About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Can brain scans help us understand Homer?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

In recent posts, I’ve knocked neuroframing, neuroweapons and neurobics. Next up: neuro-lit-crit.

New York Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen reports that for insights and inspiration literary scholars are turning, inevitably, to neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Philosophers are doing the same, as are art theorists, religious scholars, you name it.

Edward Wilson must be thrilled. In his 1998 book Consilience, the Harvard University biologist contended that neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and other fields were yielding deep insights into the human nature and culture, the traditional provinces of the humanities. As a result, Wilson contended, “the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.”

At the time, folks in the humanities squawked, with good reason, about Wilson’s arrogance and ignorance. Since then, the academic status of humanities professors has plummeted and that of scientists has surged. Literary scholars have apparently decided that if they can’t beat scientists, they should fuse with ‘em.

Lisa Zunshine of the University of Kentucky is analyzing the novels of Jane Austen in light of what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind,” our innate ability to infer others’ mental states.  William Flesch (love these novelistic names!) of Brandeis University contends that selfish-gene theory can illuminate the behavior of literary heroes like Don Quixote and Odysseus. Michael Holquist of Yale University is sticking subjects in MRI tubes to see whether their brains react to Henry James differently than to USA Today.

But are lit-crit scholars doing this research out of genuine intellectual curiosity or because they’re desperate for grants and prestige? Cohen writes: “At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.”

We badly need those rare souls conversant in both the arts and sciences. Novels such as The Echo Maker by Richard Powers and Saturday by Ian McEwan riff on brain science in wonderfully imaginative, witty ways. But some neuro-lit-crit practitioners act like infatuated science “groupies,” Raymond Tallis complains in the Times Literary Supplement. “Neuroaesthetics,” Tallis asserts, “overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity.” Tallis is not a disgruntled Beowulf specialist but a professor of medicine who also writes about philosophy and the arts.

The best bridgers of the two cultures combine respect for and knowledge of science with an awareness of science’s limits. Science is never weaker, more limited, than when it turns its attention to our own minds and behavior itself. One of the great paradoxes of modern science is that scientists can speak with more confidence about supernovas, neutron stars and the first moments of cosmic creation than they can about what is going on in their own skulls.

Humanities scholars should not ignore science or reject it in kneejerk fashion, but neither should they kowtow to it. In fact, as a former English major who once considered a career in literary criticism, I’ve always believed that the highest purpose of the humanities is not to assert truths but to challenge, question and raise doubts about them. To that end, scholars in the humanities should view science with skepticism, as they would any powerful authority. To see how entertaining and informative this approach can be, check out this vivisection of psychiatry in The New Yorker by Harvard English professor Louis Menand.

Humanities scholars can best serve the humanities—and humanity–by being informed, articulate critics of science, not naïve worshippers or imitators of it.


John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 Image: iStockphoto/alancrosthwaite

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 7 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:24 pm 04/7/2010

    Please get off this idea that brain scans tell all.

    Brain scans do not directly detect all processes occurring within the subject’s brain during monitoring.

    A low amplitude chemical signal could theoretically have a controlling influence on the process being studied.

    Please think a little harder.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 3:07 pm 04/7/2010

    By the way, if you analyzed a trace data set of the electrons flowing through the microprocessor chip in a subject’s PC, you might be able to develop some impressions of what functions the subject is performing. However, if you then compared those conclusions to what was happening on the display screen, I’d expect you to have quite a few big surprises. Brain scans do not provide direct, conclusive evidence of the broad conclusions being drawn from them. Even a lie detector would provide some additional information.

    Link to this
  3. 3. william flesch 6:09 pm 04/7/2010

    I’m an admirer of yours, and so I’m bummed that you mischaracterize my work.

    I argue <i>against</i> selfish-gene explanations of literature, and strongly against E.O. Wilson whose view of literature is absurdly reductive. I disagree with putting either Dawkins or Trivers to use in thinking about how fiction works.

    I’m interested instead in looking at the dynamics of cooperation (from a game-theoretical and also a decision-theoretical perspective). Those dynamics suggest that to cooperate (as we do!) we have to be pretty good at recognizing cooperation and we have to root for it. But we can misrecognize it too, and our rooting can look spiteful rather than prosocial. Vindication and vindictiveness can morph into one another. We’re really interested in these characteristics in ourself and others (this is a well-supported and -examined empirical claim), and they occur at a level that can’t be reduced to genetic determinism, any more than love can. But thinking about things through a consideration of the evolution of cooperation allows literary critics to make suggestive and rich connections that we might not have focussed on before (though readers respond to them).

    My background and frame of reference comes largely from the later Wittgenstein, who would also have been appalled by the reductiveness you castigate. For example: "Love is not a feeling. Love must be put to the test, pain not. We do not say, ‘That was not a real pain, otherwise it would not have quickly.’"

    The question is, How do you get to the irreducible level? Too many literary Darwinists say you can’t. I argue that you can, and that selfish-gene theories completely miss the point.

    You’re right to complain when literary critics try to use science that they know only superficially to explain what science can’t possibly explain. But this time you’re being too quick a study — you really ought to read Blakey Vermeule’s dazzling work, not for the science but for the insight into literature. That’s what I’m aiming at too.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Denis Dutton 10:46 pm 04/7/2010

    I’m really disappointed by your opinionizing on this subject, John. William Flesh is correct that you have him quite wrong. I’m sure you’ve never actually read Zunshine arresting work, or you could not possibly be so dismissive.

    For me, most upsetting is your invented notion, expressed via a rhetorical question, about whether "lit-crit scholars [are] doing this research out of genuine intellectual curiosity or because theyre desperate for grants and prestige."

    As you know, I’ve been working on the Darwinian influences of artistic tastes and pleasures for many years. During that time, a very few brave younger academics have tried to extend research into responses to literary works using aspects of neuroscience and what is known about evolved human psychology in other ares. In thanks for their efforts, they have often been unable to land even entry-level academic jobs, let alone get lucrative grants. It is because of their intense, open-minded curiosity, by the way, and their refusal to accept that Foucault and Derrida have told us all we need to know about literature, that they have carried on.

    A few of these younger scholars are to establish a body of knowledge about literary and aesthetics responses that will in my opinion be of permanent value in making sense of the human condition. It is at the very least vastly more interesting than the jargonized obscurantisim that has passed as literary theory for the last thirty years in the English departments.

    I’m truly embarrassed for you that on the basis of what has to be complete ignorance, you would identify a tiny group of maginaized scholars and vilify them as trying to cash in on the prestige of science. They are actually for the first time in a couple of generations trying to do some real science in the humanities.

    – Your Bloggingheads friend, Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

    Link to this
  5. 5. no quizzle 2:04 am 04/8/2010

    Wow, for once there is more intelligence in the comments section, than there is in the article.
    Good on you, William and Denis for setting the record straight.
    Ideas are always more complex than the surface skimming generalizations usually spewed.

    Link to this
  6. 6. johnwnorton 6:26 pm 04/9/2010

    What is a Darwinist? What is a Darwinian Influence?

    Link to this
  7. 7. no quizzle 9:39 pm 04/10/2010

    @ johnwnorton

    This should help.

    Is your username in honour of the Illinois muralist and easel artist?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American


Get All-Access Digital + Print >


Email this Article