Dr. Neil Cohn may soon become one of the most quoted people in the comics world. That’s because he’s a scientist who has been studyinghow our brains react to reading comics, and it turns out we process them much the same as we do sentences:
At the same time, a freshly minted Ph.D. named Neil Cohn is watching the readout from my brain, an exercise he has repeated with some 100 subjects to date. Many people would consider tracking Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes comic strips unworthy of scientific inquiry, but Cohn begs to differ. His evidence suggests that we use the same cognitive process to make sense of comics as we do to read a sentence. They seem to tap the deepest recesses of our minds, where we bring meaning to the world.
The Costa Prize was right! So was Will Eisner!
The most tantalizing result of Cohn’s study (recently published in Cognitive Psychology) emerged when he showed subjects panels arranged so that they had a narrative arc but didn’t add up to a meaningful story. They were the equivalent of grammatically correct but meaningless sentences. The linguist Noam Chomsky, who published pioneering ideas about language in the 1950s, offered a famous example of such a sentence: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
Cohn found that when he showed subjects such “colorless green” panels, they experienced a weaker left anterior negativity response than when they read garbled panels. The result suggests that although participants struggled to understand the panels, they still recognized an underlying logic to them, supporting the idea that we depend on a visual grammar in comics in order to make sense of them.
Of course, many frontiers in this science remain to be explored: While Peanuts elicited the same brain waves as did sentences, will giving subjects Garfield result in a more lasagna-like brain wave? I personally will not be satisfied until the brain waves of people reading Jim Balent comics are studied.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.