By David Robson
A couple of years ago, the neuropsychologist Rosalind Ridley was browsing through a friend’s bookshelf when she came across JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan stories. Ridley had always been an avid reader and collector of books, but as she read on, she realised that this was more than just a charming children’s tale of fairies and talking animals: within Peter’s whimsical adventures, Barrie was hiding some profound insights into the human mind, and in particular, the ways it develops over childhood.
Here, she realised, was a tale that teaches us all how we learn to think. “That just got me hooked, and the more I read, the more I found there.”
The result of that initial interest is a fascinating new study, exploring his astute observations on the peculiarities of human memories, sleep and dreams, and the puzzle of consciousness. Indeed, Ridley argues that many of Peter’s adventures point to scientific theories that would only emerge decades after the tales were first written. “Many of the things being discussed weren’t discovered until the 1970s,” says Ridley, who is based at the University of Cambridge.
Looking through Barrie’s life, it is apparent that many influences may have shaped the tales, which took years to crystallise. Barrie had formulated some of the elements of Peter Pan’s adventures while still a child himself – stories he then elaborated on to entertain the Llewellyn Davies family, whom he met during a walk in London’s Kensington Gardens. The character made his first public outing in 1902, with a minor role in Barrie’s adult novel, The Little White Bird, before taking centre stage in a play and children’s novel, Peter and Wendy, which was published in 1911.