As part of our seemingly ongoing (though erratic) series of posts with “neuro” in the title, here’s The Guardian on a new bridge discipline between the arts and the sciences: neuro lit crit.

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses.

The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

What, no sf titles? Surely – if you’re going to engage in such an inherently postmodern activity as neuro lit crit in the first place – you might as well go fully meta, and examine the brain activity of people reading fiction that discusses the science of brain activity…

And here’s another researcher, co-opting literary criticism in the name of advancing that insidious atheistic baby-eating Communo-Darwinist agenda I keep hearing so much about:

Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”. It looks at how human genetics and evolutionary theory shape and influence literature, or at how literature itself may be an expression of evolution. For instance, the fact that much of human fiction is about the search for a suitable mate should suggest that evolutionary forces are at play. Others agree that fiction can be seen as promoting social cohesion or even giving lessons in sexual selection. “It is hard to interpret fiction without an evolutionary view,” said Professor Jonathan Gottschall at Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

Hah! That won’t get you far with The Greatest Story Ever Told, “Professor”! If we evolved from dinosaurs, why aren’t there any dinosaurs in the Bible, eh? Tell me that.


Much as with the afore-mentioned neurocinematics, I’m sure someone will hit on the idea of using neuro lit crit for tailoring books that produce the right sort of brain spikes, and prompt a race to the bottom in literary value that will make the pulp magazine explosion look like a damp squib*. I guess our last best hope is that the profit margins will be too small to make it worthwhile… while I’ve complained a few times about wanting a little more science in my fiction, this isn’t what I meant at all. 😉

[ * – Note for the inevitable handful easily-riled genre traditionalists, who will doubtless head straight for the comments box anyway: this sentence is to be read with heavy irony, as is the rest of the post. ]

2 thoughts on “NeuroLitCrit”

  1. “[…] For instance, the fact that much of human fiction is about the search for a suitable mate should suggest that evolutionary forces are at play”. I hope this is a gross oversimplification by “The Guardian” of the theories behind “neuro lit crit”, because if it isn’t we’re bordering on sheer tautology.
    Couldn’t it simply be that fiction tends to be about the things that human beings usually do and/or are interested in? And that those things have emerged, along with our brains, from evolution? And that “evolutionary forces are at play” in whatever *we do*, before than in our writing about it? In other words: as we are the product of evolution, it’s interpreting *us* that requires an evolutionary view 🙂

  2. “fully meta” I’m going to use that!

    neurolit has been around ever since the early state started to sponsor religious texts, it’s just never been understood why some people are resistant to religious exhortations even when deliberately penned for the God Spot.

    No we know they don’t have very strong god spots, so with some judicious culling of non-believers from the population (an infidel virus perhaps) religiosity will become universal, even if what crazy rubbish is believed in will never be agreed on.

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