Adventures in Neurohumanities | The Nation


Adventures in Neurohumanities

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There are things that neuroscience is useful for, in terms of understanding behavior, but there are also things it is not all that useful for, like understanding the nuances of our reactions to poetry.
Literary studies before the advent of the neurohumanities tended to rest on murkier categories than science likes—categories such as subjectivity and interpretation. In a novel like Mansfield Park, for instance, the heroine Fanny Price is cornered into servility by both her social class and her feminine role. The judgmental Fanny smiles upon conservative social formations and condemns most others. This has led to vastly different interpretations. Lionel Trilling famously wrote that the novel’s “praise is not for social freedom, but for social stasis,” but it has also been read as feminist: a “bitter parody of conservative fiction,” in the words of Princeton University Austen scholar Claudia Johnson.

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Alissa Quart
Alissa Quart, the author of The Republic of Outsiders and Branded, is the editor for the nonprofit Economic Hardship...

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That is not to say that all neurohumanities scholars are insensitive to nuance and ambiguity. Some, like Lisa Zunshine, combine neuroscience with original interpretations of consciousness and multiple points of view in modernist novels. But other neuroaestheticians offer blunt accounts of areas of study that have long been appreciated for their complexity, such as the meaning of art or aesthetics as a means of transmitting politics and interpretation. In other words, some underlying principles of neuroscience are useful when applied to the humanities, but it needs to understand its limits.

Neuroaesthetics, an au courant mix of art history and cognitive science, asks whether our brains are structured so that paintings and precious objects move us in one way or another: one neuroimaging study, conducted at University College, London, set out to explain how we experience beauty in visual art. Ten people were shown 300 paintings while their heads were in an fMRI machine. They were asked to label the paintings as neutral, beautiful or ugly. The paintings they thought were beautiful led to increased activity in their frontal cortex, while the ugly paintings led to a similar increase in their motor cortex.

Professor Semir Zeki at UCL was responsible for this study, which he conducted through the Institute of Neuroesthetics in London and UC Berkeley. The center sets out a bold claim on its website: “the artist is, in a sense, a neuroscientist exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools.” Zeki’s latest paper? “The Neural Sources of Salvador Dali’s Ambiguity.”

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But are multiple—and politically minded—meanings possible in the land of the neuro novel or neuro-aesthetics? Is neurohumanities, like “neuromarketing,” simply trying to help us understand and then produce cultural artifacts that will have the best effect for readers, writers and artists—political and historical context be damned?

The response to this question depends on whom you ask. Some are suspicious of what has been called “neuro-reductionism.” Jonathan Kramnick, a Rutgers University English professor who wrote a provocative essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” for the journal Critical Inquiry, notes the rise of books with titles like The Art Instinct. “There’s an attention to the fine grain of a text that neuroscience can’t get at,” he says.

“Humanists are unwilling or unable to evaluate the science, so we just take scientists’ word for it, without following up on the evidence or knowing these claims are highly contested within their community,” says Todd Cronan, a professor of art history at Emory University. “‘Mirror neurons’ are highly debatable, yet art historians now just apply them to artworks. I think it’s worrying. And when there’s a ‘call for collaboration’ between art scholars and neuroscientists, we just marshal the scientists’ evidence.” 

Jennifer Ashton, an English professor at the University of Illinois, wrote a takedown of neuroaesthetics in the academic journal Nonsite in 2011. She put it like this: “How your brain is firing won’t tell you if something is ironic, metaphorical or meaningful or if it is not.” 

What does it mean, Cronan wonders, “if Matisse uses a lot of red and a neuro person says, ‘Red produced neuronal firing’?”

Literary Darwinism, another route by which the language and analytical frame of science has entered the humanities, can have an even more formulaic aspect. In one study, Jonathan Gottschall, an evolutionary lit scholar, compared 1,440 folktales from nearly fifty cultures in order to counter feminist critics and the assumption “that European tales reflect and perpetuate the arbitrary gender norms of western patriarchal societies.” His finding: there are biosocial norms that all cultures perpetuate—i.e., the feminists are wrong. 

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Critics also point out that neurohumanities scholars prefer formally conservative artists. Such artists are more likely to help them make general points about beauty or the act of reading: Austen or Michelangelo, for instance, were both animated by classical values like order and symmetry. And while neuroimaging may help us understand what our mind does when we read quickly or with a more careful attention, these data sets tell us next to nothing about the actual literature, nor do they give us a political understanding of a text. 

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? Will artists, and advertisers who use artists, employ the lessons of neuroaestheticism to sharpen their neuromarketing techniques? After all, Robert T. Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkeley, is already the science adviser for NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing company that follows the engagement and attention of potential shoppers. When neuroaesthetics is fully put to use in these ways, it may do as Alva Noë said: “reduce people and culture to ends, simply to be manipulated or made marketable.”

And he has a point. Today, there’s the sudden dominance of so many ways to quantify things that used to be amorphous and that we imagined were merely expressive or personal: Big Data, Facebook, ubiquitous surveillance, the growing use of pharmaceuticals to control our moods and minds. In other words, neurohumanities is not just a change in how we see paintings or read nineteenth-century novels. It’s a small part of the change in what we think it means to be human.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s broadside against Darwinism and materialism is mostly an instrument of mischief, wrote Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg in “Do You Only Have a Brain?” (Oct. 22, 2012).

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