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A novel's structure as a complex system.


The answer of the question "How complex is it?" is a discussed significant point in the study of complex systems. A general answer is that the complexity of a system is the amount of information required to describe it (see Chaitin, 1969). A complex system is composed of several and often very numerous elements that interact with each other locally and thus give rise to the global properties of the system, which are not deducible and predictable by observing individual components. Complex systems are, for example, proteins, cells, brains and societies.

If one wants to define a specific novel as a complex system, then that novel has obviously to be not only complex but also "interesting" for readers, i.e., of course not random, at least readable, and hopefully exciting and/or intriguing and/or compelling and/or fascinating, and/or thrilling and/or stunning, and so on. "Il film delle emozioni" ('The movie of emotions'; Calabretta, 2007, in Italian) is a very experimental novel that can be defined both complex and interesting. It can be defined as complex because the amount of information required to describe its multiple levels of structure organization is big and has to do with different literary styles and registers; it can be defined as interesting on the basis of the success and reviews. In spite of more than eleven thousands of persons that downloaded the book for free, the first edition was sold out and the second edition was published in 2007; the novel was also featured in Italian major magazines, newspapers and television shows nationally, and has received positive attention and reviews in very different fields: scientific (creativity research, psychology, science of emotions, educational technologies, cognitive science), literary, fiction and screenplay writing, pedagogical and psychoanalytical books, web sites and journals.

Gabriele is the novel's main character. What is Gabriele's main problem? He is a scientist, who has huge emotional problems and social difficulties. He begins to study the psychology and neuroscience of emotions in order to find effective ways of regulating his emotional reactivity and of coping with stress. Gabriele tries to write a scientific paper on the impact of emotions in work organizations, then the script of a movie on emotion regulation, and to eventually turn the latter into a novel.

The structure of the novel reproduces some properties of complex systems. By following the story of Gabriele, readers learn complex system theory, emotion knowledge and regulation strategies. In the two sections of this paper we will focus on the description of the novel's structure and complexity, and in the conclusion sketch a future line of research.


The book is not organized into chapters, but is composed by fragmented materials (diary pages, scientific paper sections, email exchanges, movie screenplay scenes, bits of the news, etc.) labeled by names (computer "File Name") that reveal the content of the specific file: "Diary.doc"; "ScientificArticle.doc"; "Screenplay.doc". Each material is set in different typographical style (see below), and all together form the aesthetic architecture of the book.

The novel's structure is characterized by several beginnings and several endings. Here is an excerpt, translated into English, from the very beginning of the book:


My name's Gabriele. I'm 39 years old and I'm ill.

The doctors say there's no hope of my getting better but I don't want to believe them. I won't be defeated that easily, I'll fight to my last breath before giving in.

What follows is either the year I was beaten by it or the year I got better.



File name: Diary.doc

Wednesday 1 January

Around 4 pm

Why can't I decide to be happy?

Some say that you need to get enthusiastic about things and so, instead of writing the scientific article that they've asked me to have published about my research into the evolution of the brain, I'm trying out the so called diary technique: I have to write about things that make me sad or angry in life, I have to do it for at least 10 minutes a day, write without stopping and without worrying about grammar or spelling. I can write in file on the computer or on a piece of paper and then save what I've written or bin it. This is what James Pennebaker says, a famous American psychologist who has done research and written books on the topic. Maybe this technique will help me to finally understand what sort of job I would like to do! Do I have to write about what I'm scared of? Of not being smart enough, not understanding things properly, of being indecisive ...


Tuesday 11 February

--Wake up 6.30

--50 min run, in office for 9.30

--Feel happy and proud about yesterday's e-mail from the University of L'Aquila student. Perhaps I really am cut out for teaching!

--Focus on and finish the introduction to the scientific article on emotional training. Send it to colleagues for comment (initial reaction they like the title).

File Name: ScientificArticle.doc

A dream job Emotional training for jobs that are more satisfying and to improve organizations


Have you ever got up in the morning to go to work feeling happy about it and full of enthusiasm, almost looking forward to the pleasures of the working day? Sadly, the answer is almost always in the negative. In the majority of cases the worker, regardless of social class and type of job, has to make a huge effort to find the will to get up in the morning, held back by the desire to spend a lovely long day in bed or time on a favorite hobby. The phenomenon of absenteeism at work demonstrates the reality and the seriousness of this problem: in Italy, in the public sector alone, over 15 million working days are lost every year (see the report on the position in public administration at


File name: Diary.doc

13 February

Today I read Syd Field's manual Writing a screenplay in detail. Chapter five of the book is called "What makes a character real?". To make the movie main character believable, he advises setting out the character before writing the script, i.e. describing him in detail, describing his actions, his dramatic requirements, his standpoint, his manner, and how he changes. It was difficult, but in the end I managed to write the character for Gabriele, the main character in my film, being me in fact.

File name: Screenplay.doc

My current life in Rome

I work a lot. I'm a researcher at the National Research Center, I teach at University and I'm starting to be quoted on an international level on the matter of my studies on the evolution of the human brain. Every now and then I spend time working at Yale University.

I take care of my appearance, I always dress fashionably, I do a lot of sport (mainly running; I've recently done swimming, tennis, skiing, salsa, yoga and tai chi chuan classes). People say I'm nice, I've got a lot of friends, I organize nights out in bars and clubs, parties, group dinners (mainly at times when I'm smoking). But, at the same time, I never waste money; I'd feel almost ashamed buying an expensive car. I'm a real contradiction. [...]" (Calabretta, 2007, p. 3)



In the novel, some points and principles of the theory of complex systems are implicitly considered (see Bar-Yam, 2000, p. xxii-xxiii):

--(un)predictability: Gabriele is indecisive, he continually asks himself about the future consequences of his actions, and is always wrong about his pessimistic predictions.

--adaptive behavior: Gabriele looks for happiness: he slowly eliminates behaviors responsible for his neurosis; he reads and studies movies, novels, essays and scientific papers; he tries new behaviors, and learns to modify the aspects of the environment that are hostile to him and, eventually, to improve the quality of his life. According to psychologist Patricia Linville (1987; see also Brown & Rafaeli, 2007) more complex is the image one has of himself (more roles, less overlap among roles), the less is unbalanced his/her happiness when makes well or bad something. At the end of the novel, Gabriele reconstructs himself as a complex man (researcher, professor, novel writer, screenwriter, politician, sport man, etc.): Gabriele's personal complexity becomes a beneficial feature for his well-being.

--creativity: in order to heal his emotional problems, Gabriele combines and practices all possible techniques based on research findings on cognitive therapy (Beck, 1976), physical activity (Thayer, Newman & McClain, 1994), autobiographical writing (Pennebaker, 1997) and meditation (Davidson et al., 2003). The result is a combinatory creation of new concepts and products in art and science. The book has much to do with emotions and creativity, viewed under three different aspects: creativity in the novel's structure, creativity in the process of the novel's creation and proposed techniques to increase creativity (Calabretta, 2010).

In the following subsections, we will describe the features of the novel's structure that recall complex systems.

The Novel's Structure is Modular, Duplicated and Specialized

A new complex system can be formed by recombining parts of other complex systems (e.g., sexual reproduction). The novel is formed by recombining parts of other complex systems such as screenplay, scientific paper, web sites, diary, etc. We can ask the following questions regarding emergence as a feature of the novel's complex system: how do different levels of the novel's modular structure organization interact in determining literary innovation and readers' appreciation? How do different biological and social levels (genetic heritage, environments, co-specifics) interact in determining Gabriele's identity and causing Gabriele's maladaptive behaviors?

In 1997 Calabretta and collaborators started an interdisciplinary research project on the evolution of modularity. Their evolutionary connectionist project was the first example where the origin of modularity was simulated in a computational model (Calabretta, Nolfi, Parisi, & Wagner 1997, 2000) and led to the discovery of a new mechanism for the origin of brain modularity: functional modularity as a side-effect of genetic duplication. The novel's modular structure reproduces these research findings: the same information (e.g., Gabriele's family of origin details) is duplicated in the variety of materials (e.g., diary pages, screenplay scenes) that make up the book, with new specialized points of view and meanings.

The Novel's Structure is Characterized by Several Beginnings and Several Endings

As we have said, the novel is structured with many beginning and many endings. This structure reminds to the beginnings and endings of psychoanalytic therapy (see Schlesinger, 2005; Caston, 2007), which in fact Gabriele receives throughout the course of his story. There is a parallelism between novel's structure and human creativity in own mind style of thinking: we can judge the balance of our life in different ways, remembering some episodes and forgetting other ones, deciding what situations cause our behaviors, much depending on our mental tendency towards optimism or pessimism. As complex systems are sensitive to initial conditions such that small differences may cause great changes in their evolution (e.g., long-term weather forecasting; Lorenz, 1963), our way to "read" and interpret past events depends on the episodes we choose as beginning and end of our problems.

The structure of "The movie of emotions" shows the surprising similarity between artistic creativity of screenwriters, editors and directors in making movies, and human creativity in own mind style of thinking. The novel's structure is a metaphor of the narrative structure of thinking that each human being makes about his own existence. If one wants to tell himself and others the meaning of his life, one can identify a specific lived experience among the many as the beginning and therefore as the cause of each own problem and success; otherwise, one can imagine that the cause is not a single experience, rather the concurrence and complex non linear interaction of innumerable experiences. Moreover, one can decide an ending that concludes positively or negatively a fact, problem or aspiration; otherwise, one can decide that a "healthy" way of telling the meaning of his existence is that based on multiple conclusions, which comes from having learned to adopt varied and diversified points of view of life. In other words, psychological health much depends on the original way with which we gradually learn to tell our past, and then on the ability to watch--almost as spectators--the movie flow of scenes of our life. As science teaches (Schacter & Addis, 2007), memory is erratic. More important is the life "movie" editing and projection.

The Novel's Structure is Branched and Fractalic

Under certain aspects, the book is a "blog book", in the sense that it has the hypertextual structure of a blog, with a diary, links to web sites, appendix that contains movies and books advice, etc. Perhaps it can be also defined a " Surfing computer book", skipping from a file to the other one.

The novel structurally resumes the hypothesis that "the catastrophic forecasts on the future, which are responsible for serious social phobias, can depend on a phenomenon of distorted temporal condensation of the mind: it previews of having to live in an extremely short amount of time this that in reality it will live in a longer temporal arc" (Calabretta, 2007, Appendix, p. 192; translated into English). In fact, at the beginning and for a long part of the novel, crowdedly pasted together text pieces alternate in a fast, nearly raving way. At the end of the novel, the rate of files alternation slows down until it almost stops. This slowing down is representative of the main character's new cognitive style: he has learned to give the right breath and space to facts and thoughts, to avoid hurried judgments about his personal events. Indeed, Gabriele has come to know to reorganize his owns ideas and emotions, to give them the right names. At the end of the story, this cognitive change is visually represented under the form of labels by means of which Gabriele's conclusive thoughts are named.

Gabriele is a scientist, and would like to become a screenwriter. To write screenplays means to transform the complexity and non linearity of human events in something that is linear and understandable: a cause produces an effect, an inciting incident gives origin to the story, a turning point lets the main character cross the threshold from the ordinary world into the special one.

During all the book, Gabriele tries to control the complexity of his world and he does it by writing and saving all what he reads, lives and thinks in computer files, also irrelevant information: the result is a book structure that is branched and fractalic (complex systems examples are branching morphogenesis of organisms and fractallike shape of coastlines). This complex structure converges in a linear end of the story in which it seems that Gabriele has reduced the complexity of his life to the simplicity and linearity of the ending message of his book. But this ending message is the awareness of the impossibility of controlling reality. From here, the book structure explodes again in the multiple and iper-detailed appendix.


"The movie of emotions" is a very experimental book. It is a mixture of different styles and registers and connects distant disciplines such as literature, science and cinema. The novel's structure is complex for several reasons: it is characterized by several beginnings and conclusions and is branched, fractalic, modular, duplicated and specialized. The book can be viewed also as alternating between objective (i.e., the pages of the scientific paper on emotions) and subjective (i.e., the pages of the diary) views of the world of Gabriele's emotions (a posteriori, this alternation technique recalls that of the movie "The silence of the lambs"). This feature facilitates book readers to identify themselves with the main character of the novel, Gabriele, as stressed by several email messages to the author of the book.

Emily Pronin and Daniel Wegner (2006) have shown that rapid thinking (also for depression statements) induces individual's positive mood. Similarly, one can hypothesize that the whirling interchange of files in the book's structure improves readers' mood, although Gabriele's story is not funny in itself. Reviews of the book seem to confirm the above supposition. Of course, in order to give scientific value to this hypothesis, it would be necessary to reproduce Pronin and Wegner's experiment by exposing participants to excerpts from the novel, instead of the elation or depression statements used in their research. It would also be necessary to make a survey to test for the effects of book reading on mood, feelings and energy level.

In any case, by reading this book readers learn knowledge about cognitive science, psychology and neuro-psychology of emotions, and about the theory of complex systems. In his blog, the editor and researcher Jennifer Rohn explains the difference between lab-lit novel (Rohn, 2006) and science-in-fiction novel:

"Lab lit is not synonymous with science fiction, although of course there can some overlap. Science fiction is removed from reality by definition and will have an element of fantasy--it will be set in the future, say, or in an alternative universe. [...] Carl Djerassi, the author of several novels with realistic scientist characters, prefers the term science-in-fiction, but I have found this label too easily confused with science fiction. Also, Djerassi's own definition of science-in-fiction makes it clear that the genre he has in mind is intended primarily to educate the layperson, and so is crafted with a rather heavy agenda. Where lab lit differs somewhat from Djerassi's science-in-fiction (more fuzzy boundaries) is that the story, though largely realistic, is intended primarily to entertain--just as would a story set in another normal profession, whether it be a hospital, a police station or an office."

By following Dyerassi's definition ("science-in-fiction novel"), "The movie of emotions" is a "structural science-in-fiction novel", a new literary genre in which novel's structure implicitly and explicitly communicates to the reader scientific knowledge.

Raffaele Calabretta

Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies Italian National Research Council (Cnr), Italy

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Raffaele Calabretta, Via S. Martino della Battaglia, 44-00185 Rome, ITALY. E-mail:


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Author:Calabretta, Raffaele
Publication:The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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