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Humanities on the Brain

By James Williford | HUMANITIES, January/February 2012 | Volume 33, Number 1

Neuroscience is hot  these days. The appeal of its explicatory promise—to reveal the electrochemical mechanisms undergirding such familiar, yet (for now) mysterious, phenomena as memory, attention, and decision-making—seems almost irresistible. Or, if not irresistible, at least unavoidable, cropping up well beyond the walls and rigors of the academy. Microsoft, Hyundai, and Frito-Lay, for example, have hired sci-tech–savvy marketing firms to test the neurological effects of product designs and advertising strategies on consumers. Books devoted to brain health and fitness cram the self-help shelves of Barnes and Noble. Popular media outlets from FOX News to O magazine report regularly—and sometimes reliably—on the latest “breakthroughs” in neurobiology. And, as Deborah Jenson points out, there is even a new line of so-called health drinks trying to cash in on the current trend for all things encephalous. Feeling spent in the “playful energy” department? Try NeuroGasm—“passion in every bottle,” the company’s website claims. Need some stress relief? Pound a NeuroBliss.

While Jenson, a professor of Romance studies at Duke University, is amused by this faddishness, she has an altogether different kind of neuro-neologism to promote—one that, in practice, shares the spirit of actual scientific research, not the precious nonsense of pop culture: the neurohumanities. So far, it’s a truly fledgling transdisciplinary enterprise, still trying to work out the best way to get itself off the ground. Preliminary objective: Bring the neurosciences and the humanities together, productively, and, in the process, give identifiable shape to a portion of the murky intellectual terrain that lies between the two proverbial “sides of campus.” Already, neuroscientists and humanists are tackling similar questions—by joining forces, they might vastly refine our understanding of the role that narrative plays in human cognition, for example, or offer new perspectives on the ways in which historiography organizes collective thought around past events, or explore with empirical precision the power of literature to represent consciousness. “We’re all making claims about the brain and its products,” says Jenson, “and, ideally, one participates fully in the pursuits of knowledge in one’s era.”

Toward that end, Jenson has helped convene the Neurohumanities Research Group at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, which has designed and begun to teach one of the first undergraduate courses in the field (intriguingly titled “Flaubert’s Brain”), and, more recently, moderated a satellite event of the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference intended to introduce the neurohumanities to a wider audience.

Held last November at the Goethe Institute in Washington, D.C., “Neuroscience and the Humanities: An American-German Conversation” engaged two scholars from Freie University in Berlin—neuroscientist Arthur Jacobs and rhetorician Oliver Lubrich—and two from Duke—neuroscientists Michael Platt and Lasana Harris—to discuss the potentials of the nascent field and the hurdles it faces. The talk attracted an impressive, and notably international, crowd of scientists, students, and nonexperts, a number of whom expressed enthusiasm for the ambitious scope of the scholars’ undertaking.

The first step, the panelists agreed, is to establish mutual understanding across the disciplines involved. Jacobs, who, as director of Freie University’s Dahlem Institute for Neuro-imaging of Emotion, collaborates regularly with humanities scholars, offered a likely scenario: “A neurophysicist confronted with a doctoral student who is interested in Hölderlin poems,” which sounded like the setup for some preposterously erudite joke. “Imagine,” he continued, “how they start to have a conversation. This can go wrong. There is a high risk that there is no added value whatsoever.” In other words, just because cutting-edge brain imaging technologies—functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, and transcranial magnet stimulation, for instance—are made available to a humanist scholar, doesn’t mean that those technologies will necessarily benefit his or her particular project. “The methods must fit the questions,” Jacobs emphasized. And for that to happen, humanists have to be more than vaguely aware of what neuroscientists are up to, and vice versa.

Harris, whose recent work focuses on neural responses that explain the traditionally humanist subject of our all-too-human capacity for bias, racism, and torture, made a similar point after the event. “People who are trained in one discipline,” he said, “usually know things about that discipline and that discipline alone. So there need to be people who can, in a sense, speak both languages. That’s going to take some time—a couple of generations. There aren’t that many people who can talk about the brain competently and talk about a humanities discipline competently.”

The disciplinary divides are indeed deep, but the idea that they might be successfully overcome is not without encouraging precedents. For the humanities, at least, becoming “neuro” represents as much a return to tradition as it does a vanguard of intellectual inquiry. “To me,” says Jenson, “it seems that the separation between what C. P. Snow called ‘the two cultures’ of science and the humanities is really a twentieth-century invention. When you look back at earlier moments in history, you don’t find that separation.” And Lubrich, at the talk, suggested the work of Alexander von Humboldt, the famous naturalist and explorer, as a prototype for modern neurohumanities research. “In the 1790s,” he explained, “Humboldt experimented on his own muscle and nerve fiber in order to demystify the poetical assumption of a life force, and, at the same time, wrote a poetical piece for a journal edited by Friedrich Schiller, engaging in a philosophical and aesthetic discourse on the same subject.”

Of course, individual polymaths of Humboldt’s stature are few and far between in any age, and most neurohumanities research will probably be carried out—as, in a handful of studies, it already has—by multidisciplinary teams. Combining their backgrounds, Jacobs and Lubrich are in the midst of a project that they call “De-rhetoricizing Obama.” Its method is simple enough: Use transcripts of the president’s rhetorically-rich speeches and “de-rhetoricized” versions thereof to examine readers’ neurological and physiological reactions to the formal minutiae of political discourse. “The assumption of Aristotelian theory,” Lubrich explained, “is that each individual rhetorical figure enhances the capacity of a speech to persuade, to move, to please, et cetera, and that a number of formal figures of a speech, taken together, have a cumulative effect on our responses. So, what happens if we take those figures out?” What happens in our brains and to our bodies, that is, when instead of reading “health care and education and the economy,” a polysyndetic, or repeatedly compounded, line drawn from Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, we read the less rhythmic “health care, education, and the economy”? What happens when an entire political speech is stripped of polysyndetons and all other rhetorical devices? (The study is ongoing, but preliminary data suggests what Lubrich refers to as “a rhetoricity bias in memory”: participants who, a week after the initial testing, were presented with both versions of a speech, often believed that they had read the original, rhetorically intact version, even if, in fact, they had read the manipulated version.)

“None of us,” said neuroscientist Jacobs, “—not the people from the humanities, not the people from the neurosciences—could do this on our own. We would just lack the knowledge. I have no idea about the three hundred seventy-five rhetorical figures” that Lubrich selected for the Obama study. “At a semantic level, I could consciously express what I liked or didn’t like about what Obama said, but all of these subtle rhythmical, musical, repetition effects that go through my organism at different levels—I’m not aware of them. Oliver [Lubrich] told me, ‘Read Cicero, read Quintilian—they tell you how they do it.’” And now, with the help of the neuroimaging and other technologies, technologies that Cicero and Quintilian could hardly have imagined, we may soon begin to understand how those rhetorical figures—and no doubt many other subjects of humanist scholarship—work within us biochemically. “It’s an adventure,” said Jacobs, “and, I think, an adventure worth taking.”

James Williford is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


Held November 12, 2011, at the Goethe Institute in Washington, D.C., “Neuroscience and the Humanities: An American-German Conversation” was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the German Research Foundation, and the German Center for Research and Innovation.