(Your) Brain on Culture

By David Coombs, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for the Humanities.

Will brain scans revolutionize the liberal arts? Is neuro­cognitive science going to become, as The New York Timesput it recently, “the next big thing” for humanities scholars? These questions framed a workshop titled “(Your) Brain on Culture,” held in September at the Center for the Humanities.

The Center’s director, Professor of Psychology Jill Morawski, says the current enthusiasm for neuroscience is one among several larger intellectual shifts associated with globalization, digital technology, and other complex phenomena that promise, or threaten, to significantly change the way we live. The Center provides an interdisciplinary space for “the creative joining of multiple methods” in the effort to understand these forces comprehensively.

Brain scans can help humanities scholars understand how culture affects the brain, argued Matthew Kurtz, associate professor of psychology at Wesleyan. Kurtz noted that functional magnetic resonance imaging scans have become the preferred method of studying the brain because they detect changes in the flow of oxygenated blood—and thereby map brain activity as accurately as is currently possible. These pictures also reveal how we shape the patterns of brain activity through our own practices. Musicians, for example, mold the networks of neurons in their brains through rehearsal so as to enable the more precise execution of the right tones and the finer distinction of one tone from another. The same kind of neuroplasticity that makes such training possible also allows our cultural environments to wire and rewire our brains, Kurtz said.

Jonathan Kramnick, professor of English at Rutgers University, and Jan Slaby, junior professor of philosophy at Free University of Berlin, appealed for a more critical neuroscience, able to learn from other disciplines as well as teach them. They argued that such cross-disciplinary exchange could be productive for the sciences, as well as the humanities. Much recent work in literary studies, Kramnick said, seemed to understand interdisciplinary exchange as a kind of “one-way traffic” from science to the humanities.

So what can the humanities offer neuro­cognitive science? Kramnick suggested that one answer lies in literature’s dense, phenomenological representations of consciousness. While neuroscience can grasp some of the physical processes underlying conscious experience, Kramnick noted, this knowledge can’t grasp the experience of consciousness, what it’s like to have experiences. Representing what it’s like to have experiences is, on the other hand, something literature excels at. In close readings of short passages from Laurence Sterne’s 1768 novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, Kramnick demonstrated how literature and literary criticism can thus enrich scientific understandings of consciousness and perceptual experience.

“(Your) Brain on Culture” piqued the interest of Wesleyan students as well as faculty. “I’ve always felt neuroscience and the humanities to be inextricably tied,” said Susan Park ’12, an anthropology and Science in Society program major, since “knowledge produced in one realm always leads to a reevaluation of the other’s tools and methods.” Aaron Khandros ’13, a Science in Society major, said that neuroscience badly needs to be informed by other disciplines, especially as its findings and speculations migrate from the laboratory to other parts of the university. This is true, moreover, of any work from one discipline that claims to be able to address the issues and objects studied by another, Khandros said. “You can’t do interdisciplinary stuff uncritically. To really speak to people in different fields, you have to do the hard work of really understanding their ideas.”UPFRONT

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