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Literature finds the brain

Fri, 09/20/2013 - 3:42pm
M. Simon, Technical Contributor

Being a supposedly semi-literate engineer and a writer to boot, this article on the intersection of the humanities and brain science caught my attention. Especially given this recounting of previous failures.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded.

Well that is a truly novel approach. Base your analysis on evidence. Although much of the evidence is preliminary given the current state of knowledge of the brain. We are at the very beginning of that knowledge. We are at that stage where you can recognize a bit of the depth and breadth of your lack of knowledge.

And that leads us to the next fly in the ointment.

Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.

If the point is entertainment, there is nothing wrong with unprovable theories. On the other hand, if you are trying to understand something the theories ought to be at least plainly marked.

Here is a theory I like and it may explain Why and Who Is Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

That kind of fits in with our understanding of the brain's capacity to remember other things. It is difficult to say whether anything useful will come of this marriage of disciplines. Interest in the actual workings of real brains is sure to go up.


M. Simon's e-mail can be found on the sidebar at Space-Time Productions.

Engineering is the art of making what you want from what you can get at a profit.

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