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

Narrative Complexity in Contemporary Cinema: A Cognitive Approach

willemsen talkOn January 23rd, Literature and the Mind celebrated a book launch by Steven Willemsen, our visiting research scholar in cognitive film studies from the University of Groningen. Willemsen’s presentation focused on his new book, Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, which looks into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind.

willemsen talk Willemsen’s book reconceptualizes narrative complexity by focusing on its effect on the viewer. Despite the impossible structures of complex films, people are driven to approach them as if they operate as traditional narratives: the puzzle films that Willemsen discussed make us expect and seek rational explanations when there are none to be found. Willemsen’s presentation and book question the ways in which impossible puzzle films create complexity, the methods through which their narratives strategically keep viewers in the loop of sense-making, and the reasons for the evident appeal of such dissonant narrative experiences.

willemsen_with book


Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human — A Presentation by Dan Siegel, M.D.

Dan Siegel, M.D. joined Literature and the Mind on November 28th to talk about his new book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human. Dr. Siegel focused on his early work to organize an interdisciplinary team of scholars to acknowledge the existence of the mind and to develop a working definition.

siegel talk

Dr. Siegel drew our attention to the differences in how disciplines think about ideas, especially the idea of the mind. Some intentionally refuse to define it, others cannot affirm its existence because they cannot measure it, and still others take it for granted.

Lecture by Rebecca McNamara, Co-Sponsored with Medieval Literature

Literature and the Mind joined Medieval Literature on November 18th for a talk by Rebecca McNamara entitled “Love and the Emotional Language of the Law in Chaucer’s Poetry.” Professor McNamara explained the ways in which Geoffrey Chaucer uses technical legal register in his poetry for marked emotional effect.

mcnamara talkThe talk focused on Chaucer’s poems “The Complaint Unto Pity” and “Anelida and Arcite” to show how legal language operations emotionally in some of his works. Professor McNamara’s talk stemmed from a larger project on the history of emotions related to the suicidal impulse in late medieval English literature and culture.

Conversation with Professor Michael Gazzaniga on “The Social Brain”

Professor Michael Gazzaniga joined Literature and the Mind on November 16th for a conversation about The Social Brain: Discovering the Networks of the Mind. Professor Gazzaniga, along with Roger Sperry, pioneered the study of the split brain. Our discussion focused on the human brain processes that generate belief systems. Professor Gazzaniga’s research showed that the mind has a modular organization, and each module or unit is capable of producing independent behaviors. After the emission of behaviors, the left-hemisphere language-based system interprets the behaviors and constructs a narrative to explain their meaning. Thus, human beliefs are generated as a result of the dynamics between our mind modules and our left-brain interpreter module.gazzaniga talk

Reading Group Meeting: Daniel Stern and Louise Erdrich

On November 7th, we came together for this year’s first Literature and the Mind reading group meeting, co-lead by Kay Young and Corinne Bancroft. We read selections from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life  alongside Louise Erdrich’s short story “Father’s Milk.”

reading groupWe discussed the powerful ability of Erdrich’s text to perform intersubjectivity by creating the felt quality of interactions, both between characters and between text and reader. Works of fiction representationally slice lived reality into moments – and then slow these moments down, immersing us and inviting us into states of identification.

Inaugural Literature and the Mind Talk by Professor Sowon Park

Inaugural TalkProfessor Sowon Park, who joined our initiative and university this year from Oxford University, gave the inaugural Literature and the Mind talk on October 24th. Professor Park specializes in neuroscientific approaches to literature and British Modernism, and she is the founder and convenor of the Unconscious Memory Network. Professor Park’s talk, “A Shade or a Shape of You: Theory of Mind in Lily Briscoe’s Vision,” reflected on what Theory of Mind might mean for literary research, focusing particularly on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The paper presented Lily’s final vision in the novel as an example of mind-reading that transcends power relations and transactional dynamics.

Undergraduate Lit and Mind Pizza Party

On October 19th, Literature and the Mind hosted a pizza party for all undergraduates interested in the initiative and the specialization.

undergrad lit and mind pizza partyThis year’s Undergraduate Representatives, Henry Bernard and Baily Rossi, introduced themselves and shared their experiences and thoughts about the Literature and the Mind Specialization.

undergrad lit and mind pizza partyWe met one another, enjoyed delicious pizza, and read an excerpt from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life . Our discussion about the cocreation of our mental life turned to the brilliant improvisational comedy of Nichols and May – and watching their skits brought alive for us our previous theme of “Improvisation” together with our new theme of “Intersubjectivity.”

undergrad lit and mind pizza partyundergrad lit and mind pizza partyThanks to everyone who joined this undergraduate Lit and Mind social – we can’t wait to get together again in the winter quarter.

Fall 2016 Opening Reception

opening reception

On October 3rd, undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and researchers from a variety of departments and initiatives gathered together around food and friends to celebrate the beginning of a new academic year and theme at the Literature and the Mind opening reception. Kay Young, the new Director of the Literature and the Mind Initiative, introduced to us our new research topic, “Intersubjectivity,” and this year’s Graduate Representatives, Corinne Bancroft and Dalia Bolotnikov, shared some of the year’s exciting upcoming events and speakers. We look forward to exploring over the next two years how we function as intersubjective beings and what makes literary studies intersubjective. Thanks to all of our attendees for joining us in beginning a wonderful new year!

Featured Minds: Porter Abbott

Porter Abbott is Research Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author most recently of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2nd ed. 2008) and Real Mysteries: Narrative & the Unknowable (2013). An eclectic narratologist, his personal “turn” toward the evolutionary and cognitive sciences was marked by “The Evolutionary Origins of the Storied Mind: Modeling the Prehistory of Narrative Consciousness and its Discontents” (2000).

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

Right now, along the cognitive line, I am finishing an essay titled “What Does It Mean to be Mad? Diagnosis, Narrative, Science, & the DSM” (2017). I will be test-driving it this month (Oct. 2016) at a Symposium in Nuremberg. Very briefly, I think mental disorder has a special status in pursuing the old conundrum of how mind emerges from matter. It also throws into sharp relief a disconnect between the felt reality of individual minds and the scientific understanding of the mind.

This essay also reflects a long-standing interest in narrative gaps, limits of narrative, and the limits of knowing. So, recently, there’s Real Mysteries, which is about how narrative handles what we simply cannot know, and my chapter “How Do We Read What Isn’t There to be Read: Shadow Stories and Permanent Gaps” in the The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies (2014). This in turn relates to my interest in the incompatibility of emergent behaviors, like natural selection, with narrative modes of understanding and also the ways everyday discourse confidently masks emergence with narratable chains of causality.

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

In the late 90’s, I hung out with John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, who initiated the field of evolutionary psychology, and Paul Hernadi, and our own Lisa Zunshine who was then doing doctoral work at UCSB before becoming a cognitivist meteor currently lighting up the firmament at the University of Kentucky. The work of Steven Mithen, Merlin Donald, and Ellen Spolsky were also important for me. I guess my baptismal moment came when I was invited to give a presentation at an IHC conference, “Imagination & the Adapted Mind” in the summer of 1999. It brought together scientists & humanists of almost every stripe. I then edited the double-issue of SubStanceOn the Origin of Fictions (2001)—that came out of that conference. I am still a great fan of Ellen Spolsky, whose Gaps in Nature was a major early influence. My review of her latest, characteristically provocative, “cognitivist” book, The Contracts of Fiction, will appear shortly in Poetics Today.

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?

I think the major front, still, is work that demonstrates the “exchange value” that science and the humanities have for each other. In the early days of cognitivist literary work, much of the research went in one direction, scienceàhumanities. There was also much condescension from scientists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, which didn’t help. Showing what science in return can gain from the humanities, our special intellectual leverage, has long been advocated by Meir Sternberg. An issue of Poetics Today (32.3, 2011) was dedicated to it, and now there are younger scholars, like Marco Bernini and Marco Caracciolo—and for sure our new colleague Sowon Park—who are opening up this approach in many ways.

What does literature do for minds?

This is such a huge question, I will simply rephrase it: How do different embodied minds engage with different fictional or nonfictional texts in different media in different contexts at different times? All this and more is what we are trying to find out.

What role does last year’s L&M research theme of improvisation play within your research?

To date, my major contribution to the study of improvisation has been as director for Rob Wallace’s wonderfully original dissertation, Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism, which was almost immediately published by Bloomsbury (2010).

What relationship does intersubjectivity, understood as the study of interdependent relationships and interactions, have to your work?

A very difficult theme, I think. Intersubjectivity links up with several areas that have become more challenging the more we know: empathy, theory of mind, mirror neurons, distributed cognition, the extended mind. It is interestingly adjacent to work of mine that has focused on representations of subjectivity and how they engage the reader, especially in autography and the work of Samuel Beckett.

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

Well, there are no answers, nor will there ever be. Our minds and how we respond to literature and the arts are simply way to complex. So this field is all a wonderful work in progress. E. O. Wilson wrote that fields in the humanities exceed the complexity of physics by many orders of magnitude, which means that what we call “theories” are, from a scientific perspective, hypotheses, though indeed some have great and productive staying power.

Selections from Porter’s Work:

Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Porter’s article “Humanists, Scientists, and the Cultural Surplus” (SubStance 30.1/2 [2001]: 203–219):

When E. O. Wilson chides humanists for invoking the idea of “processes too complex for reductionistic analysis” (“the white flag of the secular individual, the lazy modernist equivalent of The Will of God”), he is playing chicken in an inappropriate way. Of course we might find reductionistic analysis applying in cultural areas where we are unable to apply it now. But the scientist goes wrong in failing to understand the degree to which the humanist researcher must accept and work with ideas that are, by scientific standards, hypothetical. After all, so many of the really important things we have to think about in this life lie in areas where the question of causation is highly speculative and where an answer, if one exists, is far down the road—if it’s down there at all.


It may well be, for example, that there are narrative “functions” and “archetypes” that not only replicate across the entire range of cultures but that indicate, if not direct genetic causation, a significant degree of epigenetic constraint. And in some cases the epigenetic leash appears to be quite tight. What Freud called the “law of the talon”—the revenge imperative, an eye for an eye—may well be rooted in a genetic predisposition to strike back. This would make a kind of grim evolutionary sense. So it’s no surprise that in popular narrative, one finds its archetypes everywhere. Hollywood specializes in it, often exhaustingly, in narratives that ignite the genetic need, rousing audiences to a frenzy of unsatiated craving for revenge, and then satisfying it.


But you also find the revenge plot in Hamlet and Moby Dick, neither of which appears to give way to the genetic predisposition. As we follow the narrative, we are not so much roused to revenge as we are deeply conflicted. This is one of the many qualities they have that makes them as absorbing as they are frustrating. They engage in what no amount of reduction will make finally clear: the immensely important task of reconciling the claims of knowledge and desire. This is a task that begins in articulation and that is extended by interpretation. It is a complex ethical business that no culture escapes, and it requires, not reduction, but thoughtful construction. Should such texts work as cautionary tales with powerful moral lessons that keep warring parties from killing each other off, so much the better. But the main object is larger than this and arguably more important: not just to survive, but to live.


The issue of the limits of a solely Darwinian accounting of things was provocatively extended by Gould and Lewontin’s idea of the “spandrel,” or the accidental consequence of evolutionary necessity. In architecture, a spandrel is the curved triangle caused by the struts in a dome. This structural necessity became, in its turn, a frame for art, some of it rather wonderful, but none of it necessary for the structure’s architectural integrity. In evolutionary bio/psychology, scholars have argued about specific applications of the theory of the spandrel to accidental consequences of human capabilities like language or narrative. Of course, accidental consequences have a way of becoming evolutionary necessities. Still, it would appear almost certainly the case that the in-fill Shakespeare and Melville created to elaborate the evolutionary givens of narrative and revenge is not present by evolutionary necessity. It is all quite spandrelesque.


O vengeance!

Why what an ass I am! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A stallion! Fie upon’t, foh!


Hamlet is having a great deal of difficulty here casting himself in a simple tale of revenge, an old masterplot in which he is supposed to play the role of avenger with all the appropriate passion. He can’t squeeze himself into this reductive mold, which also requires reducing his mother, his uncle, even his “dear father” to their functions in the tale. As a sign of his own irreducible human complexity, a multitude of other considerations inflect his thinking on the subject. The inclusion of both heaven and hell as “prompters,” the metaphor of prostitution, the opposition of language and deeds are all at play in his thinking in this brief passage. It is a rich intellectual counterpoint, set off by the additional music of blank verse.


In other words, gifts that we have by virtue of our long struggle to survive and reproduce have given us other behaviors that do not seem to be dictated by Darwinian imperatives. They are way out there on the genetic leash. This point is critical if we are to avoid the naturalistic fallacy of passing from an “is” to an “ought.” Species survival may or may not be good, but if it is good, it is surely not the only good thing. Nor very distinguished. Worms do it. Moreover, they have been doing it much longer than we have and will be still doing it after we’re gone. The really important task is not survival but making a life out of the situation survival has landed us in, equipped as we are with individually specific self-awareness. What art and literature so often enable, then, and what interpretive work enables in its turn, is some alleviation of the burden of consciousness.



Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Porter’s “Cognitive Literary Studies: The ‘Second Generation’” (Poetics Today 27.4 [2006]: 711-722):

A biologist, about to dissect a frog, is startled to observe certain remarkable features: the superior glossiness of its coat, the strength of its sinews, the speed of its reactions, a look of what one might almost call the light of understanding in its eye. He sets it aside in its own cage and as the days go by observes other facets of this remarkable frog. Its croak is almost musical in its sustained baritone, like the ancient low notes of certain Buddhist monks. Over time, this special frog begins to draw the biologist from his experimental work on the tibial reflex of Rana catesbiana. He devotes more and more time to an appreciation and celebration of the achievements of Froggo Bullmeister, surely the most gifted and accomplished of its entire species.


Here’s an example closer to home: In an inquiry into the origins of racism, a sociologist has devised an experiment involving human subjects, each of whom is asked to write a page narrativizing what seems to be happening in a film clip depicting the interactions of characters of different apparent races. The data she seeks are the spontaneous recurrences of certain keywords. But one response astonishes her. It is so eloquent, so deeply felt, that she finds herself moved to tears. Rashly, she breaks the code of anonymous subjects and contacts this ragged, impoverished, untutored product of the urban ghetto. She encourages him to expand on what he has written. It turns out he has a trove of autobiographical fiction. Over time, she increasingly neglects her project as she devotes more of her time to encouraging this genius in a career that eventually dazzles the world. She in turn becomes his most brilliant interpreter, critic, and biographer.


You get the point. The academy has always housed what appear to be two fundamentally opposed objects of study that generate two fundamentally opposed ways of going about that study. The one is bound to the repeatable, the other to the unrepeatable; the one to the norm, the other to the exception; the one to the general, the other to the particular. This is why, post 1967, so many old-timers reacted viscerally to what was and is still called “theory”—not because they were old, or conservative, or incapable of abstract reasoning, but because what was common or predictable in their field bored them except insofar as it helped one appreciate the uncommon. In academic work in the humanities, as the gravitational influence of the scientific model has grown stronger, the market for books devoted to the appreciation of individual writers has waned. Yet even today any number of future scholars go into graduate work because they are just simply blown away by Shakespeare or Büchner or Neil Gaiman. Some adapt without abandoning their enthusiasms. Those who don’t adapt drop out or do “creative writing” or go into publishing or become columnists or, tellingly, accept jobs as generalists in smaller private institutions. . . .


Cognitive literary study emerged in the 1970s largely (though not entirely) as an extension of the “dynamic” (Sternberg) and reader-response (Iser) approaches to interpretation. As such, it sought, logically, to extend the understanding of the reader/text relation back into the mind, about which we know a little more now than we did then, though still much by inference.


For the second generation there was no “theory” of cognitive literary (or, more broadly, cultural) criticism, not even the spongy kind referenced by most humanists (much less the full-blooded, muscular scientific theory that supports every interpretive move of the literary Darwinists). It was, rather, an approach or, perhaps better, a stance, manned by a bunch of scholar-pirates who plundered for their purposes troves of hypotheses, bright ideas, and, yes, rigorous scientific work, dragging it into the work they do as still quite recognizable literary scholar-critics. If there was a danger, as Tony Jackson wrote 2002, in the ease with which “the vocabulary of cognitive rhetoric” can be “plugged into the interpretation,” I think there is much less now. And having survived, allopatrically, a long constructivist era, cognitive study in the humanities is here for the duration—a constant reminder that cultural constructions require human universals, and that if we include the latter in our vision the whole subject of representation and interpretation becomes larger and more satisfyingly complex.



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.

Featured Minds: Paul Megna


Paul is a recent graduate of UCSB’s English PhD program, and one of the Literature and the Mind Initiative’s earliest members.  His dissertation, “Emotional Ethics in Middle English Literature,” examines the surprising extent to which medieval literature anticipates recent revelations concerning emotion’s centrality in ethical decision-making.  He continues this work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, contributing to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His current research focuses on emotion and ethics in Middle English and medievalist drama. He has published pieces in Exemplaria, Glossator, The Yearbook of Langland Studies, and PMLA. He has pieces forthcoming in Postmedieval, The Once and Future Classroom and Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literature but Were Afraid to Ask Žižek: SIC 10.

On the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich

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

I’m currently working on two projects, both of which relate to the emotional mind. First, I’m adapting my dissertation into a monograph, tentatively entitled Existential Emotion in Middle English Literature, which explores the trans-historical resonances between the discourses on emotion contained in Middle English literature and nineteenth- and twentieth-century existential philosophy. I’m particularly interested in the ways that both of these extremely multifaceted fields of thought characterize “negative” emotions including anxiety, despair, shame and lovesickness as essential to authenticity. On the one hand, I read this apotheosis of ugly feelings as powerfully therapeutic: a way to make philosophical lemonade out of the lemons of human suffering. On the other hand, premodern and modern philosophers who zealously authenticate painful emotions often do so from a position of privilege and sometimes do so to camouflage their privilege in the guise of heroic suffering. Throughout the book, I compare case studies in Middle English literature and existential philosophy in an effort to ethically assess the long history of existential emotion.

Secondly, I’m starting a new project on medieval and post-medieval passion plays (i.e., dramatic renditions of Christ’s capture, scourging, crucifixion and death). This project is quite interdisciplinary. Drawing on historicist and literary critical methods, I analyze medieval passion plays, assessing how and why these dramatizations of Christ’s suffering solicited compassion from their audience. Turning to anthropological and sociological methods, I attend and interpret passion plays performed in Australia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. Interviewing actors and audience members, I am pursuing questions including: Do the producers and consumers of modern passion plays understand these plays as exercises in medievalism? To what extent do their understandings of the devotional value of passion plays align with those of their medieval precursors? Do modern passion plays contain any of the anti-Semitic undercurrents common, but not ubiquitous, in their medieval precursors? In addition to live performances, I examine cinematic passion plays including Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1990) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), as well as popular and critical reactions thereto.

How did you become interested in this field?  (Either generally, or pointing to a particular book or scholar that initially drew you into mind studies)

I owe my interest mind studies completely to UCSB. When I was working on my MA in English at the University of Rochester, with some really wonderful professors, and becoming interested in Lacanian psychoanalysis, one of those wonderful professors (Thomas Hahn) recommended that I read Aranye Fradenburg’s Epilogue to Sacrifice your Love. For me, that act of reading was a revelation—it changed the way I think about enjoyment, medieval studies, and the humanities; it made me apply to UCSB’s PhD program. When I arrived at UCSB, the Literature and the Mind MA exam reading list was brand new. Reading through it opened my eyes to a wide array of mind studies including, but not limited to, psychoanalytic theory. I read theories of trauma, cognition, affect/emotion, gender, and post-colonialism. As I began my dissertation, I became particularly interested in critical discussions of affect and emotion. I took a class with Julie Carlson on the affective turn and romantic literature and another with Aranye Fradenburg on anxiety, both of which were extremely important experiences to me. In the latter class, we read Kierkegaard’s book on anxiety alongside Freud’s work on the subject and Lacan’s tenth seminar. At the time, I was also reading things like Piers Plowman and the mystical autobiographies of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. That really provided a starting point for the work that I’m doing now.

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?

I think the work being done by the faculty and graduate students in UCSB’s Literature and the Mind program really answers that question, as does Professor Fradenburg’s recent book Staying Alive.

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…)?

Just as gender and race studies are insisting upon intersectional approaches that attend to differences while forging alliances, so too should mind studies speak (and listen) to other critical paradigms including ecocriticism, Marxism, new materialism, feminism and critical race studies (to name a few). A great example of this critical intersectionality was the beautiful and powerful talk that Fred Moten gave at UCSB on improvisation and race in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department. Sitting in the audience with so many folks from diverse research clusters within UCSB’s English department, as well as other departments, I remember feeling that, in these trying times, mind studies cannot afford to be an insulated world unto itself.

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

Of course, the field should not move in just one direction, but continue to explore different avenues. I’d love to read more work on animal minds and I think the rise of disability studies opens up really important vistas of thought on neurodiversity, a term that is currently being theorized in really fascinating ways. In terms of my own interests, in the future I hope to collaborate with (social) scientists to produce some studies on the neurological and psychological effects of watching performances of religious violence, such as passion plays. The more we can replace interdisciplinary squabbling with creative collaboration, the more mind studies will continue to thrive in literature departments and elsewhere.


Selections from Paul’s Work:

Below you will find the abstract for Paul’s article in PMLA (vol. 30, num. 5), “Better Living through Dread: Medieval Ascetics, Modern Philosophers, and the Long History of Existential Anxiety.”  

Intellectual historians often credit Søren Kierkegaard as existential anxiety’s prime mover. Arguing against this popular sentiment, this essay reads Kierkegaard not as the ex nihilo inventor of existential anxiety but as a modern practitioner of a deep-historical, dread-based asceticism. Examining a wide range of Middle English devotional literature alongside some canonical works of modern existentialism, it argues that Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him participated in a Judeo-Christian tradition of dread-based asceticism, the popularity of which had dwindled since the Middle Ages but never vanished. Following medieval ascetics, modern philosophers like Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre cultivated and analyzed anxiety in an effort to embody authenticity. By considering premodern ascetics early existentialists and modern existentialists latter-day ascetics, the essay sees the long history of existential anxiety as an ascetic tradition built around the ethical goal of living better through dread.

Congratulations 2016 Undergraduate Specialists!

img_4003This year, we celebrated the achievements of another graduating class of English majors at UCSB who specialized in Literature and the Mind.  Graduating seniors gathered with faculty and graduate students from English and Comparative Literature to share memories from their courses in the field, favorite texts and perspectives they encountered, and their plans for the final week of class and life after graduation (including applications to medical school and animation studios, finishing coursework abroad, and taking some well-deserved time off before pursuing graduate school).  We also celebrated three successful years of programming under Julie Carlson’s direction, gathering faculty and students from centers with whom she collaborated in the study of Improvisation (including the American Cultures in Global Contexts Center, Hemispheric South/s, the Early Modern Center and English Broadside Ballad Archive, and Transcriptions).

A hearty congratulations to the following seniors who earned the specialization by taking four or more courses taught or endorsed by Literature and Mind faculty: Suzanne Becker, Kore Busath-Haedt, Diane Byun, Jennifer Chang, Darrin Ching, Garrett Edwards, Tasha Harris, Andrea Hashimoto, Charles Langeland, Williams Leiva, Amanda Levya, Veronica Nakla, Tiffany Park, Jackie Parra, Imelda Perez, Michelle Plevack, Carlo de la Rosa, Aldair Serrano, Cecilia Sin, Alexia Stidham, Diana Valle, Nicole Villanueva, and Marisol Zarate.








Featured Minds: Sowon Park


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.



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)


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.

Symposium Call for Papers: “Narrative, Cognition and Science Lab”

Image credit: Agostini Editore, "Galileo facing the Inquisition"Please consider proposing a paper to (or simply following the proceedings of) a symposium organized by ELINAS (Research Center for Literature and Natural Science).  The symposium is entitled “Narrative, Cognition and Science Lab,” and will be held from October 21-23, 2016, at the Friedrich-Alexander Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany.

Keynote speakers include Marie-Laure Ryan (Independent Scholar in Residence, University of Colorado), Mark Turner (Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University), Bruce Clarke (Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science, Texas Tech University), Hans Ulrich Fuchs (Professor of Physics and Founding Director of the Center for Narrative in Science), and our very own H. Porter Abbot (Research Professor Emeritus of English, UCSB).  See the description below and send questions and/or 400-word abstracts for papers 25 minutes in length to Mike Sinding (michael.sinding@fau.de)

What would a narratology of science look like? A narratology of science-in-literature? How might principles of cognition bring narrative and science together?


Narrative is a fundamental, probably natural, mode of thought and meaning-making. Science is now a central, more culturally-organized mode of knowing the world, of imagining, exploring, modeling, and acting on it. Narrative and science are not self-evidently related—indeed they may seem opposed. Yet many connecting threads can be discovered. Scientists are adept and versatile narrators, telling many kinds of stories in many different genres and media. They recount unfoldings of events, at sometimes uncanny scales—from a particle collision at near light-speed, to the evolution of life, to the history of the universe—in order to interpret them. They narrate as individuals or in teams of thousands. Their events may be natural or manufactured, observed or inferred, objective or subjective or both. Scientists also tell human stories of developing hypotheses, arguments, theories and experiments, and they speak to many publics. Scientific stories may operate at the most concrete or the most abstract levels imaginable. Even mathematical proofs and physics equations have narrative qualities, some suggest. Narrativity appears at various stages of scientific processes: informal speculation, thought experiments, experimental design and execution, measurement, argumentation, writing and revision, theorizing, paradigm-shifting, popularizing, caricaturing (boosting and bashing), retrospective histories and philosophies of fields, and more. Scientists may adapt elements of literary narration (intentionally or not); in grand narratives or close case studies, understandings of nature become emplotted, shaped.


Complementarily, non-scientists often tell stories of science. In proto-scientific eras, knowledge-formation is arguably allied with myth, religion and magic: physics is entangled with metaphysics, chemistry with alchemy. And myth persists in modern discourses of science: myths of selfless or self-serving geniuses, of the promises and perils of technology. Journalists report and (attempt to) interpret scientific findings. Politicians and legal professionals grapple with scientific advice to decide social policies. Teachers tell science’s stories to students—starting with simple versions, as ladders to be kicked away once the rung of the next-best version is grasped. Other versions circulate on social media (for better or worse), mutating as they move. Literary narrators draw ideas and forms from scientific writing, as topics, themes, images and structures. Narrative art reimagines physical forces, forms of causality and time, natural orders, whole cosmologies—inflecting partial scientific understanding with intuitions of pattern and meaning.

Much excellent scholarship analyzes exchanges between science and narrative. In addition, cognitive scientists have explored narrative’s centrality to mental processes and products, and literary scholars drawing on cognitive science have produced far-reaching reinterpretations of basic concepts of narrative. Yet there remains a need for deeper understanding of the processes by which science can move into narrative, and (especially) vice-versa—deeper in the sense of more detailed, more precise, more systematic, more extensively informed by theory and practice, both narrative and scientific. The “narrative turn” has transformed the human and social sciences, but we have yet to take the full measure of narrative in the context of the physical sciences. The “cognitive turn” suggests that cognition may be a key to the deeper understanding we seek. In this light, we propose a dialogue involving a direct and close focus on the intersections of narrative, cognition and science. This focus defines a very wide field of exploration, given the complexities of these terms, and we hope to inspire a rich discussion of new dimensions of these intersections.


We encourage consideration of questions on a range of topics bridging our foci:

  • How do scientific thought, practice and communication use narrative qualities?  How does narrative cognition enable and reflect scientific cognition?  How do scientists see their work as involving story?  What forms of cognition overlap but contrast with narrative forms, and how? e.g. abstraction, ambiguity-reduction, visualization, mathematics, description, argument.
  • What are the implications of the first questions for epistemology, ontology, communication?  Does anyone still think science is “just another narrative”?  What alternatives to the relativist/absolutist polarity have developed in the wake of the “science wars”?What does the future hold?
  • Are there identifiable structures or qualities specific to scientific narratives? What kinds of narrators, characters, plots, causalities, chronologies, discourse structures, rhetorics, emotions, themes and ideologies do we find? What parts of narrative theory resonate with science communities?
  • What are the functions of scientific narratives? How is narrative used to describe, predict, explain, enlighten, persuade, entertain?
  • How are scientific thought and communication adapted into extra-scientific narrative? How can they affect narrative form and processing?
  • How might a consideration of scientific narrative change narrative theory, and cognitive theory? From recognizing previously neglected forms of narrative and thought to revising major concepts.


All forms of narrative, cognitive, and scientific processes, artifacts and theories are welcome.

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.