Thursday, March 31, 2011

Social Pain and Metaphors for Physical Pain

Social rejection hurts. Literally. This is one of those metaphors that has physical reality. No wonder, then, that works of literature dealing with such rejection are full of metaphors for physical pain.

Sylvia Plath, for example, uses painful tastes as a metaphor for rejection:


My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.

Note we have vinegar, sour, tart. We know each of these as "sharp" tastes. Why sharp? Because sharp is stabbing, causes pain. The other sense mentioned is that of the wind on the skin, described as "caustic." A "caustic wind" is one that is of course a burning wind -- buring being painful, of course. Synonyms are "bitter" and "acid." Vinegar is an acid, of course. So the series of metaphros is maintained.

The fact that social rejection makes one stimulate in the brain the same pathways as are stimulated by actual physical pain allows one to make sense of the consistent use of such metaphors in, for example, poems about social rejection.


We typically think of Darwinism when discussing genetics and inheritance, but more and more it is becoming obvious that there is Lamarkian epigenetic inheritance as well. Not only are genes heritable, but gene expression patterns. And those gene expression patterns are determined by one's environment. In other words, the environment affects my gene expression patterns, and those gene expression patterns are then inherited by my children. We have known about epigenetics -- particularly DNA methylation (something I was fascinated with when I was actively studying molecular biology in college) -- for a while now, but it has only been recently that much attention has been paid to it. The human genome project seems to have had a huge influence on these developments, since the number of active genes seemed bizarrely small for such a complex organism as human beings. What gives? Well, there are all sorts of regulatory differences,and mong them are epigenetic influences as well.

What does epigenetic inheritance have to do with understanding human nature, evolutionary psychology, and literature? It may be too early to know. But it's never too early to keep an eye out for such research, to be familiar with such effects, to keep abrest of the latest developments. Epigenetics is very important -- we just don't know to what degree, or how it affects human behavior. Yet.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This Is Your Brain on Art

Morgan Meis wonders if it will truly be a sad day when neuroscience allows us to completely understand art? Of course, this begs the question of whether what he is concerned with is at all possible. With 10^10,000 possible brain states per person, I think art may be safe.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Naturalistic Approaches to Culture?

For our readers who are affiliated with an institution of higher education and/or research in Europe, you should consider applying to attendNaturalistic Approaches to Culture? It looks pretty exciting.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I Have a Gut Feeling About this Research's Importance to Literary Studies

It turns out that there is a direct connection between the bacteria in your intestines and learning, memory, and behavior. In other words, to know something in your guts may be more than a mere metaphor. This research suggests that what bacteria are present in your guts affect your psychiatric state. This suggests that some interesting work could be done looking at the way authors represent characters' psychological states and their physical conditions. How many characters have "stomach problems" that affect them and their mental states? Might the linked research lead to our understanding the relation between some specific bacterial cocktails and their psychological affects on their hosts? If so, may we not see this in works of literature?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Don't Analyze Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes

Robin Hanson, an economist who blogs at Overcoming Bias, posts on What the Eyes Say. He points out something I have known for a while, but hardly have at the forefront of thought, which is that humans have "the largest and most visible sclera – the “whites” of the eyes – of any species," which allows us to communicate quite a bit with our eyes. Ah yes, the eyes, which are the windows to our souls. We can communicate direction with a glance. We can give ourselves away with a glance.

How much literature deals with eyes, glances, etc.? A great deal. Volumes worth of literary analysis, I'm sure. Who is ready to write "A Sclerical Analysis of Literature"?

Isabel Behncke: Evolution's gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans

Monday, March 21, 2011

How Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Why do humans enjoy bird songs? We do, after all, describe many bird songs as beautiful. Why would we find songs produced by another species, meant to announce their territorial boundaries and attract their mates, when those boundaries and mates mean nothing at all to us, attractive? One answer, perhaps, is that birds -- especially songbirds -- sing when it is safe to sing. If there are no predators around, it is safe for the bird to sing. But if a predator -- or any other large animal that could be a predator -- enters the bird's territory, they stop singing. It seems that a species that paid attention to bird song -- and especially its cessation -- would be able to use that as a signal to beware of the possibility of a predator. Those individuals that did pay attention to song and its cessation would be more likely to avoid predators than one that did not. And even the tiniest selective advantage spreads rapidly through the population. Further, the brain has mechanisms that result in its rewarding itself for beneficial activities. Thus, pleasure associated with bird song would result in the individual paying even more attention to bird song, making the individual even more aware of the song's cessation. Of course, now that we are no longer in many dangerous situations, where we have to worry about predators, we can mostly sit back and enjoy the songs we hear. Perhaps even transform that enjoyment into a poem for others to enjoy. And where does music come from? The unification of music and language. And where does language come from? My guess is: the bifurcation of territorial/mating calls into music and language. Another reason, then, that we love bird song: the remind us of us, of our distant, ancient past.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Variations in seratonin levels affect our perception of intimacy -- including our own. Low seratonin is associated with poor personal relationships and depression. One would expect a few things, then, from this. First, authors who were chrinocally depressed may be expected to write stories in which there are primarily poor personal relationships. Second, we should see these correlations -- and their opposites -- in stories' characters. Third, seratonin levels may also affect our perception, and thus our interpretation, of relationships in literature. Now that would be an interesting reformulation of reader-response theory!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Literature Expands Reality

People often assume that metaphors are merely optional figures of speech whose purpose is to enliven expression and make it more poetic and appealing. The common assumption is that we could speak literally, but its more colloquial and comfortable to use imagery–unless we’re trying to be precise, in which case metaphors muddy up the idea being expressed. But according to research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics, metaphors are not just words or images that help describe a concept that already exists in the mind. Instead, metaphorical connection is the way the human brain understands anything abstract. The deepest metaphors are not optional or decorative: they’re a kind of sense, like seeing or hearing, and much of what we consider to be reality can be perceived and experienced only through them. We understand almost everything that is not concrete (even “concrete” is a metaphor) in terms of something else. In short, the expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality.

Joel R. Primack & Nancy Ellen Abrams
The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos p. 243

An apt reversal of Wittgenstein. Our language is limited only by our ability to create metaphors. Literature expands reality. We have the neuroscience to prove it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

H = M * S

Is there a mathematical equation one can use to understand just how funny something is? Perhaps, yes.

h = m * s

Where h = the pleasure we get
m = the degree of misinformation perceived
s = the extent to which the individual is susceptible to taking it seriously

In other words, "humour rewards us for seeing through misinformation that has come close to taking us in."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Frederick Turner's Epic Poems Re-Released!

Contemporary epic poet, Frederick Turner's, scifi epic poem THE NEW WORLD is in print again, from Ilium Press. An excerpt can be read here and it is now available through Amazon's Kindle. The new print edition will be out soon.

Ilium Press will also be reprinting his other great epic, GENESIS: AN EPIC POEM in the next few weeks.

These are fine examples of works influenced by evolutionary biology.

Evolution as a Literary Theme

This blog is primarily about how knowing evolution can inform us in analyzing literature. But how might knowing evolution also influence literature? There are plenty of examples, and I am sure that it will continue to influence literature.

One element of literature is that it creates a world of "what-if?" that can expand thinking. Well, let me ask this: What if humans started acting like bonobos?

The Cerebellum, Reading, and IQ

new research suggests that there is a relationship between high IQ and the cerebellum. I have already noted the connection between the cerebellum and irregular timing, suggesting that it may respond to prose rhythms.

Which raises an interesting question: could the mere fact of reading prose, any prose, increase general intelligence? Specific prose -- on economics, biology, or philosophy, for example -- of course informs one about such things, and thus increases topic-specific intelligence. Reading across the genres allows one to see patterns and make connections, of course, and thus might also raise general intelligence to a certain degree. But may it also be that reading prose about anything at all could raise one's intelligence by its interactions in the cerebellum? This seems a potentially fruitful avenue of scientific research. One can see if there is such a positive correlation. Also, one can research how the cerebellum reacts in response to reading prose.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes

The New York Times has an article expanding on an article I already linked to on the evolution of distinctively human social traits. In fact, the points made about the nature of tribal bands and their interconnections, varieties of kinship and nonkinship, F. A. Hayek's observations that different social orders would compete and the best emerge, and Matt Ridley's thesis in The Rational Optimist about trade seem intimiately connected. If so, my project here and at Austrian Economics and Literature are in fact intimately related. Certainly both are about applying the studies of evolutionary processes to understanding literature.

But this idea of interrelated human bands of typically unrelated people is suggestive. Surely we see these dynamics in life and, thus, in literature -- novels and epics being the most obvious places one would see such dynamics represented.

Friday, March 11, 2011

High Levels of Testosterone in utero, IQ, and Literature

Does high levels of testosterone in utero cause genius? I wouldn't doubt it. High levels of testosterone in utero also causes heritable left-handedness (approximately 50% of left-handers, the other 50% being caused by birth trauma), and we see an extremely high percentage of left-handers in the arts, math, and the sciences. This suggests that at the very least high levels of testosterone in utero may be a cause of a considerable number of incidences of high IQ.

This potentially helps explain why males tend to dominate in the arts, math, and sciences. I would not be surprised to find that an unusual number of women who do well in these fields are left-handed, or have higher than usual testosterone levels (or exhibit behaviors typical of those who experienced high levels of testosterone in utero).

If this is true for even a significant percentage of artists, what effect might this have on literature? Left-handers tend to turn to the left and notice things to their left more than to the right (vice versa for right handers). Do we see evidence of this in works of literature? How might one identify such things? I will note that the creator of The Simpsons is left handed, and a great many of the characters in the show are also left handed. There is even an entire episode on Ned Flanders opening a store for left handers, The Leftorium.

But there are likely to be other consequences. Does high levels of testosterone in utero affect cognition? Emotions? World view? Sexual behavior and sexuality (we know it does for these two)? If having had high levels of testosterone in utero affect these and any number of other aspects of cognition, we should expect to see it in works of literature produced by such people. How does this affect literary history? The effects of literature on culture?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Anthropologists link human uniqueness to hunter-gatherer group structure

Some potentially interesting research for literary Darwinists on the origins of human uniqueness.

Two Types of Rhythms

The brain perceives two types of rhythms in two different brain locations.

The researchers found that a network comprising the basal ganglia was activated for the timing of regular sounds, whereas a network in the cerebellum was found to be activated for the timing of irregular sound sequences.
The basal ganglia are involved in such things as voluntary motor control, procedural learning relating to routine behaviors or habits, eye movements, and modulates cognitive and emotional functions. With the exception of the emotional functions, each of these are timing functions.

The cerebellum is involved in the coordination, precision, and accurate timing of motor control, with attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure. Again, with the exception of the emotional functions, each of these are timing functions.

The rhythms of rhythmic poetry and prose, it seems, invoke different parts of the brain. Interestingly, the part of the brain involved in language is that which is used for irregular sounds sequences. We speak in prose. Yet note some of the other things listed. The cerebellum is also involved in fear and pleasure regulation. We have horror novels, but where are the horror poems? The closest might be Poe's "The Raven," but then one does not feel so much horror when reading the poem as a certain creepiness, sadness, or haunting feeling. I will also note that much literary prose we read is in the form of novels -- a genre that requires our attention. These may not be unrelated, then.

But let us look at the relation between rhythmic verse and the functions of the basal ganglia. Regular rhythms are very much like routine behaviors -- the same rhythm, like a habit, recurs. The fact that cognitive and emotional functions are also modulated in the basal ganglia might also suggest that rhythmic poetry could contribute to the modulation of into our emotions and cogntiive abilities. Or at least influence it, for better or worse? Regular rhythms at the very least seem to be very persuasive -- both emotionally and cognitively. Might this be the very reason for that? Consider the fact, too, that rituals are a kind of "procedural learning relating to routine behaviors or habits," allowing for the perpetuation of cultural norms, including ethical beliefs. This suggests a close relationship between ritual and poetry beyond the mere use of poetry in rituals.

Of course, rarely are poems purely and perfectly rhythmic. There are variations in just how stressed or unstressed a syllable is. And some syllables can change based on its neighbors. This creates a level of irregularity on top of the regularity. Those poems which can accomplish this, then, are likely to tap into both parts of the brain simultaneously. Another way a poet might be able to accomplish this is to mix up the regularity of the rhythms in the lines. Many ancient Greek poems did this. where regular line rhythms are used, but a variety are mixed together. A poem with, say, the following rhythm:

with each quatrain repeated might be able to do both simultaneously, since the brain is detecting both regularity and irregularity.

What other insights might we be able to gain from this? What uses might one be able to put this in regards to versification?

Three Layers of Memory

There are three layers of memory:

a core focusing on one active item, a surrounding area holding at least three more active items, and a wider region containing passive items that have been tagged for later retrieval or "put on the back burner."
What does this imply for reading? It is known that while we are focusing on one word, we are also peripherally aware of the words on either side. Is this part of the same process? And what about the elements that have been tagged? What sorts of things do our memories tag? How might that affect the structure of sentences, or word patterns?

An author of the original study also notes that

"Predictability can free up resources so a person can effectively multitask"
May this be one of the uses of rhythm and rhyme in poetry?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

You Are What You Like

What do your aesthetic tastes say about you? If our personalities affect what we like to read, they certainly must affect what authors write. How might personality research affect understanding literature? Certainly our personality traits affect our ways of viewing the world. Do literary works reflect only a few personality types? What about those we've canonized? If so, what effect does that have on culture? On the further evolution of literature?