My Guts, Exposed: Reviewer Comments for a Rejected Manuscript

💔💔💔

This is exhibitionism at its finest. Feed your internal sadist with my failures. Feast your eyes on the diatribes of learned people against my pathetic excuse for a manuscript.

Okay, enough of that. I found the criticism ultimately helpful. Was it painful to read? Sure, a little bit. But some of the best things in life hurt a little.

I submitted this paper to a journal after writing it as a purely academic exercise towards the completion of my Master’s program at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. I worked hard on it and thought: why not. Best case, more than one person in the world reads it. Worst case, well, this.

If you have never submitted a manuscript before, the process can be a little intimidating. Maybe seeing me crash and burn in a public way will encourage you to give it a try.

No pain, no gain, right?

Synopsis

I am interested in the psychology of narratives and storytelling: how these things interact with our brains and minds. I stumbled upon an older theory posited in the 80’s by Jerome Bruner, a psychologist with an impressive pedigree who had a lasting influence on theories of education.

Bruner’s big idea was that the mind is fundamentally split into two modes of thought: one mode for thinking about the facts and mechanics of how the world works (which he called paradigmatic thinking), the other for thinking about experience, relationships and society (narrative thinking). My strategy was to analyze this theory by comparing it to two more current theories of the mind.

I’m including the email sent to me by the editor below, as well as my manuscript as a PDF.

I do not plan to do any further work on this topic. If you want to pick up where I left off, you are absolutely welcome to, though I would appreciate it if you let me know and, if published, acknowledged me in some way. I worked hard on this!

The Manuscript

It’s a PDF. It’s a bit long. Enjoy.

Reviewer Comments

Dear Dr* Masurovsky:

I regret to inform you that our reviewers have now considered your paper but unfortunately feel it unsuitable for publication in ___________.  Both reviewers provided extensive and detailed comments about both the premise of the arguments and in many cases about the arguments themselves. My own read of the paper is much in line with both reviewers, particularly reviewer one. This reviewer notes that the thinking and writing in the paper are commendable but they question the contribution of Bruner’s argument to our understanding of narrative. Specifically, the reviewer noted that Bruner: “[made] us think about how narrative experiences are different from, say doing math or conducting science experiments. But research into and related to transportation have largely addressed that question. The answer to the question posed here exists in the models of discourse comprehension and the role of imagination in those models.” The second reviewer is a bit more vociferous in their comments. Like reviewer one, they question the use of Bruner’s work as a way of considering the admittedly messy body of literature on narrative persuasion, but they also question your narrow conceptualization of the mind and critique the overreach of several of your arguments (e.g., referring to ELM as a popular theory describing the structure of the mind. I very much agree with this criticism).  This reviewer suggests Dennet as a starting place and I also agree. Your paper definitely has some interesting points but may benefit from somewhat of a conceptual edit.

 For your information I attach the reviewer comments at the bottom of this email.  I hope you will find them to be constructive and helpful.  You are of course now free to submit the paper elsewhere should you choose to do so.

Thank you for considering ___________. I hope the outcome of this specific submission will not discourage you from the submission of future manuscripts.

Sincerely,

_____ __________
Editor, _________
____@___.edu

Reviewer 1:

The manuscript reconsiders Bruner’s Two Modes of Thought Theory in light of several other theories related to, but not explanations of, narrative processing, namely transportation, ELM and ELM derivatives. 

The paper poses and interesting question.  That is whether there a fundamental difference between human’s processing of information that takes the form of a narrative and information that is non-narrative in form (e.g., “science and reasoning”).   Unfortunately, the paper imbeds this question in a less interesting one regarding the utility of Bruner’s theory.  Bruner’s books certainly had heuristic appeal in that it prompted further contemplation of narrative experiences.  But given what we’ve learned about narrative processing from discourse comprehension generally, and narrative comprehension, specifically, since then, it seems that the answer to the question likely lies in a more fundamental level of psychology.  Mental models and situation models, specifically, seem a more appropriate place to start.  After reading the manuscript I’m left thinking that a useful distinction might be between, on one hand, information about which we need only and are able to retrieve concrete, preexisting knowledge structures (e.g., math problems, mechanical devices, or even the actions of individuals) and, on the other hand, information that requires our imagination (e.g., descriptions of unfamiliar objects or, more likely, descriptions of moderately complex events).  This would explain the example offered on page 13 regarding the psychiatrists and their patients (I presume). 

Unfortunately, paper starts with a weak premise.  This is regarding transportation theory, and other absorption concepts.  The problem is that transportation is less a theory of what underlies narrative processing and more of a description of what is involved in high levels of engagement in a narrative text.  The transportation model describes a sensation or phenomena that results when attention is high, emotion is activated, and imagery production occurs.  But the model doesn’t describe the processes that lead to attentional focus, emotion activation, and imagery production.  Transportation is very useful as a mediator or moderator of the influence of a narrative on outcome variables.  The extent to which transportation is more than a description of a combination of attention, emotion, and imagery isn’t entirely clear in the literature or in the present manuscript.  Transportation’s contribution to narrative persuasion as a moderator is impressive, to be sure.  But, that may be the extent of its utility.   

I don’t see that the paper’s focus on ELM leads to substantive contribution.  On page 15, it seemed somewhat obvious that when imagination is engaged in any sort of complex representation will likely require both heuristic and systematic processing.  I appreciate that this point was arrived at on page 18.  Along those same lines, I’m not sure I accept Khaneman’s assumption (or the paper’s interpretation of it) that Type 1 processing dominates during narrative processing until some unexpected turn occurs.  Rather, it seems more likely that heuristic processing would dominate to the extent that it does in real life under the sufficiency principle.     

Along the same lines, page 15 suggests that somehow narratives are processed, not through systematic or heuristic processes, but “through other mechanisms,” which appear unidentified by both Green and Brock and the current authors.  (BTW, several places in the MS, quotes are not accompanied by page numbers.)  I’m not sure how useful this point is unless some other mechanisms are explicated.  Essentially, HSM doesn’t suggest heuristic processing as one, single mechanism and systematic processing as a different, single mechanism.  Rather, both are groups of processes that tend to require less or more cognitive capacity.  So, I have a hard time imagining what “other mechanisms” would mean.  For example, one likely would process systematically but engage different processes when diagnosing a mechanical problem with a car, when following a recipe, or solving a geometry problem, just as there are different heuristics one might engage when making an unimportant decision or judgment.

On page 14, Moyer-GusĂ© & Nabi (2010) found a negative relation between transportation and counterarguing.  The text describes the relation as positive.  This may be merely mistyping.

Page 16 “…loses access to some real world facts in favor of accepting the narrative world…”  (again no page #).   This point gets more into the challenges some philosophers and scholars struggle with regarding the notion of fiction and the so-called “paradox of fiction.”  I’m not convinced by this paper or the literature in general that the necessary distinction is between real world facts and “non-real world facts.”  Instead, I think the distinction that this paper is pointing to is between facts that are concrete and discrete, and more complex information that requires imagination and the construction of complex mental representations.   This distinction likely points to the processes that underlie transportation.

Finally, on page 24 we have the suggestion that “[t]he Paradigmatic Mode as described by Bruner requires serious reconsideration and possibly removal from the theory altogether.”  If that is the case, then what the paper really calls for is an explanation of narrative comprehension, which, I would argue, already exists in the discourse processing literature.

Ultimately, I appreciate the thinking and writing that went into the manuscript.  In my opinion the contribution of Bruner’s argument was to make us think about how narrative experiences are different from, say doing math or conducting science experiments.  But research into and related to transportation have largely addressed that question.  The answer to the question posed here exists in the models of discourse comprehension and the role of imagination in those models.   

Reviewer 2:

In this manuscript, the Author(s) present Jerome Bruner’s Two Modes of Thought Theory as a solution to understand the mind. To demonstrate the utility of Bruner’s theory, the Author(s) apply Bruner’s theory to the narrative and narrative persuasion literature. I’m sorry to say this, but my overall impression of the manuscript is quite negative. My evaluation is that the manuscript’s foundation is unsound, which makes it difficult to comment on the specific arguments built on top of that foundation. My main comment, which is brief, addresses this foundational issue. I’m sorry that I do not have a more positive evaluation of this manuscript. A likely reason that Bruner’s idea has not been seriously taken up is because it is a bad idea.

Main Concern:

While I agree with the Author(s) that the narrative persuasion literature is beset with problems and problematic theories, I strongly disagree that Bruner’s theory helps. In fact, Bruner’s theory potentially causes new problems in an already messy literature. A major issue with this paper is the overly narrow way in which the mind is conceptualized. This narrow conceptualization is prevalent throughout the manuscript. As just one example that occurs right away in the abstract, the ELM is described as a “popular theory describing the structure of the mind”. The ELM most certainly does not describe the structure of the mind, it considers information processing (centrally or peripherally) specific to attitude change. The mind is considerably more vast and comprised of numerous systems and subsystems devoted to a multitude of cognitive processes that extend beyond far beyond those related to attitude change. This narrow conceptualization of the mind is a major problem for this paper. The mind can be subdivided into substantially more than just two (narrative and paradigmatic) modes of thought. Such a narrow conceptualization violates almost all principled philosophies of the mind regardless of what philosophical camp one takes. Specifically, such a narrow conceptualization is inconsistent with eliminative materialsm (Churchland, 2013), philosophies of the mind organized around the vast richness of mental life (Chalmers, 1995; Nagel, 1974), physicalism (Dennett, 1991, 1996, 2003, 2009, 2017), computational theories of the mind (Marr, 1982; Turing, 1950), refutations against computational theories of the mind (Searle, 1980), and so on. In fact, Dennett (1991) lays out a vastly more principled argument of the narrative aspects of consciousness, and this argument is again updated in Dennett’s most recent book (2017). Crucially, Dennett’s argument is both philosophically principled and empirically grounded based on a careful study of the empirical cognitive (neuro)science literature. In many ways, the theory outlined in this paper closely resembles what Dennett (1991, see chapters 2 and 5) derides as the “Cartesian Theater”, which is grounded in dualist theories of the mind, and has been thoroughly debunked and excised from the modern cognitive neurosciences for more than 100 years. At this point, the Author(s) may suspect that I am particularly fond of Dennett’s argument and this suspicion would be correct. But even if the Author(s) do no not ascribe to Dennett’s formulation of the narrative nature of subjective experience (1991, chapters 5-9 and 13), there are certainly many other principled theories of the mind that might be brought forth. Offering an outdated, philosophically unsound, and empirically untenable theory of the mind potentially harms far more than it has the capacity to help. And it is for this reason that I cannot recommend this manuscript for publication.

Minor Comment:

I would also like to raise one final complaint. On p.4, when reviewing the narrative persuasion literature, the Author(s) write: “Evidence from psychology and neuroscience shows profound effects of narratives on human thought.” I would like to point out that not a single one of the studies mentioned in this paragraph are neuroscientific studies, however at least one of these papers is a communication study. I am a communication scholar with extensive training in the cognitive neurosciences. And I find this sort of rhetorical argumentation unhelpful and possibly quite misleading. Neuroscientific explanations are often perceived as being more valid or important, even when such an explanation offers no substantive evidence to the argument (see e.g., Weisberg et al., 2008). In fact, I can tell you that our discipline often only offers very narrow explanations, and is actually poorly suited to test hypotheses associated with the “profound effects of narratives on human thought.” Communication, by comparison, is a field where a large number of scholars (some cited in this very paragraph) do study this problem.

References:

Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3), 200–219. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203826430-11

Churchland, P. (2013). Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves. W. W. Norton & Company.

Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown & Company.

Dennett, D. C. (1996). Darwin’s dangerous idea. Simon & Schuster.

Dennett, D. C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. Penguine Group.

Dennett, D. C. (2009). Darwin’s “strange inversion of reasoning.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, 106, 10061–10065. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0904433106

Dennett, D. C. (2017). From bacteria to Bach and back: The evolution of minds. W. W. Norton & Company.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. W.H. Freeman.

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review, 83(4), 435–450.

Searle, J. R. (1980). Minds, brains, and programs. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 417–457. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00005756

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, 59(236), 433–460. https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/LIX.236.433

Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470–477. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn.2008.20040

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* Nowhere in my manuscript did I claim to have a PhD

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