Featured Minds: Laura Otis


Laura Otis works as a neuroscientist-turned-literary scholar in her position as Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of English at Emory University. Her most recent book, Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists (Explorations in Narrative Psychology, 2015), describes her interviews with scientists and artists such as Temple Grandin and Salman Rushdie to illustrate how greatly the experience of conscious thinking can vary from person to person. Otis pays special attention to her creative interviewees’ relations with visual mental images and verbal language, since people differ in the ways they use words and pictures to solve problems and imagine other worlds. By showing how differently thinking can work, she aims to build respect for a diverse range of thinking styles.

UCSB and the L&M Initiative were treated to an in-depth look at Dr. Otis’ work on two occasions in Spring 2016. She led our reading group in an engaging discussion of Rethinking Thought; and she presented at UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center during its series on “The Humanities and the Brain.”

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

My current research project, Banned Emotions, analyzes metaphors for culturally unpopular emotions such as self-pity, spite, bitterness, grudge-bearing, and prolonged anger. I am trying to learn how bodily experiences and cultural ideologies combine in the ways that people talk and think about emotions. I compare emotion metaphors used in classic and recent novels, popular films, scientific articles, and religious texts. Last spring, I presented this research to UCSB scholars in a talk called “The Physiology and Politics of Emotion Metaphors.”

I am also currently earning a Master’s Degree of Fine Arts in Fiction from Warren Wilson College. The craft analysis I have been doing in this program has led me to a new project on how fiction-writers use language to blend sensory experiences in order to create an illusion of lived reality. Neuroscientists who study sensory systems are challenged by the “binding problem”: How do people combine sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to create a unified mental representation of a person, place, or thing? Fiction-writers may offer insight into this problem, and it is worth analyzing their solutions.

How did you become interested in the field of Literature and the Mind?

I came to the study of Literature and the Mind via an unusual route. I majored in Biochemistry in college, studied Neuroscience at UCSF, and worked in labs for eight years before deciding to earn a PhD in Comparative Literature. All of my research projects since the dissertation and first book, Organic Memory, have sought common patterns in the ways that laboratory scientists and literary writers use language to develop ideas. These books include Membranes, Networking, Müller’s Lab, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, and a translation of the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s Vacation Stories. I am interested in memory, identity, communication systems, and in ways that literary writing can shed light on scientific problems.

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

Besides contributing to neuroscience and sensory physiology, Literature and the Mind as an emerging field may raise new questions for scholars in Disability Studies. Although neuroscience tends to focus on what human nervous systems have in common, scientists are showing increasing interest in individual variation, and literary representations of compelling minds suggest not just what human minds share, but how they vary. Many people read fiction to “enter” fascinating minds, and literary depictions can reinforce scientific studies by showing unusual minds struggling and thriving in the contexts that have shaped them.

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, etc.)?

Literature and the Mind promises to grow most hardily when scientists and literary scholars collaborate. I have benefited from team-teaching with Emory neurologist Krish Sathian, who studies the interaction of the visual and tactile systems and the neural basis of metaphor (http://neurology.emory.edu/faculty/neuro_rehab/sathian_krish.html). Together we have designed and taught two courses, “Images, Metaphors, and the Brain,” and “Language, Literature, and Mental Simulation,” and organized a one-day symposium, “Metaphors and the Mind.” Our classes bring students in Neuroscience, Psychology, English, and Comparative Literature into the same classroom and lead to surprising insights. Many laboratory scientists are eager to learn from literary scholars, and team-teaching can be an energizing learning experience.

What does literature do for minds?

What literature can do for human minds is a question for neuroscientists as well as literary scholars. The perspective of fiction-writers needs to be considered, too, because nothing shows you all the details a unique mental world involves better than trying to create one yourself. My undergraduate teaching now includes scientific, analytical, and creative assignments, because these approaches to Literature and the Mind offer complementary mental workouts. In my “Languages of Emotion” courses, students compare Sigmund Freud’s insights to relevant findings published in recent, peer-reviewed articles and create scenes in which they, as an attending physician in charge of an ER, have to call in experts such as Freud, William James, or Paul Ekman to evaluate a suffering patient. Literature and the Mind may be even more productive as a teaching field than as a research field, because it can inspire a new generation of scientists, doctors, scholars, and writers.


Selections from Laura’s Work:

Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Laura’s Rethinking Thought (Oxford University Press, 2015):

Chapter One

Who’s the “You”?

Rethinking Thought (cover)

One day I walked into the lab and cried. I’d been a graduate student in neuroscience for almost two years, and in that time, my feeling of foreignness had grown from queasy twinges to overwhelming nausea. I was in the wrong place, and my ashamed attempts to hide it were sapping the energy I needed for creative work. The monoclonal antibodies I had raised to identify developing neurons stuck to no proteins identifiable on a Western blot. I needed to start over, and I read the setback as a signal: it was time to get out. Resting my elbows on the white bench paper, I hid my wet face. How could I disappoint the people who’d invested so much time teaching me? Yet I sensed that by staying, I’d be committing a greater betrayal. As far as I could see, the place I’d chosen to work demanded things my mind couldn’t do and had little use for the things that it did.

Three decades later, I’ve come to know my mind better. It will never lose its potential to learn, but its strengths and weaknesses have emerged clearly. My mental world functions acoustically, and my passions for languages, music, and stories are supported by sensitivity to sound. On most days, I can pull an “A” out of thin air. To find my keys, I shake my purse once and know in which corner they’ve lodged. If a friend drops a coin, I know it’s a quarter. Sometimes I think I could echolocate like a bat. When I write dialogue, I transcribe the voices I hear—not because I’m schizophrenic, but because my mind works like an iTunes library. My memories consist of people’s voices replayed as they originally sounded, often without visual components. This system absorbs tones, phrases, and tales, which recur and recombine against a field of gray. What taxes this mind—causing me to collapse in tears—is trying to recall pictorial or spatial information.

I’ve lived in my apartment for ten years but couldn’t tell you which way to turn my echo-located key. Each time I bring my hand to the lock, it’s as if I’ve never done it before. I try it first one way, then the other—it’s a 50-50 shot. As I write this, I’m trying to picture my shower and am unsure whether the hot water is on the left or the right. I certainly couldn’t tell you which way to turn the knob to make the water flow. “Picture an N,” says Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist who has shown that visual mental imagery can be studied scientifically. In his Harvard office, whose details I can’t recall, I do my absolute best. I close my eyes. I conjure a big, black N, just a little bit fuzzy, like a New York Times “N” under a magnifying glass. “Now rotate it,” says Kosslyn. “Does it form another letter?” I know that the only candidate is “Z.” To see whether the “N” can form a “Z,” I nudge it—clockwise, I think. (I have to think actively about which way a clock turns.) The N dissolves into dust. I try it again. Poof. Frustrated, I struggle to rotate the mental N, but as soon as it budges, it disintegrates. Looking now at all the “N’s” I’ve just typed, I see easily that if you tilt one 90 degrees, it forms a “Z.” But I couldn’t do that with my imagined “N.” Why, thirty years ago, did I want to study neuronal membrane proteins? How did I ever pass physics?

When I think about physics, a phrase comes to mind: F=ma. In my mental world, that’s what it is: a phrase. I recall it as a series of vowel sounds, a song that runs, “Eh-eh-ay.” I passed high school and college physics by memorizing these melodies and on tests, plugging in numbers for tones. When I read Richard Feynman’s descriptions of science, I realized I’d never understood physics. During a physics class in Brazil, Feynman observed, “The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down right. . . . There, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words” (Feynman 1997, 213, 217). For me, as for the Brazilian students, the formulas didn’t correspond to anything real. A friend who majored in physics told me how he’d puzzled over “F=ma,” the second law of classical mechanics. Newton’s law dictates that force equals mass times acceleration, which at first seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t a force consist of a mass times its velocity? For weeks, my friend thought about it until one day he understood. I can’t imagine what went on in his head during those weeks, but maybe, like Feynman, he was picturing examples. The Nobel prize-winning physicist confessed, “I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go” (Feynman 1997, 244). For me, there was nothing to understand and nothing to see, only a representation I took on faith. I never learned physics, and it wasn’t my teachers’ fault. At the time, I wouldn’t force myself to think in a way that didn’t come naturally.

Rethinking Thought

     In 27 years of teaching courses that combine science, literature, and writing, I’ve been struck by how differently people think. For the purposes of this book, I will define thought as the ways people consciously process information: how they plan, imagine, learn, reason, and remember. Most mental activity occurs without conscious awareness, but I am focusing on the lived experience of thought. People’s mental worlds vary astonishingly, as I’ve learned since trying to picture proteins’ shapes. Mystified, I used to stare at the twin, candy-like structures in my organic chemistry textbook, whose authors swore I should see one three-dimensional molecule. I never did. Skeptically, I listened to other students describe the virtual Calder mobiles they were viewing. In my mind’s eye, I’ve never seen anything in three dimensions, and I thought about “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Seeing my cohorts’ conviction, though, I couldn’t believe that they were lying. Their minds were doing something mine couldn’t do. I felt inadequate and ashamed, but simultaneously, I was fascinated.

What goes on in other minds is a mystery that can evoke frustrated responses. Thinking, I joke, is like going to the toilet: we don’t know what the experience is like for other people, and we rarely talk about it. We presume that their experience is a lot like ours, but we don’t know for sure. When it comes to thinking, this premise is shaky.

The recent HBO film about engineer Temple Grandin depicts a breakthrough realization (Ferguson 2010). Noticing that the teenage Grandin has a good visual memory for horses, her science teacher asks her if she remembers common objects just as well—shoes, for instance. Representing the activity of Grandin’s mind—which she compares to the search engine Google Images—the film flashes pictures of shoes, increasing the pace as her excitement mounts. As fast as she can, Grandin names all the shoes she’s seeing, but her speech can’t keep up with her visual memory. “So you can picture every pair of shoes you’ve ever seen?” interrupts her science teacher. “Sure, can’t you?” she asks.

As someone who has moved from science to literature, I have experienced this moment repeatedly. Again and again, I’ve seen people astonished to learn what other people’s minds can and can’t do, such as mentally rotate the letter “N” 90 degrees and observe its new properties. I’ve felt the strength—and deadliness—of each person’s premise that other people have the same mental life and think just as she or he does. This assumption not only thwarts communication; it can lead unconventional thinkers to believe that they can’t think at all.

This book is for anyone who’s ever been told, “You’re not thinking!” All too often, thought that occurs in an unfamiliar form is mistaken for the absence of thought. As explanations emerge for the ways that thought works, we risk losing valuable knowledge if we impose pre-fabricated narratives on minds rather than letting them tell their own stories.

In a recent discussion at Emory University, a psychologist was telling some literature professors how human brains process language.

“When you hear speech,” he said, “There’s activity in your left cortex. You–”

“Wait a minute,” said Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Who’s the you?”

For Garland-Thomson, who has helped create the field of Disability Studies, every “you” is unique. She questions attempts to establish a normal “you,” since they can cause variant “yous” to be seen as inadequate. Temple Grandin’s skill with visual mental images has made her a creative designer and engineer. Variant ways of thinking that create disadvantages in some contexts can confer advantages in others.[1]

Until recently, many neuroscientists and psychologists have sacrificed intriguing studies of individual differences to build basic knowledge of human brains. This choice to focus on shared human traits has been a conscious, informed decision made in order to lay a foundation for emerging fields. Interest in personal variations has always been high, but until recently, laboratory scientists have had to concentrate on common features to produce data they can trust. For the most part, studying individual quirks has been a luxury they cannot yet afford. Scholars in the humanities do experimenters an injustice when they criticize the “naïveté” of scientists seeking the “neural underpinnings” of complex phenomena such as telling jokes. No neuroscientist expects to learn everything about humor by studying functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) images; most are keenly aware of their methods’ strengths and limitations. Having worked in labs for nearly ten years, I appreciate the innovation, dedication, and bravery of experimental scientists. Designing controlled experiments to explore complex functions such as ways of thinking—and writing grants to get them funded—means having the courage to begin.

So far, building basic knowledge about the neural mechanisms underlying human thought has meant concentrating on neural features most humans share. In twenty-first-century science, however, individual variations are attracting increasing attention. Sharon L. Thompson-Schill, Todd S. Braver, and John Jonides have argued that cognitive neuroscientists will learn a great deal if they regard individual differences as data rather than noise (Thompson-Schill, Braver, and Jonides 2005, 115-16).[2] In an fMRI study of how practice affects performance on mental imagery tasks, Kosslyn and his colleagues found that “individual-differences analyses may be helpful in revealing brain areas that are overlooked in standard group analyses” (Ganis, Thompson and Kosslyn 2005, 245). The notion that science pursues universal truths, whereas literature illuminates particular situations, is crumbling fast. Like the opposition of science to literature, that of the universal to the particular may be blocking the understanding of human thought.[3] To learn how thinking works, scholars in every field that analyzes cognition need to combine their methods and insights. Together, we need to rethink thought. We need to develop the emergent science of “the” human brain into a science of human brains, since a body of knowledge restricted to what seven billion mental worlds share will create a severely limited, unrealistic picture of what human thinking involves.

This book contributes to this task by exploring differences in people’s thought experiences. Like Vera John-Steiner’s study of creativity, Notebooks of the Mind (1985), it aims to complement laboratory research by comparing and analyzing introspections.[4] As a narrative study, it offers a diastolic response to the driving systole of laboratory work. While only controlled, intelligently planned experiments produce generalizable data, studies examining personal introspections can provide insights that affirm, challenge, or trouble experimental results. Most significantly, narrative analyses of individual thinking can suggest new experiments to try.[5] By focusing on individual experiences, I have sacrificed any attempt to make universal claims in order to provide a glimpse of lived reality–at least as some people experience it. In the terms of psychologist Jerome Bruner, I am analyzing material offered in the narrative mode of thought (which aims to tell good stories) to shore up the paradigmatic mode (which seeks to explain), but I do not see these modes as opposed (Bruner 1986, 11-13). On a very small scale, I have tried to learn what thinking is by studying differences in the way thinking feels.

[1] The research underlying this book may contribute to neurodiversity studies, although the neurodiversity movement has often emphasized the experiences and perspectives of people diagnosed with disorders such as autism. To the best of my knowledge, all but one of my participants are neurologically “normal,” but analyzing the astonishing range of the so-called normal also reveals the diversity of human minds. For a review of the neurodiversity movement, see Kras 2010. I thank Adam Newman for pointing out the affinity of this project to recent studies of neurodiversity.

[2] The entire volume of Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience in which Thompson-Schill’s, Braver’s, and Jonides’s editorial appears is dedicated to research illustrating what can be learned from fMRI studies that analyze individual differences. I thank Corey Inman for bringing this volume to my attention.

[3] Patrick Colm Hogan argues that, “universalism vs. particularism is a false dichotomy” (Hogan 2003, 16).

[4] In her study of creative thinking, John-Steiner wrote that she aimed “to complement and extend the analyses of thinking obtained from laboratory studies with a broad, theoretical, and interdisciplinary approach.” For the most part, however, John-Steiner did not bring her participants’ insights into dialogue with the outcomes of laboratory experiments (John-Steiner 1997, 3).

[5] I am grateful to psychologist Jessica Alexander for introducing me to this idea.