Your Brain on Literature

Sunday, July 11, 2021

What Is It

Cognitive science has revolutionized our understanding of the brain and how it functions. Researchers have even used fMRI to detect differences in the way people engage with literature. But can contemporary science really teach us anything about how novels, poems, and movies work? Do new understandings of the unconscious help us appreciate the brilliant magic tricks that writers pull off? And could a better picture of mental imagery inspire novelists to write differently? Josh and Ray pick the brain of Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain.

Comments (2)

Daniel's picture


Sunday, May 30, 2021 -- 4:47 PM

The concept of Catharsis is

The concept of Catharsis is relevant to fictional representation in literary form because it is characterized by involuntary response: laughter and tears, respectively. These responses in turn help to define how a story is understood: in comedy it ends well for the main characters; in tragedy is ends badly. Because any pre-existing world exists independently from our efforts and is understood in large part by means of the stories which are told about it, one can not be said to be able to choose the contents of these stories, (i.e. they are not stories we make up to tell ourselves), just as we are not free to choose and control our cathartic response to them. Is fictional literature then little more than the generation of a surrogate world, so that the reader doesn't have to deal with the real one? Or is it closer to a training of the mind for appropriate responses to the world prior to the full relevance of the latter for the reader, as Aristotle says of music near the end of the Politics? At the risk of making a false dichotomy, is fictional literature turned away from the world, as an escape from it? Or is it turned towards the world, as a preparation for it? How might cognitive science approach the question, in the event such a consideration would be relevant in that area at all?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 10, 2021 -- 9:43 PM

If the human brain is such a

If the human brain is such a marvel, why in near-term evolutionary time is it getting smaller? If language is such a marvel, why are fewer languages spoken today than 100, 200, and 1,000 years ago? How come large mammals disappear whenever prehistoric humans appear? Who killed the Neanderthals and why? Can David Eagleman explain why Neanderthal genes are different when spliced in brain organoids? Can neuroscience explain the difference in innervation in these experiments?

I don't think Dr. Eagleman or anyone has sufficient answers to these questions that rise above speculation. But David has a better shot than most. So let me ask here. Is readership good? Is it in decline? Is it changing? How, why, or why not?

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Will humans be able to intuit a good story tens of thousands of years after we told the first one? It would seem no. It would seem that more information is making for more sources and media formats and the congregation of thought around poor ones.

Is language the brain's attempt to understand itself? Is language a social entity all and of itself? In either case, do we want to have this discussion in English? ʻAʻole anei ʻoe e noʻonoʻo i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi? (Wouldn't you rather be thinking in Hawaiian?)

Questions for Dr. Eagleman. What are dyslexia and ADHD? What is deep reading? Can one be encouraged and the other not? Why can't the brain adapt to mental illness and cure/make sense of itself as it does sound from the leads of a cochlear implant? What can we do for our kids and ourselves to live more deeply?

I like an excellent p-value, but I am not confident science can help me find baby shoes never worn on Craigslist with more meaning than Charles Bukowski imparts explaining his interest in women.