The modern science behind Peter Pan


J M Barrie playing Captain Hook with Michael Llewellyn Davies, inspiration for Peter Pan, in 1905
J M Barrie playing Captain Hook with Michael Llewellyn Davies, inspiration for Peter Pan, in 1905
Finding Neverland: how Peter Pan's creator was years ahead of scientific discoveries

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University neuropsychologist Rosalind Ridley came across JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan stories. She realised these were more than children’s tales: Barrie was revealing profound insights into the human mind, and in particular, the ways it develops over childhood, the BBC reports today.

The result is a new study exploring his observations on human memory, sleep and dreams, and the puzzle of consciousness.

Ridley argues many of Peter’s adventures point to scientific theories that would emerge decades after the tales were written. “Many of the things being discussed weren’t discovered until the 1970s,” she says.

By the time Barrie introduced Peter in 1902, he was an established writer, moving in a social circle that would have introduced him to, among others, the pioneering American psychologist William James (through his brother, novelist Henry James).

He would have heard the leading scientific theories of the day.

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

At the 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.”

Ridley points out this hints at an astute understanding of sleep’s role in memory maintenance. Floated in the late 19th Century, this is now the subject of substantial scientific research.

As it files away our recollections, the brain appears to integrate our newest memories with records of older events, forging a coherent story of our lives. It also soothes some of the nastier feelings from a stressful day and helps put unpleasant experiences in perspective.

Barrie is eloquent on the transition between waking and sleep. Neverland, the fantasy  island that children can reach through their imagination, is most easily accessed in this twilight zone. Barrie writes, “In the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real.”

Those ultra-vivid images on the edge of sleep are now known as “hypnagogic imagery”, and they may be the result of a spike in brain regions responsible for visual processing as it shuts down for sleep.

Barrie’s own sleep disorders may have inspired the children’s experiences. He suffered from “sleep paralysis”, in which you feel yourself to be awake in bed but unable to move. Often this can be accompanied by strange hallucinations.

Ridley suggests this is reflected in the children’s experiences of flying in Neverland:

“Nothing horrid was visible in the air, yet their progress had become slow and laboured, exactly as if they were pushing their way through hostile forces. Sometimes they hung in the air until Peter had beaten on it with his fists.”

Barrie’s most sophisticated observations revolve around one of the most pressing debates of the era.

Following Darwin’s theory of natural selection, scientists were fiercely debating the ways our minds differed from other animals’, and the reasons we evolved our skills.

Barrie’s answer can be found in the 1906 novel Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens about Peter’s early life before he met Wendy.

We meet Solomon Caw, a crow with a sophisticated mind. Solomon seems able to plan for the future, filling a stocking with nuts, crumbs, and bread crusts, as a kind of “retirement fund” in old age.

This is known as “secondary representation”, imagining possibilities that are one step removed from the here-and-now. It allows us to be more inventive and flexible and to respond and adapt to circumstances.

This was thought to be uniquely human, but recent findings suggest it can be found in a select set of animals – including birds like Solomon. Barrie was again ahead of his time.

Peter struggles to form “theory of mind”, the capacity to understand that another’s viewpoint may be quite different from your own. That reflects ideas in modern developmental psychology, as scientists understand the ways that complex thought processes emerge in our first few years.

“It is remarkable,” says Ridley. “The modern structure of how we make mental representations is all there in Barrie’s books from the 1900s.”

Ridley points out Barrie was not a prophet. As a friend wrote on his death: “He tended to wander in some entrancing borderland between fantasy and fact. For him the frontier between these two realms was never very clearly marked.”




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