Science and the Arts: Neuro-Literary Criticism

The other day, I came across an article in the New York Times describing what some believe to be the “Next Big Thing” in literary criticism: Neuro-Literary criticism, neuro-lit crit for short. According to the article, entitled "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know that You Know", liberal arts academics, particularly scholars of English Literature have begun to use neuroimaging to explore an array of questions in their field. Literature therefore joins fields such as history, political science, economics, and advertising in using functional magnetic resonance imaging to provide scientific legitimacy to a wide variety of theories and practices. The article is well worth a read, as it provides interviews with several literature researchers who are currently using fMRI to study literary questions such as the mechanics of reading, the ability of humans to interpret and track mental states, and the role of fiction in satisfying an evolutionarily determined desire to know the motivations and thoughts of others (this last being a theory developed by Stanford English Professor Blakey Vermeule. Of additional interest is a series of blog posts and associated reader commentary that discuss the practice and implications of neuro-lit crit.

One warning: no neuroscientists were directly consulted in either the main article or the associated blog posts. Indeed, this lack was of particular interest to me: it would seem obvious that if a neuroscience technique is being used, neuroscientists should be interviewed. However, the various researchers quoted in the article are all professors of English or Literature, with specific collaborations with neuroscience imaging labs left unmentioned (although one mention is made of a partnership between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists). I am left contemplating how much guidance from experienced neuroscientists the literature researchers are receiving, and indeed, how much guidance we should expect them to request.

Neuroscience is a field that in many ways is still in its infancy, with many associated techniques that have enormous potential to both power novel research and capture public imagination. No wonder academics from diverse fields are eager to examine their particular questions through the lens of fMRI. But I find myself wondering if neuro-imaging is a sufficiently nuanced technique that interpretation of its results must be done by someone with an advanced degree in neuroscience. Does using neuroscience techniques make the research neuroscience research, or does it remain literature research? And if using the techniques allows entrance into the scientific community (and access to scientific funding) for these literary researchers, should they be required to receive formal training in the techniques and field they have co-opted? Irrespective of the question of education, is it dangerous, or beneficial for neuroscientists and our public image that so many diverse groups have embraced our techniques and theories. In many ways this enthusiasm for applying neuroscience to human interactions reminds me of Social Darwinism. Will the beauty and deceptive simplicity of fMRI usher in an age of Social Neuro-imaging?


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog