Literature and neuroscience

Cerebellum of a chickenIn the latest issue of the TLS, Raymond Tallis, an emeritus professor of geriatric medicine, takes to task the use of neuroscience as a new perspective in literary studies. In “The Neuroscience Delusion” Tallis warns against the tendency to use works of popular science as a basis for interdisciplinarity: in his view, critics use a vague understanding of another discipline as the basis for a new interpretation of literature. Tallis challenges neuroaesthetics as based on an overstated case for neuroscience, and argues that it reduces humanity (as well as reading and writing) to a brain function. 

His main objection to popular neuroscience is that it suggests that the whole of human experienced can be explained from processes in the brain. Instead, human experience is more than a brain – Tallis offers a transcendent alternative that reminded me a little of Jung’s collective unconscious: 

For the extraordinary thing about human beings – and what captures what is human – is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys.

What exactly this “community of minds” is and how it relates to literary studies, the article does not make clear. 

Because it is not only the application of neuroscience in literary studies that Tallis disapproves of, but the whole range of structuralist, post-structuralist, psychoanalytical (Freudian, Lacanian), historical materialist, and Marxist approaches, I was a little disheartened. I read on because I recently became interested in the subject, by way of Daniel M. Gross’s Secret History of Emotion (2006) [see also this post], which pits cultural history and the study of rhetoric against a biological/neurological interpretation of the emotions. Gross makes convincing arguments against (mainly) Damasio’s neurological approach to the emotions, and I just picked up a copy of Damasio’s Descartes Error to see for myself.

Another reason I wanted to know more about neuroscience was a piece by A. S. Byatt in the new Cambridge Companion to John Donne (2006): “Feeling thought: Donne and the embodied mind,” on neuroscience and the poetry of John Donne. She writes that she became interested in the relation between cognitive science and poetry, but did not find much information with psycholinguists, who are more interested in the use of metaphors in everyday communication, not in complex poetry. Instead, Byatt used the work of neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux as a perspective on Donne’s poems. Some of her ideas appealed to me, like this one:

Perhaps, this scientist [not Changeux but Dupuy] said, we delight in puns because the neurone connections become very excited by the double input associated with all the stored information for two arbitrarily connected things or ideas. Perhaps we enjoy this excitement. It occurred to me, reading this, that complex metaphors produce infinitely more subtle versions of this excitement and pleasure.

In his TLS article, Raymond Tallis reacts to an edited version of Byatt’s “Feeling Thought” published in the TLS as “Observe the Neurones” (2006). He does not accuse Byatt of reading only popular versions of neuroscience – he has to admit that she is a careful reader of Changeux’s work. Nevertheless, she sometimes misinterprets concepts from neuroscience in her use of them to interpret Donne’s poetry, such as the concept of the graph. His main objection to Byatt’s approach, however, is that it reduces the reading of literature to a neurophysiological phenomenon: 

That is, by adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and other Metaphysical poets; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and a vast number of other activities – such as getting cross over missing toilet paper [a recurring theme in the piece – KS]. That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose.

Although I generally agree with the idea that scientific approaches to literature tend to obfuscate specificities in order to find a universal pattern (see also this post on memes), I don’t quite agree with Tallis’ reading here. Byatt does make a difference between Donne and other poets. For example, she writes that unlike George Herbert (but like Wallace Stevens), Donne “describe not images, but image-making, not sensations but the process of sensing, not concepts but the idea of the relations of concepts.” I think Byatt’s ideas about metaphors and the play of images in the mind are very specific to the metaphysical poetry of Donne, which brings together in its imagery concepts and objects that are not usually related. Of course, there are other poets who do this, but not all poets, and I don’t think it would be easy to find in toilet paper, nor in what Tallis calls “trash” writing (although there is an image that keeps haunting me from an Elizabeth George detective novel, where the experience of a warm, sticky car seat is compared to the embrace of a sweaty uncle).

On the other hand, I do agree with a point Tallis makes elsewhere in his article, that Byatt’s approach does not seem to distinguish between different readers. When she writes that “The pleasure Donne offers our bodies is the pleasure of extreme activity of the brain” – who is the “we” that she has in mind? Does every brain experience Donne’s poetry in this way?

Read more (random choice from a wealth of interesting links):

Also noted on the web:


2 thoughts on “Literature and neuroscience

  1. Very much enjoyed your response, though I didn’t agree with it! Are you based in UK? Do drop me a line Raymond Tallis

  2. Pingback: Cognition, the brain and cultural history at Serendipities

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