions or products start. This is the path to “getting outside the box” of conventional solutions and thinking.

  8. #8 Joselle Kehoe
    August 21, 2009

    Whenever I see a phrase like “It’s only because we can effortlessly merge the real and the abstract….” my attention becomes fully engaged. I have thought about Harold and The Purple Crayon as an impulsive and playful illustration of something that we’ve come to know about ourselves and the world. Wondering about ‘the real and the abstract’ is a habit of mine now. It started when I became captivated with mathematics and continues as I try to explain (even to myself) why I find mathematics so provocative and invigorating. Because of my experience with mathematics, I would just like to add that I don’t think it’s only a facility for blending that is operating (which I know Lakoff uses in his book about mathematics). I think that abstractions in art, cave art, and mathematics are a reflection of some view of ourselves that we manage to get – of an intuition about how our senses are assembling the world for us. I very much enjoyed that you brought our attention to Harold.

  9. #9 Bill Clark
    August 25, 2009

    Wonderful post. I love Harold and the Purple Crayon too.

    Didn’t Arthur Koestler anticipate this idea in some respects, with his identification of “bisociation” as the common element in science, art, and humor? I think his book “The Act of Creation” is a wildly underappreciated work.

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