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.
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.