Notes from MLA 2012 Session 15: Useful Fictions? A Cognitive Perspective on the Utility of Emotions, Imagination, and Long Novels

On Thursday, January 5, I suited up and made my way to this session at the annual Modern Languages Association convention in downtown Seattle:

Useful Fictions? A Cognitive Perspective on the Utility of Emotions, Imagination, and Long Novels

Thursday, 5 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 606, WSCC

A special session

Presiding: Lisa Zunshine, Univ. of Kentucky

1. “Falling in Love Unnoticed: Emotional Structures and Literary Analysis,” Patrick Colm Hogan, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

2. “Cognition, Dreaming, and the Literary Imagination,” Alan Richardson, Boston Coll.

3. “Do We Want to Use Cognitive Science to Make a Case for Teaching Literature?,” Lisa Zunshine

I typed up my raw notes from the session’s presentations and q&a session below:

 

Patrick Colm Hogan’s presentation

Begin with summary of novel, Rabindranath Tagore

Protostories

Literary work from protostories

Emotion and secure attachment in adult relations

Potential for disruption

“basic explanatory structure”

caregiver and children attachment relations

attachments work both ways—have to exist both ways

two ethical attitudes: 1) attachment sensitivity and 2) attachment openness

ethical dilemma, obligations—emotional obligations

secure attachment

liberate herself from the systems of oppression—suicide is self-liberating?

Marx—internalization of external forces including those of economics

Ingroup/outgroup categorization

Second story—enforce gender role, malevolent teacher > gives student nickname “housewife”

Narratives of understanding

Systematic approach to Tagore’s works

Teaching his fiction could have effects on emotional sensitivity—the “so what”

 

Alan Richardson’s presentation

Study of imagination in cognitive science, now a hot topic in neuroscience research

Interdisciplinary approach to imagination

Romanticist by training

Interested in cognitive neuroscience

Sleep, meaning, dreams, and literature

Brain’s default mode—includes creativity in dreams

Categorization, meaning making processes

Bottom-up methods (dreams) and top-down methods (literature)

Narrative and emotionality

REM—recruits same areas as ?

When we are not on-task

Daydreaming

Stickle (sp?)—dream research

Neuroscience returns to imagination in the same way appreciated by the high romantics

Novel and creative associations—sought out during REM, not as accurate, but creating loose associations

Science of dreaming via Stickle

Imagining the future worlds and scenarios—sounds a lot like science fiction—will need to contact Richardson to find this work

Stickle’s work already considered in the romantic period

Shelley and Keats—two poems

Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”, Shelley’s ?

Dark-haired girl, think about Philip K. Dick

Personal meaning making

Divergence between literature and neuroscience

What is the dream characterized as?

Shelley—notcurnal dreaming as lucid experience?

Dream is a waking experience

Blurring between supposed divisions between dreaming/waking/daydreaming

Imaginative creation of memory

Private dreaming and public discourse | personal and private

Made out of larger social networks of meaning

Keats actually says “brain” when Madeline enters the church

“the exotic is the erotic” –cultural studies shorthand

Shelley poem ?

Gendered empire

Same circle: What can imaginative research do for literary studies and what can literary research on imagination do for neuroscientific research?

Dreaming and literary production

Historicist turn

 

Zunshine’s presentation

Cognitive science—case for teaching literature

“What to expect when you pick up a graphic novel” in Substance

Pride and Prejudice

Prove added value for the literature over other media

We cannot continue to argue that fiction makes better people

Suzanne Keen, “Empathetic Hardy,” Poetics Today, Summer 2011

No research demonstrates correlation

Jesse Prinz, “Is empathy necessary for morality?” Empathy, Oxford, forthcoming

Texts that differ between what we teach in college and don’t teach in college

Cognitive psychology—mind reading—TOM

Why we read fiction

Zunshine’s term: sociocognitive complexity—a mind within a mind within a mind

Third level embedment—baseline for fiction

Pride and Prejudice graphic novel by Marvel

Simplification of cognitive reasoning/thinking of the characters

Austen goes into detail about TOM, 4th level embedments in the novel

Graphic novel downgrades the sociocognitive complexity

Third-level mental embedments, different styles

“Style brings in mental states,” Style 2011

Tom Jones, Da Vinci Code, Dostoevsky

What do we/readers add to mental states of a book?

Contexts of discourse

Comic panel (Miss Bingley wants to make Elizabeth feel bad)

Comic panel | writer (2 levels)

Comic panel | writer | theorist (3 levels, make graphic novel subject of research paper)

Northanger Abbey

A reader unfamiar with free direct discourse

Sociocognitive complexity? Sociocognitive literacy?

2 level, not good grade, 3 or 4 levels, better

If our texts do not have higher levels of sociocognitive complexity

Think and write in sociocognitive complex ways

Our (those who read it and teach lit) seek out new TOM challenges for rich stimulation

Lit courses—historical origins of literature teaching artifact of the past

Personal happiness of TOM practitioners perhaps not the best argument employing cog sci to teach literature

 

Q&A

Q: Damasio and others talk about the concept of sociocognitive complexity, remembering stories are on the page, not real

Z: We do treat characters as real people. Reminder questioner that she came up with the term sociocognitive complexity (staking her claim, though the concept seems obvious). No matter the context, we add other mental states (e.g., what might Judith Butler say in a given case).

H: Authorial, adaptive, bearing on reality, what we think others might think, simulated processes, TOM and imaginative embedded in fiction is same as our own real life mental states, TOM thinking itself is a fiction

 

Q: empathy and TOM elaboration

Z: different schools of thought, TOM for Zunshine is used in a very broad sense—empathy is a subset of TOM, TOM makes empathy possible

 

Q: dreaming and metaphor, can neuroscience study this?

R: Stickle mentions this, but he may be loose about talking about metaphor and dreaming. Not anywhere in his work that addresses this. Freud. Stickle tries to eliminate secondary revision by just waking up people and having them talk, unlike Freud who analyzes later.

 

Q: embeddedness of dreams, away from clearcut meaning or connection to reality. Is this a level of cognitive complexity?

R: thinking about dreams we all know—nested folly. Shelley, taxonomy of dream types. He talked about representation of dreams today. Not all romantic dreams belong in the same category. Kubla Khan gets us closer to historical idea about what dreaming is.

Z: embedded mental states area not the same thing as embedded narratives. Story world created in each level. Is there a confluence between them? Perhaps.

 

Q: Pleasure and complexity and simplicity.

H: Recurring structure of pleasure and complexity. E.g., pattern recognition. Most intense pleasure from immediately recognizable patterns.

Z: Not necessarily most complex is most pleasurable. Lists or experimental texts (e.g., 3rd level pattern there).

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in The Brain
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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