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?