‘Neuro lit crit’ is the study of how great writing affects the hard wiring inside our heads. But can we decode the artistic impulse?

It is the cutting edge of literary studies, a rapidly expanding field that is blending scientific processes with the study of literature and other forms of fiction. Some have dubbed it “the science of reading” and it is shaking up one of the most esoteric and sometimes impenetrable corners of academia. Forget structuralism or even post-structuralist deconstructionism. “Neuro lit crit” is where it’s at.

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses.

The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

The students are part of a group called the Yale-Haskins Teagle Collegium, which is headed by Yale literature professor Michael Holquist. “We are a group made up of honest-to-God scientists who spend all day in the lab and a group of literary humanists who are deeply devoted to the cause of literature,” Holquist said.

His groups have spent months designing their texts, or “vignettes”, and they have been specifically created to different levels of complexity based on the assumption that the brain reacts differently to great literature than to a newspaper or a Harry Potter book. The aim, Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

Holquist’s group, however, is just one area of neuro lit crit. Academics from the arts and science are getting together in cross-disciplinary ways in order to explore the biological processes behind reading, creating and processing fiction. “Reading is a very hard-wired thing in our brains. There are brain cells that respond to reading and we can study them,” said Professor Richard Wise, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London.

That might seem a counter-intuitive way to treat the arts. Great literature – and, indeed, not-so-great literature – has long been examined and studied in terms of other fields of the humanities.

People have identified philosophical theories in Shakespeare and analysed his differing moral ways of seeing the world. Famous works of literature have long been interpreted according to Marxist theories or by looking at gender. Or they have been seen as the product of exact historical, social, economic or environmental contexts.

Now, adding to those age-old debates, groups of scientists and literature experts are saying that the biology and chemistry of the brain are equally worthy of study and could provide as much insight. Literature, they say, has its roots in what it does to our brains or even what genes might be involved. Lighting up the right neurones is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context. Some see that as revolutionary. “It is one of the most exciting developments in intellectual life,” said Blakey Vermeule, an English professor at Stanford University.

Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”. It looks at how human genetics and evolutionary theory shape and influence literature, or at how literature itself may be an expression of evolution. For instance, the fact that much of human fiction is about the search for a suitable mate should suggest that evolutionary forces are at play. Others agree that fiction can be seen as promoting social cohesion or even giving lessons in sexual selection. “It is hard to interpret fiction without an evolutionary view,” said Professor Jonathan Gottschall at Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

However, there has also been a backlash against the idea of using scientific methodology as a way of analysing fiction. Some say that the very experience of literature is too individual for scientific study. Or that science might do down the artistic and poetic notions of the humanities. Others protest that the science is simply not advanced enough. “It strikes me as just plain silly. The mind and the brain are two quite separate things, and nobody knows what the relation is between them,” said Dr Ian Patterson, a fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Dr Nikolaj Zeuthen, of Aarhus University in Denmark, agreed. “The experience of reading something is subjective, something that we have only private access to. And surely there is nothing electrical, chemical about my experience of reading Woolf. So how can you say anything about my experience by looking at brain imaging?” he said.

But the proponents of neuro lit crit say that the critics are missing the point: discovering the scientific rules behind humankind’s passion for story-telling does not take anything away from aesthetics. “Knowing the science behind the movement of a comet through space does not degrade the beauty of the night-time sky,” said Gottschall.

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