Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Neuroaesthetics, Part 2: Fiction's Effects

Last week I posted a summary of Alexander Kafka's discussion, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of Eric Kandel's newest book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House).  In this new study Kandel synthesizes his interests in visual art and neuroscience, producing what Kafka judges to be an important text in the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics. Not more than a week after I read Kafka's essay, I came across Annie Murphy Paul's short essay, "Your Brain on Fiction," in the New York Times' SundayReview section, and could see that she was in direct conversation with Kandel (and Kafka), and any number of other people talking about the relationship between art, the mind, consciousness and the illusion of "free will," and so many other related topics. Had my classes not already concluded I probably would have emailed this essay to all my students, because it in a concise and cogent fashion it walks through a number of fascinating points about what brain scientists are discovering concerning how fiction--and other non-documentary, narrative forms, including films--affects us.  As I like to say over and over, fiction--and art--is hardly frivolous, and as I feel I must point out over and over, the fictional works of a now deceased hack writer and philosopher and economist manquée have already profoundly and disastrously affected and constantly threatening to once again negative affect the lives of 310 million Americans, and potentially many more people around the globe. (The first person who posts the correct name of said fiction writer and at least one of said fiction writer's notorious and scarily popular books will receive a copy, sent by me, all postage paid, of either Nathanaël West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust* or Allen Ginsberg's Howl, since I have several extra copies of both books and will gladly send them to you free of charge!) I'll only add that a number of the people I note online breezily ranting about slashing funding for the humanities and arts appear to be deeply influenced by this person's work and unaware of the profound resulting irony.

But back to Annie Murphy Paul's essay, which talks about how brain scans are demonstrating the profound effects of what happens when we "read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters." Fictional narratives--and evocative metaphors, and other forms of figurative language occur in poetry, plays, creative nonfiction, and other literary forms--that is, "stimulate" the brain and can also change how we act in life. I have previously blogged about studies showing that fictional narratives in toto can both provoke empathy and aggression. I also discussed aspects of this operating at the granular level, primarily with metaphor, in my long review last July of James Geary's superlative survey I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). Whereas the other studies utilize psychological tests to gauge the effects of fictional texts, and Geary focuses on the relation between figuration and the mind, Murphy Paul's essay explores how descriptive words in narratives, as well as narratives as a whole, activate particular parts of the brain.

She notes that sensory words, in particular, spark not only the language-processing areas of the brain, but those that deal with those senses, so that "lavender," "cinnamon," and even "soap" make both brain regions fire up, and that according to a 2006 study in the journal NeuroImage, when researchers in Spain had participants read words with strong odor associations alongside more odor-neutral words, an MRI showed their olfactory cortex lighting up for the odor-associated words, but not for the neutral terms. "Coffee" yes, "chair" no. Similarly, last month, a team of Emory University researchers wrote in the journal Brain & Language that when when participants in a study they were conducting read metaphors involving texture--"a rough day"--their sensory cortex, the area of the brain responsible for perceiving touch, became active. Writes Murphy Paul, "Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' and 'He had leathery hands' roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like 'The singer had a pleasing voice' and 'He had strong hands,' did not."  And, lest you think this is only salient with the five senses, it turns out that descriptions of action also activated parts of the brain distinct from the language-processing centers; participants reading passages about characters grasping or kicking objects experienced activity in regions of the brain associated respectively with arm or movement.

So, you might be say: and? On one level, as Murphy Paul suggests, immersion in textual fictional narratives does entail a form of virtual experience that is hardly surprising to anyone who has ever written even a bad short story or read any fiction at all. On the other hand, it is significant that experimental methods are bearing this commonsense perception about the power of fiction out. The relationship between language, our minds and our bodies is not arbitrary. Let me say that again. The relationship between language, our minds and our bodies is not arbitrary.  Fiction, and literature more broadly, is powerful stuff.  Moreover, Cartesianism and all that has folowed in its wake (or the Platonism of The Symposium) really did get it wrong; the Plato of The Republic, like Aristotle in his Poetics, got it right. Indeed, to quote Murphy Paul, "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated."  She also cites University of Toronto emeritus psychology professor Keith Oatley, whom I also cited in an earlier blog post, who argues that fiction offers a particularly powerful mode of simulation running in readers minds simular to ones running on computers.

Murphy Paul concludes her case by citing some of the material I previously pointed to regarding the effects of fiction on creating empathy--though she doesn't cite the aggression studies--and locates this in "novels" (though the studies show that movies have a similar effect, though many fictional TV shows appear not to), but I would argue that any kind of fictional, textual narratives, from short stories and tales up through full-length works, including ones purporting to be "nonfiction" but which are actually mostly made up, probably have the same effect. (Think James Frey.) She also makes a quick slide from "novels" and "fiction" in general to "great literature," which she avers "enlarges and improves us" (and that was part of Samuel Richardson's aim, as it has been many another fiction writer), but I think she's leaving out the fact that all kinds of fiction, including much that isn't "great" or barely "literature" at all, can have powerful effects on readers, for good, yes, and sometimes for ill, or sometimes with no evaluative appraisal possible. You have read the book, been affected in ways even you don't grasp, and how you act in the world, who's to say. The effects of the wretched novelist I describe above we know are hardly "enlarging or improving," unless selfishness, greed and antisociality are considered moral and social "goods". There too is a great deal of fiction, particularly from the 19th century on, that aims not towards moral uplift but towards simply getting the reader to think about the world, and words themselves. It is deeply ethical, even as it does not push us in one direction or another. I think of Moby Dick, say, or The Red and the Black, or the stories of Anton Chekhov and the countless writers, including this blogger, who toil in his wake.  And, what are the aims of those beloved and not-so-well-written Twilight novels, or the newest sensation, the Hunger Games trilogy?  Do we know or even need to know? Do the writers? Do readers? Do scholars? Because readers are not setting these works without things occurring between their ears....

One final point I'll make that links back to the first half of Murphy Paul's essay is this: I always stress to my students that attentiveness to language itself, including precision in description, but especially sensory description, use of figuration, varied syntax, and vivid verbs, alongside the other fundamentals--character, plot, voice, tone, dialogue, pacing, structure, beginnings and endings, etc.--are key to improving their work. I can see from their revisions that they grasp this, but in the future, I will use this article as another persuasive device. Stronger verbs than compound formations using the necessary but weak verbs "to be," "to have," "to get," etc., are often hallmarks of beginning writers, and it's thrilling to have confirmed what I try to convey, but also experience myself when reading fiction, mine or others: that our brains start firing when we read words that evoke the senses, or activate our mirror neurons, and immerse us in a world that at least initially exists only on the page but comes a real world to and in and for us--that is, if we or someone else can properly create it.

*A bonus point to the first person who posts the name of the popular cartoon character named after one of the key characters in this second, marvelous West novel.


  1. Much as I'd love an extra copy of Howl, it would be unfair to take part in the contest. I've been reading some of the exciting work in sound studies, and I'm wondering if there are any studies on aesthetic effects rather than cognitive ones, and what that would mean for writerly arts. Would homonyms have the same effect, say, or near rhyme?

    Also, switches in language. I experience Gikuyu as a very serrated language, for instance; for me, it's all "r." English feels very end-stopped, a series of "t" and "d." As though I'm always reaching for those particular sounds when I write, and my sentences feel incomplete without them, regardless of where I actually end. (I notice I've reproduced that here.) Most of my adjectives live in English--not sure what that means.

    I'm teaching the The Hunger Games this week. Trying to figure out how to re-read it as a teacher/critic, and how that differs from reading it for entertainment.

  2. I knew you would have something marvelous to add in response! I will check your blog but off hand, do you have some titles of those sound studies? I do think they have aesthetic effects, especially in poetry, but, to give an example with fiction, I often start my introduction fiction class off with my colleague Stuart Dybek's famous story "Pet Milk." Do you know it?

    In the first paragraph, the narrator is describing the condensed milk's effects on the coffee, and tells the reader, "The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity." I always have the students read this aloud so that they can hear how Dybek's language both describes but also embodies the viscosity of the condensed milk, and they are always amazed. But it's an unconscious effect that most readers glide right by, unless they read it aloud and can feel their tongues stumbling over the language.

    To give another example, at the beginning of Joyce's remarkable story "Eveline," in the second paragraph, Joyce writes: "The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking on the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses." In this one long sentence, Joyce activates so many things. There is the repetition of the sibilant "s" such that you hear the movement of someone passing, almost like the wind blowing through the deserted street Eveline lives on. Then there is the aural effect of "clacking on the concrete pavement" and "crunching on the cinder path," which evokes both images (and action), and the actual sound of that clacking and crunching. A little later in the same paragraph, Joyce does this in a different way, when the doubled preposition aurally stops the ear and visually stops the eye, both mirroring the action but giving a sense of the movement. Then there is the syntax, with its reversals, which convey the theme, the inversion of this now passed world, and so on. The sentence: "Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming."

    So yes, I definitely think that sound also plays a role, in poetry, in fiction, in all literature--I think of Shakespeare's many rhetorical devices that utilize sound effects, like homophyny, paranomasia, alliteration, epizeuxis, and so forth. Think of the moment in Love's Labours' Lost when Ber says: "Will you prick't with your eye?" where "eye" means both "the eye" and "aye," but "prick't," a conjunction or tmesis, gives the sound of something being poked or pricked. And so on.

    I love your mention of Gikuyu. I don't know the language at all, so I can't comment, but I agree that English can sound end stopped. (And all three of the words in that sentence are.) It's more an effect of the Anglo-Saxon diction, though; the Norman and Latinate words deliver a different sensation, no? I do think of French and immediately of the poet Paul Verlaine, and his legendary homophony in poems like "Chansons d'automne," which gives the effect of violins playing as he writes, "Les sanglots longs/Des violons/De l'automne,/Blessent mon coeur/D'une langueur/Monotone," and so forth. The entire poem proceeds this way, prompting both images (the metaphors) but also the aural effects and associations. Mallarmé also does this, of course, and countless other poets in other languages....

    Do post if you can on how teaching The Hunger Games goes. I still have to read the first book at least. I picked it up the last time I was in McNally-Jackson and grew bored by page 5 or so. What do you think of the racist animus the casting of the character "Rue" by a young mixed-race/black actress has provoked?

  3. John:

    Glad you saw the article about how some are incensed that a character they liked in the book Hunger Games is being played by a woman of color - totally missing out on the fact that she is described as 'brown skinned' in the book itself! The lead character is also supposed to be of some not 100% Caucasian colour as well, but that would have been TOO much - you know Hollywood...