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How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art.

How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art

Paul B. Armstrong (Brown University)

Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 221 pp.

ISBN 978-1-4214-1002-9, 2013

Armstrong holds that literature plays with the brain through experiences of harmony and dissonance that help to negotiate oppositions that are fundamental to the neurobiology of mental functioning (play is integral to the aesthetic experience). Welcoming and challenging the expectations readers bring to texts based on their habitual patterns of consistency building is a way literature may play with the brain. The brain is structurally predisposed to acquire language, constructing meaning by engaging in reciprocal, mutually formative play between cortical regions. The to-and-fro play through which neuronal assemblies form is the neurobiological basis of the hermeneutic circle. Metaphor functions by invoking and frustrating the brain's quest for constancy, playing with the brain's contradictory need for both constancy and flexibility. The playfulness of the brain is inherently temporal. The capacity of narrative to organize action brings into play the relations between language and our motor system.

From this, it is evident that the neuronal recycling through which reading emerged shows that the brain can be written on in a variety of ways, one should not expect neuroscience to become a machine for producing readings, and neuroscience can deepen our appreciation of the materially grounded processes that occur when we read and interpret. Reading brings into relation a complex assembly of visual and auditory processes that translate letters into sounds and the latter into letters and associate signs with meaning. Reading is an important vehicle of specieswide cross-generational transmission of the contents of culture and of its forms, requires the reciprocal, variable interaction of vision and sound networks, is a process of building and of breaking consistency, is characterized by the creation and dissolution of patterns as we navigate our way through a text (reading a text requires the recognition of patterns), and only develops through repeated practice. Reading deploys memory through the recollection of specific contents and in the way we build substantial patterns and fill in indeterminacies based on past experiences with literature and life. Reading is both a cognitive and an emotional experience, is a temporal practice, oriented toward the future, is an experience of doubling, and entails a paradoxical duplication of consciousness, is a solipsistic and intersubjective experience, enacting and overcoming the paradox of the alter ego, and can enact the paradoxical doubling of self and other in an unpredictable variety of ways.

As Armstrong puts it, reading is an activity that responds to the implied action in language (linguistic representation sets off correlative motor activity in the brain). Language holds in readiness the patterns of activity that reading reanimates, and is an embodied social practice that is exemplified by conversation. When readers disagree about the meaning of a text, they may think they are dealing with different kinds of linguistic artifact. The reading brain must translate phonetically and graphically linked units into formal structures with semantic significance. Cortical functions that originally evolved for invariant visual object recognition have been adapted to reading conventional graphic signs. The neuroscience of reading draws evidence from cognitive psychology's studies of word processing and language comprehension. The lived experience of reading and its aesthetic manifestations may relate to fundamental neurological processes, the complications of reading are a useful indicator of the dynamics of brain functioning, the neuronal recycling through which reading repurposes preexisting cortical structures grafts itself onto the visual system, and the neurological consequences of reading are a result of repeated exposure to patterns that form habitual responses.

In sum, there is considerable theoretical support for the notion that the brain tends to routinize repeated operations and is able to reorganize itself in response to novel stimuli: its capacity to alternate between conflicting readings is a reflection of its normal functioning. Different works are characterized by the particular kinds of blanks and indeterminacies they offer to the reader, whereas different readers will fill gaps and make links across a text's blank spaces in various ways. In reading, blockages to our quest for consistency may help us become aware of our typical habits of pattern making and gap filling, the immersion of effortless reading may be a deployment of expertise that is inherently pleasurable, and the way that repeated experiences of processing form patterns of neural assemblies may explain how particular reading practices can become inculcated. Our past experiences of the world can make us read differently if they have become wired in our patterns of cerebral processing. Literature may change a reader's consciousness: repeated experiences alter cortical wiring in a way that reflects our personal and cultural history. Existing neural patterns are set in motion in response to novel phenomena in reading, a single reading of one particular book is unlikely to transform neural structures, and a lifetime of reading a variety of texts will push and pull readers in many different directions.

Armstrong claims that we can have a sense of living in another, quasireal world when we read as we employ analogous processes to knowing others in life, reading texts and discussing them with other readers provides a laboratory in which the brain can experiment with its social skills, the question of how a story is "focalized" calls attention to the doubling of the reader's consciousness with the perspectives we occupy in the text, which areas of the brain get activated in a particular reading experience is fluid and complex, the doubling of me and not-me in reading is not a mystical out-of-body experience. The graphic and phonetic processes of word recognition depend on vision and hearing. The comprehension of written linguistic texts is a neurological hybrid that draws on an array of brain processes. The linguistic sign is constrained by our visual apparatus and by the workings of the auditory system. Narrative is a literary form that is based on the brain's nonsimultaneity. The genre of a text provides an anticipatory understanding of the whole into which we should fit its details. The consequences of our encounters with literature are likely to be buffered and diminished by nonliterary influences. Sentences are manipulable artifacts that bear traces of human agency. The hermeneutic circle is at work in visual letter and word recognition.

One of the key conclusions to emerge from this discussion is that if someone has an aesthetic experience, it must involve neuronal and cortical processes of some kind, experiments about brain functioning in aesthetic situations are linked to lived experiences of art, and neurological processes and aesthetic experiences are connected but distinctive. The polarity between harmony and dissonance is a universal feature of the aesthetic. What counts as harmony or dissonance is contingent and historically variable. Aesthetics of harmony appeal to and reinforce the brain's need for synthesis and pattern: aesthetics of harmony and aesthetics of dissonance are mutually defining and can take on different values. Harmonious art is a paradoxical system of similarities constructed out of differences. Harmony may be based on fundamental cognitive capacities for recognizing certain kinds of distinctions. Art is a matter of learned conventions, and may announce its presence by provoking an aesthetic emotion in the perceiver, the materials that the conventions of art manipulate are constrained by fundamental structures and processes of the brain, and the ways in which art's harmonies reinforce or rewire neuronal assemblies may influence modes of perception and cognition. Harmony can be just as sensitizing as dissonance can be: the pain of a dissonant disturbance can prompt withdrawal unless it can be integrated. Both harmony and dissonance can be pleasurable, meaningful aesthetic experiences (harmony is differentiated, replete with multiplicity, and temporally variable). The familiarity of well-known art may not breed contempt but repeated exposure may diminish a work's aesthetic effect. The making and breaking of neuronal connections stimulates the expression of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure in ways that affect aesthetic experiences. The goal of neuroaesthetics should be a differentiated understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of various aesthetic experiences. The disciplinary divide across which neuroscience and aesthetics can talk with each other is a case of conflict between terministic screens.

Armstrong contends that the technological revolution in brain imaging has opened new horizons for understanding mental processes, noise is a neurobiological constant, reflecting the limits of the organism's sensory apparatus, and the hermeneutic circle has deep foundations in the cognitive functioning of the brain. The brain is not an agent with goals and purposes, but is capable of astonishing transformations, is an ensemble of simultaneously firing neurons that interact multidirectionally and get organized in a particular manner for specific tasks, and makes sense of the world by forming neuronal assemblies: its quest for stability and its openness to instability are inherent in the paradoxical powers of metaphor. The brain is complexly balanced between inertia and openness to novelty and variation.

It follows from this that our inherited cortical architecture is universally open to individual and cultural variation, the reciprocal interactions between cortical regions produce provisional configurations of constancy, and the symmetries and resonances of cortical parallel processing can manifest themselves in different kinds of phenomena (there may be limits to what the auditory system can assimilate). The way that opioid receptora are structured in the brain facilitates both consistency building and responsiveness to novelty. Patterns are essential in order for all of our sensory systems to provide stable constructions of data from an outside world perpetually in flux. The hermeneutic processes of vision have evolved because of their pragmatic usefulness in negotiating our way through it: vision is a binding of separate processes in different, relatively autonomous regions of the visual cortex, we have meaningful visual experiences as a result of reciprocal, to-and-fro interactions between interconnected cortical areas, visual experience is fundamentally hermeneutic, entailing both selection and combination, and vision produces color by processing wavelengths emanating from the external world. Color is a diacritical and synthetic production of meaning based on selection and combination, whereas color constancy uses the unchanging ratios between surfaces to create the useful fiction of stability. Color is a construction of constancies out of a flux of inputs that illustrates how the brain creates regular patterns for pragmatic aims. The visual word form area is characterized by configurative processes.

On Armstrong's reading, the regularities in the irregular details enable the hermeneutic construction of patterns that create meaningful relations between parts and wholes. The value of constancy depends on the brain's effectiveness in managing the changeableness of its inputs, whereas it can only identify a significant change against a background of constancy. What is familiar to two different brains will vary according to their past interpretive experiences. Our brains differ in what they know and in how they know it, the brain's sense of the world's constancies reinforces itself over time, and the neuronal assemblies that the brain is capable of creating are flexible. The different configurations of meaning that ambiguous, multistable images invoke demonstrate the brain's capacity to reshape its internal connections and construct opposing patterns of meaning. Brain processes are durational, the brain is a complex ensemble of multiple cell assemblies, and patterns are created by reciprocal connections between different neurons in different parts of the brain. Bodily based emotions can have an important hermeneutic function, emotions and cognition operate by analogous configurative processes, and reason and feeling are linked by their participation in the hermeneutic circle as embodied processes of cognition (perceiving and processing are integral aspects of the same operation of making sense of the world). The possibility of constructing opposing mutually exclusive configurations of meaning is a reflection of processes in the brain that negotiate the competing claims of constancy and flexibility.

The important point here is that graphic gestalts allow auditory forms to be recognized that are invisible in the flux of phenomena: graphic forms give the brain an anticipatory sense of the patterns into which phonemes will form. The interaction that produces metaphoric meaning requires both disruption and new coherence. The experience of construing novel, puzzling states of affairs can promote epistemological self-reflection. Interruptions in consciousness may become an incitement to self-consciousness. The coherence of lived time as an integrated structure of differences is a fundamental, self-evident aspect of experience. Consistency building and the to-and-fro movements of the hermeneutic circle are temporal processes that manifest the paradoxes of lived time. The vital importance of the capacity to integrate disparate perceptual moments may be best illustrated when it breaks down. Habit-forming repetition is inherently ambiguous and can have opposite consequences, the unconsciousness of habituation may be a neuronal foundation of aesthetic joy, dehabituation has meaning and utility against a background of established habits and conventions, and the workings of habit suggest that memory and learning are distributed throughout the brain (memory occurs where learning happens).

Armstrong argues that brain structure alone does not fully explain how we respond to novelty. The self is a process and an event. The temporality underlying selfhood is always slipping away and is never at one with itself. The displacements, disjunctions, and disunities that characterize consciousness are based on the topographical and temporal decenteredness of the brain. The neurobiology of our cognitive functions is intertwined with social interactions that shape and are shaped by them. The immediate, unproblematic understanding that I have of another's actions is based on resonances between my motor system and the actions I observe. The experience of primary intersubjectivity is something motor mirror neurons provide. The strategies and devices through which texts manipulate our identifications with characters set in motion the habits and assumptions through which we deal with the social world. Theorizing about a character, an author, or a text is likely to involve to-and-fro interactions among a variety of neural networks. Canonical mirror neurons are involved in our response to cultural objects of all kinds. We may experience bodily resonance with others through a whole range of artifacts that are part of the human motor repertoire.

How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art is a highly informative and carefully argued book. We recommend a close reading of it.
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Publication:Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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