The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

neuro vs psych

Gregory Currie’s NY Times Opinion piece argues literature is dependent on psychology to prove its merit and use.

He isn’t satisfied by leaning on the adage of faith (or even mystery, although so much of literature is ambiguous and mysterious), but rather wants the facts proving literature’s benefit:

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being.

That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment. I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

While he admits this may take some time, I find the dichotomy between “everything depends” and “casual evidence” shaky. And I doubt psychologies role in the matter.

On the more advanced side we have Neurohumanities. Which are pressing for similar cerebral answers.

Neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. This was exemplified by the so-called Sokal affair in 1996, in which a physics professor named Alan Sokal submitted a hoax theoretical paper on science to Social Text, only to unmask himself and lambaste the theorists who accepted and published his piece as not understanding the science.

She anticipates that neurohumanities influence will begin to seep into the actual culture of art:

It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000?

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One thought on “The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

  1. Interesting piece. But I’m not sure you can ever get a truly scientific (i.e. objective) view on the effects of literature. How can I tell if I’m a better person for reading ‘War & Peace’ or if it’s changed me? You can’t control for it. Unless you can figure out how to get into a parallel world and find a version of me who hasn’t read it so we can compare notes! It’s a strange thing, this need to prove things.

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