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).

Cognitive Scientist David Rumelhart Dies At 68 – Slashdot

While I was waiting in line at the post office this morning, I saw this post on slashdot.org: Cognitive Scientist David Rumelhart Dies At 68 – Slashdot. Rumelhart was on the forefront of modeling brain behavior with computers and developing the core concepts of neural net algorithms. There are obituaries of Rumelhart and remembrances of his work here and here. Also, check out his wikipedia article here.

Research Finds That Electric Fields Help Neurons Fire – Slashdot

Slashdot.org linked to a February 2011 Nature Neuroscience article that suggests that electric fields in the brain influences neuron firing. There is some earlier evidence that focused and powerful electrical fields can produce effects in an individual’s brain. However, Anastassiou et. al. in “Ephaptic Coupling of Cortical Neurons” demonstrate that field effects produced by neurons in the brain cause activity between neurons that are not directly connected. Like the effect of chemical/gases in the brain can influence a wide area of neural tissue, this coupling effect adds an additional level and complexity to the way neurons interact in the brain. I agree with the original slashdot commenter that this may lead the way to new research regarding the effects of our electrical gadgetry on the brain. The electrical fields that surround us include cell phones, computers, heating and cooling systems, cars, etc. Any or all of these when we are in close proximity to them could produce effects in the brain based on these observations that neurons in the brain are attuned to these effects produced by neurons. It is fascinating stuff that deserves additional study.

Research Finds That Electric Fields Help Neurons Fire – Slashdot.

Original article:

Anastassiou, Costas A; Perin, Rodrigo; Markram, Henry; and Koch, Christof. “Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons.” Nature Neuroscience 14.2 (Feb2011): 217-223.

Journal Article on the Early History of Psychosurgery

Dominik Gross’ article “Egas Moniz (1874-1955) and the ‘Invention’ of Modern Psychosurgery: a Historical and Ethical Reanalysis Under Special Consideration of Portuguese Original Sources” is available for free online here. It is a well researched and informative article that covers the early history of surgical interventions on human behavior and mental illness.

I briefly talked to my students on Thursday about lobotomy and its unfortunate past as a tangent to our overall discussion of the brain and its features. I wish that I had read this article before hand, because my knowledge of the procedure is largely informed by the notorious work by Walter Freeman in the US.

Found via MindHacks.com here.

Understanding the Human Brain Does Not Preclude Philosophical Considerations of Its Work

In the past, I was invited to consider the possibility that there are some domains of knowledge in the humanities that the sciences cannot scrutinize, because I admittedly sounded at the time like I had switched back from English and cultural studies to the sciences. It was in part my thinking about this that I wanted to post the link to the Feynman video yesterday about the pleasure of finding things out [here].

I believe that it can go both ways. The humanities, today perhaps more than ever, needs and relies on science and technology as the driving force behind the social and culture. Science, likewise, needs the social and culture to provide some of its research questions, its inspirations, and its debate regarding research and technological applications. I do also believe that science can peer into the workings of the humanities, the social, and the human animal just as the humanities can investigate the sciences, its methods, its meanings, and its implementations of power.

The humanities however is not specifically tasked with testing and modeling all domains of knowledge, but the sciences include everything, including the humanities, as worthy of inquiry. Science is supposed to figure things out, break things down, and provide reproducible findings. Nevertheless, I do not think that the sciences can erase the importance of the humanities and the work that we do. I found this quote today in Michael O’Shea’s The Brain: A Very Short Introduction that I think is extremely appropriate. He writes, “Some future scientist may proclaim that he or she has attained a complete understanding of the brain. But it seems improbably that the rest of the world then would simply stop regarding thinking, dreaming, poetry, and the beauty of a sunset as somewhat puzzling manifestations of the brain in action and the cause of some modest philosophical reflection” (O’Shea 123-124). It is important to know how the brain works for a variety of reasons including its importance to the work in the humanities, but simply knowing every facet of its operation and development will not take away from the questions and speculations that humanities professors, students, and everyone contemplates with their brains. Knowing the brain does not discount the things that we all use our brains for including humanities work. If anything, I believe that knowing the brain and using the humanities to better understand the brain will only expand our understanding and wonder about ourselves.

College Writing I Syllabus, Theme: Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind

I am afraid that this syllabus for College Writing I, Spring 2011, “Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind” lacks the special effects of my previous syllabi, because I wrote it on a Windows XP computer while I was in Taiwan after my iPad died (details here). I didn’t want to lose my work again as I had done with the review of Tron: Legacy for the SFRA Review. Nevertheless, I believe that this class will be exciting and fun for my students, and more importantly, it will address the goals and requirements of the first tier writing class at Kent State University. You may download a copy of my syllabus here: ellis-jason-collegewritingi-spring2011.