Poetics-Cognitive Science Colloquy

September 16-18, 2005
John Ashbery, Angus Fletcher, Walter J. Freeman, Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker

Among the disciplines informing cognitive poetics, neuroscience has been undersung and underutilized, a trend that seems to suggest imminent remedy. Indeed, the recent experimental and theoretical advances offered by neuroscience question the traditional judgment that literary knowledge is incompatible with scientific knowledge. What insights might detailed attention to the neuronal activity of the brain lend to the creative process? Might this directionality be reversed, that is, might the complex structures interrogated by poetics yield a formal understanding that could, in turn, shed light on neuroscientific problems?

This conference will be a small, select gathering of scholars interested in probing these questions, collaborating on research, and reporting relevant findings in their respective fields. Participants include: literary theorists, neuroscientists, writers, artists, cognitive scientists of various disciplines, e.g., linguistics, physical psychology, social psychology, and the philosophy of mind.

Featured Presentations

John Ashbery, distinguished poet, Bard College. Author of over 20 books of poetry, including Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Flow Chart, and Some Trees. His many awards include the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, a Fullbright Fellowship and Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie (Brussels).

Angus John Stewart Fletcher, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, CUNY, Graduate School. Currently a Visiting Professor of English at Princeton University and a 2004-05 Guggenheim Fellow.  In 2005, he was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, for his book A New Theory of American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (Harvard, 2004). Presentation title: “Literature and the Measure of Mind”

Walter J. Freeman, Professor of the Graduate School, Division of Neurobiology, University of California at Berkeley. Author of How Brains Make up their Minds (Columbia, 2000). Co-recipient of the 2005 Dactyl Award for essays on science and art.

Steven Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology at MIT. Author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Language Instinct (HarperCollins, 1994). Presentation title: “The Humanities and Human Nature”

Rebecca Goldstein was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship, a Whiting Foundation Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship and was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her publications include: The Mind-Body Problem, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, The Dark Sister, (Whiting Writer¹s Award), Mazel (National Jewish Book and Edward Lewis Wallant awards), Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics, and Strange Attractors (National Jewish Book Honor Award).


Your Fiction on Cognitive Science!

Frederick Luis Aldama

This paper asks, why choose to study fiction from the perspective of cognitive science and not from that of other perhaps more “established” approaches, such as deconstruction, psychoanalysis, postcolonial, ethnic, and/or gender studies? In beginning to answer this quesion, I turn to advances made in cognitive science to understand and describe the basic mental and emotive processes that underlie the making of and engaging with fiction. Focusing on Ana Catillo’s short story “Loverboys” and the graphic novel by Los Bros Hernandez Love & Rockets I posit that such fictions are a property and a function of the human mind and so to understand what makes the mind tick gives us a better knowledge of the human faculty to produce and understand such fictions as fiction. Here I seek to contribute to the research program in the universal features of the human mind launched by cognitive science–as it is materializing in the study of literary universals–by giving shape to a research program focused on the manner in which certain key particularities represented in Chicano/a fiction play a part in the universal fiction making/interpreting faculty. Based on the premise that the universal (biologically based) and the particular (socio-historically contingent) form a dynamic equipoise (one and the other conceived as being both distinctive and inseparable), I argue, has the powerful potential of moving us away from the temptation of adopting an idealistic (and dead-end) nature-vs.-nurture model of dividing up the world. Rather, as I propose, just as the science of mind can teach us much about our universal fiction making/interpreting faculty so too can the study of the fictional-narration faculty of humans enrich the field of cognitive science. I argue, finally, that cognitive science allows us to engage in a research program in literary universals (and perhaps, more generally, in fiction universals) and to explore at the same time how cultural, historical, and socio-economic particularities have a crucial impact on the production and reception of fiction.

Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, or Why Brains Need Poems

William Benzon

The nervous system depends on a rich brew of neurochemicals, many of which mediate activity for specific behaviors. Related to this is the fact that memory is mood specific: it is easier to remember events that are congruent with our current mood than events that differ from it. This suggests that, for biochemical reasons, it is difficult to have a comprehensive and accurate view of one’s own life and behavior. How does one create an affectively neutral ground from which one can observe and order the full range of events in one’s life? I suggest that literature provides the needed neutrality. Poems, plays, and stories allow us to experience a wide range of desires and feelings in an arena where our personal lives are secure and protected. Through repeated immersion in this arena the brain creates cognitive structures about life events that are affect-neutral and that can be used in helping us obtain cognitive mastery of our own lives and self. These ideas will be illustrated by a discussion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, “The Expense of Spirit.” Notes for talk.

Bill Benzon is currently Associate Director of the World Development Endowment Foundation and is on the scientific advisory board for the Institute of Music and Neurologic Function. His recent Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture explains music from the nervous system through history. He has published numerous scholarly articles, reviews, and technical reports on literary analysis and theory, cultural evolution, cognition and brain theory, and visual thinking. In conjunction with Richard Friedhoff he has written a book on computer graphics and image-processing: Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution. As a jazz musician, Bill plays trumpet and flugelhorn and has shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Frank Foster, Al Grey, and Nick Brignola. Website: Mind-Culture Coevolution: http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/


Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004, URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2004_benzon03.shtml

“Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003, URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2003_benzon02.shtml

First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000, URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2000_benzon01.shtml

The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2): 129-155, 1993. http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/LitEvol.shtml

William Benzon and David Hays. Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process. American Journal of Semiotics 5: 59 – 79, 1987. http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/metaphor.shtml

Rock Art In Darwin’s Cathedral. Evolutionary Psychology, 1:28-41, 2003. http://human-nature.com/ep/reviews/ep012841.html

William Benzon. Ayahuasca Variations. Human Nature Review 3 (2003) 239-251. http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/shanon.html

Metaphor in Neuroscience

Thomas Eder

A critical questioning of the so-called “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor” by George Lakoff will be the starting point and the main topic of my paper, taking into consideration the efforts of “cognitive poetics”, which I will be dealing with for the next few years in my study of a “poetic philosophy of mind”. Although cognitive poetics tries to avoid a reductionist view of poetry (poetry cannot be reduced to psychological, neurological and finally physical events), approaches of cognitive poetics up to now have taken theories from cognitive science to analyze literary texts without questioning them critically to the last extent.

This is the point where my criticism sets in: work in cognitive poetics up to now has been based on an understanding of the poetic that seems a bit too narrow, antiquated and unfit particularly for the central operation of poetry: metaphor and figurative speech. Cognitive approaches dealing with figurative speech meant to add a poetic component to general cognitive science, which focuses on literal speech, and in addition to describe more accurately the actual functioning of human cognition which is shaped even in everyday, non-literary speech to a great extent by figurative and poetic actions.


CTM 1993 = Lakoff, George. “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor”. Ortony, Andrew (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, (2nd ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 202-251.

Lakoff, George and Turner, Mark. 1989. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

URL: http://www.univie.ac.at/Germanistik/personen/eder_t.htm

What do we do with hard science as speculative psychology?

Harwood Fisher

A Proposal for Two Modest Questions:

Physicists are often ahead of the game in psychological theory. They are like prophets from another land. They bring their ideas, as if symbols of a foreign set of images, to the land of psychologists. There, we find words and propositions to describe thought, attitudes, communication–and the elusive private psychic experience of the individual. There, the thinking about the nature of mind, self, and consciousness is imprisoned in the cultural constraints of the language determinants of psychologists. Whorf was right all the way! Physicists, though, are the fearless explorers, entering this culture. These days–as before–they take themselves seriously as the leaders of encompassing models by which to understand and to further understanding of psychological phenomena. And, psychologists, God bless them, cede to physicists this role and function of seminal thinking!

But this state of affairs has resulted in a Cold War between the two opposing world views of Newtonian closed systems–with its rules of form and dynamics–and the Quantum models of mind, self, and consciousness–as superposing non-logical and indeterminate systems within systems. Both pictures are robust in present-day psychology.

The Newtonian picture of dynamics in a closed system still dominates our view of the human organism. Mind is an enclosed, embodied set of functions. Self is an auto-regulatory set of intentions. Structuralism is alive! Bounded limits regulate the life, the problem solving, the growth, and death of the individual organism.

The modern quantum views of thought and consciousness feature superposition of events and indeterminacy–a picture of energy and experiential nodes of creative system interchanges. These features become explanations of dynamics unimpeded by pre-set structures. Structuralism is, if not dead, on its last legs! Mind, life functions, and the interactive appearances of self–all merge.

The Newtonian and the Quantum views are unlikely partners in the quest to explain psychological phenomena. The net result of their co-management produces two fantastically difficult questions.

1. What are the implications of the Newtonian and the Quantum views for present-day hypotheses of ‘inborn’ or ‘hardwired’ psychological processes of thought?

In a word, in addition to the pervasive proposals for a neurological base for mind, self, consciousness, and pathologies thereof, even more remarkable claims are being made. These include Paul Bloom’s proposal that we are inherently Cartesian dualists. More expansively, Dean Hamer recently claims a ‘God gene’ that predisposes us to form and seek out such a concept.

2. Physicists find their images and symbols in the far-flung domains of electrons, on one hand, and of cosmological Gargantuan events, on the other. But the monster distances between these domains–even if resolvable–are themselves far from the nitty gritties of human thought and psychological experience. To travel from rules of the Sun’s energy and the movement of celestial bodies and to arrive at the grammatical rules and linguistic intricacies of Shakespeare’s choice of the Sun as metaphor for Juliet may take the light-years that produce only shadows and traces. To interpret those, there would be an awful lot of translation and transition. E. O. Wilson’s dream of consilience aside I therefore must ask:

What are the chances for ‘filling in the gaps’ between the distant realms from which physical models, rules, and dynamics emerge and to which they refer the psychology of everyday minds, selves, and experiences of consciousness?

Who are those persons I’d ask these questions? I picture a panel for each of the two questions.

Q1. I’d ask a robotologist, an Artificial Life scientist, a molecular biologist (like Hamer) a neurologist, like Douglas Watts or Walter Freeman, and a psychologist like Alain Morain. I would want the views of a geneticist working on autism. I’d be interested in Voorhees’s discussion of the basis for mathematical concepts.

Q2. I’d ask an expert on neurochemistry and psychotropic drugs. Such a panel could well involve a nanotechnologist, a comparative biologist, an art historian, an architect, and possibly a biologist involved in the research on and the humanistic issues of stem cells.

Literature and the Measure of Mind

Angus Fletcher

The broad conception is this: to ask in what ways usefully we meaure mental powers. I.A. Richards in his celebrated Principles of Literary Criticism began by saying that “a book is a machine to think with, but it need not, therefore, usurp the functions either of the bellows or the locomotive. This book might better be compared to a loom on which it is supposed to re-weave some ravelled parts of our civilization.”

Today we consider these metaphors in a new light, which Richards was already beginning to describe. That is to say, we ask, is a complex verbal expression or construct in fact the result of infinitely rich overlapping computations? For such models of mind to relate to literature, there must be a theory for measuring the effects of language, as well as for noting the ways language measures psychological data.

We have as many measures after all as there are human activities, from whittling to frying an egg to reciting a story. The significance of literature, as a domain where measuring effects of thought would be interesting is that its concerns go far beyond simple indication, predication, exclamation, and other primitive uses of language.

In literature, the whole range of verbal behavior is made available through an active exploration of linguistic resources, organized and measured through artistic criteria for the disposition of words. In literature, language is subjected to the claims of art whereby our minds are set free to hypothesize situations lying beyond the claims of material fact. This movement beyond is what we call imagination, and we can never understand literature at all unless we attempt to relate this dream activity to its material, natural substrate.

Despite all our metaphysical laziness, we humans persistently imagine other worlds, other people, other stories, and other forms of communion. We need literature to express the full range of our mental powers not least of which is the power to invent what was never before imagined.

SELECTED Publications:

A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2004)

From Shakespeare to Milton:  The Poetics of Time, Space, and Motion (Forthcoming book, Harvard University Press, Spring 2006).

“Complexity and the Spenserian Myth of Mutability,”  Literary Imagination, 6.l (2004) pp. 1-22.

“Ashbery and the Emergence of Complexity Theory,”  Annals of Scholarship, Special Issue Editor, John Ashbery, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Summer 2004).

Colors of the Mind:  Conjectures on Thinking in Literature (Harvard University Press, 1991).

The Literature of Fact: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited with Introduction (Columbia University Press, 1976).

“Allegory Without Ideas” (Forthcoming article in Boundary 2, Fall 2005).

“Allegory and Power” (Forthcoming article in a volume from Stanford University Press, Spring 2006).

Spenser’s Trace: Speculations on Memory and Cultural Memory in Ireland

Oona Frawley

Edmund Spenser has long become a rather iconic figure, beleaguered by some critics who deem him to be a willing and active representative of the worst of English colonial aspirations, and defended by others who see him as a humanist poet caught in the closing jaws of the imperial mission. This wild vacillation of opinion is nowhere more clearly seen than in the responses of Irish writers — both creative and critical — to Spenser over time. A preoccupation with Spenser is in evidence even amongst his contemporaries; from Keating to Walsh, from Butler to Edgeworth, from Yeats to McGuinness, Irish writers display a marked preoccupation with Spenser that differs profoundly from their preoccupation with, say, Shakespeare. My project initially aims to examine the why of this scenario, and to seek answers to it: are Irish writers haunted by Spenser’s ghost more than other English authors because of Spenser’s colonial associations? Does the Bloomian anxiety of influence need to be reformulated when one discusses colonial and post-colonial writing? Is Spenser genuinely haunting the Irish literary tradition, or is “Spenser” a fiction, a symbol, an icon that now needs to be barricaded behind quotation marks in an Irish context? Is “Spenser” a representation of trauma, a “flashbulb” moment like Kinsale? If so, what is that trauma, and why has it found expression in “Spenser”? How does Spenser change over a four hundred year period? How does the Spenser narrative change in Irish culture?

Such questions all huddle under the umbrella of a larger, far more significant question that has been largely ignored by literary critics: what is the relationship between the literary cultural memory transmission and cognitive processes of memory? What physiological and psychological evidence, in other words, can be considered in the analysis of the repetitive presence of a figure like Spenser? What will mark this study as unique is thus not only its focus on both critical and creative responses to Spenser, but its use of interdisciplinary material on individual and social memory to analyse literary transmission trends. Cognitive processes of memory, I believe, can illuminate literature not merely by analogy; recent anthropological work has argued that only those processes which are physiologically and psychologically possible within the realm of the individual mind can be represented on cultural and social levels of memory, and this study will work from this premise, and indeed insists that literary studies has much to learn from the anthropological interdisciplinary model.

The various reactions to Spenser over the last four hundred years can be seen as representative of a form of cultural memory transmission. Each time Spenser is picked up by another author and that memory trace is reinterpreted, reimagined, the trace is inevitably changed or added to: each author leaves his or her stamp on Spenser, and in turn transmits this trace. While there is not, of course, a straightforward narrative of traces — Spenser read by Keating read by Walsh read by Butler read by Edgeworth etc. — it seems that, as is the proven case with the physiology of individual memory, cultural memory is somehow altered constructed anew by each reactivation of a given trace, with the result that a schemata of traces is put in place. This schemata, I believe, develops and changes in the way that Bartlett (1932) demonstrated that narrative does when in transmission: patterns are established, details highlighted or done away with, major changes occasionally introduced, and the narrative reduced and tightened over time so that a form of (semantic) myth takes shape. Through the examination of such a network as that which stems from Edmund Spenser, then, it becomes possible to analyse the ways in which cultural memories are formed, transmitted, and constantly transformed in the Irish literary context. Full paper

How it is that every human creates the protagonist in one’s own novel

Walter J. Freeman

Science and literature evolved in tandem for most of the past three centuries but with a curious hiatus in the 20th century. The novel was invented in the Age of Reason not by coincidence; novelists unwittingly developed the flip side of the sciences, not so much by narratives as by explorations of the phenomenological experiences of the “rational machine”. The James brothers¹ works in psychology and literature exemplified continuing complementarity in the 19th century. The psychiatric novels of S. Weir Mitchell coincided with the creation of thermodynamics, and Freud fused these two disciplines in his exploration of psychodynamics. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells provided metaphors that humanized and even predicted the awesome abstractions of advancing physics. For 20th century brain science Sir Charles Sherrington coined first the scientific term for Freud¹s “contact barrier” — “Synapse” — and then the literary term for mind — “Enchanted Loom” — the latter perhaps inspired by the rampant determinism of Blake¹s “dark Satanic mills” and the fatalistic tales of Hardy and Garland.

Early in the 20th century the joint enterprise began to molt its carapace of reason, engendering the diverse works of Boltzmann and Gödel, Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. Chaos grew apace in literature but was arrested in mid-century brain science by a new metaphor: the digital computer. Abetted by logical positivism and instantiated by Asimov and his naïve “Three Laws of Robotics”, relations between science and literature deteriorated. C. P. Snow bemoaned “The Two Cultures”, and science fictioneers exploited gimmickry in the pulps. So enthralling still is the vision of computational modeling of mind that many brain scientists persevere in virtual reality.

In recent decades a tidal change has emerged in novels and screenplays. Novelists broach the limits of logic to exalt intuition, illogical leaps of faith, and trust in relations despite incomplete information and understanding. Examples are the challenges to the scientific grasp of reality in the novels of Philip K. Dick and the deconstruction of memory in Christopher Nolan¹s screenplay for “Memento”.

In brain science a new metaphor is emerging for the 21st century — mind as Hurricane — turbulent, chaotic, staccato, unpredictable, not the Weaver but the Creator. My task will be to introduce Literati to fundamentals of brain dynamics, to rescue neglected philosophies that are incompatible with computation but have brilliant futures to guide scientists and novelists alike, and perhaps also to explain the neuroscientific “How” of Jacques Derrida¹s aphorism: “Reading is writing.”

Metaphor in Persian Poetry

Habib Ghassemzadeh

Life as a multi-faceted concept with no simple definition and well-defined boundaries has always been a subject of imaginative interpretation as reflected in the mirror of art, literature, and poetry.

In a metaphorical representation, the concept of life has been expressed as “a journey”, “a play”, “burden”, “fluid in the body”, “a roller-coaster” and so on. One of the most interesting metaphorical expressions about the life is “Life as a river or stream.” Hafiz has used such a metaphor in one of his verses.

Although Lakoff and Turner’s approach can be applied successfully for the analysis of structural aspects of Hafiz’ verse, its major message and implications can only be reached by using a more complicated and dynamic approach such as blending theory and emergent construct. Some suggestions have been made about the cognitive analysis of Persian poetry. Full paper

On Vgotsky

Why Can’t Biologists Read Poetry? Or Darwin in Contemporary Culture

Jonathan Greenberg

Although neo-Darwinian thought has for the last two decades been steadily growing in influence in the natural and social sciences, literary and cultural theorists have remained surprisingly quiet in engaging the underlying meanings of this new academic vogue.  To the extent that theory has spoken of neo-Darwinism, it has been skeptical, regarding attempts to extend Darwinian models into descriptions of human behavior as dangerously reductionistic. Indeed, Marjorie Garber and Ian Hacking both observe the often implicit tension between the current historicizing bent in literary study and the essentializing impulses of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which invoke Darwin’s name to authorize a universal concept of human nature.  Indeed, existing forays into defining a Darwinian literary criticism, such as Joseph Carroll’s recent Literary Darwinism, tend to lose their way in screeds against poststructuralism, and offer only reworked classical or structuralist models of reading and interpretation.

Yet it is curious that Darwin has come to serve as patron saint of the valorization of nature over culture, since his own thinking, in its emphasis on what Louis Menand has called “relational thinking,” served as a crucial precursor for contemporary postmodernism; one can trace Darwin’s influence through several routes-Nietzsche, American pragmatism, psychoanalysis-to a wide body of contemporary feminist, poststructuralist, and posthumanist theory. However, if literary theory has, perhaps nervously, neglected the contemporary cultural significance of Darwinism, recent fiction and film has shown no such skittishness; this paper seeks to redress the humanities’ neglect of Darwin by examining the cultural meanings of Darwin and Darwinism – with reference to two particular works, Ian McEwan’s 1998 novel, Enduring Love and the 2002 film Adaptation.  By examining these texts, as well as tracing connections between Darwinian thought and contemporary literary theory, this paper will suggest a tentative answer to why biologists can’t read poetry, or at least why literary critics don’t seem to want them to. Full paper

Mind Matters: Animate Mind and Newton’s Sleep

Eugene Halton

I claim that the contemporary world is largely the incarnation of a materialist versus mentalist dichotomy, that the nominalistic ideology represented by the dichotomy is tragically and fatally flawed, and that a serious consideration of the human self and its institutions requires a full-bodied understanding of semeiosis, of sign-action, as the bridge between mind and matter, and human biology and culture. Such an outlook reveals that indeed, mind matters, and in ways that resemble the forms of animism that characterized the hunting-gathering foragers through whom we anatomically modern humans emerged.

Charles Peirce claimed that logically AŠevery true universal, every continuum, is a living and conscious being,” a view I take as a form of logical animism. Suppose animism represents a sophisticated world-view, ineradicably embodied in our physical bodies. Peirce’s philosophy coalesces with ideas of religious animism, and with ideas of William Blake, Herman Melville, and D.H. Lawrence. I claim these ideas have profound import for contemporary life, delineating a new philosophical anthropology in pragmatic perspective, and a new kind of civilization, inclusive of what I term animate mind.

We are ³degenerate monkeys,² wired to marvel in nature, and this reverencing attunement does not require a concept of God, but is something more like religious atheism. Marveling in nature proves to be not only a motive source of human evolution, but key to continued development.

Eugene Halton, Prof. of Sociology and American Studies, University of Notre Dame, http://www.nd.edu/~ehalton/ and musician: http://www.nd.edu/~ehalton/bluesband.html His most recent publications are ³Peircean Animism and the End of Civilization,² in Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol. 2, No. 1 (June 2005), 135-166; ³Lem¹s Master¹s Voice,² in American Freedoms, American (Dis)Orders. Edited by Zbigniew Lewicki. Warsaw: Polish Association of American Studies, 2005: 149-165, and ³Pragmatism,² in the Encyclopedia of Social Theory, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications: 2004: 595-599. Full paper

Dreams of a Unified Theory: Dream Studies as a Bridge Between Neuroscience and Fiction

Tim Horvath and Jason Ronstadt

In the contemporary science of dreaming, one finds a rift between those theorists who endorse a functional view of dreaming, positing evolutionarily adaptive qualities, and those who relegate dreaming to the status of mere epiphenomenon. The latter group, led by Owen Flanagan, would have it that dreaming is to sleep as redness is to blood: a striking characteristic–perhaps even the most conspicuous attribute of the given phenomenon–and yet a spandrel rather than a functional component.  Contemporary fiction writing allows us to reframe this debate by conceptualizing dreaming and waking states along a continuum the likes of which is proposed by Hartmann (2000), with fiction writers charting the middle course. If waking thought is typified by logical ideas, “percepts, math symbols, signs, words [and causality],” and dream states are characterized by “almost pure imagery” and metaphor, then we can see literature as a revelatory conjoining of these two states or modes of thought.  While this look at fiction writing cannot resolve the debate over the functionality of dreams, it may reinforce the legitimacy of Hartmann’s continuum, which might in turn be paralleled by the literary continuum between realism and surrealism/magical realism. The “stuff” of dreams gives rise to at least two distinct aesthetic ideals, one of which is best captured by John Gardner’s idea of story as a “vivid and continuous dream” and the other of which might most aptly be exemplified by the dreamlike sequences in the Nighttown section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which exploit the apparent randomness and the tumult within the subconscious. From those inspired by the ideal of the romantic mystic, writers who whirl themselves into states of ecstatic lucidity, to those who embrace a more lean, workmanlike approach while striving for Gardner’s “continuous waking dream,” we find writers and artists wrestling with the language of dreams, incorporating stream-of-consciousness, symbolism, sensory immersion, and nests of meaning in order to make functional what might otherwise seem inconsequential.


Flanagan, Owen. Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Hartmann, Ernest (2000) “The waking-to-dream continuum and the effects of emotion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 23(6):947-50.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1990.

The intentional self goes to market: neurobiology as critique of antagonistic heroism

Jennifer Ruth Hosek

The antagonistic hero is a popular protagonist of mainstream audiences today. This role model is a stolid self, asserting himself in opposition to others, while the typical denouement sketches a fantasy of his reward in the form of an embrace by society. The pedagogical messages here are multiple. The average viewer is offered a behavioral model that stands in contradistinction to the models for societal success actually employed by the ruling classes and to models that enable maximum grip on an ever-shifting world. In lived experience, this behavioral mode alienates and reduces the self due to inadequate interaction with others. Contemporary neurobiology offers models to describe the results: an impoverished self expressed in involuted brain states. I suggest that in such circumstances, humans seek alternative means of achieving brain state transitions out of repetitive chaotic attractors, transitions that antagonistic relations with others preclude. Commodities come readily to hand as stand-ins for human interactions, yet this reification also encourages stasis and inveteracy in the brain activity of the human who enters into repetitive action/perception cycles with these commodities. This situation, in turn, furthers an identification of self with object rather than with other intentional beings. Consumption offers the chance to achieve brain state transitions by entering into interaction with new objects, thus self-identification as consumer rather than political actor in the public sphere becomes an habitual approach to survival. The resultant anxiety can be channeled into a political death drive, subjectively experienced as an allegiance to larger-than-life antagonistic heroes that promise stasis in national and global circumstances such that the consumer self can maintain his reified self in relation to his chain of consumer goods. Jennifer Ruth Hosek, Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University, co-author, with Walter J. Freeman, of “Osmetic Ontogenesis, or Olfaction Becomes You: The Neurodynamic, Intentional Self and Its Affinities with the Foucaultian/Butlerian Subject,” co-recipient of the 2005 Dactyl Award for essays on science and art.

Learning from Neuroscience: New Initiatives in the Construction of Intelligent Machines

John Johnston

With rare exception, the humanities have generally ignored developments in the construction of intelligent machines. There are two main reasons for this avoidance. First, why worry about something that doesn¹t actually exist? This attitude is short-sighted, however, given that we are already surrounded by “smart” machines, which pervade (and sustain) our high tech culture and increasingly grow smarter. Moreover, since the quest to build human-level intelligence will undoubtedly yield new understandings of human memory, emotion, creativity, language and metaphor, this quest cannot be a matter of indifference to the humanities. The second reason is deeper, and has to do with our reluctance — indeed refusal– to consider life, much less human thinking and behavior, in the terms usually reserved for machines and mechanically constructed things. But perhaps we need to revise our understanding of machines. After all, most scientists now believe that human beings are machines  incredibly complex, but machines nonetheless.

One consequence of the work I shall describe may be to facilitate our intellectual entry into this new bio-machinic world. In several recent initiatives in the construction of intelligent machines, I shall argue, we see a biological re-orientation that begins to overcome the deficiency that has plagued AI for the last fifty years. Rather than take the serial computer as model, these initiatives all foreground the evolution of the human brain and the structure of the neocortex as the most salient facts to consider in understanding intelligence and building intelligent systems. In What is Thought?, computer scientist Eric Baum revisits the original AI premise that thinking or “mind” is a computational program, but now considers it explicitly within the context of evolutionary theory, arguing that the mind¹s evolved modularity is central to its computational nature. The other two initiatives are concerned with how information processing takes place in the neocortex, and draw largely on contemporary neuroscience. In On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins explains the neocortex as a “memory-prediction machine,” arguing that a detailed understanding of how it functions offers the most promising path toward the building of truly intelligent machines. Finally, Steve Grand¹s theory of information processing in the neocortex underlies his project to construct an intelligent android, which he describes in Growing up with Lucy. As a test-bed of new ideas, Lucy demonstrates how true intelligence cannot be “programmed in,” but only allowed to emerge from a dynamic structure that continually re-configures itself in acts of self-organization and learning. Embedded in specific research trajectories, these three efforts constitute new “initiatives” for contemporary AI. At the same time, they are harshly critical of AI and work against its de facto assumption that artificial intelligence can be achieved without a full understanding of the kind of real intelligence that human beings actually exhibit.

The Perception of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Perception

Sharon Lattig

Within The Prelude’s “Book the First” is nested the epic’s celebrated “boat-stealing episode,” the story of the boy Wordsworth¹s clandestine launch of a shepherd’s skiff discovered on a twilight ramble. This salient passage, in what Wordsworth referred to as a “preparatory poem,” charts what is effectively an archeology of the pathetic fallacy, rooting it in a breach of intentionality, as the term is revised by Walter Freeman to mean the neurological process by which organisms generate goal-directed actions by, among other things, calculating the impact of a present action upon subsequent perceptual content. The occasion of the young William¹s failure to predict perceptual content thrusts the boy into a near-solipsistic state of isolation whose function, I argue, is to inspire its mitigation through the derivative event of poetic metaphor. Among literary devices, metaphor has long enjoyed a special cognitive status. Deemed alternatively, to reflect thought processes and to engender insight, the figure of speech may be more profitably understood, I propose, as a compressed linguistic version of, and prompt to, a dynamic that is aboriginally perceptual. The preponderance of metaphor, its centrality to our thought, and its robust career as a site of philosophical, linguistic and cognitive contest may be accounted for by adducing Freeman’s neurodynamic model of olfaction. The insights cultivated by his theory justify, among other things, the recuperation of the interactive theories of poetic metaphor developed by I.A. Richards and Max Black. Such a retrospective enlargement challenges the scope of the prevalent Lakoff-Johnson model, which can account neither for its own internal dynamic nor for the embeddedness of the organism, the maintenance of an integral relationship with an environment that is a precondition for originality. English Dept., City University New York, Graduate School. Co-organizer.

Beauty and the Brain: Vision, Words, and Music

Irving Massey

This paper will address three more or less independent issues. The Introduction, which I call “A Beauty Spot,” raises the question whether a circuit governing the response to beauty can be localized. Some recent research supports such a view. I offer an anecdote as an illustration of this possibility, together with the conjecture that Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “inscape” may be related to a mechanism of this sort. The real purpose of this introduction, though, is to remind us how closely neurology is pressing on the heels of aesthetics.

Part two of this paper concerns the relation of words to music in song. I propose a neurological explanation of the fact that words are subordinated to music whenever they enter into the word-music combination; (for instance, mediocre words are made into great songs by great music, and strong words can seem trivial when joined to weak music). My explanation draws upon the fact that music is primarily, (though by no means entirely), a right hemisphere function. There is evidence that the word-music combination is also primarily processed by the RH, since aphasics who have lost LH function can often continue to sing the words of songs that they had learned previously; the same phenomenon is found with anaesthesia of the LH. My conjecture is that language loses its independence when joined to music because it falls under the dominance of the RH, becoming in effect a surrogate speech for the language-poor RH.

In metaphor language is raised to a higher power. I consider, partly in neurological terms, what it would mean to do away with metaphor. I also review some possible associations between metaphor and familiar neurological phenomena, such as the “Appeal of the Rare,” as well as a conjectural relation between metaphor and certain neuro-chemical processes. In this context, I recall the connection between metaphor, knowledge, and the erotic. I end, as I began, with the confrontation between functionalism and the imagination.

Problems Posed for Contemporary Neuroscience by the Destruction of Painting

Steven Meyer

By ‘the destruction of painting’ I have in mind certain problematics raised by Louis Marin in his 1977 study To Destroy Painting, which concerns the work of the late 16th-century master Michelangelo da Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin’s famous reaction to Caravaggio (“he came into the world in order to destroy painting”). Implicitly, Marin also addresses similar impressions of modern-day painting, from Cezanne onwards. As it happens, one of the non-Caravaggian works Marin discusses (quite unsurprisingly, given his subject) is Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the starting-point for John Ashbery’s 1975 poem of the same name. When neuroscientists look to the arts for useful ‘illustrations’ of recent advances in the understanding of neural mechanisms, they tend to land on the visual arts, and painting in particular; Semir Zeki’s Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999) offers perhaps the most prominent example. In Zeki’s case this is no doubt principally due to the fact that his own neurological studies focus on ‘the visual brain’; but painting is much closer to hand for practitoners of a science so dependent on techniques of visualization than are the language arts. In this talk I’ll address several differences that might ensue in taking poetry as one’s ‘test’ of neuroscience. For obvious reasons, much discussion of neuroscience and the arts does not, in fact, take the form of inquiry into ways that the arts may be seen to test or challenge assumptions prevailing in contemporary neuroscience.

One of the advantages, then, of looking to poetry (rather than staying put in the already challenging domain mapped out by Marin) is that it is a bit harder to naturalize within the ordinary practices of neuroscience – since, contrary to popular opinion, poetic ‘images’ are very different from the visual images they are often said to resemble (at least to the extent that they are not mere abstractions designed to mimic ‘pictures,’ as is the case with much so-called Imagistic work). I’ll be focusing on what I take to be empiricist biases in some contemporary neuroscience (by contrast with what William James characterized as a properly ‘radical empiricist’ perspective), and building on a critique I suggested several years ago of pioneering applications by Posner and Raichle of positron emission tomography (PET) for investigating how people “read English words. Joseph Dumit proposes a similar critique in Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (2004). As proof texts I will take Ashbery’s 1991 book-length Flow Chart as well as Angus Fletcher’s remarks on Ashbery¹s poem in his New Theory for American Poetry (2004).

Relevant publications:

Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford University Press, 2001): 320-327. excerpt-last chapter

“Ashbery: Poet for All Seasons,” Raritan, Fall 1995: 144-161.

From Linearity to Simultaneity: Brain Harmonization through Poetics

Mary Newell

I will explore the poetry of Emily Dickinson and perhaps also Mary Oliver from the point of view of left/ right brain lateralization. My thesis is that the impact of some poetry will partly rest on its capacity to “integrate” left and right hemispheres. I will explore two aspects of this theory: first, a movement from the logic of a linear progression to an all-encompassing moment, and second, the embedding of language in rhythm.

Some of Dickinson’s poems begin with a linear progression, invoking the logical ordering of the left brain. She then leads the reader to a precipice where suddenly time stops, either in horror or joy. Such a moment of simultaneity, thought to be associated with right brain activity, then encompasses the linearity of the first part in a moment of integration.

Babies learn how to vocalize and often to synchronize their vocal responses to their mothers before they learn words (Dissanayake), They are already engaged in (presumably right-brained) rhythmic activities, often accompanied by gestures and other bodily activity. Language is embedded in this rhythmic context. As adults, the meaning aspect is often foreground. By returning importance to meter, lyric poetry might resuscitate a connection with this early life harmonizing activity.

Mary Newell is a doctoral candidate, ABD, at Fordham University in American Literature with a focus in ecocriticism. Her book chapter, “Embodied Mutuality: Reconnection to Environment and Self in Terry Tempest Williams’s An Unspoken Hunger,” was published in Surveying the Literary Landscapes of Terry Tempest Williams: New Critical Essays, The University of Utah Press, 2003.

She presented “The Dialogue of the Rock with the Breaker: The Ecopoetics of Adrienne Rich and the Nature Poetry of Sylvia Plath” at the Environment and Community Conference, February 2004. She has presented twice on Emily Dickinson, once on an ecofeminist panel at the Northeast MLA conference, 2002. She presented on Margaret Atwood at the Society for Literature and Science conference in 2004. She is completing a book chapter entitled “What¹s Wrong with Mother Nature” for EcoCultures: Cultural Studies and the Environment.

Ms. Newell has two Masters degrees from Columbia University, one in English Literature and one in Biobehavioral Studies (Teachers’ College). She has taught at Marymount College and Queens College, as well as Fordham University.

Ashbery, Brainard, Artists’ Books and Image Schemas

Jennifer Quilter

Very little has been written on the aesthetics of artists’ books in the twentieth century. Whenever these books are reviewed or recommended, the terms of praise tend to be vague  the critic will perceive an ’empathy’ between the writer and artist, but very little is specifically said about the book’s formal qualities or the particular ways in which the text and image effect the reading of each other. This silence is largely because few critics will openly discuss what artists’ books are supposed to do  that is, what kind of reading experience they offer and whether it is uniquely different from text- or image-based works.

First and foremost, it seems that the images in an artists’ book are not meant to directly illustrate the text  artists involved in these projects often refer to the term ‘illustration’ as a ‘dirty’ word, one which suggests a secondary status for the art in a book. As a result, the image often asserts its own narratorial independence – as Lucy Lippard has noted, ‘Unexpectedness (not to be confused with obscurity) is a hallmark of the best of the genre’. This sense of unexpectedness comes from the divergences and differences between image and text; in ‘The Vermont Notebook’ by poet John Ashbery and artist Joe Brainard, a passage about beavers will be placed beside a drawing of a seal. The reader attempts to provide some kind of justification for why the image and text have been placed next to each other. Accordingly, the kind of reading which good artists’ books encourage is a strongly active one. In my paper, I will suggest that our way of reading artists’ books is analogous to cognitive and late-twentieth century accounts of understanding new metaphors.

One can develop this analogy by considering the role that image-schema play in our attempts to find patterns in artists’ books. I am particularly interested in the modality of image-schema  for example, whether our experience of a ‘balance’ image-schema in text and image is amodal. In deciding what kind of amodality exists in our perception, the structural similarities between text and image become clearer and we can begin to account for the divergences and similarities between text and image in artists’ books in specific ways. Thus, the purpose of my paper is two-fold; firstly, to provide an account of Ashbery’s and Brainard’s unique working relationship, and secondly, to examine in more detail the ways in which people enjoy artists’ books. I will also present the results of a study carried out at Oxford University by myself and Dr. Nick Davis (Psychology Dept) to assess the associative tendency of readers of artists’ books. Full paper

“Sudden Rightnesses”: Alliteration as Somatic Feedback in Readers’ Responses to Lyric Poetry

Claiborne Rice

Lyric poetry should interest students of consciousness because readers often claim that they experience the fleeting echoes of an alterior consciousness when reading a poem. In this talk I will examine cases of poetic alliteration that are particularly effective in assisting readers to be “transformed into the poem’s speaker,” as Helen Vendler has described it. Taking as my framework the account of consciousness developed by the cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, I will describe how silent reading makes alliteration an unusual form of somatic feedback.

The internal enunciation characteristic of silent reading is a body action, a “memory of the future” in Damasio’s evocative phrase, monitored for execution by multiple somatosensory cortices (mostly in the right hemisphere). The continuous updating of body images by these cortices is the basic mechanism of core consciousness. Object images prompted by language, though “less vivid than those prompted by the exterior” (108), can still trigger the creation of consciousness. Actions are monitored to confirm successful execution of motor commands, and in the typical reading experience, core consciousness will direct attention to the developing narrative focused on the images of higher-order thought.

But somatic feedback is also monitored for unanticipated responses that may demand greater attention. If the somatosensory monitor detects local alliterative patterns, these unanticipated patterns constitute unusual feedback and thus trigger heightened somatosensory awareness. In other words, patterns that happen to the body are characteristic of external stimuli that demand adaptive response rather than of internal actions directed and executed by higher order dispositional representations. Attention shifts to linking the organism’s somatic response with the apparent perturbing object. According to Damasio, this inferential structure is what gives rise to our sense of self: it is inferred from the linkages between the images that generate bodily responses and the body that executes the responses.


Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error. New York: Avon, 1994.

Vendler, Helen. Poems, Poets, Poetry. Boston: Bedford, 1997.

William James and Walter Freeman: Affectionate Pragmatism

Joan Richardson, CUNY‹Graduate Center

In How Brains Make Up Their Minds, Walter Freeman describes the intent and scope of his clinical investigations as a neuroscientist, to evidence the premise proposed by William James in 1879, “that consciousness is interactive with brain processes and is neither epiphenomenal nor identical with those processes…. Residing nowhere and everywhere, it [consciousness] reworks the contents that are provided by the parts.” Central to his project is to realize the “idea of meaning,” already a critical concept in philosophy and cognitive science, defining, as it does, the relation of each brain to the world, as equally crucial for work in neurobiology. To that end, he focuses on the way in which meaning arises through the activities of neural mechanisms of perception. Meaning, “what happens to an idea,” the “truth” of pragmatism is, of course, the determinant of choice, action. Freeman distinguishes his mode of interpreting the experimental data from the cognitive sciences about the nature of mind as “pragmatist,” as against the other “materialist” and “cognitivist” approaches, in taking into full account the affective complex of the limbic system coded into messages called “corollary discharges” that “provide the basis for what we experience as attention and expectation.” The dynamics of this process describes the “self-organization” permitting “acting into the stimulus” and incorporating it into future action, as distinct from merely reacting to it. As an illustration of Freeman¹s findings, I shall return, appropriately, to William James and use the account of his own “vastation,” disguised as a letter from “a French patient,” one of the “sick souls” described in The Varieties of Religious Experience, to detail the manner in which the “reworking of contents” by consciousness operates.

Robo Car Collective

Michael Schippling

The RoboCar Collective is a small group of robot cars that interact with their environment and each other to exhibit adaptive and emergent behaviors. Through exploration and experiment they are able to learn simple social activities such as gathering and flocking. The collective is a multi-agent system where each individual is autonomous and shares information with other agents as they encounter each other. Each agent’s repertory is limited but the aggregate behavior can be quite complex. For example, a dynamical flocking behavior can result from each agent attempting to maintain a small fixed distance to its nearest neighbor.

The robots were developed to play with each other, contrary to the prevailing conceptions of machines as either pre-programmed automatons or vicious killers. The RoboCar Collective ‘bumps-up’ the evolutionary level of robots in the arts using adaptive behavior. Just as with children, play can form the basis of more complicated co-operative activities as the agents and the collective system evolve.

The mechanisms employed by the RoboCars are ‘ground-up’, as opposed to the ‘top-down’ traditions of Artificial Intelligence. Rather than attempting to fit their experiences into a pre-defined model, they start in a (near) tabula rasa state and build their own model of their capabilities as they navigate their world. By interacting with each other they can develop an ensemble meta-behavior that would not emerge on an individual basis. This artificial — adj 1: contrived by art rather than nature — adaptive-multi-agent-emergent system illuminates some of the fundamental concepts of complexity science and can serve as an analogy for how thought and consciousness might be embodied in biological systems.


My CV and resume:


Background for the previous version of the collective:


Further references on complexity and my ‘mechanistic’ reasoning:


Blair Solovy, attendee (not presenting a talk).

Blair Solovy holds an MFA/Creative Writing/Poetry, Brown University and a BFA/Painting, University of Illinois. Her current project, A Body of Research, is a response to a devastating car accident. It combines poetry, prose, critical writing and visual arts with advanced scientific and medical techniques to explore the life of the body-mind-spirit in a highly compromised state. Her lifelong interest in art, architecture, poetry, spirituality provide her with a variety of channels through which to conduct these investigations. She also has careers as a business/commercial writer and as a professor.

A Body of Research explores the connection between neuronal and other activity of the brain and various states of consciousness. It will be a book of poetry, prose, critical writing that also, in part, functions as a series of proposals/instructions for art objects to be made by me alone or with collaborators. I was struck by a car going about 40 mph—hit, thrown up the windshield, back down to the street, hit again. I spent 3 years in intensive surgery and therapy and experienced loss of consciousness and hyper states of consciousness and extreme pain for extended periods. Even when I could not move my body, my mind moved slowly or quickly and frenetically across space and time—independent creative actions. Sometimes I had no ability to make the external world form. Seeing only behind the eyes I witnessed my mind building itself from scratch. From scratch made objects, scenes, weather on its own, of its own volition, separate from my creative will or my thinking about making. In A Body of Research, I write those makings as a kind of translation project 1) to explore language as a plastic medium 2) for the reader to create never seen physical (art) objects in her mind based on my instructions 3) as proposals for me to make those art objects in the physical world, in 1-3D or time based mediums. I explore the ability of the human mind to function at changing levels of consciousness in numerous versions of space, time, form, motion, inside, outside simultaneously. Visual perception is emphasized. Some scientific tools I incorporate are: experimental medical imaging, electron micrography, the study of sensory motor skills, weather maps. Art becomes science, science becomes art and in some cases the art object itself. I will continue to (pursue opportunities to) collaborate with scientists, surgeons, brain researchers, programmers and others to create some of the objects proposed in my manuscript. I would like to collaborate with an architect and a neuroscientist together to create models based upon neuronal activity of the brain. Art objects will be accompanied by text instructions (poetry or prose) for their execution and may be printed, spoken or sung.

Seeing with our Knees: Teasing Out Memory’s Odyssey

Sue Spaid

Art facilitates the engagement of inscrutable, ineffable pictures, texts, movements and/or sounds. Beginning as perceptual phenomena, such unfamiliar events become cognitive moments in time. Given the viewer’s role in analyzing what lies before him, art’s cognitive engagement differs markedly from his or her accessing the world via pictures and texts, framed and interpreted by others. The vast majority of lived experience (experienced with the knees, not the eyes) persist in the subconscious as free-floating perceptual phenomena, perceived, processed and stored without our conscious awareness. Art activities (experiencing visual art, a poem or a musical event) randomly trigger our access to otherwise amorphous stuff, enabling us to form connections that structure consciousness and frame our understanding of past events. Memory paths are worn by the repeated passage of potassium particles across particular membranes.

Nobel laureate Tony Morrison’s linking imagination to memory parallels neurobiologist Gerald Edelman’s view that memory is to some degree an act of imagination. Although imagination and memory pose opposite directions in time, both invent “the present of what is absent from the senses (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (“Thinking”, p. 76), 1978).” Furthermore, imagination and memory intervene on one another, despite a chronology of events. Accessible memories help organize unfamiliar experiences imagined by others, while imagination plays a crucial role in framing personal memories. Art facilitates the Ricochet Effect, whereby, associations fly off in indeterminate directions. When present experiences evoke past memories having the same emotional charge, affective value, sensory potential or psychic intensity, the act of remembering intimates time travel, as one is immediately transported from a particular place in time to another. This inadvertently recalls Bergson’s kaleidoscope analogy; whereby, each movement affects everything, especially one’s future relationship to one’s past. Full paper

How to Know a Liar When You Meet One, or Does it Matter?

Ellen Spolsky

The common claim of the papers given here is that the cognitive interchange with a literary text is in crucial ways not a fictional interchange, yet it isn’t the same as real life either. It provides a learning experience that is similar enough to a real life experience to have consequences for the ongoing project of brain structuring and re-structuring which we call learning. What is learned and how depends on the genre of the text because literary texts vary in the ways they relate to the real world around them. Different kinds of literary production may be grasped in different ways by distinguishable neural processes (even perhaps by different neurological structures)  that is, they afford different kinds of learning. All, however, would only be useful if they could be both recognized as not entirely real, but reused as real.

This paper will argue that the human neurological system produces good enough – but certainly not foolproof – inferences about the usefulness of fictional texts for future use. One of the challenges to neurology in the light of the papers we’ve heard on drama and the novel is to account for the Austinian claim that speech acts on the stage or in fictions aren’t ‘real’ speech acts and the Derridean counter-claim that language can only have meaning because it is a citation of an earlier usage. The latter claim overlaps with the claim of the performance theorists that people build meaning by joining in a performance that was already culturally scripted. “Hard” scientists have to account for how neurons manage “as if” situations without building barriers that prevent people using their experience with fictions when needed in their own lives, and they have already made some beginnings. Links to relevant articles: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/substance/v030/30.1spolsky.html


Full paper

The Concept of Bahnung

Jochen Thermann

The relation between neurology, psychology, philosophy and poetics has often been obscured by the separation of the disciplines. However, I would like to show how different discourses intersect in the concept of Bahnung in the first half of the 20th century.

It was the neurologist Sigmund Exner, who first introduced the term into neurology in 1896. A Bahnung literally means to blaze a trail where no trail yet exists. Exner used this idea to describe the development of neural circuits in the human brain. Bahnung became the overall concept to understand such different fields as motor skills or language production. From today’s perspective Exner’s model of Bahnung was the first one that allowed to conceptualize brain activity in terms of plasticity and networks.

Thus it is not surprising that Sigmund Freud picked up Exner’s promising concept in his early writings to explain how memory and the psyche share a common process through which certain pathways are inscribed into the brain. Freud combined the concept of Bahnung that is metaphorically tied to the semantic domain of path, passage and way, with the idea of writing and inscription in his later studies (most famous the Mystic Writing Pad).

Following this line of thought we can see, how the Bahnung offers a model for language development, production and reception. Three examples shall shed light on this link between poetics and the brain.

1) The German physician and poet Gottfried Benn, neurologically informed, focused his lyrical efforts on creating new and uncommon pathways with words that would deeply resonate with body, memory and the brain. For Benn it is the idea of and search for a “southern word” that guides his poetics. In today’s terms Benn was obsessed with the brain’s plasticity, as the “southern word” stimulates new neural pathways.

2) Franz Kafka’s writings expose similiar poetic metaphors of trail blazing to describe the creative process. For Kafka the Bahnung appears both as a method to write into the unknown without a plan and as a motif in his narratives, as if the literary figures re-enacted the generation of pathways on a fictional plane.

3) Martin Heidegger’s reflections on language excessively use the metaphors of pathways and of blazing trails emphasizing that the idea of a passage allows to think language and thought themselves. Reading Heidegger together with the concept of Bahnung gives new insights about the hidden intersections between neuroscience, poetics and philosophy of language.

By grouping Exner, Freud, Benn, Kafka and Heidegger around the concept of Bahnung I hope to offer a mode of connecting the unconnected and thus to blaze myself a trail where no trail yet exists. Full paper

Why We Read Fiction

Lisa Zunshine

My talk shares its title with a book manuscript that I have just finished, and it is inspired by the question that I asked myself about fourteen years ago, when I first came to this country and was going through one of those periods of reading fiction voraciously. It was then that I first started wondering what is this strange craving? Science can explain much of what happens in our brain and the rest of the body when we want to eat, to drink, and to sleep, but what about wanting to read? It can certainly feel as strong as a mild hunger. Perhaps, if deprived for some time, one can even become seriously ravenous for fiction and wax violent when flashed with the cover of Pride and Prejudice? I wouldn’t know because I have never dared to experiment with myself by not reading when I wanted to. I remember thinking about these issues but also saying to myself that those are metaphysical and idiosyncratic questions that nobody can ever answer and that nobody would really care about. Today, however, I am reconsidering both my questions and my erstwhile certainty that they are not worth our attention. I believe that a conceptual framework emerging from recent research in cognitive science offers us a series of still tentative but nevertheless exciting insights into cravings that are satisfied, but also at the same time intensified when we read fiction.

My argument draws on two particular areas of research in cognitive psychology and cognitive anthropology. The first area concerns our “Theory of Mind” (also known as our “mind-reading” capacity), that is, a cluster of adaptations that enable us to attribute to people thoughts, beliefs, and desires based on their observable behavior. The second focuses on the closely related “metarepresentational” ability, that is, a cluster of adaptations that make it possible for us to monitor sources of our representations (including our representations of other people’s and our own mental states). I argue that whereas all fictional texts build on our Theory of Mind and metarepresentational ability, some works of fiction engage them in particularly focused ways. Many of us come to enjoy such engagement and need it as a steady supplement to our daily social interactions. full paper

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