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Where Neuroscience Meets Literature

Posted on Apr 1, 2010
neon brain
Flickr / dierk schaefer

How about a little cognitive psychology with your English literature? Professors who normally spend their time thinking about Virginia Woolf’s characters and story structures are taking a page from scientific texts to add a new dimension to their exploration of fiction.  —KA

The New York Times:

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at Stanford in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.

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By American Observer, April 5, 2010 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
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Literature stretches the mind to see the world from different and multiple
perspectives.  The mark of more well educated people is their exposure to
literature.  I can well see that it would affect the development of the brain—and
people maturer abilities to think about problems in a society.  Education of the
entire person is lacking without a strong foundation in literature.  A form of
education going to the dogs, along with a lot more, these days.  So I’m glad if this
merging of fields can reawaken our appreciation for its importance.

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By Night-Gaunt, April 5, 2010 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

Reminds me of semiotics which is the understanding of how we communicate by the signs we use. Along with philology and semantics and the other areas of where we get the tools to communicate verbally, stucturally, symbolically and in written form. [See ]]

I must admit I haven’t read any novels with the multiple perspective viewpoints. I can see where it would be a mental exercise to read and comprehend the novel as it progresses. A very good thing for the human brain that needs such stimulus to improve its function & continue its development. We should never stop learning until we die.

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By Leefeller, April 5, 2010 at 6:42 am Link to this comment

Proust was French? I loved my French Lit. class,
though reading Proust seemed to me, like French
wine, way over rated, I prefer reading something
lighter like George Bush’s enlightening reading of
“My Pet Goat” while from a fetal position.

As for delusions, I have my own and there is a grave
difference between my delusions and other peoples

Read someplace differences between the gray matter
and the white matter in the brain provide
differences between being deluded and deluding.

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By RenZo, April 4, 2010 at 10:18 pm Link to this comment

@ gerard, please forgive the correction but Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost would be correctly labeled an hallucination rather than a delusion. No biggee though. It’s rather technical.

I actually like the original article, but then I am inordinantly fond of cognitive science (in any regard). And I like Proust.

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By mlb, April 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm Link to this comment

Read Marcel Proust and you’ll be reading extraordinary literature and neuroscience at the same time!

If that sounds far fetched, you might first try reading Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.

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By gerard, April 1, 2010 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

Please excuse me, Mr. Flesch of Brandeis, but to label Hamlet an “altruistic punisher” is just a tiny bit superficial, dontcha think?  Also the other heroes, maybe?  Hamlet for me is a much more complex character, both universal and confined to his time and his “station” in life.
  He was confined by the social demand for revenge which was particularly severe in his day, if I remember correctly.  He was also inordinately tied to his mother (tip of the hat to Sigmund Freud) and incapable of extending sympathy and consideration toward a young woman who loved him (manipulative and selfish). He suffered from delusions—his father’s ghost—and plotted a psychologically complex but dishonest ruse to “catch the king”, his murderous uncle. He ended by getting himself killed in a suicidal duel.
  Much more could be said, but I’ll stop with making the point that English and psychology have been “cross-pollinating” for centuries.  So what else is new?  Yrs. sincerely, Ms. Monshyne,, Head of the Retroactive Dept. of Literary Bombast, University of Liederschnoffen.

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