Saturday, October 4, 2014

Yes, You Should Read More Because a Neuroscientist Said So

Lindsey Grubbs discusses at The Neuroethics Blog some of the recent research on neuroscience and literature. Specifically, she cites Greg Berns et al's “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain” in Brain Connectivity (Berns, Blaine, Prietula, & Pye, 2013), and David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano's “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in Science (Kidd & Castano, 2013). She approvingly notes that Berns et al are more modest in their claims, and criticizes Kidd and Castano for their bolder claims. There is certainly something to be said for epistemological humility. Especially with complex systems, like the embodied social human brain, it's vital to engage in such humility.

Grubbs is right to argue that we should not necessarily value some forms of knowledge or understanding over others. Yet, we do. Most people do value objective over subjective knowledge for the simple fact that objective knowledge is more universal and less common than is subjective knowledge. Which is why news outlets announce the results of neuroscientists' work on literature rather than the latest postmodern literary scholar's. Newspapers cannot report on every single interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus or Hemingway's A Moveable Feast that comes along. If rarer things are more value than common things, and universal things more valuable than particular things, one would expect objective knowledge to be considered more valuable overall than subjective knowledge. In fact, the primary value of subjective knowledge is the creation of intersubjective knowledge, which then approaches objectivity within the social sphere.

That having been said, Grubbs is also right that neuroscientists who want to study literature ought to work more closely with literary scholars. This would, of course, be easier if more literary scholars actually thought what the neuroscientists were doing was worthwhile. The scientists are attempting to bridge the "two worlds," but the literature scholars need to meet them halfway.

Although Grubbs does make some valid points in these areas, she then goes on to prove why it is that neuroscientists probably didn't bother with her or any other literary scholar:
More recent literary theory suggests that the value and substance of a text is not an inherent quality of a work; rather, the meaning of a text is created in the relationship between the reader and the page, both enmeshed in a complex context of race, class, gender, and other factors. By making the claim that “literary fiction” improves theory of mind while “popular fiction” does not—a messy distinction framed as though it were a straightforward one (it seems important to note that the results of Berns’ study—which used a “popular,” not “literary” novel—would suggest that this is wrong, and that reading need not be literary to improve empathy), Kidd and Castano’s study also risks propping up class-based distinctions. Supporting the bias that reading “high-culture” literature, which is undeniably bound up in classed, racialized, and gendered inequalities, is more morally salutary than reading other texts on the basis of one measure is irresponsible, and shows an inadequate engagement with the politics of reading. 
Yes, more recent literary theory does suggest this, and this is what is mostly nonsense. By suggesting that literary fiction is not enjoyed by varying classes, races, and sexes and genders, it is she who is being classist, racist, and sexist/gender-biased. She seems to assume that all great literature is only written by white middle-classed males of European descent. I am willing to bet that Chinua Achebe, the poets of the Sundiata, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Tony Kushner, et al would all disagree. And more, lovers of great literature come from just about every class, race, sex, gender, etc., just as those who hate literature and prefer only popular literature or T.V. and movies equally come from every class, race, sex, gender, etc. imaginable. So wanting to read "high-culture" literature is in fact deniably bound up in classed, racialized, and gendered inequalities.

And what makes a work "high-cultured," anyway? Is the Sundiata, the epic of Mali, "high-cultured"? It is certainly great literature. But it is known by the Malians, who are mostly poor and non-white. While it seems that Grubbs would exclude this work, I see no evidence that the neuroscientists would.

What these and other neuroscientists have discovered is that narrative complexity is what matters most in generating greater empathy. I have talked about this here.

Grubbs also clearly had no understanding whatsoever about how the literary canon emerges. It is not a conspiracy of white males, as she suggests when she says "we live in a culture that values certain types of writing from certain types of authors (most typically, dead white men), and this value is necessarily historically contingent—not “objective.”" She does not take into consideration the fact that the greater literacy of Europe over a longer period of time might have had an impact on the amount of literature produced, that past historical sex biases contributed to the imbalance of men over women, and that network effects necessarily create a canon of often-read works, as people are influenced by those works and keep coming back to them. As we see greater literacy around the world and reduced racial and sex and gender bias, we naturally see more great literature coming from more places and from more women, racial groups, etc. Yet, someone who is a huge fan of Toni Morrison will end up  reading Faulkner, not because Faulkner is a dead white male, but because Morrison was influenced by Faulkner. Network effects.

And why do we choose some works over others? Yes, there is a certain degree of historical contingency. Some things go in and out of fashion. But some things last. The Illiad and The Odyssey have lasted for reasons other than a 3000 year fashion. That's ridiculous on the face of it. Rather, we keep reading those works because those works are complex and, therefore, highly generative.

Now, I'm not going to claim that there isn't some degree of framing effect, as Grubbs suggests. That can't be helped. But I would be willing to bet that if you did not tell your readers that they were reading popular works (let's use popular works from the 19th century nobody reads anymore and obscure literary works they are unlikely to recognize, by all means), that we would end up with the same basic results. The reason we would end up with the same results is that popular literature reinforces our world views and our prejudices, while great literature challenges them. We see people develop greater empathy precisely because their prejudices are challenged. Thus, only works that challenge our prejudices will develop in us greater empathy.

Given the dearth of empathy in many of those in prison, I don't think it would harm them to read some Toni Morrison or James Joyce. Given the problems people with autism have with relating to others, resulting in what appears to be deficits in empathy, it certainly couldn't harm them to read Dostoevsky and Chinua Achebe. Her suggestion otherwise demonstrates how little she knows about the work literary theorists have done in demonstrating that literature improves empathy.

Yes, the literary theorists did get there first. Why complain that the neuroscientists are providing further support for that work?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why We Prefer Stories in the Evening

Recent research involving the Kalahari Bushmen strongly suggest that night is the time for storytelling, be those stories about one's own past, the ancestors, mythical heroes, or religious stories.While during the day about a third of the time involves talk the purpose of which is to act as social regulations, and about a third of the time is on economic issues, with the other third spread out among a variety of other topics, at night about 80% of all talk is stories. It is suggested that this pattern is not unique to the Bushmen, but is typical of all humans living in tribal bands -- which is how all humans lived the vast majority of our existence.

At night, around the fires, people tell stories. And when they are not telling stories, they are dancing and playing music and engaging in religious rituals.

If we look at what plays on network T.V. throughout the day, we see similar patterns. During the day we see judge shows (social regulation), news (gossip/social regulation), and talk shows that involve a combination of gossip (social regulation) and practical household advice (economics). And what do we see at night? Mostly stories and dance and music shows. The late night talk shows involve famous people telling stories followed by a musical guest more often than not. We see the same pattern on the 24 hour news channels. If you want to watch traditional news, you have to watch during the day, because in the evenings, you are mostly going to get various kinds of storytelling.

It is also notable that we go watch movies, plays, operas, and other artistic performances in the evening. Daytime shows are always cheaper than evening shows -- and anyone who knows anything about supply and demand knows that there is a good reason a certain time will be cheaper than another.  Nobody wants to go during the day, even with the cheaper prices. Even on the weekends. No, people much prefer evening performances, and are obviously willing to pay for them.

Also consider the fact that we read our children bedtime stories. And that most of our fiction reading takes place in the late evening. I am sure many will rationalize that evenings, after the house gets quiet, is the only time there is to read; however, when people go elsewhere (the cafe, etc.) to get some reading done during the day, what they read tends to be informative nonfiction. I would be willing to bet that readers of biographies also do such reading in the evening more often than not.

No matter the format, it seems people mostly prefer to hear/see their stories in the evening. But another thing to consider along these lines involves the habits of writers.I have typically done most of my fiction writing -- whether plays, poems, short stories, or novel attempts -- at night. And I often preferred low light. And it seems I'm not the only one. Probably most writers did their writing at night. That is, not only do we prefer to hear our stories in the evening, the storytellers themselves prefer to tell their stories in the evening. Even when the two are disconnected, as is often the case now, the preference is for evening hearings/viewings and tellings.

Evenings are also times when we get together with our friends and/or families and tell stories. We reminisce and tell stories about each other. An evening out drinking with friends will result in a round of storytelling. Perhaps not coincidentally, many an artist has created their works in the evenings while drinking. Mind-altering substances have been and continue to be a part of evening activities. They have historically been connected to religious activities, but more recently have been relegated to "recreation." Recreational drugs and recreational storytelling. But historically neither has been truly recreational. And it's in many ways a loss to our culture that they have been relegated to such marginal, frivolous status. It makes people less responsible -- with the drugs and alcohol, with storytelling and artistic production.

Indeed, our evenings have become converted into frivolity, into unseriousness. But these are the times when strong social bonds are made. The day is for social regulation and economic activities, for the creation of weak social bonds. It is an important part of our lives, but it's not the only part. When the day comes to dominate even the night, our families and friendships are weakened. And given the role of fiction in creating empathy and, thus, expanding our moral spheres, a weaker evening, an evening with less fiction reading, negatively affects our day social orders as well. When the day comes to dominate the night, the extended order comes to crush the intimate orders. Of course, we don't want the night to dominate the day, either, as when the intimate orders come to dominate the extended order, the extended order will be destroyed. More, different spontaneous orders dominate at different times -- day or night -- meaning it is important that we learn how to take good care of this delicate ecosystem.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Welcome Amanda Preston!

I would like to welcome Amanda Preston to Evolution and Literature. She is now a co-blogger. With her background in poetry and her going to graduate school in neurobiology, I am sure she will provide a strong perspective on evolution, the brain, and literature. Beyond this short introduction, I think it best I let her introduce herself.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories and Empathy

It is both gratifying and annoying to read something like Stories Have the Power to Save us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories, which confirms what you yourself have been thinking about. I have written about it here and here and here and here. I could continue listing, but the list of "here"s would become absurdly long.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Metaphors on the Mind

In an article discussing the recent evidence for the argument that metaphors come about from our embodiment, Michah Mattix attempts to assert a more transcendent view of metaphors. The former argues that metaphors come out of our experiences; Mattix argues they do not have to do so. One may have to suppose that those which do not come from our experiences must come from the Platonic Sphere of Forms or some such, and that is, essentially, what he argues.

Let us look at the example he gives, to see if his own example stands up to scrutiny.

Mattix argues that "Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way." I'm not sure why these two things have to be mutually exclusive. If, when anyone hears "kick the habit," the part of their brain associated with the leg and food "lights up," how is this not universal? It may not be "transcendent," but it is certainly universal in the only way that matters: for all humans everywhere at all times. Even if you don't have legs, you've seen people kick. So you can still understand the metaphor. So it seems to me that he is setting up a bit of a straw man in complaining that those favoring the "embodied" understanding of metaphor are arguing against universality. Against transcendence, perhaps, but then "transcendence" is not synonymous with "universal."

Next, Mattix quotes Donoghue about the effect of metaphor, that "The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life."Yet, the theory of embodiment, again, does not dispute this effect. Yes, metaphors give us a new way of seeing things. Yes, metaphors connect two unlike things to create a new relationship. But the embodiment theory of metaphor is about the source of the two aspects being compared. It is not merely linguistic in nature, but rather represented as physical by the brain.

So if we look again at the lines by Eliot used:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
We can note a few things here. One, unless you have experienced a fiddle/violin, you cannot be entirely sure what this means. When you reach the word "music," you can assume that "fiddled" has something to do with music. But does the action create music? Unless you know what a fiddle/violin looks like, you cannot be sure what the action looks like. So this line is only universal among those who know what a fiddle/violin is, how you play it, and what it looks like. The experience is necessary for the universality. And of course Eliot had to have experienced women, long black hair, tightness, fiddles/violins, music, and strings to make the metaphor in the first place -- and he had to have assumed others to have had those experience to even begin to understand his metaphor.

Finally, Mattix complains that we Literary Darwinists would end up discussing the connection between music and sex -- only to then make the argument that this line, and the lines before, are about sex! Certainly love is hardly discounted by Darwinists of any kind. Indeed, we Literary Darwinists would have likely come to the same conclusion as Mattix in regards to the passage -- only we likely wouldn't stop there, but continue on to discuss the evolutionary psychological reasons for why it is the case that sex with love is far more fulfilling than recreational sex. In the end, it seems that Mattix's complaint is that we don't stick to merely superficial explanations, but instead go deeper.

If that's his complaint against us, I'll take it. There are worse things to be accused of than that one's explanations are deep and complex.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Richard Prum on DUCK SEX, AESTHETIC EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY. Beauty is an inherent part of nature. It is a feature selected for through both natural selection sexual selection. Prum argues that there is such a thing as aesthetic evolution, and that that is the origin of beauty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Animal Communication and Human Language

Recent investigations into animal calls shows they are more like human speech than previously thought.

Human language has context-free grammar, but it seems that animals make use of regular grammar -- meaning, their calls and communications are not random. I suppose we should not be surprised by this, as the animals are supposed to be communicating something to others, and that means the others have to have an understanding of what is being communicated.