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Cognitive Literary Studies

Cognitive Literary Studies
Current Themes and New Directions

A dynamic array of top scholars from the sciences and the humanities present new perspectives on the mind and its literary quests, ranging from Hamlet to Kafka to Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Series: Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture, Edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, Arturo J. Aldama, and Patrick Colm Hogan

June 2012
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279 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 line drawing, 2 charts |

Over the past decade, our understanding of the cognition of literature has been transformed by scientific discoveries, such as the mirror neuron system and its role in empathy. Addressing questions such as why we care so deeply about fictional characters, what brain activities are sparked when we read literature, and how literary works and scholarship can inform the cognitive sciences, this book surveys the exciting recent developments in the field of cognitive literary studies and includes contributions from leading scholars in both the humanities and the sciences.

Beginning with an overview of the evolution of literary studies, the editors trace the recent shift from poststructuralism and its relativism to a growing interdisciplinary interest in the empirical realm of neuroscience. In illuminating essays that examine the cognitive processes at work when we experience fictional worlds, with findings on the brain’s creativity sites, this collection also explores the impact of literature on self and society, ending with a discussion on the present and future of the psychology of fiction. Contributors include Literature and the Brain author Norman N. Holland, on the neuroscience of metafiction reflected in Don Quixote; clinical psychologist Aaron Mishara on the neurology of self in the hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) state and its manifestations in Kafka’s stories; and literary scholar Brad Sullivan’s exploration of Romantic poetry as a didactic tool, applying David Hartley’s eighteenth-century theories of sensory experience.

  • Foreword
    • F. Elizabeth Hart
  • Introduction
    • Isabel Jaén and Julien J. Simon
  • Section I: Cognitive Literary Studies Today
    • 1. An Overview of Recent Developments in Cognitive Literary Studies
      Isabel Jaén and Julien J. Simon
  • Section II: The Cognitive Sciences and Literary Theory in Dialogue
    • 2. Why Literature Is Necessary, and Not Just Nice, Richard J. Gerrig
    • 3. Theory of Mind in Reconciling the Split Object of Narrative Comprehension, Joseph A. Murphy
  • Section III: Neurological Approaches to Literature
    • 4. Don Quixote and the Neuroscience of Metafiction, Norman N. Holland
    • 5. The Mourning Brain: Attachment, Anticipation, and Hamlet’s Unmanly Grief, Patrick Colm Hogan
    • 6. The Literary Neuroscience of Kafka’s Hypnagogic Hallucinations: How Literature Informs the Neuroscientific Study of Self and Its Disorders, Aaron L. Mishara
  • Section IV: Language, Literature, and Mind Processes
    • 7. Blending and Beyond: Form and Feeling in Poetic Iconicity, Margaret H. Freeman
    • 8. “A sermon in the midst of a smutty tale”: Blending in Genres of Speech, Writing, and Literature, Michael Sinding
    • 9. Counting in Metrical Verse, Nigel Fabb and Morris Halle
    • 10. Fictive Motion and Perspectival Construal in the Lyric, Claiborne Rice
  • Section V: Literature and Human Development
    • 11. Education by Poetry: Hartley’s Theory of Mind as a Context for Understanding Early Romantic Poetic Strategies, Brad Sullivan
    • 12. Leafy Houses and Acorn Kisses: J. M. Barrie’s Neverland Playground, Glenda Sacks
    • Postscript: The Psychology of Fiction: Present and Future, Keith Oatley, Raymond A. Mar, and Maja Djikic
  • Contributors
  • Index

Isabel Jaén is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Portland State University. Julien Jacques Simon is Associate Professor of Spanish and French at Indiana University East. They are executive members of the Modern Language Association Cognitive Approaches to Literature discussion group and cofounded the Literary Theory, Cognition, and the Brain working group at Yale University.


By Isabel Jaén and Julien J. Simon

I. The Study of Mind and Literature: An Interdisciplinary Endeavor

For years we have been adding tiles to the vast mosaic of research on the cognition of literature. Patterns have been created and have diversified. As we step back now to observe the current shape of cognitive literary studies, we begin to discern a clearer picture. There is still much to compose; the renewed energy that scholars have brought to the assemblage guarantees the health and permanence of a field whose diversity and far-reaching nature forces it to take the slow steps of a giant. Cognitive literary studies may indeed look like an impressive and intimidating Colossus of Rhodes, or perhaps like a Hercules attempting to create a smooth passage between the humanities and the sciences.

The study of literature in relation to the human mind and its natural and social context enjoys a long tradition. Commonly cited examples of early philosophical interest in the creation and reception of verbal art are Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics. There are many medieval accounts of the socio-ritual and didactic function of tales, such as Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and Don Juan Manuel’s The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio. The power of acted narratives to provoke a psychological reaction in audiences was well known to the participants in classical tragedies, and artists would consistently exploit the allure of rhythm and pitch to create verses as well as musical and dance accompaniments for other artistic forms.

Medieval and early modern thought inherits Platonic warnings as much as Aristotelian recipes to deal with the transformative power of literature. Humans can recognize the impact that fictional narratives have on the mind and the community, as evidenced by Lope de Vega’s manual on writing successful plays,The New Art of Making Comedies, and Juan Luis Vives’ Works of Education, where he distinguishes between personal experience and the stories and fables that are imagined for the instruction and warning of mankind. One of the most widely read novels, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is perhaps the perfect example of the impact that fiction can have on the mind and on culture.

The European Enlightenment revives this interest in the reception of literature and its didactic function, a line of investigation that the Romantics will continue to pursue. Questions such as how to educate by poetry (see Sullivan in this volume) are part of the cognitive project of Romanticism, a period in which literary criticism emphasizes the agency of both author and reader. As Alan Richardson has noted, this is the period in which the brain is finally established as the material site of thought, when literature and the mind sciences interact in ways that lead to a new understanding of human subjectivity and its relation to the environment.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, literary critics’ interest in the mind continues and is revitalized by post-Freudian psychoanalysis and reader response theories. In the face of neuroscientific evidence, the psychoanalytic road that had been taken by some poststructuralists will eventually demand a revision. The reader response tradition, for its part, finds continuity in empirical studies of literature, which are carried out today from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, literary criticism, anthropology, and philosophy. These studies are rapidly becoming one of the most fruitful realms for collaboration between humanists and scientists and show promise of an auspicious future.

During the second half of the twentieth century, “cognitivism”—based on computational models of the mind, the view of the “mind as machine” —and the development of generative grammar paradigms allowed for further investigation into the role of language and pattern in human cognition. This linguocentrism was paralleled in literary theory, which in the 1950s and 1960s radicalized its program of closely examining texts, often pushing context to the background, or even disregarding it completely. The critical method of isolating the text as the object of study quickly became problematic, mainly because of its assumption of stability and objectivity of meaning. However, the embodied and enactive approach to cognition that flourishes during the 1990s moves us away from the “mind as computer” metaphor and reconnects the human mind with its biology and environment, while grounded theories of cognition emphasize multimodal representation along with the role of simulation, situated action, and bodily states. In the humanities, post-structuralist theory stressed relativism, hoping to be the antidote to the positivist reductionism of earlier studies of discourse. More recent critical approaches such as gender or postcolonial studies recover the cultural and social context of human cognition and art. Nonetheless, some fundamental questions remain unanswered: How do we build a literary theory that integrates all those aspects of verbal art—author, text, reader, context—that previous criticism only considered fragmentarily? How do we account at the same level for agency, artifact, and context in human literary manifestations? And, more importantly, how do we reconcile the binaries biology and culture, science and the humanities?

Seeking to answer these questions, in the late 1980s some literary scholars began to further explore disciplines such as cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics. Thanks to the contributions of Norman Holland and Reuven Tsur, among other pioneers, the new field of cognitive literary studies gestated for more than a decade, feeding on the research of colleagues from diverse fields outside literary criticism. A turning point was the foundation of the Modern Language Association discussion group Cognitive Approaches to Literature in 1998. By the end of the twentieth century, cognitive literary studies began to establish itself firmly as a new and exciting field aiming to understand literature in the context of the embodied mind and its dynamic interaction with the environment. Over the last decade the field has grown exponentially. It is now experiencing a boom characterized by the proliferation of books, articles, conferences, and discussion groups. Today cognitive scholars may reach a much deeper understanding of the relation between brain and culture, as a result of major technological breakthroughs such as functional magnetic brain imaging and recent discoveries like the mirror neuron system. Moreover, not only are literary critics turning to the mind sciences to make sense of literature but also scientists, in their quest to understand human cognition, are beginning to approach literary critics and recognize the value of their contributions, making cognitive literary studies a truly multidirectional endeavor.

Indeed, cognitive literary studies are now in dialogue with a wide spectrum of disciplines, such as developmental and evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, cognitive linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. Critics like Marcus Nordlund stress the importance of being guided by the light of consilience—unity among the different realms of knowledge—when engaging in literary studies. The consilient approach to literature is both a call for pluralism and for the consideration of human biology, along with human culture, in the study of literature. Consilience, as envisioned by E. O. Wilson implies cooperation among disciplines. Rather than conceiving our particular fields as isolated tiles that constitute a local pattern, we must consider their role in the whole epistemological mosaic. Reaching out is the key to ensuring that we continue to advance our knowledge of cultural phenomena, particularly as we see the need to retool our fields and adjust our methodologies in order to coherently adapt our perspectives to our evolving realities.

Although it seems legitimate that we should turn to other disciplines in search of new points of view and methodologies, Patrick Colm Hogan and other cognitive scholars warn us against the dangers of using cognitive literary studies as a novelty approach. It is not a question of abandoning previous beliefs in favor of the exciting cognitive credo. In fact, almost as important as reflecting on what cognitive literary studies are, is considering what they are not. They are not a new theory or a new school or a way of producing new readings of literature directed at critics, but rather a call for inclusiveness and cooperation, an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, a stance if you will. There is no such thing as a cognitive literary method (Mancing), but there is a willingness to leave our comfort zone, our discipline’s shell, for the sake of contributing to the construction of a more complete and coherent image of the human mind and its manifestations.

Such a desire and effort to travel to foreign lands for new insights pertains equally to the sciences and the humanities, to all representatives of the myriad disciplines that constitute human epistemology beyond this traditional science-humanities dichotomy. It is perhaps time to realize that the increasingly close collaboration among scholars in cognitive literary studies may erase “that erstwhile line drawn in the sand” that keeps scientists and humanists apart. If methods, points of view, and, more importantly, minds are constantly crossing the boundaries of this traditional separation, we might be able to continue blurring lines, turning our perspective into that of a Velázquez or a Goya, where the strength of our view resides in the subject’s natural integration within the wider context.

The consideration of other views and strategies for the valuable insights that they could provide us is not only worth the effort, but necessary to exercise a genuine and responsible investigation of the human and natural world in which we are immersed. In this regard, Bruce McConachie’s question, “can we continue to rely on our business-as-usual theories and orientations for responsible epistemologies?”, becomes quite relevant. Investigating the human mind and its cultural products beyond our disciplinary boundaries is not simply a matter of enriching and complementing our own methods and perspectives but, more importantly, of refocusing on the ethical commitment the intellectual has to society. The more we know about our neighbors’ intellectual endeavors and engage in interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations, the more complete and coherent our studies and conclusions, and therefore, the more ethically responsible we become.

The present volume contains the contributions of scholars in a variety of fields both in the humanities and the sciences. We believe that it will encourage further exploration of the literary phenomenon from a pluralistic and inclusive perspective, as well as collaboration among scholars who see themselves as institutionally separated from those with whom they would like to work. We are certainly not advocating a feel-good, idealistic approach to knowledge. Everyday realities often place obstacles to our well-intentioned efforts to explore other fields. Indeed, the volume of yearly publications on just one idea renders it difficult to maintain currency within our own particular disciplines, let alone in other distant fields that we would like to explore in order to strengthen our research. This is why collaborations become especially important and why the creation of interfaces such as cognitive literary studies, which channels interdisciplinary efforts to delve into human narratives, proves an inspiring and practical avenue. Cognitive literary studies can help us not only through the organization of the numerous interests that an inclusive approach to literature and cognition encompasses but may also facilitate dialogue and provide opportunities for fruitful exchange. The scholar who engages in cognitive literary studies does it by bringing a rich background to share. It is precisely in the diversity and heterogeneity of all these contributions that the strength of the field resides.

II. Volume Overview

The essays included in this volume have been arranged by the area of inquiry that they address. We have chosen to employ section titles that are, in our view, consistent with the current state of the field. Although we certainly haven’t been able to represent each of the many paths that cognitive literary studies present today, we aim to provide readers with a sample of some of the themes that scholars have been exploring in their study of literature and cognition during the last few years.

The book begins with an overview of recent developments in cognitive literary studies (Section I) and continues with an inquiry into the bi-directionality of the field from both a scientific and a literary point of view (Section II). It then moves to more specific explorations of the neurological underpinnings of the literary experience and the role of emotion in literature (Section III). A discussion follows on language, literature, and mind processes, with an emphasis on pattern and embodiment (Section IV). From a cultural-historicist perspective, the next set of articles addresses questions about the role of literature in the development of self (Section V). Finally, the return to our original point of departure on the symbiosis of literature and the cognitive sciences is completed by a discussion of present and future directions in the psychology of fiction (Postscript).

Following our overview on the current state of cognitive literary studies, the two essays included in Section II, "The Cognitive Sciences and Literary Theory in Dialogue," discuss the relationship between science and narrative, as well as the extent to which literary critics and scientists can benefit from each other’s work. In “Why Literature Is Necessary, and Not Just Nice,” Richard Gerrig outlines how literary analysis can and should inform the cognitive sciences. He provides us with case studies of phenomena, such as the paradox of suspense, which have been examined from a literary and aesthetic standpoint and have important implications for the study of memory representations and other cognitive processes. In “Theory of Mind in Reconciling the Split Object of Narrative Comprehension,” Joseph Murphy proposes a model of narrative as a midlevel cognitive phenomenon, correlated to acquisition of theory of mind, in which the imagination of characters moving through time introduces subjects to the abstract environment of trajectories through space, preparing the way for social being and suggesting the adaptive function of narrative. In doing so, he considers the possibility of designing an interdisciplinary experimental program that includes neuroscientific and developmental insights and methods and in which literary critics play an indispensable role.

Murphy’s piece leads readers to Section III, "Neurological Approaches to Literature," in which Norman Holland, Patrick Colm Hogan, and Aaron Mishara explore the physiological underpinnings of the literary experience. In “Don Quixote and the Neuroscience of Metafiction,” Holland offers a neuropsychoanalytic view on the disconcerting effect of metafictional games as they appear in novels, plays, and films. He pays particular attention to Cervantes’ masterpiece, the first and greatest of metafictions, where Don Quixote and his squire Sancho are aware of their existence both as real beings and literary characters. Holland concludes his essay with a reflection on the brain and the arts, particularly on the role that the prefrontal cortex plays when we experience fictional events, and also deals with the emotional effect of dissolving the borders between the physically real and the imaginary. Hogan’s “The Mourning Brain: Attachment, Anticipation, and Hamlet’s Unmanly Grief” draws on appraisal and subcortical arousal theories of emotion and the work of Antonio Damasio and other neuroscientists in order to account for complex human emotions such as grief in literature and life. The puzzle with Hamlet isn’t why he fails to act, but why he does act in some instances. Hogan analyzes the connection between the prince’s behavior, grief, and anger. His proposed account of emotions considers not only cultural influence, but also gender and other forms of ideology, and focuses on the role of anticipation in emotional experience. Aaron Mishara’s “The Literary Neuroscience of Kafka’s Hypnagogic Hallucinations: How Literature Informs the Neuroscientific Study of Self and Its Disorders” explores neural mechanisms in the processing of self during hypnagogic (between waking and sleep) states. Mishara also discusses the neurobiological underpinnings of autoscopy (the projection of an imaginary double) to illustrate how Kafka’s writings help to elucidate the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms of hynagogic hallucinations. He concludes that the literary experience is rooted in the embodied subjectivity of self/other and shows us how literature may inform clinical neuroscience research.

Section IV, "Language, Literature, and Mind Processes," explores language and mind processes in relation to poetry and narrative. The first two essays, by Margaret Freeman and Michael Sinding, address the central question of how new meaning is created in literature, and significantly broaden the scope of this area’s investigations. Freeman explores the ways in which blending theory can better account for the creative imagination, while Sinding brings Mikhail Bakhtin’s insights to his analysis of the emergence and complexity of the novel. In her article, “Blending and Beyond: Form and Feeling in Poetic Iconicity,” Freeman deals with the artistic process of blending form with feeling, or felt life (the conscious realization of internal emotions and external sensations), in order to create poetic meaning. She demonstrates how poetic iconicity works in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, whose metaphoric blend creates identity among self, poem, and nature. Freeman advocates a reassessment of conceptual blending, stressing that the role of feeling needs not only to be recognized, but also modeled. Sinding’s essay, “‘A sermon in the midst of a smutty tale': Blending in Genres of Speech, Writing, and Literature,” discusses the importance of genre mixture for both literary and discourse studies. He reminds us that genres are cognitive schemata involving multiple sub-schemas for aspects of form and content. He examines how different conceptual networks produce different categorizations, meanings, and responses by showing us how Laurence Sterne framed his famous sermon “The Abuses of Conscience Considered” in Tristram Shandy and three other rhetorical situations, thus modifying its genre in four ways. This section continues with two different perspectives on verbal art and pattern. Nigel Fabb and Morris Halle explore the cognitive processes behind counting in metrical poetry. Within a generative framework, they describe the rules that govern syllable grouping in poetic forms such as the French alexandrine meter. Pointing at what metrical verse, word-stress rules, and metrical music have in common, they suggest that metrical counting depends on a specific mechanism that is shared across literary, linguistic, and musical cognition. Claiborne Rice’s “Fictive Motion and Perspectival Construal in the Lyric” explores how our somatosensory responses to motion verbs in poetry help create the sense of a virtual self that is acting and observing in an imaginary world. Looking at poems by Billy Collins and Lyn Hejinian, Rice argues that the dynamic construal demanded by fictive motion helps guide shifts in construal perspective consonant with an observer in motion, which in turn can trigger minor somatic effects associated with bodily movements. Rice’s somatic view of the poetic experience reminds us that language and consciousness are fundamentally embodied.

In Section V, "Literature and Human Development," Brad Sullivan’s essay “Education by Poetry: Hartley’s Theory of Mind as a Context for Understanding Early Romantic Poetic Strategies,” introduces us to Romantic theories of imagination. He explores David Hartley’s 1749 work Observations on Man, which stresses the importance of sensory experience in the shaping of human thinking and feeling. Sullivan follows the poetic strategies of William Wordsworth and Anna Barbauld to show us how these poets investigated the ways in which the mind forms associations, focusing on personal experience and affective states. He also explains how they created poetic strategies seeking to encourage readers to form positive associations in order to develop good habits of mind. In “Leafy Houses and Acorn Kisses: J. M. Barrie’s Neverland Playground,” Glenda Sacks explores literature, child development, and gender construction, focusing on J. M. Barrie’s design of Neverland as an environment where children can simulate, experiment, empathize, and experience adult life. Neverland provides a flexible imaginary space and an alternative world in which the children’s pseudo-adult play not only assists them in their cognitive development, but simultaneously challenges societal norms by subverting vestiges of strict Victorian child-rearing ideas prevalent in Edwardian society.

The volume ends with a postscript by Keith Oatley, Raymond A. Mar, and Maja Djikic, “The Psychology of Fiction: Present and Future,” a discussion of fiction as a topic of interdisciplinary research by literary scholars, psychologists, and cognitive scientists. They review some of the work that has been done in areas such as empirical testing of literary theory, the use of literature in psychological investigations, and the effects of fiction on selfhood and social ability, along with their educational and therapeutic implications. Oatley, Mar, and Djikic provide us with evidence of the strong current interest of researchers in these areas of inquiry while pointing at future exciting directions in the study of psychology and fiction. By emphasizing the need for interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration, they take us back to the original theme of this volume, perfectly closing our inquiry into the cognitive study of literature.