Brain scan image from Libertas Academica
At Stanford University in 2012, a young literature scholar named Natalie Phillips oversaw a big project: a new way of studying the nineteenth-century novelist Jane Austen. No surprise there—Austen, a superstar of English literature and the inspiration for an endless array of Hollywood and BBC productions based on her work, has been the subject of thousands of scholarly papers.
But the Stanford study was different. Phillips used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to track the blood flow of readers’ brains when they read Mansfield Park. The subjects—mostly graduate students—were asked to skim an excerpt and then read it closely. The results were part of a study on reading and distraction.
The “neuro novel” story was quickly picked up by the mainstream media, from NPR to The New York Times. But the Austen project wasn’t merely a clever one-off—the brainchild, so to speak, of one imaginatively interdisciplinary scholar. And it wasn’t just the result of ambitious academics crossing brain science with “the marriage plot” in unholy matrimony simply to grab headlines. The Stanford study reflects a real trend in the humanities. At Yale University, Lisa Zunshine, now a literature scholar at the University of Kentucky, was part of a research team that studied modernist authors using fMRI, also in order to better understand reading. Rather than a cramped office or library carrel, the researchers got to use the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, with funding by the Teagle Foundation, to carry out their project, in which twelve participants were given texts with higher and lower levels of complexity and had their brains monitored.
Duke and Vanderbilt universities now have neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids, from “neurolaw” onward: Duke has a Neurohumanities Research Group and even a neurohumanities abroad program. The money is serious as well. Semir Zeki, a neuroaesthetics specialist—that is, neuroscience applied to the study of visual art—was the recipient of a £1 million grant in the United Kingdom. And there are conferences aplenty: in 2012, you could have attended the aptly named Neuro-Humanities Entanglement Conference at Georgia Tech.
Neurohumanities has been positioned as a savior of today’s liberal arts. The Times is able to ask “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?” because of the assumption that literary study has descended into cultural irrelevance. Neurohumanities, then, is an attempt to provide the supposedly loosey-goosey art and lit crowds with the metal spines of hard science.
The forces driving this phenomenon are many. Sure, it’s the result of scientific advancement. It’s also part of an interdisciplinary push into what is broadly termed the digital humanities, and it can be seen as offering an end run around intensifying funding challenges in the humanities. As Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley wrote in 2009, the historic gulf between funding for science and engineering on the one hand and the humanities on the other is “neither new nor surprising. What is troubling is that the humanities, in fact, are falling farther and farther behind other areas of scholarship.”