Notes from Dr. Laura Otis’ LMC Distinguished Speaker Presentation at Georgia Tech

Dr. Laura Otis presenting in GT Library's Ferst Room.
Dr. Laura Otis presenting in GT Library’s Ferst Room.

Today, Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication invited Emory University’s Dr. Laura Otis to give a presentation in the Library’s Ferst Room. Dr. Otis’ presentation was titled, “The Surprising Antics of Other People’s Minds” [read the abstract here].

In Dr. Otis’ work, she aims to show with data that she has collected from interviews with an admittedly small number of English-speaking people from the United States that:

1) visual thinking and verbal thinking are not opposites and they cannot be separated,” 2) there is no such thing as a visual thinking type or a verbal thinking type–every mind is unique, and 3) visual and verbal inclinations are not destinies. Anyone can develop visual or verbal skills with practice.

She also offered two suggestions for literary studies:

1) refer to visual imagery in readings, because this might help include more students who may feel excluded by verbal readings, and 2) take reader’s visual imagery seriously, because this might help reconnect the reader to creative writing as co-creator of its imagery.

You can download my handwritten notes on Dr. Otis’ talk and the Q&A session from the event as a PDF from here.

I enjoyed Dr. Otis’ presentation, and it provided me with a new insight into something that I had already read and thought about but in a more biological sense: we each think differently, because our brains are wired differently. Our experience of the world and life, which includes our biology, environment, and culture, leaves its indelible trace on our brain’s physical wiring. As we live, our brains wire themselves to accommodate new memories, abilities, and ways of thinking. It makes sense that all of these experiences would shape our thinking, but more importantly, we can exert our own conscious control over our thinking by adopting reflective practices and training/practice to improve abilities that we already have to greater or lesser degrees.

Archive of Neurohumanities Reading Group at Kent State University, Notes from 2011

From National Geographic,

In 2011, I participated in the Kent State University Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup, and I collected my notes (and other relevant posts) here. This used to be a subsection of I am archiving it as this blog post. The original page follows below.

I am collecting my notes from the Kent State University Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup meetings on this page. I will also add other relevant information to this page for those readers interested in the interdisciplinary approaches for research and teaching that derives from the critical engagement of the humanities with neuroscientific topics and critique of the neurosciences from humanistic perspectives.

Continue reading “Archive of Neurohumanities Reading Group at Kent State University, Notes from 2011”

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


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


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: 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).

Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole Episode on Consciousness

I sent this out to the Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup earlier today, so I thought that I would share it here, too.

Today, the Science Channel is running a marathon of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole pop science series. There is one episode that I wanted to share with you if you can spare 45 minutes to watch it on Youtube (it is divided into three parts):

The episode, “Is There Life After Death?” could have been alternatively named “What is consciousness, and what happens to it when we die?” There are good (albeit short) interviews with Stuart Hameroff (the anesthesiologist who collaborated with Roger Penrose on a quantum theory of consciousness), Douglas Hofstadter (Godel Escher Bach), and Steve Potter of Georgia Tech (he has built computer chips that interface with rat brain cells that control robots |

The discussions of anesthesia and consciousness might be the most enlightening ones for our recent conversation about consciousness.

Also, it is a good show. Freeman is a long advocate of science and education, and I believe that his series (he is executive producer) now in its second season demonstrates his commitment to these things.

I have written about Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series before here.

Scientific American on Boosting Your Intelligence in Five Steps

Originally spied on Lifehacker, Scientific American has a guest blog entry by Andrea Kuszewski on how, “You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential.” Kuszewski brings together things that I have heard in different places into this one post. The main idea is that intelligence, like the brain itself, is plastic, and there are five ways to boost your intelligence over time through continual work:

1. Seek Novelty

2. Challenge Yourself

3. Think Creatively

4. Do Things The Hard Way

5. Network

For her complete explanation on how to achieve your own intelligence boost, read her original article here.

Check Out Mind Hacks Blog for Your Regular Fix of Neuroscience and Brain Stuff

Mind Hacks is one of my favorite brain and neuroscience blogs. Here are some recent links to things that I found interesting on their site.

The cool thing for me about reading blogs like Mind Hacks is that, as you see in second and third summaries below, they helped me generate new connections related to your research or teaching.

Burying your head in the sand
In this post, they link to a video of anatomically correct sand carvings on a beach. The event was organized by a neuroscientist.

Why the truth will out but doesn’t sink in
Vaughan Bell discusses a recent study that demonstrates how initial reports often cloud any subsequent corrections in the news media. For example, the reports of Bin Laden using his wife as a human shield while brandishing a pistol–two things initially reported by the White House, but later retracted. According to the research, even those people aware of the changing narrative may not remember or believe the updating information. It is possible that this effect is used on purpose by governments (I would say corporations might do this too–consider the recent PSN/Sony case and the changing stories).

The death of the mind
In this post, Bell discusses a Business Week article about corporations using large data sets of human behavior to model and influence outcomes in favor of their business models. Technology to anonymize or combat what I see as an eventual abuse of human behavior might be one solution. I am also envisioning a future course that raises student awareness of how their behavior is used, studied, and exploited by big corporations. It would be a theory course with several modules on application.

Kent State English Colloquium, Literary Studies in the Age of Neuroscience

This afternoon I attended the last Kent State English Department Colloquium of the school year. Its neuroscientific subject matter was very interesting to me, because I am working on a similar problem to the ones highlighted in the talk, albeit from the trajectory of science fiction studies.

Today’s colloquium, presented by Professor Tammy Clewell and Lit MA Brittany Adams, was titled, “Literary Studies in the Age of Neuroscience.” Professor Clewell began the presentation by mapping out what has led to the new interdisciplinary approach that melds neuroscience with literary studies. It is in part a rearticulation of humanistic practices (as big as that term is), but it is perhaps more importantly a powerful rebuke to neuroscience as the arbiter of what makes us human. The claim is that there might be some parts of being human that cannot be understood or explored through a scientific framework. While pushing back against some claims of authority by neuroscientists over the humanities, the humanities may be able to learn some things from neuroscience, and in turn, enrich both fields of study. Ms. Adams then presented her findings on the neuronovel (novels in which the brain and its biology supplant the role in literature traditionally held by the psychological mind) and the presence of interpretive frames (in this case, Freudian and neuroscientific) beyond the novel itself. Most importantly, she questions how these interpretive frames define the human too restrictively as they appear to exclude certain persons with “deficits” from what is considered universally human traits. Afterwards, I enjoyed a vibrant discussion with Professor Clewell, Ms. Adams, and Caleb, an English Lit MA student.

Today’s presentation was very interesting, and it was refreshing to see public collaboration between faculty and students at the colloquium. At the University of Liverpool, I participated in their English department colloquium series, but I haven’t inquired about doing so here at Kent State. I will have to ask about this over the Summer for the next school year.

Workshop CFP: Neurohistory, 6-7 June 2011, Munich, Germany

I saw this fascinating workshop call for papers on better understanding history through neuroscience. I have included the full call for papers below:

How can neuroscience help us understand the past? This question is the focus of a workshop to be held 6-7 June 2011 at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany.

Disciplines can make major advances when they synthesize their ideas and methods with those of other disciplines. This workshop focuses on the ways in which neuroscience might help us understand history (and, ideally, vice versa). Following the lead of Daniel Smail (Deep History and the Brain, 2008), we refer to this synthesis as neurohistory.

We will focus on four major questions.

1. What ideas and methods have neuroscientists developed that historians can use to shed a new light on the past (and vice versa)?

2. What new research questions can neuroscience suggest for historians (and vice versa)?

3. What are the biggest challenges in developing neurohistory as a field, and how can they be overcome?

4. How might neurohistory shed light on the interaction between people and their environment, in both the past and the present?

Eight to ten participants will write pre-circulated papers of about one thousand words that focus on major conceptual issues in neurohistory. We will discuss papers in the workshop, and afterwards, participants will revise them for publication in Rachel Carson Center Perspectives.

The Rachel Carson Center will pay for participants’ airfare, lodging, and meals during the workshop. The workshop’s co-conveners are Edmund Russell ( and Arielle Helmick (

We seek proposals from scholars from any discipline with expertise in history, neuroscience, or environmental studies. Experience working at the intersection of neuroscience with history or environmental studies is welcome, but not required. One of our goals is to stimulate interest among scholars who may not have thought about these intersections before. While we expect to focus on the four questions above, we will also consider proposals that pose creative new questions.

The deadline for the receipt of proposals is 28 February 2011. The proposal consists of a cover letter and a CV. The cover letter should, in no more than two pages, describe the contributor’s background, research interests, and paper idea. We ask contributors to both pose the question his/her paper addresses, and to propose a way to answer it.

Send the cover letter and CV to Andrea Jungbauer as email attachments (andrea.jungbauer at or by mail to the Rachel Carson Center. (Leopoldstrasse 11a, 80802 Munich, Germany).

You may find the original post on h-net here:  Workshop: Neurohistory.

Research Finds That Electric Fields Help Neurons Fire – Slashdot 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.