Monday, December 13, 2010

How Deep Is It Necessary to Go?

How detailed do we need to understand the way the brain works for Darwinian literary studies?

Dehaene, in Reading in the Brain goes into great detail about how the brain is converted into an organ able to read and create written script, yet one may wonder to what degree this is in fact helpful to understanding literature per se.

Having said that, I will note that Dehaene does observe that learning to read makes us more phonemicly aware -- which may in fact affect the production of poetry. At the same time, one may argue that one could learn this through studies that do not involve understanding the neurology behind reading.

There is certainly something to be said about the issues of general intelligence and evolutionary psychology's emphasis on modules and instincts -- but how much does one really need to know about neural structures to use these in literary studies?


  1. Here's an example from an essay on Hamlet:

    By uncovering the causal mechanisms of depression, modern research has confirmed one of Bradley’s chief insights—that depression is not a normal, healthy reaction to adverse circumstances. It is “pathological,” a malfunction or breakdown in an adaptive system, like diabetes, heart disease, or stroke (references deleted). The brain’s positive and negative emotional circuits function as a homeostatic system. This system (the “limbic” system) is designed to respond to good things (elation) and to bad things (alarm, flight or fight), and then to return eventually to normal. The depressed brain gets stuck in stress mode. It fails to readjust. More specifically, danger or threat stimulates the hypothalamus to produce a signal to the pituitary to send a signal to the adrenal glands, just over the kidneys. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol to produce fight or flight reactions. Prolonged stress for vulnerable people results in a "stuck switch." The adrenal glands continue to pump out cortisol, damaging the brain, killing neurons, shrinking the hippocampus, stressing other organs, and producing the typical affects of depression. The neural circuits mediating positive emotionality—circuits engaging the nucleus accumbens and activating the dopamine reward system in the frontal cortex–shut down, producing anhedonia, and consequently a loss of motive and interest. The neural circuits mediating negative emotionality--engaging the amygdala and activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis–go into overtime, producing chronic anxiety and anguish [references deleted].

  2. There have been repeated problems with postings comments on blogspot for some reason. I am, nevertheless, getting the emails. Thus, I am going to post a comment from Joseph Carroll.

  3. From Joseph Carroll:

    Good question. Here are a few quick, impressionistic responses:

    (1) The more one knows about actual neural structures, the less likely one is to draw false inferences based on high-level (=crude) discursive formulas. "Modules" are a much contested concept, and it's pretty easy to use that concept in imprecise and seriously misleading ways.

    (2) Leaving aside the problem of interpreting neuro-psychological findings at discursive second hand, I'd say that we can get by with almost NO specific neuro-psychological knowledge in literary study. Until fairly recently, ALL literary study was conducted with essentially no knowledge of the anatomical structure or physiology of the brain. However, while common language understanding can take us a certain distance, there is no reason to suppose that we couldn't conduct studies that did in fact draw out interesting conclusions from combining close reading on the common level with highly particular information about how the brain processes information.

    (3) In a broad general way, I've long thought that discussions of formal aesthetic organization could be advanced by an understanding of how the brain optimizes information processing, integrating sensory inputs with conceptualization and with emotional responses. Precise neuro-psychological knowledge would regulate that kind of research, suggesting appropriate categories and providing a constraint on speculation.

    (4) I haven't done much myself along these lines, but I've done a little. I published a critique of Hamlet in the journal Style in which I included a section on the neurobiology of depression (Hamlet is depressed).

    (See Above -- Troy)