Featured Minds: Steven Willemsen

Steven Willemsen is a PhD Researcher and Junior Lecturer in Film and Literary Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and currently a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.  During his time at UCSB, he has shared his work on narrative complexity in cinema, including the newly published monograph,  Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Complex Cinema (Edinburgh University Press), which he co-authored with Dr. Miklós Kiss.  His work can also be found in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, ACTA Film and Media Studies, and other publications.  

The works of David Lynch are a prime example of the complex narratives that Steven studies: set up as “puzzles” with no apparent solution that nevertheless draw viewers in, these films tempt some viewers to map out these impossible worlds, or lead other viewers simply to return to films that elude understanding.

What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?

I’m interested in the way in which our minds interact with complex stories. Particularly in film and television, it seems that complexity in storytelling and story structures is currently more popular than ever. Audiences are fascinated by all sorts of non-chronological, multi-layered, metaleptic, impossible, paradoxical and puzzling stories. The aim of my project is to explore the aesthetic experience that we get from such narratives. We usually tend to think about stories as being ‘mimetic’ conductors – things we engage with for their content, like the characters, actions, emotions, or immersive storyworlds. But a confusing story seems to block our access to these dimensions somewhat. Apparently there is something particularly engaging about narrative complexity in itself, and I hope to find the key to that in the particular cognitive and hermeneutic mental activities that such stories cue us to perform.

How did you become interested in this field?

The project grew out of a more general interest in cognitive film theory. Cognitive film studies is a vivid, still developing field where film scholars and psychologists meet and draw on ideas from cognitive sciences to understand how films ‘work’ on viewers – in terms of perception, comprehension, or emotion. There is still something quite magical to me about the way in which a series of 2D images and sounds can result in such lifelike and intense experiencs. Cinema taps into all kinds of traits of the human cognitive and perceptual systems to involve us emotionally, perceptually, intellectually, and on a bodily level, and to create a smooth sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and even of presence. I’m excited about the idea of getting a grip on how this works, because I believe it is something that is very elementary to culture: using media to create, or re-create, simulated experience, which in turn allows us to reflect on actual experience. For me, cognitive approaches to art and narrative are all about mapping those intersections: between our minds and our artworks, and the way these shape each other.

What unique contributions are narrative scholars positioned to make to the interdisciplinary field of mind studies?

In any case, narrative theorists have developed quite an understanding of one of the key tools that the human mind has to integrate information, experience and impressions in a coherent and intelligible form. The idea that narrativity is in some ways ingrained in our cognitive make-up seems quite accepted now, across a range of fields. But actual two-way dialogues between the humanities and the ‘mind-sciences’ (like cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists) can remain difficult – because of our different vocabularies, and the different stances towards empiricism. Ultimately, however, I think that both perspectives could work to illuminate and correct each other. It seems to be increasingly acknowledged how strictly naturalistic perspectives on the mind also leave explanatory gaps, in terms of the full phenomenological richness involved in experience and sense making. It is my hope that as a result, multi-perspectival takes on the topics of mind and cognition will be increasingly valued, and that the humanities’ and sciences’ approaches to the mind might be able to meet somewhere in the middle.

What does narrative do for minds (whether through film or literature)?

That is a really complex question –  perhaps even the underlying mystery of all art! One of the things I hope to gain a better understanding of is the simple question why we engage with fictional stories at all, including excessively complex ones. Why should we enjoy – or require – stories that are not about the real world, or that confuse us? One of the reasons, I think, is that complex narrative artworks allow us to draw on our whole range of everyday experiences – from very basic, ‘low-level’ sensations and emotions, like the feeling of being under a threat or in love, to very sophisticated ‘higher-order’ frames of knowledge, like understanding complex socio-political situations or philosophical ideas. Making sense of a complex artwork allows us to ‘activate’ and recombine all these levels of knowledge at the same, because it has the ability to evoke and simulate all that mental and bodily experience. I think that that process, of putting our real world knowledge and experience to new, interpretive use, is inherently enjoyable and creative, and can be potentially revealing about ourselves and our relation to the world.

Selections from Steven’s Work:

Steven’s latest project is Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, co-authored with Miklos Kiss.  Here you will find a description of the book’s primary questions and interventions; and for a free preview of the first chapters of the book, click here.

“Narrative complexity is a trend in contemporary cinema. Since the late 1990s there has been a palpable increase in complex storytelling in movies. But how and why do complex movies create perplexity and confusion? How do we engage with these challenges? And what makes complex stories so attractive? By blending film studies, narrative theory and cognitive sciences, Kiss and Willemsen look into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind. Analysing the effects that different complex narratives have on viewers, the book addresses how films like Donnie DarkoMulholland Drive or Primer strategically create complexity and confusion, and, by using the specific category of the ‘impossible puzzle film’, it examines movies that use baffling paradoxes, impossible loops, and unresolved ambiguities in their stories and storytelling. By looking at how these films play on our mind’s blind spots, this innovative book explains their viewing effects in terms of the mental state of cognitive dissonance that they evoke.”

  • Analyses the effects of complex narratives on viewers, including the psychological experience of puzzlement and perplexity
  • Explores impossible puzzle films as a specific set of highly complex popular films
  • Introduces cognitive dissonance as a key feature of these films
  • Brings together literary theory, cognitive narratology and film studies

Featured Minds: Sowon Park

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Sowon is joining the UCSB English Department as a faculty member in the fall, from a position as Lecturer and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Last winter, she presented her ongoing research on cognitive neuroscience and literature to our department. Her talk, “Memory and the New Unconscious”, identified metaphors of the unconscious mind and discussed the contributions that literature, psychoanalysis, and cognitive neuroscience might make when brought together.

Her most recent publication is ‘Transnational Scriptworlds’ in a special issue of The Journal of World Literature 1:2 (Brill, June 2016), The Chinese Scriptworld and World Literature, that she guest-edited. In her essay, Sowon examines the relations between writing and thought by comparing the ideographic “scriptworld” afforded by Chinese characters (China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam) with the alphabetic world.

sowon

 

What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?

I have been researching representations of mind in the works of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and Beckett for a book called Modernism and the Mind. It discusses modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ literature of the early twentieth century in the light of recent cognitive neuroscientific findings in the areas of emotion, memory, perception and cognition. Teaching-wise, there was no room within the Oxford syllabus to teach courses in cognitive literary criticism at the undergraduate level. So I am delighted to be starting a course in ‘Mind, Brain and Literature’ in the winter term at UCSB.

How did you become interested in this field?

I specialized in Modernism in Graduate School partly because I became entranced by the specific kinds of experiences that are afforded by different kinds of writing. For example, certain passages written in free indirect discourse and ‘stream of consciousness’ technique can press the world of the character up against you closer and closer till for a moment you start feeling like that character. I was curious to understand such processes better. Cognitive neuroscientific evidence has helped me gain a better understanding of what happens during reading.

What unique contributions to mind studies are literary scholars (or scholars of the arts, or of the humanities in general) positioned to make to mind studies?

Some people question whether literary scholars can engage in a meaningful way with neurobiologists and researchers in artificial intelligence. And rightly so. Complex problems arise when trying to work across the divide of the “two cultures” and they tend to be exceedingly difficult to resolve. But before the remarkable expansion of the science of mind in the late twentieth century, the field that produced the most sustained forms of thinking about the mind was literature. Literature provides a historical archive of human thinking of every kind, which sometimes challenges and sometimes enriches scientific knowledge. Ultimately, answers to the really big questions about the mind are more likely to come from a broad framework which includes the cross-cultural and historical perspectives that the literary archive provides, as well as the cognitive neurosciences.

How do you see your interests in literature and the mind intersecting with other fields of study in the humanities (such as environmental scholarship, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity…)?

Another area in which I specialize is feminist theory and literature, and that intersects with mind studies in a very direct way. Admittedly, talking about the ‘female mind’ is very controversial. For several decades exploring sex differences was taboo for fear of entrenching gender essentialism and sex discrimination. There are still many who believe that for women to claim equality, gender neutrality must be observed. Of course, deconstructing gender essentialism is highly important. But I think ignoring sex differences is a disservice to women because it so often leads to an epic disregard for women’s specific realities, leaving unchallenged a masculine norm that parades as neutral. Gender is socially constructed but the constructions are not laid upon a tabula rasa. That is emphatically not to say that there is such a thing as a ‘female brain’ which is fixed. But attending to and gaining an accurate awareness of gender-specific biological predispositions is important too. Neurofeminism is necessary.

Where do you see this field heading? What’s unanswered (or just beginning to be answered) that you are curious about?

One of the most exciting areas in mind studies at the moment, for me, is the unconscious mind. While interrogations of the unconscious are far from new, cognitive neuroscience during the last thirty years has reclaimed the unconscious as the new scientific frontier. For the last two years I have run a neuroliterary seminar series on “Unconscious Memory”. (http://torch.ox.ac.uk/unconscious). And I am keen to re-start it at UCSB as soon as I find my feet.

What does literature do for minds?

This is a very difficult question. Wittgenstein famously said in his Philosophical Investigations that if a lion could speak we would not understand it. What he means by that is that the human mind, however lofty and rational, is never detached from our constrained sensory apparatus and is shaped by our material way of life. Literature is quite obviously a distinctively human mode of interaction, produced by minds for other minds. But that can make literature sound reified and instrumental. Another way of approaching literature is to see it as the place where our embodied social existence reveals itself. Literature shows us who we are, what we are capable of, what we hope for, what we fear. If literature can be said to do anything for minds, it is not as reified objects but as a human practice, whose meaning is grounded in our senses and situated in history.

 

Selections from Sowon’s Work:

Below you will find two excerpts from Sowon’s already-published work that illustrate her ongoing research interests.  You can also find her exploration of the field in “The Dilemma of Cognitive Literary Criticism,” a chapter from English Studies: The state of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future (2015): 67-81.  (Please email litandmind@gmail.com if you would like a PDF of this chapter.) 

From ‘Beside Thinking’, The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (April 2014): 5-12.

(This is a special issue of the journal guest-edited by Sowon.)

The most advanced teachings of the Buddha are said to have been conducted in silence. In the Zen world, this mode of communication is known as the ‘heart-to-heart transmission’ (以心傳心), a form of meditative practice that requires the banishment of all words from the mind. By abjuring language and, consequently, conscious thought, adherents believe that they can convey truths more profound than those that logical verbal discourse can express. So the lore goes.

 

It is unlikely that this mythic practice will carry much authority with our readers. For how would one know if the message has been received, if a ‘non-thought’ can be said to comprise something as concrete as a message at all? And where would one begin to assess the depth of the truths thus communicated, check the accuracy of the deductions, analyze the efficacy of the procedure, and test the reliability of the set-up? The transmission cannot be disproved and that would seem to be as much as intellectual inquiry can establish. But before one sweeps aside this putative interaction as pre-modern mysticism or ‘Eastern’ mumbo jumbo that science has eradicated, it might be remembered that it is not only the Zen master who subscribes to and has faith in mental processes beside thinking.

 

It takes but little reflection to note that in our everyday lives we engage in a vast range of non-verbal sense-making of the world of which we have little awareness. From gauging the weather to writing an essay to falling in love, we are all dimly conscious that what may appear as decisive thoughts and deliberate actions are in no small part maintained by the unrevealed mental processes that underlie them. Implicit cognition is also discernable in a wide range of deeply-rooted cultural practices. Dancers, actors and trapeze artists are, for example, just a few of the many whose shared physical actions rely on non-declarative communication. Though it is difficult to articulate exactly what is being communicated and how, it is evident that both the mythic Zen transmissions and dizzying Cirque du Soleil acts rely upon certain ‘non-thoughts’ and the communication of these ‘non-thoughts’ as an integral part of their task.

 

However, since the implicit mental processes that lead up to, or conflict with, our conscious awareness are not verifiable or even directly knowable, there is immense difficulty in attempting to cover the range of these processes with any conceptual precision. We speak vaguely of having a gut instinct, a hunch, a premonition, an intuition, a ‘sense’ of things. This ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’, as T.S. Eliot put it (Four Quartets 1944, 23), about the unsaid and the unsayable has always been of great fascination to artists and writers, not least Henry James, whose major novels would unravel without the crucial unspoken messages that hold the epiphanic structure in place. Isabel’s recognition of the role of Madame Merle in the piano scene in The Portrait of a Lady, for example, is all the more real for having been produced out of the unsaid. If the processes of the mind that are not conscious have preoccupied writers and artists, scientists have mostly regarded them with indifference, maintaining that what is not testable and falsifiable is an unsuitable topic of inquiry. However, in a strange turn of events, undeclared mental processes have become in the last thirty years a revived area of interest in a number of scientific fields. In psychology, the concern with mental processes besides rational thinking was well represented by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), which advanced the idea that the human mind processes information on two levels-by means of ‘System 1’, the intuitive, emotional and fast; and ‘System 2’, the rational, logical and slow. By drawing distinctions between intuitive and logical modes of thought, Kahneman successfully put rational thought on a par with what was customarily consigned to the Freudian unconscious. Before that Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of ‘thin-slicing’ – the unconscious and rapid processing of accumulated knowledge – in his bestselling Blink (2005), which went some way to support its subtitle: ‘The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’. Meanwhile, in neuroscience, the role of the unconscious in the human mind has become the new frontier. New and ongoing discoveries in memory and perception demonstrate that very little of what goes on in the brain is actually conscious, restoring the validity of the unconscious to human cognition. As the Nobel laureate neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes, ‘One of the most surprising insights to emerge from the modern study of states of consciousness is that Freud was right: unconscious mental processes pervade conscious thought; moreover, not all unconscious mental processes are the same’ (Kandel 2013, 546).

 

Against this background, this special issue on ‘Beside Thinking’ considers the range of meanings of what it is to know without thinking and how this mode of unconscious cognition has functioned throughout literary history in various cultures, alongside, beyond and against thought. While the idea of an unconscious has been a central concept in literary studies since at least the nineteenth century, with a great deal of specialized meaning accrued around it, there is still little agreement on what ‘not-thinking’ is. This special issue asks what the relation is between thought and ‘non-thought’, whatever its meaning, and discusses how thoughts define, regulate, and enable the concept of ‘non-thought’ in literature.

 

From ‘The Feeling of Knowing in Mrs Dalloway: Neuroscience and Woolf’, Contradictory Woolf: Select Papers from the Twenty-First Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf (May 2012): 108 – 114.

The chief task of the novelist, Woolf stated, was to convey the mind receiving “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself ” (Essays 3, 33). Novels should not merely provide the data that a character is processing in the mind—the shower of atoms—but express the experience of that data, to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall” (Essays 3, 33). So Woolf represents to the reader not just the information of what a character may see, hear, smell, taste and touch but the process of what it feels like to have that sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and the kind of thoughts and memories they trigger, making us acutely aware that while only some mental processes are conscious, all mental processes are physical. This produces in the reader a perceptual mimesis of consciousness which approximates the process of the sensations and cognitions of lived experience.

 

Likewise, Damasio (2000)’s discovery about how the body-loop functions in the normal mind was that the feelings generated by the body are an essential part of rational thought. Rationality requires feeling and feeling requires the body. So the body and the mind are actually indivisible. He asserts that we live inside this contradiction of anatomical reality: rationality produced from the flesh. Long before Damasio, Woolf wrote continually of mind depending upon flesh. For example, in “On Being Ill” (1930) Woolf observed that although

 

literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of glass through which the soul looks straight and clear…On the contrary the opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant. (4)

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That we do not have a body but are a body is a fact of our existence she captured … which is one of the reasons her prose feels so alive. Feelings and thoughts are never immaterial: they are formed through the body. She begins Mrs Dalloway (1925) with the squeak of Rumplemayer’s men taking the doors off the hinges, triggering in Clarissa the physical sensation of plunging into open air 30 years before when she burst open the French windows at Bourton, the memory of which feels like being flapped and kissed by the waves of the sea. Woolf presents physical sensations as a vehicle for knowledge, undercutting the presumed opposition between reason and emotion. And emotions are suffused with highly discriminating responses to what is of value to each character. The following is Clarissa Dalloway’s famous “feeling of knowing” from Mrs Dalloway: “Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed… the moment” (MD 24). What may seem like contradictory cognitive processes—thinking and feeling—in the conceptual scenography of the “two cultures” are reshaped into a continuum of “feeling of knowing” in Woolf, as they are in the experiments of Damasio. … By incorporating feeling into epistemology, Woolf guides the reader’s mind through the structure of the somatic responses that gave rise to the thoughts of the characters; this in turn creates “as-if” responses in the reader as to how another mind thinks, how another body feels.

Graduate Course: Psychosomatics

fig9Instructor: Aranye Fradenburg

Course: Engl 236, Fall 2016

“Interaction is the conscious or unconscious exchange of behavioral or nonbehavioral, sensible and intelligible signs from the whole arsenal of somatic and extrasomatic [cultural, social and environmental] systems.”

– Fernando Poyatos, “Nonverbal Communication in Interaction: Psychology and Literature”

The purpose of this course is to broaden our understanding of the somatic and environmental features of expressive (and impressive) experience.  Readings will draw primarily on the recent revitalization of interest in psychosomatics occasioned by neuroscientific developments in distributed cognition/affect, but will also include social-psychological studies in nonverbal communication (especially paralanguage), enactivist research, and biosemiotics.  Authors will include Elizabeth A. Wilson (Psychosomatic:  Feminism and the Neurological Body and Gut Feminism); Brian Massumi (ed. A Shock to Thought: Expression After Deleuze and Guattari);  Andy Clark (Supersizing the Mind); Giovanna Colombetti  (The Feeling Body); Aleksandra Kostic and Derek Chadee (eds. The Social Psychology of Nonverbal Communication); Fernando Poyatos (Nonverbal Communication Across Disciplines and Crosscultural Perspectives in Nonverbal Communications); Marilia Aisenstein and Elsa Rappoport de Aisemberg (eds. Psychosomatics Today: A Psychoanalytic Perspective); Donald Favareau (ed. Essential Readings in Biosemiotics), and Daniel Paul Schreber (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness).  If possible, students should have read Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals and Freud’s Studies in Hysteria before the class begins.

Image: “Fig. 9: Cat, savage and prepared to fight, drawn from life by Mr. Wood,” from Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals

Announcements: New Faculty, New Director, New Theme

As a new academic year approaches, Literature and the Mind is pleased to welcome new faculty and a new initiative director.

After three years of dedicated and welcoming leadership, Julie Carlson will step down from her position as Director of the Literature and Mind Initiative.  With her guidance, we have explored “The Value of Care” and “Improvisation,” putting insights from mind and literary studies into conversation with students and scholars in disciplines across the university.  (Stay tuned for reflections and resources on “Improvisation,” coming soon).  As we move into the fall, Kay Young will take up the Initiative Director position, and will lead our group in studying “Intersubjectivity.”  More details will be announced as the 2016-2017 academic year gets underway!

This past winter, UCSB’s English Department held an exciting job search for a full-time faculty position in the field of cognitive literary studies.  We saw many excellent candidates and learned about cutting-edge research in this field; and we are happy to have Dr. Sowon Park of Oxford University join our department and Literature and Mind in the fall.  Here is a brief overview of Sowon’s interdisciplinary research:

Sowon S Park specializes in British Modernism, Political Fiction, World Literature, and the relationship between Literature and other forms of knowledge, in particular Cognitive Neuroscience. Before coming to UCSB, she taught at Oxford University for over a decade, where she was Lecturer and Tutor in English at Corpus Christ College.  Her previous academic appointments were at Cambridge University and Ewha University, Seoul.  She has also held visiting appointments at UCSD and ZFL, Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren, Berlin.  She received an M.Phil and D.Phil in English from Oxford.  Recently, she was awarded a four-year AHRC grant to work on “Prismatic Translation’.  Her latest publication is a special issue of The Journal of World Literature that she guest-edited, titled, The Chinese Scriptworld and World Literature (June, 2016).  She has published her academic work in The Review of English Studies, ML!, ELT, European Review, Arcadia, Neohelicon and Comparative Critical Studies.  She has been President of the ICLA Research Committee on Literary Theory since 2014 and is the founder and convenor of the Unconscious Memory Network.

We look forward to sharing more of Sowon’s research, pedagogical interests, and perspectives of literature and the mind soon.

Conference: Third NeuroHumanities Dialogue, “Ars et Ingenium: The Processes of Imagination”

 Literature and the Mind is excited to spread the news about “Ars et Ingenium: The Process of Imagination,” the third NeuroHumanities Dialogue, coming May 26-28 in Catania, Italy.  This dialogue is organized by by the NewHums Research Center–Neurocognitive Studies of the University of Catania (Italy), the International NeuroHumanities Studies Network, and the Lamberto Puggelli Foundation.  For further details, please see the poster below, and the official website here.

Third NeuroHumanities Dialogue

Undergraduate Course: Cognitive Dickens

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Instructor: Kay Young

Course: ENGL 170 CD

Time: Spring 2016, MW 1:00-2:15 PM

Charles Dickens is the great English novelist of identity “wounded by mystery.”   Dickens narrates the rupture of parent from child as a psychic drama in relation to which his particular realism, his novel of the orphan and of detective fiction, work in reflective embodiment.   In this course we’ll explore how Dickens’s response to the questions, “Who am I?” and “What are my origins?” and “To whom do I belong?” and “What is mine?” lead to new sounds in his psychologizing of the 19th-century English novel—in the lived narrative experience of being the orphan who asks those questions and in what forms of cognitive processing the narrative uses to answer them.   We’ll read David CopperfieldBleak House, and Great Expectations  in conjunction with works of attachment theory and cognitive science.

Image: “Charles Dickens’ Legacy to the World” (detail)

IHC Theme Announced: “The Humanities and the Brain”

Roxy Paine, "Neuron" (detail)

UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center has announced its theme for the 2015-2016 academic year: The Humanities and the Brain.  This series of events open to the public “will bring humanists and neuroscientists into dialogue to consider diverse analyses and representations of this most elusive organ.”  Please contact IHC Diretor Susan Derwin and Associate Director Emily Zinn with suggestions for speakers, performances, artist talks, panels, and film screenings on the humanities and the brain, including the following subtopics:

Artificial intelligence
Autism
Brain injury
Consciousness and the unconscious
Criminal justice and brain imaging
Decision-making
Dreaming
Emotional states
Historical understandings of the brain
Life stages and the brain
Literary representations of mental states
Mapping the brain
Memory and forgetting
Mental health and education
Music and the brain
Narrative and the brain
Performance and the brain
Poverty and brain development
Religious experience and the brain
Representations of the brain in popular culture
Visual arts and the brain

Our initiative looks forward to attending and participating in this exciting program.

Image credit: Roxy Paine, “Neuron,” sculpture from Dendroids series (2010)

Undergraduate Course: Memory: A Bridge Between Neuroscience and the Humanities

Salvador Dali, "The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory," detail

Instructors: Dominique Julien (French and Comparative Literature) and Kenneth S. Kosik (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology)

Course: Comp Lit 27, Winter 2015

Few things are more important than memory in shaping and defining human personality. Memory is what makes us humans. Memory and personality are inseparable (conversely, loss of memory, in cases like Alzheimer’s disease, destroys the patient’s personality). In recent decades, memory has emerged as one specific area of investigation common to neuroscience and the humanities where these two radically different methods of understanding reality occasionally converge. We propose to explore some of the key issues raised by memory processes as cases where the gap between the humanities and
neuroscience can be bridged.

Since Antiquity, memory has been a subject of interest to writers and philosophers. In recent years, neuroscientific progress has appeared to lend anatomical and clinical support to the literary descriptions left by Plato or Proust: what science is discovering or verifying today often seems to have been intuited and described in literary form in the past. One example would be the ancient memory techniques based on loci (literally places in the mind; this elaborate memory training system is known to us through rhetorical treatises from Antiquity to the Renaissance), whose patterns appear to converge with recent neuroscientific studies of memorization processes known as localization of function. Another example would be the correlation between memory and the senses, made famous by Proust’s philosophical novel Remembrance of Things Past, which has also developed into a key area of neuroscientific investigation.

Image: Salvador Dali, “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (detail)

Graduate Course: Mental States in the Novel– Proust, Woolf, Borges

Paperoles_Proust

Instructor: Dominique Jullien

Course: Comp Lit 200 / French 229F, Fall 2014

In the works of Proust, Woolf, and Borges, depiction of mental states, cognitive processes and emotional experience, seems to anticipate on an intuitive level what modern cognitive science is only beginning to verify as our knowledge of brain function develops. Traditional notions of selfhood are radically uprooted and reframed both in fiction and psychology. Proust’s analysis of habit parallels William James’s; James’s stream of consciousness conception comes alive in Woolf’s late novels; Bergson’s ideas on time and memory find echoes in the Proustian novel of recollection; Mrs. Dalloway offers a metaphorical counterpart to Freud’s trauma theories. At the other end of the century, Borges’s fictions take views of the self and cognitive processes to fantastic extremes. Issues explored in this seminar include: memory & oblivion, the ethics & aesthetics of habit, memory & the fantastic, involuntary & unconscious memory, memory & trauma, metaphor & understanding, epiphanies of the mind, deductive reasoning & detective fiction logic, creativity & everyday experience, stream of consciousness, dream & sleep, individual & collective memory, etc.

In English.  Open to advanced Undergraduates with instructor’s approval.

Mental States 2014 Poster copy