Thursday, November 20, 2008

Neuroscience and literary criticism - grantsmanship minus achievement

Raymond Tallis destroys the "neuro-lit-crit" delusion here:
A generation of academic literary critics has now arisen who invoke “neuroscience” to assist them in their work of explication, interpretation and appreciation. Norman Bryson, once a leading exponent of Theory and a social constructivist, has described his Damascene conversion, as a result of which he now places the firing of neurons rather than signifiers at the heart of literary criticism. Evolutionary theory, sociobiology and allied forces are also recruited to the cause, since, we are reminded, the brain functions as it does to support survival. The dominant model of brain function among cognitive neuroscientists is that of a computer, and so computational theory is sometimes thrown into the mix. The kinds of things critics get up to these days are illustrated by a recent volume, Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, edited by Colin Martindale and others (New York, 2007), with chapter headings such as “Literary Creativity: A Neuropsychoanalytic View”, and a call for papers for a congress this year on “Cognitive Approaches to Medieval Texts” (cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology all welcome); and the emergence of “Darwinian literary criticism” which approaches the Iliad and Madame Bovary through the lens of theories about the evolved brain. Evolutionary explanations of why people create and enjoy literature, “neurocognitive frameworks” for aesthetics, and neural-network explanations for the perception of beauty are all linked through the notion that our experiences of art are the experiences of a brain developed to support survival. - Neuroaesthetics is wrong about our experience of literature – and it is wrong about humanity.
No doubt about that.
... neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life. For this reason – and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity – neuroaesthetics must be challenged. (Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 2008)
People come to writing and reading in a vast variety of mental states. Obviously, those mental states usually correlate to neural states - but so? So, one more for the neurobullshipping files.

See also:

Coffee break: Why does this "neuroscience boot camp" make me nervous?

Neurotheology: Bad neurology and bad theology?

Neuroscience: Let the machine read your mind ... we offer an installment plan!

Culture: Neuro this and neuro that and neuro go away!