Can Peter Pan Teach Us About Consciousness?

February 3, 2017

A couple of years ago, the neuropsychologist Rosalind Ridley was browsing through a friend’s bookshelf when she came across JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan stories. Ridley had always been an avid reader and collector of books, but as she read on, she realised that this was more than just a charming children’s tale of fairies and talking animals: within Peter’s whimsical adventures, Barrie was hiding some profound insights into the human mind, and in particular, the ways it develops over childhood.

Here, she realised, was a tale that teaches us all how we learn to think. “That just got me hooked, and the more I read, the more I found there.”

The result of that initial interest is a fascinating new study, exploring his astute observations on the peculiarities of human memories, sleep and dreams, and the puzzle of consciousness. Indeed, Ridley argues that many of Peter’s adventures point to scientific theories that would only emerge decades after the tales were first written. “Many of the things being discussed weren’t discovered until the 1970s,” says Ridley, who is based at the University of Cambridge.

Looking through Barrie’s life, it is apparent that many influences may have shaped the tales, which took years to crystallise. Barrie had formulated some of the elements of Peter Pan’s adventures while still a child himself – stories he then elaborated on to entertain the Llewellyn Davies family, whom he met during a walk in London’s Kensington Gardens. The character made his first public outing in 1902, with a minor role in Barrie’s adult novel, The Little White Bird, before taking centre stage in a play and children’s novel, Peter and Wendy, which was published in 1911.

By this point, Barrie was already an established writer, moving in a fashionable social circle that would have introduced him to, among others, the pioneering American psychologist William James (through his novelist brother, Henry James). Through these connections, he would have heard the leading scientific theories of the day – discussions that may have fired his already fertile imagination and informed the tales he was writing.

In this way, the stories appear to follow a tradition of great cross-pollination between the arts and the sciences – particularly in children’s literature. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies was written, in part, as a response to Darwin’s theory of evolution, while Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were a playful exploration of mathematics and logic. Even some of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales were inspired by new scientific and technological developments – such as the invention of the home microscope.

Ridley emphasizes that Barrie did not just borrow others’ ideas, though – he embellished their theories and offered new insights that were completely his own. “I think a lot of it just comes from very good observation of people, of animals, and of himself.”

Mapping the mind

Consider the following episode at the very start of Peter and Wendy’s adventures:

“Mrs Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day… When you wake in the morning, the naughtinesses and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”

As Ridley points out, this hints at an astute understanding of sleep’s role in memory maintenance. First floated in the late 19th Century, this idea is now the subject of substantial scientific research. Brain scans of sleeping subjects show the passing of “slow wave” electrical signals between the hippocampus (a seahorse-shaped region implicated in memory formation) and the bark-like neocortex on the surface of the brain, where memories are stored in the long-term.

As it files away our recollections in this way, the brain appears to integrate our newest memories with records of older events, forging a coherent story of our lives. And in the same way that Mrs Darling folds up the children’s “evil passions”, this process also soothes some of the nastier feelings accrued during a stressful day and helps us put unpleasant experiences in perspective; it may be for this reason that sleep disturbances are often associated with mental illness.

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