Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.

The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?

Learning the literary analysis

It’s end-of-semester time when I meet with students to coach them through revisions of their final papers. A fair number of those assignments are literary analysis papers, and the students I tutor tend to view these essays with dread stemming from confusion. I have learned a few methods of deconstructing and demystifying the literary analysis, but I understand these students’ frustrations. I felt them myself many years ago, as I learned literary analysis the hard way, under the tutelage of a formidable and exacting professor.

Actually, I had not thought much about learning literary analysis until a few days ago, when I had the chance to read some of my own early essays. In the bag of ephemera that contained my father’s essay on Martin Luther (see this post), there are also a few of my letters and college papers that my mother saved for some reason. How revealing it was to read my early forays into fiction analysis–and to see the comments my professor made on my work. Very astute, critical comments that confronted me, a naive 17-year-old who was accustomed to getting high grades on English papers, with all that I was assuming, leaving out, or asserting with faulty logic or lack of evidence.

It’s interesting that I rose to the challenge. I was shy and easily intimidated, and very young. The reason I did not feel utterly crushed by the professor’s comments is that this was a seminar class, discussion-based, with a great deal of face-to-face conversation among teacher and students. My professor was the most assertive, self-confident, and supremely logical woman I had ever encountered; I was intrigued by her. How on earth had she gotten that way? Was she born into it? Had her family encouraged her to be so direct, forthright, critically observant? Her vocabulary was precise. Her expectations were high; yet she insisted we teenagers had ideas that we were capable of expressing verbally and on paper.

Many students disliked her intensely, considered her too blunt, wounding, hypercritical. I respected her acuity and her breadth of knowledge. I didn’t want to emulate her, but I wanted to read what she had read and understand it as intently as she did.

I don’t think she would mind my revealing her identity, as she’s well-known for her passionate learnedness and her controversial ideas about education. You can find her on a TEDtalk on YouTube: Liz Coleman, long-time president of Bennington College. When I was a freshman at the experimental Freshman Year Program at The New School for Social Research, she was the program dean and my Art of Fiction teacher.

The title page of a much-lacking freshman attempt.

The title page of a much-lacking freshman attempt.

She did not coach us on thesis statements or methods of breaking the analysis into chunks of ideas supported by evidence from the text. Instead, she quarreled with our assertions, asked probing questions of our thin but possibly promising claims, and confronted us with the obvious. I was astounded by this approach to education, 180 degrees different from what I had encountered in high school. After Liz made her comments on my One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest essay, I picked up the book and immediately read it again–something I had never done before.

I had drawn parallels to the Christ narrative, a rather obvious way for a beginner to explore Kesey’s novel, but had completely failed to recognize that if you’re going to draw such parallels there comes a point where you need to recognize what the novelist does with the idea of “sacrifice”–what is gained (if anything) by it, and what purposeful and ironic twists the writer does to that narrative, and to what end(s). I was onto something when I wrote about the ‘earthly’ aspects of the characters but lost that thread in my allegorical pursuit.

My professor pointed out that I had “seriously limited the impact” of my paper’s argument–at that time, I had no idea that a literary analysis actually a form of argument–by transforming the novel into something it wasn’t, ie, a retelling of the Christ narrative. I love what she next wrote:

“That’s just not adequate to one’s experience of a novel in which earthly pleasures (the more earthly the better, it seems) are so unequivocally celebrated…[Kesey’s] vision of triumph has very much to do with being alive–his communion is with the juices of life.”

The communion with the juices of life! She wrote that to a 17-year-old. I’m not sure I got the full impact then, but I sure learned a great deal from her feedback both on the page and in class. And I did begin to write better, more argumentative, more logical papers. It wasn’t the simplest way to learn how to do a close read; but then, a close read of classic literature should reveal complex insights. I had to fight my way through my own assumptions and bad logic. I had to learn to read again, and at first I felt that analysis would destroy the joy I took in reading; but that’s only true if you are unlucky enough to have a professor who insists that the students’ interpretations align with the teacher’s opinions.paper002

Dr. Coleman has strong opinions about literature–and education, and political engagement, and many many other subjects. Yet I never felt she was pushing her interpretations onto us students; it seemed to me she was pushing me to do better work, to think more clearly, to read with more enthusiasm, with an alert mind. My engagement with literature, art, and much more owes a lot to her…I had always loved to read but had been in many ways a lazy reader.

I’m pretty much cured of that now!