This is a list of my past and future talks, mostly on cognitive-literary or medical-humanities topics, but some also about eating disorders without a humanities angle. The list also includes a symposium I co-organised in 2012, called ‘Science and Literary Criticism’, and a session I chaired to celebrate the launch of Terence Cave’s 2016 book Thinking with Literature.
Watch this space!
Consuming fictions: Self-report evidence of the benefits and dangers of fiction-reading for eating disorders (2018 International Health Humanities Consortium Conference, Stanford University, 20-22 April 2018) [you can also read my report on the conference here]
Eating disorders are a major public-health concern, and some (especially anorexia) remain notoriously treatment-resistant. In the search for new (and cost-effective) solutions, there is growing evidence for the efficacy of reading self-help books for eating disorders and other mental illnesses. By contrast, ‘creative bibliotherapy’ (the therapeutic use of fiction, poetry, or drama, rather than self-help) is widely practised but poorly understood: although a range of theoretical models exist, claims of the healing power of literature are far more commonly made than tested. I present self-report evidence from a large-scale survey conducted with the leading UK eating-disorders charity, Beat, suggesting the importance of fiction-reading, both positively and negatively, to eating-disorder prevention, development, maintenance, and recovery.
Surprisingly, fiction specifically about eating disorders was perceived by respondents as broadly detrimental to mood, self-esteem, feelings about one’s body, and diet and exercise habits, while respondents’ preferred genre of other fiction was experienced as beneficial or neutral on the four dimensions. The findings pose direct challenges to existing models of creative bibliotherapy’s efficacy, which tend to insist on the importance of a close match between the reader’s and the protagonist’s situations in the interests of promoting ‘identification’, which in turn is meant to stimulate insight and problem-solving.
These preliminary findings suggest other ways of conceiving of how embodied cognitive acts of narrative-cued interpretation may intervene in the psychopathology of disordered eating – for good and for ill. This work is now also contributing to the development of an app to support recovery from anorexia: cognitive-literary research on reader-text interactions is helping create textual prompts to maximise users’ engagement with the central task of weight restoration, while hypotheses generated by these survey data will inform invitations to users to engage in structured ways with works of visual art, music, and literature. In concert, these initiatives aim to further our understanding of the dynamics of both aesthetic and digitally mediated therapies.
▪ ‘Creative Bibliotherapy and Mental Health: Why We Need to Assume Less and Find Out More’ (Department of Literature, Uppsala University, Sweden, 11 March 2018)
Mental illness is a growing public-health concern, and a perennial lack of resources makes treating people using books an attractive option. In this talk I take eating disorders as a case study for what is known and unknown about whether and how different kinds of reading may be therapeutically effective — or the reverse. There is growing evidence for the efficacy of ‘self-help bibliotherapy’ (reading self-help books, with or without therapeutic guidance) as a treatment for eating disorders, but so-called ‘creative bibliotherapy’ (using fiction, memoir, poetry, or drama), although widely practised, is even more poorly understood than the self-help variety. A range of theoretical models exist, but the healing powers of literature are far more often assumed than tested. I report on the results of a large-scale survey conducted with the UK eating-disorders charity Beat which suggests that literary reading has striking effects, both positive and negative, on a range of physical, cognitive-emotional, and behavioural measures central to eating disorders, with a strong contrast emerging between fiction about eating disorders (which were widely perceived as anti-therapeutic) and other kinds (which were generally seen as positive or neutral). The findings conflict with existing theoretical models, which tend to insist on the therapeutic importance of a close match between the reader’s and the protagonist’s situations, and suggest new ways of understanding the feedback that operates between minds, bodies, and texts.
▪ Reading-group session on ‘Cognitive Science and Literary Studies’ (Department of Literature, Uppsala University, 12 March 2018)
The early days of cognitive literary studies involved a lot of disciplinary genuflection: taking findings readymade from Science in order to understand literature better. There are now more signs of the exchange flowing both ways, yielding new questions and answers for the study of minds as well as of texts. Mark Bruhn’s 2015 article ‘A mirror on the mind: Stevens, chiasmus, and autism spectrum disorder’ does this reciprocity beautifully: starting from an observation of a parallel between critical responses to Wallace Stevens and language processing in autism, proposing a literary/linguistic feature to explain the similarity (chiasmus), and using detailed close readings to generate both new insights into Wallace’s poetics and new empirical methods for investigating open questions in autism research. This session explores Bruhn’s article and a poem to be read alongside it.
▪ ‘Kafka and Perception’ (Swedish Literature Society, Department of Literature, Uppsala University, 12 March 2018)
Ever since one of his earliest reviewers marvelled at the ‘blossoming simplicities of his language’, readers (professional and recreational) have been trying to work out just what it is that makes Kafka’s writing so powerful. I argue that part of the answer is to be found by investigating the Kafkaesque reading experience as, precisely, an experience: a phenomenon generated in the interplay between embodied brain and text. Taking a cognitive approach to Kafka allows us to appreciate the strange mixtures of fascination and unease often reported by readers in terms of what I call ‘cognitive realism’: by aligning with the cognitive realities (of perception, emotion, etc.) yet contradicting our intuitions about these processes (the folk psychology), his prose manages to be compelling and unsettling at once. This framework can be applied to the study of any narrative text as a way of generating hypotheses about readers’ interpretive and experiential responses
▪ ‘Food, Your Body, and the Wider World’ (Merton College, Oxford, 27 February 2018)
Whether or not it reaches the level of a clinical eating disorder, being unhappy or conflicted about food and your body can sometimes seem the norm rather than the exception. It needn’t be. Working out where the unease comes from can itself be an uncomfortable process – but also a revealing and constructive one. Food and our bodies are bound up with everything: with our social lives and sport, with celebrity and the cultural sphere, with moral values and identity and happiness and its absence, with what we want for our lives and where we fit into the world.
This workshop offers an opportunity to draw together the everyday (eating and not eating, real-time relations with food and our bodies) with those wider horizons. We’ll cover social eating, eating and academic anxieties, ‘clean’ eating and ethical eating, and body image and cultural pressures. Starting with concrete examples of how dissonance can creep into the structures of life, the session will invite you to explore your own attitudes and understanding – first through conversation in pairs, then through discussion with the whole group. The final section will then be about making plans for little things you’re going to try out once you leave: tweaks to your ways of seeing or acting that might have interesting or helpful effects on other things. Food and drink will also be provided, with invitations to reflect on the experience of eating and drinking and what it means in this setting and your life beyond it.
▪‘The Body as Object and Subject: Reflections on Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”’ (panel with Daria Martin, Aikaterina Fotopoulou, and Nikola Kern for a Schering Foundation /Leibniz Association event on anorexia nervosa, Berlin, 8 December 2017)
This event marked the premiere of Martin’s film adaptation of Kafka’s story about a man who fasts for others’ entertainment. I was on the advisory board for the film, and am delighted by how it’s turned out. You can read about the making of the film here, and read Kafka’s story in the German original here or in English translation here. And my journal article on how the story may relate to disordered eating (the protagonist’s and/or the reader’s) is here.
▪‘Time, Perception, Art, and a few Other Grand Abstractions’ (20 May 2017, as part of the exhibition TIME after TIME, by Geoff Dunlop and Dean Byass, North Wall Gallery, Oxford)
You can find a summary of my ideas, approaching questions about time through the ways that literary art plays with the temporality of our perceptual experience, on Geoff Dunlop’s website, here.
▪‘Cognitive Realism and the Ambivalent Fascination of the Kafkaesque’ (XIIth Prague Interpretation Colloquium: The Power of Analysis and the Impossibility of Understanding: Lessons from Kafka, Prague, 23-27 April 2017)
Ever since people have been reading Kafka, they have had the feeling that what they are reading is at the same time deeply strange and wholly familiar, and have felt both unsettled and compelled by it. Early on, these mixtures were encapsulated in the new coinage ‘Kafkaesque’. If we want to understand the source of these complex responses, and so how the Kafkaesque comes about, we need to understand what happens in the encounter between mind and text: what’s going on when we read Kafka? One way to pose this question is to ask how the minds in Kafka’s texts relate to the minds that engage with them. And a good place to start is the (visual) imagination, because this is one of the primary means by which we engage with fictional worlds.
Analysis of vision and imagination as they are evoked in Kafka’s characters and as they operate in readers’ minds reveals a direct correspondence between the two: a striking and uncommon ‘cognitive realism’ which may be able to account for some of the potency of Kafka’s style. Cognitive realism can serve as a framework for analysing the interplay between fictional minds, readers’ minds, and ‘folk psychology’ (the intuitions we have about how minds work). I explore what we can learn, using this framework, about the relation between Kafka’s worlds and our own, and what this in turn can tell us about our minds and how they construct realities through the complex pleasures of literary interpretation.
You can also listen to an interview about my Kafka-related research translated into Czech here.
▪‘Interpretation Should Be an Object as well as a Method of Inquiry for Literary Studies’ (Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism: Reflections on First Principles, University of Edinburgh, 5 May 2017)
Trying to come up with new meanings for texts should not be what literary studies does. Just as biology has progressed beyond collecting new species, so literary criticism should learn to embrace more than new readings. Generating a new reading (i.e. a verbal statement of one or more textual ‘meanings’) may be a significant step in a critic’s process of engagement with a text. But in the professional study of literature, arriving at such a reading should be a precursor to the more interesting (and much more difficult) work of establishing how one arrived at it. As such, any ‘hermeneutical’ reading of a text is an explanation in cognitive poetics waiting to happen, and conversely, every cognitive elucidation of a text also holds within it at least one and usually multiple conventional ‘readings’.
So one answer to the question ‘can cognitive approaches generate new readings of texts?’ is ‘Yes, of course’. But a better answer is ‘Yes, but every reader of literature can do that. Does anyone deserve to get paid for generating one more reading of Crime and Punishment? What literary studies as a research discipline should by now be focusing on is why generating new readings seems valuable, why it’s enjoyable, and (above all) how it happens.’ That is, we need to find out a lot more about what interpretation is.
Interpretation is a basic action of organic life, and is central to everything the human mind does: literature is just one corner of an infinitely interpretable world, albeit an especially captivating corner. If we continue to treat interpretation primarily as a method of inquiry, and do not train ourselves to treat it also as an object of inquiry, we’ll learn much less than we otherwise could about ourselves and the world – including the world of literary texts. We will also fail to contribute our importantly literature-informed perspectives to the multidisciplinary study of mind.
I’ll illustrate this argument with some readings of ‘The Shadow’, a short story by Hans Christian Andersen, generated as part of the lasting stand-off between cognitive and unnatural narratology.
▪‘Why We Need Literary Studies (To Help Us Understand and Treat Mental Illness)’ (Cognitive Science in the Arts and Humanities speaker series, Stony Brook University, lecture, 26 October 2016)
Contrary to long-cherished belief, studying literature can be useful in all sorts of ways. In this talk I set out the guiding logic, practice, and current results of one such way. The logic is as follows:
- A lot of people spend a lot of time reading fiction.
- Mental health is likely to play some role (probably as both cause and effect) in those meetings of mind and text.
- Eating disorders are perhaps the most culturally inflected of all mental illnesses, so people suffering from, recovering from, or susceptible to disordered eating may be particularly likely to respond to fiction in therapeutically significant ways.
- Eating disorders are the most embodied of ‘mental’ illnesses, so those responses and their after-effects may be manifested physically as well as psychologically.
Fiction is complicated, as are people, so the causes, experiences, and effects of fiction-reading will be complex too, even though ‘bibliotherapy’ practitioners (and perhaps some literary scholars) would like to believe reading ‘proper’ literature must reliably do more good than harm. More research is needed!
As for the pragmatics of doing that research, I’ll cover some of the basic challenges: working with other disciplines and systems of knowledge, with non-academic partners, and with clinical populations; designing experiments and making sense of the results; and dovetailing the empirical and theoretical strands. I’ll illustrate all these points with findings and learning experiences from my partnership with the UK eating disorders charity Beat; from the Books, Minds, and Bodies reading-group project; and from my own theoretical work and personal reflections on eating disorders and reading.
▪‘The How and the Why of the Engaged Humanities’ (Cognitive Sciences in the Arts and Humanities speaker series, workshop, Stony Brook University, 26 October 2016)
Finding ways to make our research ‘relevant’ can seem like just one more unreasonable requirement of an increasingly utilitarian and cut-throat funding environment. Much more than that, though, it’s a great opportunity. Relevance to the world beyond the academy comes in many guises, from research findings that make a difference to people, to research practices that involve non-academics in shaping your questions and methods.
This workshop will be a chance to explore elements of your own work-in-progress that have (potential or actual) empirical or ethical implications, or where some kind of public engagement makes sense. We’ll think about some of the common challenges of these kinds of humanities work, and about strategies for tackling them.
I’ll kick things off with a few snapshots of the pitfalls and the excitements of my various collaborative empirical projects. I’ll also briefly touch on the questions of whether interdisciplinarity requires or encourages collaboration, and whether it requires or encourages public engagement or knowledge exchange (by which I mean public engagement that is mutually beneficial). Then there will be plenty of time for conversations about whatever aspects are most helpful for you.
If you would like to take part in this workshop, please give some thought in advance to the following questions.
What discipline do you feel is your home discipline, if any?
Which other disciplines do you work with, or are you interested in working with?
Think of one reason why you (might like to) work with another discipline.
Think of one reason why working with another discipline is difficult or daunting.
▪‘Anorexia at Oxford: Myths, Realities, and Ways Out’ (Somerville College, Oxford, Equalities Week, 10 May 2016)
Anorexia is not the most common eating disorder, but it is the most deadly. It also seems to have an unsettling affinity with academic environments. Drawing on my experiences of anorexia and recovery as an undergrad, postgrad, lecturer, and researcher at Oxford, I discuss early warning signs, academic pressure points, and the things that made recovery difficult, as well as those that made it possible – and necessary. Along the way I hope to dissolve a few unhelpful assumptions about what it means to suffer from anorexia, and offer some thoughts on what to do (and not do) if you’re worried about a friend’s relationships with their body or with food.
▪Chair, Book at Lunchtime: Terence Cave’s Thinking with Literature (TORCH, Radcliffe Humanities, University of Oxford, 20 April 2016)
Part of a fortnightly series of bite-sized book discussions, with commentators from a range of disciplines. It’s free, and all are welcome. There’s a sandwich lunch from 12:30, with discussion from 13:00 to 13:45. Terence Cave (French, Oxford) will discuss his new book with Deirdre Wilson (Linguistics, UCL), Ilona Roth (Psychology, Open University), and Marina Warner (English, Oxford, and fiction writer).
About the book: To speak of ‘thinking with literature’ is to make the assumption that literature (in the broadest sense) is neither a side-show nor a side-issue in human cultures: it belongs to the spectrum of imaginative modes that includes both philosophical and scientific thought. Whether one regards it as a practice or as an archive, literature is highly pervasive, robust, enduring, and pregnant with values. Thinking with Literature argues that what it affords above all is a way of thinking, whether for writer, reader, or critic. Literature constitutes one of the prime instruments of cultural improvisation; it is the embodiment of a powerful, inventive, and ever-changing cognitive agency. As such, it invites a cognitive mode of criticism, one which asserts the priority of the individual literary work as a unique product of human cognition. In this book, discussions of topics, arguments, and hypotheses from the cognitive sciences, philosophy, and the theory of communication are woven into the fabric of a critical analysis which insists on the value of close reading: a poem by Yeats, a scene from Shakespeare, novels by Mme de Lafayette, Conrad, Frantzen, stories from Winnie-the-Pooh and many others appear here on their own terms, with their own cognitive energies. Written in an accessible style, Thinking with Literature speaks both to mainstream readers of literature and to specialists in cognitive studies.
▪‘Envisioning Cognitive Futures for the Humanities’ (Cognitive Visions: Poetic Image-Making and the Mind, St John’s College, Oxford, 11-12 January 2016)
In this talk (for which there was no abstract) I covered: why the cognitive humanities (and cognitive classics in particular) are important and fun; why vision and imagination are a good place for those interested in cognitive literary studies to start; and how a method I’ve used in my own research might be useful in all kinds of exploratory cognitive-literary research, with the concept of cognitive realism acting as a simple mediator between the scientific findings and debates and the literary questions. I also made a plea for attending to the nature of our conscious experiences more closely before trying to find explanations for them, and used the examples of visual perception and mental imagery to try to convey just how wide open the mystery of consciousness still is, and to suggest some contributions literary people might make to it. By investigating otherwise neglected forms of experience, and by attending to the language scientists use – often inconsistently, incoherently, and therefore unhelpfully – to talk about consciousness, the cognitive humanities can avoid the temptation to bow down to Science, and develop genuinely two-way exchanges with scientists and their ways of working and thinking.
▪ ‘How Should We Be Feminists about Mental Health?’ (St John’s College Feminist Society, 18 November 2015)
Mental illness is more common in women than men, and the discrepancy is greatest of all for eating disorders. The possible reasons for these discrepancies are as complex as the mind itself, but there’s a good deal to be learnt from thinking through the social, cultural, physical, and psychological factors involved in mental health with an eye to sex and gender. In particular, there are good reasons to reject the common feminist tendency to frame everything in terms of cultural construction rather than acknowledge the biology too. This talk will draw partly on my own experiences of anorexia and recovery, and partly on my research into how our reading habits might affect our mental health (and vice versa). I’ll try above all to offer some theoretical and practical thoughts about womanhood in a complicated world – not the least the university world.
▪ Session with Katherine Morris, ‘Eating Disorders and the Humanities’ (Mind, Value and Mental Health: 2nd Oxford Summer School in Philosophy and Psychiatry, University of Oxford, 23-25 July 2015)
In this session we ask what value the humanities may have in research and treatment of eating disorders. Taking examples from feminism, cultural anthropology, literary studies, and phenomenology, we suggest ways in which interdisciplinary work across the sciences-humanities divide may contribute both constructively and critically to the description, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of eating disorders.
▪ ‘Individual Illusions’ (10th Prague Interpretation Colloquium: The Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and the Arts, Institute of Philosophy, Academy of the Sciences of the Czech Republic, 20-22 April 2015)
Most discussions of the aesthetic illusion in literary contexts treat ‘the reader’ as a monolithic entity whose responses to textual prompts are established either via (usually unacknowledged) inference from the critic’s own personal responses to a specific text or, at best, through an investigation of how, in general terms, textual and cognitive factors interact to shape the experience of ‘immersed’ reading. Most approaches to these phenomena are also primarily theoretical, and even when empirical work is conducted to test and refine the theoretical claims made, its aim is usually to establish general principles across a cohort of participants rather than to tease out individual differences. But cognitive processes of course always operate in individual embodied minds with individual histories and personality traits. Using empirical work-in-progress on reading and mental health (specifically eating disorders) as a case study, this paper explores the potential effects of personal history and personality on readers’ engagement with literature. The relationships between emotion (including empathy and identification) and thematic interpretation on the cognitive side, and narrative perspective and metaphor on the textual side, will be discussed with a view to elucidating the significance of individual variation in the aesthetic illusion and in literary studies more broadly.
▪ ‘What Anorexia Can Teach Us about the Phenomenology of Health’ (Phenomenology and Health: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, TORCH, University of Oxford, 27-28 March 2015)
Defined as it is by powerful feedback loops between the physiological effects of semi-starvation and an obsessive-compulsive cognitive engagement with food and the body, anorexia nervosa stands right at the crossroads between physical and mental illness. As such, it can help us in thinking about how mind and body relate to each other in sickness and in health. Phenomenological inquiries into human experience, especially when engaged with the latest debates and findings in the empirical cognitive sciences, offer constructive ways of connecting insights into the embodied, embedded, and enactive realities of cognition with an attention to how things really feel. But the phenomenological focus on what phenomena mean can cause problems when it comes to mental health, and especially anorexia, where attributing meaning to the anorexic condition is a common strategy by which sufferers deny the prosaic reality of their illness and therefore the need for weight gain and recovery: pro-eating-disorder websites, for instance, dangerously demedicalise the language of ‘ana’ and ‘mia’, while religious belief and body mass are inversely correlated among anorexics (Joughin et al. 1992). I argue that phenomenology therefore shouldn’t be afraid of ‘choosing materialism’ by rejecting the legitimacy of meanings that only reiterate the old dualist mind-over-body dichotomy, and by privileging symptoms over meanings when that is what’s medically and ethically required.
Joughin, Neil, Arthur H. Crisp, Christine Halek, and Heather Humphrey. 1992. “Religious Belief and Anorexia Nervosa.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 12: 397-406.
▪ ‘Embodied Minds, Texts, and Contexts in Literary Reading’ (Mind, Body, and (Con)Text: Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Language”, School of Languages and Cultures, Purdue University, 6-7 March 2015)
Over the past decade or so, the idea that the mind needs to be understood as part of the body has borne fruit in cognitive science and in cognitive literary studies, even if people still disagree, both between and within fields, about just how far-reaching the cognitive consequences of embodiment are. My own research has centred on embodiment in two rather different contexts: the study of Franz Kafka’s prose style and its effects on readers, and an investigation of the relationships between how people read and interpret fiction and their mental health. The first of these projects drew on current scientific findings and debates, and combined theoretical with empirical work, to uncover the embodied, enactive, and non-dualist nature of Kafka’s evocations of vision and emotion, arguing that these characteristics help explain the ambivalently ‘Kafkaesque’ experience of reading his fiction. My current project adds the next layer to these cognitive foundations by asking what embodiment means when it comes to individual embodied minds with individual traits and histories. My focal point here, partly because they form part of my own individual history, is eating disorders. Disordered eating stands right at the crossroads between mental and physical illness, and as such offers an important context for thinking about how mind, body, and context interact in the literary sphere, not least in relation to the dangers of dualism in folk-psychological intuitions about mind, body, and self. I outline what this project, in collaboration with the charity Beat, aims to contribute to our understanding of the reciprocal connections between reading and eating disorders. And I suggest, further, that the academic study of literature as a whole will become more informed, more precise, and more responsible if it takes into account the fact that both readers of literature and readers of literary scholarship are, after all, real people.
▪ ‘Humanities and Science in Conversation: Mental Health’ (TORCH, University of Oxford, 27 January 2015)
A quick round-up of my current work on reading and eating disorders. See the video of the full session here.
▪ ‘Reading Food as Food’ (Eating Otherwise: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Food and Culture, Lancaster University, 28 February – 1 March 2015)
Food and eating are as common in literature as in life, and, as in life, are invested in literary texts with all kinds of complex meanings. But although it’s recently become fashionable in many humanities and science disciplines to acknowledge embodiment as fundamental to human cognition and culture, more often than not literary scholarship supposedly focused on textual evocations of food and eating still ignores the embodied aspects in favour of apparently more interesting highly abstracted metaphorical or symbolic significance. Leaping straight to the ‘meta-level’ like this not only leads to some amusingly implausible interpretations of quite straightforward fictional episodes, but also hides from view complexities of meaning and effect that depend on an acknowledgement of the constant feedback between the conceptual, the experiential, and the physical. More seriously, refusing to make time for fictional characters’ embodied experiences plays into precisely the dualist privileging of mind over body which is fundamental to the cognitive-behavioural structure of eating disorders. A more conceptually sound and ethically responsible way of studying literature can both help us understand texts better and offer benefits for the clinical understanding of disordered eating. I outline methods and preliminary findings of a research partnership with the eating-disorders charity Beat, involving critical analysis and experimental work focused on how textual features evoking food, eating, and the body may affect real readers on dimensions like body image and self-esteem. Medical-humanities research that takes embodied eating seriously thus really can bridge the gap between research on literature and on mental health.
▪ ‘Experimenting with the Imagination’ (14th Conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, University of Turin, Italy, 21-25 July 2014)
Mental imagery is the object of a long-standing debate in cognitive science: does imagery operate by means of mental pictures or language-like representations? A deadlock has developed between the pictorialist and the propositionalist positions, but more recent enactivist accounts offer a promising alternative. Reading fiction epitomises the pleasurable guided imaginative experience, but work on imaginative responses to real literature is rarely incorporated into scientific thinking on the visual imagination. Yet the literary text, as a concrete and manipulable stimulus to imagining, could form the basis of a programme of empirical work on the imagination that sidesteps some of the limitations of existing research. I discuss the results of two empirical studies on Kafka that offer evidence against the dominant pictorialist view and for the enactivist view, and argue that cognitive literary science can contribute systematically to the scientific imagery debate.
▪ ‘Manifesto for the Literary Humanities’, with James Carney (Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities, Durham University, 7-8 July 2014)
Read the full text of our manifesto here.
▪ ‘Bodies, Brains, and the Literature of Hunger’ (2nd International Conference: Cognitive Futures in the Humanities, Durham University, 24-26 April 2014)
Brains are part of bodies, and when bodies go wrong, so do brains. Eating disorders are a prime example of how, in a continuous decentralised feedback loop, mental pathology arises from bodily dysfunction and vice versa. The dangerous metaphorical associations that help sustain eating disorders like anorexia – equations, for example, of hunger and thinness with self-denial, strength, power, purity, specialness, etc. – are cognitively potent and are also widespread in literature, literary studies, and culture at large. Reading literature from a cognitive perspective which is both second-generation (informed by cognitive science that takes into account the embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended nature of human cognition) and first-person (acknowledging and drawing on individual real-world embodiment and its psychological consequences) may help us understand better how embodied cognition becomes pathological and what this means for literary structures, readers’ responses, and academic practices. In this talk I focus on Modernist literature that deals with hunger and disordered eating, including works by Hamsun, Hemingway, Kafka, and Rimbaud. I argue for a cognitive approach that takes seriously the linguistic content of literary texts and their evocation of the fictional characters’ embodied experiences, exploring those experiences and their potential counterparts in real readers in a scientifically informed and sensitive manner rather than leaping immediately to a derivation of thematic (metaphorical/symbolic) meaning. I indicate how this methodology can make common literary-critical concerns such as paradox and thematic interpretation more tractable, as well as how it relates to the emerging field of cognitive literary science and may have moral as well as academic benefits.
▪ ‘Reading Kafka Cognitively’ (German Graduate Research Seminar, University of Cambridge, 27 January 2014)
We can’t read in any way other than cognitively, of course, but for much of the 20th century this fact was not reflected in academic discourses on literature, which tended to prioritise more complex theoretical frameworks over the specifics of text-reader interactions. Over the past three decades or so, cognitive literary studies has, albeit with many different emphases and commitments, begun to work through the implications of acknowledging that literature exists only through our cognitive engagement with it. Recent rapid advances in many of the fields grouped together under the heading of the ‘cognitive sciences’ make this kind of interdisciplinary dialogue much more viable and fruitful now than it was even 20 years ago. In this talk I use Kafka’s works as a case study to show how a scientifically informed cognitive approach can help us better understand literary texts and readers’ potential interactions with them, including in an empirically testable sense. My approach tries to keep things simple by applying relevant scientific theories and findings directly to the analysis of textual features, through the lens of what I call ‘cognitive realism’. I give examples from the realms of vision and imagination, emotion, and cognitive pathology, and in general advocate an approach to cognition that takes seriously its embodied and enactive essence.
▪ ‘Starving Body and Mind: First-Person and Second-Generation Perspectives’ (International Conference on Narrative, Manchester Metropolitan University, 27-29 June 2013)
‘Second-generation’ cognitive science is, amongst other things, an anti-dualist discipline, assuming the interconnectedness of ‘body’ and ‘mind’. Kafka’s short story ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’ (‘A Hunger Artist’, 1922) is about a profoundly embodied experience of denying embodiment: that of fasting to death. With this text’s ‘cognitive realism’ as my focal point, I use insights from second-generation cognitive science, including studies of eating disorders and starvation, to provide purchase on literary questions relating to paradox and metaphor/symbolism/allegory. I also suggest that incorporating a first-person perspective which acknowledges real-world embodiment and its psychological consequences may sometimes enrich second-generation cognitive literary studies.
▪ ‘Cognitive Realism and Memory in Madame Bovary’ (UCL Stylistics Circle, Oxford, 13 May 2013)
I discuss how an approach to literary study that draws on cognitive science allows us to identify a ‘cognitive realism’ in the evocation of memory in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Specifically, I elucidate Emma’s memory with reference to cognitive-dissonance theory: the human need for coherence between memory and self-image makes the trajectory of her married life psychologically explicable. These findings help account for readers’ ambivalent or contradictory responses to Emma’s story, and also suggest broader conclusions regarding the disjuncture between Realism (which corresponds to our assumptions about cognition) and cognitive realism (which corresponds to the cognitive realities).
▪ ‘Reading Imaginatively: The Imagination in the Cognitive Sciences and the Cognitive Humanities’ (1st International Conference: Cognitive Futures of the Humanities, Bangor University, 4-6 April 2013)
The imagination has been the focus of philosophical interest and controversy for millennia, and specifically vision-like imagining, or ‘mental imagery’, has been central to major debates in cognitive science, notably the long-standing pictorialist (Kosslyn, 1980 and 1994) versus propositionalist (Pylysyhn, 2003) debate on perception (vision and vision-like imagination). More recent enactive accounts – the sensorimotor theory of vision (O’Regan and Noë, 2001) and the perceptual-activity theory of imagery (Thomas, 1999) – offer a way of breaking the pictorialist/propositionalist deadlock. Varied evidence relating to the neural and bodily basis of the imagination, its phenomenology, and its interactions with other cognitive faculties has fed into this debate, and I suggest that there are good reasons for preferring the enactive account. However, one facet of the imagination which has been less thoroughly incorporated into theoretical discussion is the issue of imaginative experience specifically when reading. Reading fiction is a paradigmatic example of an imaginative experience sought out for pleasure, and its qualities have been investigated empirically and theoretically by researchers such as Burke (2011), Kuzmičová (e.g. 2012), Sadoski and colleagues (e.g. 1988), and Scarry (2001). Here I draw on important developments in ‘second-generation’ cognitive science, or the science of embodiment (and specifically its enactive strand), along with reflections on specific literary texts and findings from empirical literary studies, to try to unify and expand our thinking about this important kind of imagining. I suggest that this is one area in which the cognitive humanities may both benefit literary studies and feed back into cognitive-science debates.
Burke, M. (2011) Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind. London: Routledge.
Kosslyn, S.M. (1980) Image and Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Kosslyn, S.M. (1994) Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate. Cambridge, MA: MITP.
Kuzmičová, A. (2012) ‘Presence in the Reading of Literary Narrative: A Case for Motor Enactment’, Semiotica 189: 23-48.
O’Regan, J.K., and A. Noë (2011) ‘A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 939-1011.
Sadoski, M., E.T. Goetz, and S. Kangiser (1988) ‘Imagination in Story Response: Relationships between imagery, affect, and structural importance’, Reading Research Quarterly 23 (3): 320-336.
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▪ ‘Having One’s Cake and Eating It: Smell, Flavour, and Memory in Proust’, Graduate Interdisciplinary Research Seminar on the Senses, English Faculty, University of Oxford, 28 November 2012
▪ ‘The Art and Science of Hunger in Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”’, Cultural Pathologies seminar series, Centre for Modern European Literature, University of Kent, 25 October 2012
My starting point is Kafka’s story about a man who starves himself to death even though no one’s really interested in watching him do so. The story has often been interpreted as the evocation of an anorexic experience, and I ask whether this is a useful ‘diagnosis’, noting both similarities and differences between the anorexic and the ‘hunger artist’. I suggest that many interpretations of this text not only fall into the dualist trap of dissociating mind from body, but also fall victim to myths about the superiority of mind over body that are often upheld by anorexics themselves. I argue that a scientifically informed perspective which emphasises the embodied nature of cognition lets us interpret literary texts both more precisely and more inclusively. Given that my discussion will draw at times on my own experience of anorexia, I also suggest that literary studies might sometimes be enriched if its practitioners allowed their own pathological or otherwise sensitive real-world experiences to inform their academic thought.
▪ ‘Kafka’s Castle: Vision and Imagination in Visual Art and Literature’, First Visual Science of Art Conference, Alghero, Sardinia, 1-2 September 2012
This paper shows how literature can provide a context for drawing connections between visual perception, imagination, and visual art. Visual perception is an important element of literary art and the experiences it induces in readers: the ways in which characters are described as perceiving the fictional world have significant effects on readers’ imaginative responses to this world (see e.g. Troscianko (ET), 2010, Language and Literature, 19, 151-171). I describe an experimental paradigm in which I evaluate experiences induced by the opening of Kafka’s The Castle by 1) using a simple online measure of ‘presence’ (see e.g. Troscianko (T) and Hinde, 2011, i-Perception 2, 216 (in press)) and 2) asking participants to draw what they had imagined while reading. The results enrich the connections that can be drawn between specific approaches within vision science, notably the sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness (e.g. O’Regan and Noë, 2001, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 939-1031), and theories/concepts relating to visual detail and perspective in visual and verbal art. The empirical convergence of visual and verbal art helps us tease out distinctions between imagining, seeing, and conceptualising seeing, and suggests further avenues for exploring how vision acts as a mediator of aesthetic experience.
(I actually didn’t use the presence measure, since it proved impracticable for the short section of text I was using. But I hope it will happen in the future!)
▪ ‘Science and Literary Criticism’, a one-day interdisciplinary symposium convened by Emily Troscianko and Michael Burke at St John’s College, Oxford, 12 April 2012. View the symposium programme (including abstracts and speaker biographies) here.
▪ ‘Representation versus Enaction in Vision, Imagination, and Literary Artworks’ (What Are Artworks and How Do We Experience Them?, Aarhus University Center for Semiotics, Denmark, 26-28 January 2012)
My research draws on literary studies and the sciences of the mind (including psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind) in the exploration of experiences and interpretations prompted by literary artworks. Current work on what I call ‘cognitive realism’ – which denotes the degree of correspondence established between cognitive processes in the reader and their textual evocation in literary artworks – suggests that literature can induce experiences that may either differ significantly from, or bear close resemblance to, experiences of the real world and its objects. In this paper I focus on the cognitive continuum established in all literary works between vision (in the fictional characters) and imagination (in the reader), two faculties which are closely connected in both neural and phenomenological terms. Considering current scientific research on vision and imagination in relation to works of literary Realism and Modernism yields new ways of thinking about ‘representation’ in literature and visual perception, and encourages a sceptical stance as regards the explanatory purchase of the ‘neural correlates’ of real-world or aesthetic experience. The sufficiency and necessity of representation (as phenomenological feature and brain state) in accounting for conscious experience is challenged by accounts based on embodied and situated enaction.
▪ ‘Science and the Study of Literature’ (Oxford Literature and Science Seminar, University of Oxford, 25 November 2011)
In this talk I discuss how science can be of value to literary scholars as a source of insights not only about the era and intellectual context in which a given text was created, but also about textual features and their potential effects on readers. In particular, cognitive science, psychology, consciousness studies, and philosophy of mind can illuminate the ways in which fictional characters and worlds are created through the linguistic evocation of cognition, and help us understand how connections may be established between a character’s and a reader’s cognitive processes. I introduce the concept of ‘cognitive realism’, denoting the direct correspondence between textual evocation of cognition and cognitive realities as demonstrated by current science, and argue for the value of this concept as a critically productive perspective from which to analyse literary texts. I give examples in the areas of visual perception and memory, from Kafka, Flaubert, and Proust.
▪ ‘Kafka and Cognitive Science’ (Bristol Vision Institute Lunchtime Seminar, Bristol University, 16 June 2010)
My research investigates the cognitive basis of readers’ responses to fictional texts. How do words on a page trigger our imaginations? Does a more ‘realistic’ text do so more effectively? My doctoral research into the ‘Kafkaesque’ reading experience has yielded an approach to literary criticism that seeks to provide precise and generalisable answers to these questions. In particular, my research has generated the insight that whereas traditional nineteenth-century literary Realism (think Dickens, Zola, etc.) assumes we build up detailed mental ‘pictures’ of the world around us, and hence that texts which evoke fictional worlds can best do so by means of verbally painted pictures, various areas of current cognitive science show that this is not so: we see and engage with the world enactively rather than pictorially. Texts, such as Kafka’s, that do not describe scenes in picture-like detail are therefore more ‘cognitively realistic’ in a perceptual sense. The term ‘cognitive realism’ can be broadened to denote how a text directly engages any number of specific cognitive processes of the reader, and provides a framework within which to explore aspects of cognition as evoked in the fiction and engaged in the reader. These include vision and imagination, memory, attention, agency, and emotion. Empirical work can help further deepen our understanding of how real readers respond to works of fiction, as they exemplify different sorts of cognitive realism; I will briefly describe an experiment I carried out which measured the facets of the enactive experience of reading Kafka and points ways forward for future empirical studies of literature. The primary aim of my research is to apply our most advanced understanding of perception and cognition directly to great examples of literary fiction, taking the fundaments of science and literature and building them into a new discipline that employs and enriches both.
▪ ‘The Literary Science of the “Kafkaesque”’ (Web / Art / Science Camp 2010, Great Western Studios, London, 6 November 2010)
My talk began with a demonstration of ‘change blindness’, which was used to introduce the scientific finding that we see much less than we think we do, and do not build up detailed, accurate, picture-like mental representations of scenes in order to interact with them; vision is not representation, but action, and the world is available to us through ongoing interaction with it. I gave some examples of how Kafka evokes vision as fallible and as enactive, and argued that this helps us understand his narrative style, and more generally the phenomenon of the ‘Kafkaesque’, an experience at once compelling (because cognitively realistic) and unsettling (because contrary to our assumptions about how vision works and how fiction evokes it. I briefly mentioned my current research, which takes the concept of ‘cognitive realism’ as a basis for exploring other authors in the periods of Realism and Modernism, in both German and French literature, and with reference to other cognitive faculties such as memory, emotion, and attention. I then described a pilot study that involved having subjects draw what they imagined when reading the opening paragraph of Kafka’s novel The Castle, and a fuller empirical study measuring participants’ responses to a short story by Kafka (‘Jackals and Arabs’. This used a free-response format, followed by categorisation and numerical coding by independent judges, and enriched my theoretical conclusions about the ‘Kafkaesque’ by empirically demonstrating specific manifestations of the ‘compelling yet unsettling’ duality: association and speculation or extrapolation, for example, were present simultaneously with uncertainty or confusion.
▪ ‘The Scientific Future of Literary Criticism’ (Literary Studies Now, University of Oxford, 27 April 2009)
Literary criticism risks atrophy and irrelevance if it does not embrace scientific advances in understanding how our minds work. To read is to engage processes of cognition and imagination; therefore to understand the reading experience, and hence any ‘meaning’ we derive from a text, we must embrace what other disciplines can contribute to our understanding of the cognitive processes of the reader. I will advocate a form of ‘cognitive literary criticism’ that combines scientific insights and empirical methodology with the critical traditions of close textual analysis, to enrich the study of literature.
The approach I propose applies our most advanced understanding of perception and cognition directly to great examples of literary fiction. This way of describing, understanding, and classifying literary texts allows us to propose a new and cognitively valid definition of the elusive term ‘realism’. The resulting psychologically valid interpretations of texts not only permit but demand experimental corroboration or falsification: this approach yields testable hypotheses about how the words on the page affect the reader’s experience of the fictional world. I will discuss an experiment I have designed (as part of my D.Phil.) to measure readers’ responses to Kafka’s writing, and the possibilities this study suggests for a more ambitious programme of empirical reader-response research.
Equally essential to this broadening of literary criticism is the attempt to make its findings more accessible and of greater interest to a wider audience. Almost all of us spend much of our time reading fiction; therefore we all have an interest in what makes some texts so powerful and others not. Literary criticism will not risk being deemed ‘worthless’ or ‘irrelevant’ if it can evolve to convey to all sorts of readers the excitements involved in finding out what happens when we read, and why we keep on reading.
▪ ‘The Literary Science of the “Kafkaesque”’ (Modern German Graduate Seminar, University of Oxford, 6 November 2009)
▪ ‘Seeing in a Kafkaesque World’ (Annual Conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association: Time and the Text, University of Sheffield, 23-26 July 2008)
How does a novel tempt us to read it? To make us read and want to go on reading, a fictional narrative has to draw us somehow into the fictional world that it creates, and keep drawing us through that world. We experience the real world around us through active exploration: seeing is knowing how the world will look if we act in certain way: an ongoing enactive mastery of the ‘web of contingencies’ connecting our own actions and how they will make the world look. This way of defining our experience of reality, known in psychology as sensorimotor theory, is very different from the traditional notion that we cumulatively build up a static internal representation of the world by looking at it; it makes time, and perpetual potentiality, a crucial element of all our perceptual experience. And this notion of vision as action applies equally to imagination, and hence to the imagined ‘realities’ that we create and inhabit when we read.
What literature does is: it describes; that is, it makes the reader imagine spaces that collectively constitute a fictional world ‘seen’ in ‘the mind’s eye’ – and not by means of ‘pictures in the head’. The brain processes involved in seeing and in imagining are known to be closely connected; so our investigation of the literary evocation of fictional worlds should be grounded in an understanding of how real people both see the real, external world around them, and imagine unreal worlds. And if a text can tap into fundamental processes by which we see and imagine, it can evoke its fictional world with a power and efficiency, or subtlety, that gives our experience of it all the ease of apparent spontaneity – as if that world really were there, and we being drawn through it. I will argue that textual evocations such as Kafka’s – which do away with the pictorial assumptions about language, imagination, and vision that inform much Realist writing – stimulate our cognitive processes of seeing and imagining to create a reading experience that unfolds in time through a powerful mix of potentiality and indeterminacy and seeming self-evidence. I will take examples from Kafka’s The Trial to show how the temporality of such experiences can illuminate both the (non-pictorial) proximity of seeing and imagining and thereby also how fictional realities can be at once so unsettling and so very real.
▪ ‘Kafkaesque Spaces: Images in the Mind of the Reader’ (Forty-Second National Postgraduate Colloquium in German Studies, University of Kent, 3 November 2007)
What does literature do? Literature describes; that is, it evokes images in a reader’s mind, images which collectively constitute a fictional world in the form of a mental space ‘seen’ in ‘the mind’s eye’. Our investigation of the literary evocation of fictional worlds should therefore be grounded in an understanding of how real people both see real, external space, and imagine unreal spaces. The processes involved in vision and in mental imagery are closely connected; writers’ descriptions of space draw on visual perception in order to prompt the reader’s cognitive construction of a space experienced through mental imagery. Kafka’s powerful evocations of space, so often hovering ambiguously on the edge of Realism, and created in the context of a general (scientific, philosophical, and artistic) destabilisation of space in the Modernist era, invite a focussed exploration of some of the processes by which literature operates. Kafka’s works provide particularly illuminating demonstrations of the interactions of space, vision, imagery, and emotion that literary texts can create. Specifically, his descriptions often have deep affinities with the most promising of our current theories of vision and imagery, which do away with the notion of seeing as the building up of a pictorial representation and replace it with the concept of vision as action. I shall argue that exploration of the interactions that literature creates makes sense only if it is centred on the responses of a real reader – who senses the real world, as well as interpreting the text – and if it makes theoretical claims that are at least in principle empirically testable. If literary criticism is to give deep and detailed answers to the big questions of why we read and what happens when we read, it should incorporate scientific understanding of the cognitive and perceptual processes of the reader and how they interact with the text as a verbal entity. I will give examples of some exploratory investigations of reader response and discuss how these can enrich literary criticism.
▪ ‘Kafka’s Spaces’ (Modern German Studies Graduate Seminar: 4th International Summer Symposium 2007: Space and Time in Literature, Media and the Arts, University of Oxford, 28 April 2007)
Photo credit: Hunger Art: A Disease between Rapture and Abyss. A symposium by Schering Stiftung and Leibniz Association. Photo: www.arne-sattler.de