“Modern Brains: Literary Studies and the Cognitive Sciences”
Guest Writer: Katherine Skwarczek

Friday, March 16, 2012

[On March 9-10, 2012, the British Modernities Group (BMG) held its annual graduate student conference, “Modern Brains: Literary Studies and the Cognitive Sciences.” The following was written by Katherine Skwarczek, a BMG member who attended the conference.]

Written by Katherine Skwarczek (English)

“Modern Brains: Literary Studies and the Cognitive Sciences,” the graduate student conference organized by the British Modernities Group, provided a platform for working through the aims and methodologies of an area of study broadly labeled “cognitive literary criticism.” Working within a new and interdisciplinary field provides both exciting opportunities and potential challenges. The speakers presenting on the first day of the two-day event were able to reassure us about any possible errors on our part: mistakes are normal—productive, even.

In her keynote address, Kara Federmeier introduced the audience to the N400, a measurement of the brain’s electrical response to meaningful stimuli, such as words or images. Federmeier presented neuroscientific research that used the N400 response to study the brain’s processing of such stimuli. In particular, Federmeier focused on how our minds generate meaning from language. Although she presented experiments that considered very small pieces of language input—words or a few short sentences—Federmeier’s conclusion was clear: our cognitive processing of meaning is highly sensitive to context.

Kara Federmeier
Although Federmeier dismissed the pop psychology notion that a sharp distinction exists between “right-brained” or “left-brained” individuals (both hemispheres can comprehend meaning), she did suggest that our two hemispheres process meaning in different ways. Because the left hemisphere has almost exclusive access to speech, its method of making meaning relies heavily on prediction. That is, the left can make maximal use of context clues to “predict” the meaning of a word before it is even perceived.

The mistakes arise here: because the left hemisphere is so adept at making predictions, it must also be adept at correcting meanings when they turn out to be wrong, as they frequently are. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, does not generate predictions and thus leaves the possibility of meaning open for longer, allowing for more flexibility. What happens, however, if this normal pattern of making meaning is disrupted? Federmeier examined the case of aging adults. As processing capability declines, older adults were less able to ready their “predictions” in time. Knowing what we do about the dual nature of generating meaning, these results may not have to scare us. Instead of assuming that comprehension becomes worse as we age, it is possible that it simply becomes different. Aging adults are less able to predict, but may therefore be more open to the possibility of alternative meanings when processing language. Less prediction, more flexibility.

In an earlier presentation on digital reading practices, Stacy Nall also considered the possible benefits of making mistakes. Basing her talk around the image of “getting lost in a book,” Nall argued that the discontinuous reading practices that characterize the perusal of digital media are a result of the changing material reality of such reading. Nall focused on hands in particular as an integral part of the physical system of reading. The less immediate relationship of our hands to digital texts results in a different ontological reality. This new reality is not necessarily inferior, but the “messiness” of digital reading should be accounted for in our classrooms and in our own practices.

Though the conference’s intended focus was cognition and literature, both of these terms proved to be productively unstable. Literature expanded to mean language, meaning-making, rhetoric, aesthetics, and pedagogy, while cognition proved to be a multi-faceted object of study (and, indeed, critique) as well as a surprisingly pliable methodology.

This variability is the result of cognitive science’s necessarily interdisciplinary nature and complex history. In his introductory remarks, Andrew Gaedtke traced a genealogy of cognitive science: its origins as an antidote to the black box of behaviorism, its on-and-off relationship with computers and AI, and its most recent emphasis on embodiment and environment. This last permutation received considerable attention from the conference presenters.

According to Gaedtke, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch were among the first to offer a theory of mind as inseparable from its environment and of thought as continuous with action. This theory has other permutations in recent theories of cognition, such as Andy Clark and David Chalmers’s extended mind theory, which argues that the brain is only one part of a cognitive network that extends the work of cognition into the environment.

David Herman
Keynote speaker David Herman has explored such an extended mind model of cognition in the context of modernist literature. Herman’s recent work approaches the protagonists of modernist texts not as “internalists” focused on the inner workings of their own minds but rather as participants in a distributed flow between agent and environment. In a related presentation on Virginia Woolf, Aleksandra Hernandez applied Herman’s model of cognition to Mrs. Dalloway. She urged us to see Woolf’s protagonist as a flâneuse, a version of the traditionally male 19th-century flâneur, but one who aspires to a de-centering of consciousness and whose extended self emerges through interaction with aspects of the environment (objects, people, and spaces). Although the extended mind model of cognition breaks down the inside/outside boundaries in a pleasingly post-Cartesian way, it also reminds us that the mind and the environment are co-constitutive.

Uexküll's drawing of the Umwelten of a human and of a bee
In his keynote address, David Herman complicated the extended mind model of cognition by considering non-human animals both as part of the cognitive environment and as minds worthy of serious attention. Herman called upon Edwin Hutchins’s concept of “cognitive ecology,” the contextual study of cognitive phenomena that considers all elements of a cognitive ecosystem to be interdependent, and connected it to the concept of Umwelt. Developed by early 20th-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll, Umwelt is the moment-by-moment construction of the world based on the relationship between an organism and its surroundings. Organisms can share the same surroundings but have their own Umwelt, as shown in Uexküll’s illustration (right), which portrays a meadow as experienced by a human (top) and by a bee (bottom). Same environment; different experience.

Uexküll suggests that “the best way to find out that no two human Umwelten are the same is to have yourself be led through unknown territory by someone familiar with it.” Herman argued that literary texts can function as precisely such unconventional guides. His primary example was Virginia Woolf’s biographical novel Flush, told from the perspective of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog.

Herman presented a post-humanist version of the extended mind model of cognition, one that emphasized the continuity between the human and nonhuman, provided a narrative pathway to nonhuman world-building, offered an ecological view of consciousness, and, perhaps most useful to a literary scholar studying more typical characters, provided a way of “ecologically” understanding the narrative representation of consciousness applicable to human and nonhuman minds. I would note, though, that these remain narrative representations. Herman emphasized the important role that narrative plays in both creating worlds and in making sense of the world (what he termed “worlding the story” and “storying the world,” respectively), and philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett have used narrative metaphors in explaining consciousness. Such an emphasis on narration makes me wonder if this model distinguishes between consciousness and other cognitive processes and to what extent it relies on the generation of a record to understand the mind. Woolf’s Flush cannot write, cannot understand what Barrett Browning does when she writes, and yet his mental life is created by and through narrative. Does this force us to make a distinction between the human and nonhuman after all? Possibly not: Flush could create a record in some other, non-written way. Do we thereby expand our notion of narrative, or do we generate another model completely?

Although terminology like “cognitive literary criticism” feels trendy, the conference reflexively questioned its own uses and applications of the term, asking what cognitive science brings that is new to the study of the humanities. In tacit response to such a challenge, several scholars worked with information gleaned from cognitive science to revisit literary texts. Claire Barber, for instance, asked us to re-consider autistic stereotypies (commonly called “stimming”), like hand-flapping or face-tapping, as possibly productive ways of meaning-making and managing environmental stimuli. Doing so also allows us to see the correlates of such behavior represented in modernist literature.

Louis Slimak borrowed not from cognitive research but from its methodology, designing an experiment in his classroom to gauge how biographical information about a text informed students’ reading of a particular work. In an interesting twist on Kara Federmeier’s address earlier in the conference, Slimak argued that readers are, indeed, sensitive to such biographical context. Federmeier had pointed out at the conclusion of her talk what she thought would be welcome news to literary scholars, that the more we know about a person who produces a text and the context of its creation, the better our chances of understanding the author’s intentions. Slimak’s pedagogical experiment showed that this prediction of authorial intention can lead to mis-reading.

But at least we needn’t worry about our messy reading habits. We can just blame our messy brains.


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Kristen Ehrenberger said...

Thank you for this commentary! I really enjoyed Dr. Federmeier's keynote. For anyone who would like more information about the project I presented with our poster, please see

Thomas J. Anastasio, Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, Patrick Watson and Wenyi Zhang, Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels (MIT Press, 2012).

It is available in both hardback and Kindle editions, and it will be stocked on the campus bookstore shelves soon.

Kristen Ehrenberger
MD (M3)/PhD (History) Candidate