Peter Pan creator JM Barrie ‘ahead of his time’ says neuroscientist

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A leading scientist has claimed that Peter Pan author J M Barrie was “decades ahead” of scientists in identifying stages of child development.

A new study, by a top neuroscientist, said the famed Kirriemuir author had “an almost uncanny grasp” of human cognitive development four to eight decades before modern psychologists.

Dr Rosalind Ridley, Fellow Emerita at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, whose life work included research into Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and BSE, has turned in semi-retirement to the study of cognitive psychology in late nineteenth and early twentieth century children’s books.

She says that the “weirdness of some of Barrie’s illogical stories suggests that he is tapping into something important in cognition”.

Her book, titled ‘In Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness’, is the first of its kind to explore Barrie’s works on complexity of the developing human mind in his writing.

She writes: “It is Barrie’s deliberate use of cognitive mistakes and confusions in order to both amuse and illuminate the way we think that suggests that he was being intentionally analytical rather than descriptive. The weirdness of some of Barrie’s illogical stories suggests that he is tapping into something important in cognition.”

Dr Ridley, who is an avid reader of literature and poetry and a collector of books since childhood, said that re-reading Barrie’s books made her realise the extent to which the weaver’s son had instinctively grasped many of the topics she had spent her working life on.

She said Barrie invented Peter Pan, first published in 1904, “to make some sense of his own emotional difficulties, to investigate the interplay between the world of facts and the world of imagination, and to rediscover the heightened experiences of infancy”.

Among examples cited in her new book, Dr Ridley quotes a scene from “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” (1906) where Barrie describes a moment when a young girl, who is seeking to comfort a tearful Peter Pan, gives him her handkerchief.

However, Peter does not know what he is supposed to do with it.

Barrie writes: “… so she showed him, that is to say she wiped her eyes, and then gave it back to him, saying ‘Now you do it’, but instead of wiping his own eyes he wiped hers, and she thought it would be best to pretend that this is what she had meant”.

Dr Ridley explains: “With this touching little scene, J M Barrie neatly demonstrates that he had observed, and understood, something that psychologists call intentionality – a feature of ‘theory of mind’.

“The ability to understand that one’s own knowledge, beliefs and feelings might not be the same as someone else’s is one of the keys to understanding the complexity of human relationships – and is something that most children learn at the age of three or four.

“In illustrating this fundamental stage of child development through the interaction of two children, one with a solid grasp of other minds and the other without, Barrie was remarkably prescient.

“The books were written at the turn of the 20th century and the term ‘theory of mind’ was not used until the late 1970s.”

Ridley concludes that Barrie was interested in “the nature of consciousness and those rare moments of sublime consciousness and sublime imagination that we all experience”.

Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness by Rosalind Ridley is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.