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


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