Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Semantic Processing and Scattershot Impressions

Mara Sedlins:

Greetings! Dr. Mara here. For the last four months I've been assisting Sean with the restoration project, first with scanning and organization, and increasingly with the image restoration itself, cleaning up noise, fixing shrunk tone, etc. 

My background is in mathematics and psychology (the doctorate is in social and cognitive psychology), and I have a special appreciation for detail-oriented projects that makes the type of work I'm doing on Cerebus especially fun for me. (Like Sean, I've had dreams about the cleanup work - but I don't consider them nightmares!)

I worked as a teaching assistant during most of graduate school, so given an audience, I can't resist giving a quick cognitive psych lesson (which I will then relate to my experience working on High Society):

When you encounter verbal information (e.g., dialogue on a page of High Society), there are three different types of cognitive processing that can happen:

1) You can notice the visual appearance of the words, e.g. whether the letters are capitalized or lower case, the style of font (in psych lingo, this is called "structural processing").

2) You can notice the way the words sound ("phonemic processing").

3) You can understand the meaning of the words, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to previously encountered information (e.g., the plot of High Society; this is called "semantic processing").

The third type is considered a deeper level of processing than the first two and leads to better retention in long-term memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972.) For instance, if you're trying to memorize something, focusing on the meaning of the words will lead to better long-term memory than merely repeating them over and over again. This is why mnemonic devices work!

This "levels of processing" model of memory was first developed (in Ontario, as it happens) with words as the information to be remembered. However, the same principle can be considered with pictorial information. When viewing an image, you can focus on its physical appearance (color, texture, shape, etc.) or its meaning (a character's identity, facial expression, the action taking place).

Intriguingly, visual memory is actually better when people are attuned to the physical details of images, as opposed to their semantic meaning -- the opposite of what occurs with verbal memory (Intraub & Nicklos, 1985)

In light of the ways humans process and remember information, the restoration work for High Society has been a very odd way to encounter this work for the first time. My normal experience of a novel (graphic or otherwise) is of course to focus on the semantic information: the characters, plot developments, etc. However, doing cleanup work has required an intense focus on the surface-level details, often to the exclusion of deeper information processing.

The upshot: although I've scrutinized hundreds of pages of High Society, I have basically no idea what's going on with the story!

Ok, that's not entirely true. Some scatter-shot impressions: there's an election; the election is for prime minister; Cerebus is running for prime minister; lots of maps; bribery, some shady characters; a politically savvy but illiterate soldier; threats of invasion; a sparkly woman who may or may not be imaginary but seems hilarious; lots of formal wear; love triangles: Astoria vs. Jaka?, Cerebus vs. the Moon Roach; the Moon Roach is cold; something about a goat.

Given the levels-of-processing effect on visual memory, I suspect that what I (mis?)remember and (mis?)understand of the plot so far is weighted toward the visual elements of the pages I've seen, as opposed to the text.

This week I'm excited to actually read the story as I help Sean proofread our cleaned-up version. In working on this project, I've been continually impressed by the devotion and generosity it's inspired in Dave's fans, so as a newcomer to the Cerebus oeuvre I know I'm in for a treat! :)


Jeff Seiler said...

Mara, as someone with a Master's degree in psychology, I really appreciate your take on this. I do hope you will share your psychological (and other) views on the text of HS (and the rest of the books--hope you make it past Reads).

Again, as someone trained in psychology, I have been and remain fascinated by Dave's untrained yet nativistic insight into the human (and aardvarkian) condition.

David Birdsong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Some semantic processing:

"Aren't you going to ask me what that was about?"

Cerebus refuses to ask because he only has a few questions left that Astoria has allotted him. But, as I recall, he never actually uses up the questions.

I also really liked Dr. Mara's plot summary. Although it doesn't seem like she's noticed the "wuffa wuffa" issue, which I think is one of the best in the whole series.

- Reginald P.

Cerebus Restoration said...

Hey Reginald,

Mara's plot summary is handicapped because I did cleanup on the back half of the book, so she looked at those pages a lot less intensely. (Scanning/straightening/organizing only) Otherwise I'm sure a certain farmer would be prominently featured in said theoretical recap.