Tuesday, 27 December 2005

Neuroscience bolsters Agatha Christie promotion

Via the always excellent Language Log, this: The Agatha Christie Code: Stylometry, serotonin and the oscillation overthruster. Mark Liberman expresses a little caution about the alleged and much-publicised neuroscientific proof that Agatha Christie is a great author: the BBC's Scientists study Christie success, and the like. The repeated quotation of a "Dr Roland Kapferer, the project's leader" smacks of appeal to authority: LL notes that he appears to be a film and TV producer, not (as is implied by context) one of the "scientists from universities in London, Birmingham and Warwick" involved in the work.

Only Grantham Today hints at the back-story: Sisters play famous author in seasonal TV special mentions how The Agatha Christie Code "has been made to mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of Miss Marple and will use scientific analysis of Christie's novels to find out why she was such a successful author" - indicating that the documentary, which screens today, is a belated part of the late-2005 Christie relaunch by Chorion plc.

As I said to LL, the scientific exercise appears to have "promotional" written all over it (given that ITV and Chorion plc have a long-standing co-production agreement for Agatha Christie programmes). Even the premise of the research is to be doubted: sales of Christie's fiction were in decline in the late 1990's, until rebadged by Chorion after its acquisition of the rights in 1999.

Chorion furthermore took the unusual step of a moratorium on professional production of Christie's plays, again to clear the field for revisionist West End productions. Agatha Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard, in what sounds like an admission of the datedness of her work, commented: "If Agatha Christie is to be as popular as the 21st century as she was in the 20th, we have to be open-minded about interpreting stories in modern ways, much as Shakspeare is reinvented for successive generations".

No, Christie is not staying popular due to some intrinsic quality, but by massive and well-managed reinvention.

I watched The Agatha Christie Code and it confirmed all suspicions: promotion backed up by questionable science. It took the form of a dramatised documentary of Agatha Christie's career, intercut with praise by various pundits (no dissenting voices) and a purported investigation into the reason for her success.

Down to the science. The main experts were computational linguist Dr Pernilla Danielsson (billed as "academic champion of communications") and Dr Markus Dahl, a research fellow (a Johnny Depp lookalike, including top hat) at the University of London Institute of English Studies (he has a good track record of work on textual analysis as a tool in tracing attribution and authorship). The camera tracked around them portentously as they sat at glowing laptops in a dimly-lit smoky room and, bit by bit, revealed the purported secret of Christie's success. As LL guessed, Dr Roland Kapferer wasn't among the experts; he was revealed in the credits as the associate producer/writer for the programme.

The science boiled down to a) computerised textual analysis - word frequencies, and so on - and b) decidedly non-mainstream experts interpreting the psychological meaning of those results. Christie's nearly invariable use of "said", rather than said-bookisms, was claimed to enable readers to concentrate on the plot. Her works' narrow range on a 3D scatter plot (axes and variables unknown) indicated a consistent style, assumed to be a Good Thing compared to Arthur Conan Doyle. Sudden coherent sections in her otherwise messy notebook indicated her getting "into the flow" - a trancelike writing state (Darian Leader, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, endorsed the idea that she had been in a similar, deeper trance during her famous 10-day disappearance) and Dr Dahl argued that this trance transferred to the reader.

The trance theory was the central thrust of the programme. David Shephard, a Master Trainer in Neurolinguistic Programming (chosen, says his CV, for "his mastery of linguistic patterns") asserted that the level of repetition of key concepts over small spaces (e.g "life", "living", "live", "death" in a couple of paragraphs) consolidated concepts in the reader's mind. He claimed further that we can only hold nine concepts in the mind at once (I assume a reference to Miller's classic Seven plus or minus two figure for short-term memory capacity) and that Christie's use of more than nine characters overloads the reader's conscious mind, making them literally go into a trance. Dr Dahl cited a further textual result - Christie's "ingenious device" of controlling the reading speed by decreasing the level of detail toward the ends of books, and stage hypnotist Paul McKenna claimed that this invoked the neurotransmitters of craving and release, making the books addictive.

Finally they rolled out the big gun, Dr Richard Bandler, "father of Neurolinguistic Programming", who repeated the assertion of Christie literally hypnotising readers, and said the lack of detail helped maintain that trance. And that was it: "extensive computer analysis", concluded the Joanna Lumley voiceover, has enabled a "quantum leap" in understanding the source of Christie's enduring popularity.

Why, surely only a cynic could remain unconvinced by such rigorous science...

- Ray