Cognitive Literature?

in Uncategorized
June 28th, 2010

                As the academic fields, particularly if not exclusively, those in the sciences appear to multiply and narrow, many people strain for a return to the interdisciplinary. The mind and brain sciences move into categories formerly considered only by literature, philosophy, or more generally, the liberal arts. Consequently the crossover of science into the mysteries of the human mind has charged a debate concerning the future of the humanities. Many schools are withdrawing funds from liberal arts departments. The University of Louisiana, Lafayette ended its philosophy major and Michigan State University eliminated its major in American studies and classics. The question now is has the conceptualization of human nature shifted from ambiguous poetic ponderings to the seemingly quantifiable and consequently more practical sciences? Or is a modification of the humanities, not necessarily a replacement, in progress? Many humanists and scientists search for what they refer to as “the next big thing,” or the integration of liberal arts and the sciences, partly out of a desire to preserve as well as to progress. Many have found a solution in the interpretation of literature through the neuroscientific lens.

                Many subjects of neuroscience studies have concerned the evolutionary basis of the arts and the cognitive faculties involved in reaction to them. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard University is amongst the searchers for the NBT or “next big thing,” hosting a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Visual cortex studies have provided insight into how an impressionist painting makes its “impression,” for example, how painting techniques create the effect of shimmering water. Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies test the reactions of different brain areas during the reading process in hopes of answering the bigger questions science has for literature, namely, why do we read, how do we form attachments to imaginary characters, and what are the underlying, fundamental mechanisms of such?

            Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at University of Kentucky, who specializes in 18th century British literature, hopes to interpret literature from an evolutionary psychologists’ and cognitive scientist’s perspective. Zunshine is currently working on a joint project with cognitive psychologists to investigate the neurological basis of reading. She hopes to test using MRI how the process of reading differs with the complexity of the material read from the Daily News to Marcel Proust. One of the studies concerned an individual’s ability to track multiple sources, or follow a chain of relationships such as he said she said he said…etc. One of the difficulties of reading Virginia Woolf, for example, is that she often asks readers to keep track of six different chains of thought or “levels of intentionality.” The normal human capacity is about three. Zunshine also claims that the narrative “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrators, enables readers to follow multiple levels of intentionality. According to her, it also stemmed from an evolutionarily selected desire to investigate into other people’s lives or mental sets. Many schools that sense losing interest in the liberal arts are following Zunshine’s angle and implementing cognitive literature courses. The exact influence of the quantifiable brain sciences on the liberal arts and vice versa is still uncertain. Ultimately, the issue at heart concerns the nature of truth, whether it must be quantifiable and whether one lens of interpretation is one of many perspectives or singularly objective. One needs be skeptical at the call of absolute truth, particularly if it be simple. As the territory the quantifiable sciences may settle on expands, are the liberal arts to occupy historically reverential reservations or is there to be cultural integration?

-Devyn Buckley

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One Comment on Cognitive Literature?

  • I think, at least I hope, that there will always be qualitative, subjective exploration of the mind and brain. If it has been naturally selected for us to want to investigate people’s lives and mentalities, then the science seems to be the logical step following literature – we want to investigate our own minds, we want to know why we’re on this quest to understand people. I don’t think that figuring out the biology will change the fact that people like books =)

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