Brain science and literature

From time to time, subjects here have a tendency to flow together as if they had minds of their own. The latest example:

Last time, we looked at research into mammal play behaviour. Not long before that, it was a statistical approach to Hamlet. Now, combining the subject of play and the notion of using science to direct our attention when we do lit crit, there’s Nabokov specialist Brian Boyd’s The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature, an article on the website of The American Scholar.

The article’s subtitle nicely summarizes Boyd’s approach: “The delight we get from detecting patterns in books, and in life, can be measured and understood.”

Boyd challenges his colleagues to change their ways and to embrace the possibilities that contemporary brain science offers them and their craft. Of course, this call for collaboration between art and science goes rather dramatically against the anti-empirical bent of most practitioners of the humanities and the social sciences.

Boyd knows this, and at the very beginning of his piece he chides the post-structuralists around him, identifying what he sees as the weaknesses of their position:

For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations….

Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained….

They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.

For regular readers, it’s no surprise that I agree with Boyd on all three points. That’s one big reason that his article is here, of course. These postmodernist theoretical and methodological stances, Boyd believes, not only run contrary to the real nature of literature but also block literary analysts from utilizing the insights brain science provides into the nature and dynamics of not just literature, but all art.

Boyd writes that “I and others want literature to return to the artfulness of literary art and to reach out to science, now that science has at last found ways to explore human nature and human minds. Since these are, respectively, the subject and the object of literature, it would be fatal for literary study to continue to cut itself off from science, from the power of discovery possible through submitting ideas to the rule of evidence.”

Boyd suggests that rather than an either/or, literary study and science could provide complementary expressions of the human condition:

We could consider human natures and minds as understood by science and as represented in literature, not just as seen through the approved lenses of race, gender, and class, but in terms, for instance, of the human life history cycle, or social cognition, or cooperation versus competition.

Or we could develop multileveled explanations that allow room for the universals of human nature, and for the local in culture and history, and for individuality, in authors and audiences, and for the particular problem situations faced in this or that stint of composition or comprehension.

Two key brain science findings that Boyd identifies as crucial to an integrated understanding of literature and the other arts are (1) our highly-developed and long-lasting indulgence in pleasurable play activities and (2) the crucial role that pattern recognition plays in attention and learning.

Boyd writes that “we have uniquely long childhoods, and even beyond childhood we continue to play more than other species.”

Our adult compulsion for the cognitive play of art—from tribal work songs to tradesmen’s transistors to urbanites’ iPods—allows us to extend and refine the neural pathways that produce and process pattern in sonic, visual, and kinetic modes, and especially in sociality.

We are hardwired to seek and respond to patterns, Boyd writes, and he argues that it’s this evolved tendency that grabs and holds our attention. When a pattern is found, we look at it. When it persists, when it becomes static and familiar, we no longer notice it.
But when it changes, we snap to attention again.  Art does these things, and these things are what makes art meaningful and compelling. The artist arranges, rearranges, and disarranges patterns of all kinds, and it is our attempts to follow and decipher these movements and alterations of patterns that makes art riveting and enjoyable on one level and meaningful on the other.

Indeed, Boyd writes, it’s the immediacy that matters: “Attention—engagement in the activity—matters before meaning.” We are drawn to artistic expression, to creative patterns, before we tease out their meanings.

The bulk of Boyd’s article is a complex and detailed look at some of the patterns of character and behaviour that lie within Nabokov’s Lolita. He expends a great deal of time and effort explaining these patterns, yet he maintains throughout that we are drawn to the book long before we are able to tease out and explain its complexities:

What do these examples from Lolita suggest? A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.

If you’re familiar with Lolita, Boyd’s analysis of patterns and their variations in the novel is quite interesting. But even if you’re not, his larger points — that interpretation can be based on more than hierarchical authority matrices; that it can be grounded in brain science — make the article a worthwhile read.

And Boyd’s final point is another statement with which I quite agree:

Literary studies have no need to feel embarrassed at the art of literature or the pleasure we derive from it. Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns, and that singular command makes us who we are.

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