Brain scans to probe how books fire imagination

Brain scans to probe  how books fire imagination



By Paul Harris and Alison Flood THE GUARDIAN, LONDON Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010


‘Neuro lit crit’ is the study of how great writing affects the synapses of the human mind. But can science ever decode /’di’kod/ the artistic impulse?




It is the cutting edge of literary studies, a rapidly expanding field that is blending scientific processes with the study of literature and other forms of fiction. Some have dubbed it “the science of reading” and it is shaking up one of the most esoteric and sometimes impenetrable corners of academia. Forget structuralism or even post-structuralist deconstructionism.  “Neuro lit crit” is where it’s at.




Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses to the words.

今年晚些時候,在新英格蘭有一組 12名學生將授予研讀一系列特別設計的閱讀文本。然後,他們將載上一種醫院核磁共振設備以掃描他們的大腦和定位他們對字詞的神經反應。

The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction

such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.




The students are part of a group called the Yale -Haskins Teagle Collegium, which is headed by Yale literature professor Michael Holquist. “We are a group made up of……組成honest-to-God scientists who spend all day in the lab and a group of literary humanists who are deeply devoted to the cause of literature,” Holquist said.




His groups have spent months designing their texts, or “vignettes,” and they have been specifically created to different levels of complexity based on the assumption that the brain reacts differently to great literature than to a newspaper or a Harry Potter book. The aim, Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.



Holquist’s group, however, is just one area of neuro lit crit. Academics from the arts and science are getting together in cross-disciplinary ways in order to explore the actual biological processes behind reading, creating and processing fiction. “Reading is a very hard-wired thing in our brains. There are brain cells that respond to reading and we can study them,” said Richard Wise, a neuroscientist at Imperial  College London. That might seem a counter-intuitive  way to treat the arts. Great literature — and, indeed, not-so-great literature — has long been examined and studied in terms of other fields of the humanities.



People have identified philosophical theories in Shakespeare and analyzed his differing moral ways of seeing the world. Famous works of literature have long been interpreted  according to Marxist theories or by looking at gender. Or they have been seen as the product of exact historical, social, economic or environmental contexts.



Now, adding to those age-old debates, groups of scientists and literature experts are saying that the biology and chemistry of the brain are equally worthy of study and could provide as much insight. Literature, they say, has its roots in what it does to our brains or even what genes might be involved. Lighting up the right neurons is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context. Some see that as revolutionary. “It is one of the most exciting developments in intellectual life,” said Blakey Vermeule, an English professor at Stanford University.

現在,加入那些古老的爭論,科學家和文學專家們說,生物和大腦的化學組合也同樣值得研究,可提供很大的啟示(領悟)。他們說,我們的大腦在文學上的運作,有其根源,甚至可能涉及基因之類。激活每一個正確的神經細胞如同一個敏銳的精神頓悟或社會脈絡一樣重要。有些人認為這是革命性的。,一個在斯坦福大學英文教授布萊基 vermeule”說,在啟智的生活中這是一個最令人興奮的發展。

Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies.” It looks at how human genetics and evolutionary theory shape and influence literature, or at how literature itself may be an expression of evolution. For instance, the fact that much of human fiction is about the search for a suitable mate should suggest that evolutionary forces are at play. Others agree that fiction can be seen as promoting social cohesion  or even giving lessons in sexual selection. “It is hard to interpret fiction without an evolutionary view,” said Jonathan Gottschall at Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.



However, there has also been a backlash  against the idea of using scientific methodology  as a way of analyzing fiction. Some say that the very experience of literature is too individual for scientific study. Or that science might do down the artistic and poetic notions of the humanities. Others protest/’prot

ɛst that the science is simply not advanced enough. “It strikes me as just plain silly. The mind and the brain are two quite separate things, and nobody knows what the relation is between them,” said Ian Patterson, a fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Nikolaj Zeuthen, of Aarhus University in Denmark, agreed. “The experience of reading something is subjective, something that we have only private access to. And surely there is nothing electrical, chemical about my experience of reading Woolf. So how can you say anything about my experience by looking at brain imaging?” he said.



But the proponents of neuro lit crit say that the critics are missing the point: discovering the scientific rules behind humankind’s passion for storytelling does not take anything away from aesthetics. “Knowing the science behind the movement of a comet through space does not degrade the beauty of the nighttime sky,” said Gottschall.


Book worms


There have been many different theories in the field of literary criticism, not least the emergence of the black turtleneck as preferred garb for any self-respecting lit crit student. One of the giants of the early days was British academic FR Leavis who rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. His works interpreted works of art in isolation from their social context.



Other schools have gone in

參加,進入the opposite direction. Marxist and feminist  literary criticism interpret art as a practice placed within a society, its politics, gender relations and economy, and they dominated left-wing faculties in the 1960s and 1970s.





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