Rosalind Ridley, Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness

Rosalind Ridley, Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2016) 191 pp. £47.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-4438-9107-3

When the theatre manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree read a draft of J M Barrie’s play Peter Pan in 1904,1 he looked at the large cast, the exuberant plot that included two large battles and flying children, the array of flamboyant consumes for pirates, fairies and animals, and concluded, 'Barrie has gone out of his mind' (20). In her new book, Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie, Rosalind Ridley shows that what Barrie had actually done was to get inside the mind.  Viewing the tales of Peter, the Darling family and Neverland through the lens of neuroscience, Dr Ridley argues that Barrie discerned structures of consciousness and processes of cognition not discovered by psychologists until the 1970s.

Though Peter Pan is most well known through Barrie’s play, his ingenious explorations of the mind are more evident in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,2 first published as five chapters in The Little White Bird3 and then as a separate book in 1906, and the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy.4 These texts are rich with what Barrie referred to as his whimsicalities - puzzles and conundrums – that reveal a profound interest in the development of cognition, including subjects now called mental constructs and theory of mind.

Newborn babies have to learn how to see - that is, they gradually construct an understanding of the outside world from the brain’s responses to light entering their eyes. Barrie makes use of children’s cognitive errors to identify developmental stages, just as an experimental psychologist would do.  In confusing ethereal objects, such as a shadow, with a solid object that can be chewed by a dog and folded neatly in a drawer, we see into the mind of a child before she reaches that early milestone of object permanence when she understands that some things are transient, and some endure. When Barrie describes mermaids as disappearing the moment children try to play with them, he describes a stage at which children cannot distinguish between what is imagined and what is real, and when a basic test for reality – still being there when you look closely – seems irrelevant.

More complex is Barrie’s exploration of mental representations. Though no one would have named these until the second half of the twentieth century, they are important markers in child development, animal cognition and certain cognitive syndromes such as autism. Perceptions of things we now see and here and feel, such as the chair on which I sit and the keyboard on which I type, are called primary representations.  But many of our thoughts extend beyond the immediate present; through memory we think about and are affected by the past, and we plan or brood about the future by means of secondary representations.   Barrie explores the complex differences between primary and secondary representations through the different capacities of his fictional children, of fairies, and of Peter Pan (who is Betwixt-and-Between). Fairies are capable only of simple linear representation: they 'have room for only one feeling at a time' (90) because, lacking capacity for secondary representations, they have no past and no future.  Peter, caught between fairies’ capabilities and a child’s, has a very poor memory (he asks Wendy to keep reminding him who she is) and no concern for his future self, to the extend that he cannot understand what is it to be afraid, and believes that 'to die would be an awfully big adventure' (28).

Peter’s undeveloped cognition also leaves him with a limited theory of mind. Theory of mind is specifically required for understanding the full complexity of other people. Its key feature is the ability to keep track of the idea that my knowledge, beliefs and feelings may not be the same as someone else’s knowledge, beliefs and feelings (and that neither may be in accord with the facts but they are likely to affect a person’s behavior.) Peter makes all sorts of cognitive errors that demonstrate Barrie’s understanding of this developmental challenge.  When Maimie, feeling sorry for Peter’s distress, offers him her handkerchief, Peter does not know what to do with it, so Maimie shows him by wiping her eyes and tells him, 'Now you do the same' (118). But instead of wiping his own eyes, Peter wipes hers.  Without theory of mind he cannot track simple rules of pronoun use – for example, who someone refers to when she says 'I' and who someone refers to when she says 'you'.   Barrie carries this analysis one step further as Maimie, hoping to save Peter embarrassment, pretends that was what she had meant.

While pretending, as Maimie does, would be unthinkable for Peter, with his undeveloped theory of mind, Barrie understands that role play is a less sophisticated cognitive skill and shows Peter taking on the role of Captain Hook.  Peter then takes on some of Hook’s cruelty in a way, Ridley believes, presages Zimbardo’s disturbing Stanford Prison experiment5 in which students played out with terrifying perfection their randomly assigned roles as either prisoners or guards.

Peter’s cognitive deficits extend to emotional understanding as well.  He grasps simple words like happy, but not more complex ones like romantic. He sees that Wendy and Tiger Lily want something of him, but since he cannot see what it is, he finds them 'so queer' (117).  He can repeat the phrase 'first impressions are awfully important' (119) but he would be hard pressed to explain what is meant by 'first impressions'.  He confuses a socially meaningful act (a kiss) with a physical object (a thimble). 'Kiss' is a noun that can easily be used as the verb 'to kiss', but just as we think we have grasped the humour, Barrie derails us by having Peter 'thimble' Wendy (67) – that is, kiss her.  The neurological subtlety here is that nouns and verbs are stored in different parts of the brain; hence, the meaning of a word – as noun – can be changed or lost, while the meaning of the same word as a verb may be retained.  This can be seen in people who, as a result of a brain trauma, develop nominal aphasia: they have difficulty using a word as a noun but can use the same word easily as a verb.

Throughout her sensitive and original readings of these two books, Ridley offers asides that go to the heart of current debates about 'the hard problem' of consciousness,6 Turing’s test7 for whether a computer has intelligence, and whether some avian behavior demonstrates theory of mind.   She highlights descriptions of Mr Darling that outline classical symptoms of clinical depression, such as his conviction that every mishap as entirely his fault; while his retreat to the dog kennel (the origin of the phrase 'in the dog house') perfectly evokes the feelings of depression.  She suggests, less convincingly, that Barrie may have shown insight into cognitive behavior therapy when Peter says, 'You just think lovely wonderful thoughts, and they lift you up in the air'.

Like many who write for or about children, Barrie clearly believed that maturity involves loss: before the formation of a sense of self, before a sense of time, free from remembered and anticipated losses, a child pays exquisite attention to the rich vividness of things present – a mental state Ridley calls sublime consciousness.  Imagination too is sacrificed to maturity, for when children hover on the cusp of secondary representations, they see the mind as a physical space wherein thoughts detach themselves from the here and now to travel into the future and the past, creating alternative worlds and narratives.   Adults, failing to understand the mind of children, cannot meet their emotional and imaginative needs. Barrie’s anger, Ridley suggests, emerges in that of Peter, who would happily kill grown-ups 'off vindictively and as fast as possible' (135).

But more powerful than anger, is loss: following the death of his older brother, Barrie’s mother suffered a depression that left her absorbed with the dead son and separated her from her living son.  Ridley poignantly maps this biographical story on to that of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens:  when the infant Peter, who flew out the window when he was one week old, tries to return home, he finds the window locked and a new baby lying in the cot beside his mother: 'in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bar [of the now locked window] […] there is no second chance […] the iron bars are up for life' (24).

Barrie is not the only writer who has described intricate cognitive and dynamic psychologies long before the scientific psychologists. Freud saw his 'discoveries' of early trauma presented in the Greek myths8 and Jonah Lehrer9 noted that Proust realized how smell and taste elicit unique memories and that Cezanne exploited the neurology of vision long before these were demonstrated in the lab.  Ridley, whose career has been in neuroscience, modifies her awe of Barrie’s genius with pragmatism.  He was, after all, deeply interested in the scientific and philosophical issues of his time, including Darwin’s proposition of a mechanism by which humans could have evolved from animals.  Like the scientists he admired, Barrie deployed acute observation and richly empirical techniques to explore the minds of animals and humans; it is not so surprising after all that sometimes he was first to grasp the truth.

Terri Apter, Newnham College, Cambridge

1 J M Barrie (1904) Peter Pan, or the Boy who Wouldn't Grow Up. Duke of York's Theatre. London. In: The Plays of J. M. Barrie (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1928)

2 J M Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1906)

3 J M Barrie, The Little White Bird (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1902)

4 J M Barrie, Peter and Wendy (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1911)

5 C Haney, W C Banks, and P G Zimbardo 'Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison', International Journal of Criminology and Penology (1973) 1: 69-97.

6 D Chalmers, 'Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness', Journal of Consciousness Studies (1995) 2: 200-219.

7 A M Turing, 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence', Mind (1950) 59: 433-460

8 R Caldwell, 'The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Greek Myth', in L Edmund (ed) Approaches to the Greek Myth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1990)

9J Lehrer, Proust was a Neuroscientist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2007)