Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Literature and Science

As I've watched Mark Jeffreys think about evolutionary advantages to various types of behavior, including sex and religion, I have found the questions fascinating.

And this semester, as Mark is thinking with his students about storytelling, I've been especially interested, given my background in German literature.

Now comes this article and discussion in the NY Times to give a bit of context for me, laying out the mutual benefit of studying literature and cognitive science in conjunction with one another:

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know

Published: March 31, 2010

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”


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Haskins Laboratories

An M.R.I. of a brain highlighting areas used during reading.

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

[the rest of the article HERE]

[and a discussion of the ideas HERE]

1 comment:

  1. This NYT series has been especially interesting for the evolution of story telling crew. Brian Boyd, author of our primary text for the class, has both supported and challenged Lisa Zunshine's heavy emphasis on theory-of-mind, and we have reviewed as well Steven Pinker's skeptical take on the whole field. I was a little disappointed that the follow-up discussion in the Times emphasized the responses of English Lit scholars, as many evolutionary and cognitive scientists have their own take--both intrigued and wary--of this approach as a trend in Literature Departments. For what it's worth, I suspect the evolutionary perspective will be invigorating for a short time but will probably not produce much genuinely innovative literary criticism unless it transforms methodologies.