Paul B. Armstrong’s How Literature Plays with the Brain is a neurobiological account of brain processes that, on the one hand, look for patterns and yet, on the other hand, invite ambiguity. From an evolutionary perspective the ability to manage ambiguity is adaptive since it affords the possibility of establishing new patterns. The human response to the arts is not consistently constant since the brain itself, to use Armstrong’s word, is “decentered” (x). That is, for the brain, engagement with the world and especially with arts and ideas is an important form of play where creative flexibility against rigidity has been the means for the survival and increasing sophistication of the human race. Armstrong’s book is timely since he makes some keen distinctions between neurobiology (brain structures and functions including mirror neurons and canonical neurons) and cognitive literary studies (psychological processes including theory of mind and simulation theory). Armstrong ably addresses the neurobiological play of reading by employing hermeneutics (part/whole) and phenomenology (being in the world) in a challenging but vital work in the neuroscientific turn in literary studies. Literary scholars will find the book of immense worth since it treats the neuroscience of reading from a biological, cognitive, and evolutionary perspective.
The physical properties of the book are excellent. In addition to a Preface and an Epilogue, there are five main chapters, Notes, and an Index. There are also a number of useful illustrations in the book as well. Reading from the biography on the back of the work, Paul B. Armstrong is a professor of English at Brown University and the author of, for example, Conflicting Readings: Variety and Validity in Interpretation; and Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form.
While he draws on a number of important sources, Armstrong’s thesis of our neurobiological wiring that accepts both constancy and flexibility relies on Stanislas Dehaene’s notion of how the brain recycles functions for “object recognition,” Semir Zeki’s ide of the neurobiology of ambiguity, Antonio Damasio’s theory of the as-if body feedback loop, and Giacomo Rizzolatti’s research on mirror neurons. Critical of cognitive cultural studies that emphasize psychology over neurobiology, Armstrong nevertheless calls on phenomenologist critics (e.g., Wolfgang Iser) and philosophers (e.g., Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty) quite often since they seem to validate the weight he places on the biology of the aesthetic experience. Attempting the consilience and congruence we often hear about, Armstrong thus engages in a dialogue with scientists and humanists. The scientist must explain “the conflict of interpretations that is characteristic of humanistic inquiry,” since our species not only enjoys but also values creative works that are ambiguous. But at the same time explain is not quite the most accurate verb since our best and most current fMRI technology, Armstrong notes, cannot render a fully accurate account of what happens in the brain during the process of reading, much less decipher how consciousness derives from brain cells and chemicals (5). We at least know there is no “art neuron” and that aesthetic experience (in the presence of visual art or in the process of reading a literary work) is spread out across the brain among various functions (though there are special areas for visual word form, color, and facial recognition) (12).
So while Jean-Pierre Changeux and Stanislas Dehaene say that harmony is the mark of an aesthetic experience, Armstrong says that V.S. Ramachandran suggests, on the contrary (and closer to his thesis and Zeki’s) that art can appeal to us with its “distortions” (13). Part of the answer to this curiosity for the discontinuous is that we experience art emotionally, not in real life, but as if it is real (17). The complex incongruities of art are reflected in the complex mapping (response) in the human brain. There is no dichotomy between harmony-distortion; rather, both are parts of a whole neurobiological process of challenge, test, play, and tentative evaluation.
The brain is a complex organ of multifaceted parts, areas, and patterns separate and yet connected and not (according to Alva Noë, neuroscientist and philosopher) a teleological agent (25). Likewise, the brain evolved over a very long period in circumstances different from the past six thousand years (or so) in which writing developed, so our brains have jerry-rigged other functions to help us read. For instance, there is a visual word form area in the brain’s visual cortex important for reading and which is primarily employed in identifying “visual forms” as it is near brain portions implicated in object and facial recognition. More precisely, this visual word form area becomes active when lettering of any kind in any language is introduced, suggesting the brain’s neurons in this small spot have accommodated themselves to cultural and not only evolutionary forces (28).
Armstrong spends a good deal of time covering neuronal change through use, disuse, and plasticity. Though controversial, research suggests neurogenesis in some brain regions via history and repetition, and these patterns of use/disuse reflect (and are reflected in) the give-and-take movements of reading. Some neuroscientists (Zeki) speak of reward systems in the brain while others (Irving Biederman and Edward Vessel) similarly speak of pleasure systems. Thus there is a playful exchange between that which is informational and that which is pleasurable, evident in dissonant music and complex, indefinite works of art and novels. Armstrong’s point is that this playful interchange is supported by neurobiology itself since the brain’s organizational structure is “decentered” (52). Of course there would be evolutionary advantages in the brain’s openness to being challenged and stimulated to say alert.
Reading is forward-looking, expectant, hermeneutic: one comprehends the whole over time through parts, each of which comes at different times. Does one’s interpretation merely exhibit a projection or reinforcement of what one believes? More likely reading is a test of beliefs and abilities. Can ambiguity result in such inner conflict that there is no meaning? Since there are no terminal points in our consciousness (since it is always active) that seems unlikely. In fact, Armstrong’s idea seems to be that our brain is wired to be tested and so to negotiate many variables. While Semir Zeki says our visual cortex hearkens for constancy (e.g., color) “to create the useful fiction of stability . . .” Ellen Spolsky insists that the human brain is open in terms of content, and such content is often unfinished and not tuned finely (64). Such acceptable incongruities permit the brain to admit conflicting data, and hence the notion of play. We see this tendency to congruity/incongruity in our ability to build metaphors, and that capacity reflects the human brain’s willingness to embrace oppositions, to attempt meaning through creation and destruction. A difficult text or complex image reveals various meanings among individuals by virtue of each brain’s history (Damasio’s somatic markers) and plasticity. Surely this flexible neurobiology is adaptive, allowing the brain not simply to receive data but to render decisions about such input.
Armstrong relies on phenomenology to bolster his points. Calling on Heidegger, he says that there is always a “gap” between being in the world and our neurobiological reaction (101). This gap, however, motivates reflection and a crisscross between a reader and a text; play results in back-tracking in order to move forward interpretively. All this is a prelude to a long discussion of axons, action potentials, cell polarization, refractory periods, synchronous neuronal activity, excitation/relaxation, delta/theta/alpha/beta/gamma waves to demonstrate that what we might ultimately see and feel as meaning is the product of bunched but dissimilar neuronal patterns (110-111). Harmony implies disruption, the latter of which produces action potentials that increase sensitivity to learning. Homeostasis might be the tendency of the body, but stasis is shunned by an active mind.
Furthermore, citing Husserl, Damasio, Shaun Gallagher, Dan Zahavi, Noë, William James, and Ponty, Armstrong says (paraphrasing Noë) that what we consider the self is not to be equated with our neurobiology; instead, our neurobiology is part of the self (126). That is, self is not merely a brain state but part of temporal reality (and hence his reliance on phenomenology). Continuing with his theme of de-centeredness, Armstrong goes on to demonstrate (or argue, depending on the reader’s perspective) that the brain is “a society” (127) of multiple but interlocking “processes” and not necessarily an “individual” (128). Is this too theoretical for a phenomenologist?
José Ortega y Gasset famously said I am myself and my circumstance, and if I cannot save it, I cannot save myself. History is a system, and each of us creates (from his or her inner, genetically inspired character) a history that simultaneously interacts with the world (and so adds to the history, as a sculptor adds clay to a statue). Therefore it is not precisely clear what Armstrong says here, as he can tend to be theoretically abstract. The bottom line is that (contrary to what he suggests) my neurobiology is my own since it dies with me; if there is ultimately no individual, then I am not responsible. Perhaps this reviewer is too much of a staunch materialist.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s general topic is well taken, for certainly consciousness (as even William James knew) is messy and continuous, and character (as Kant and Schopenhauer knew, in spite of their differences) is multi-dimensional and flexible. Truly, personhood and personality are complex organic forms, and from an evolutionary perspective the somewhat amorphous quality of personality falls in line with variation. But Armstrong fails to address who is responsible for the circumstances; the discussion should not simply be about the neurobiology of brain processes, but why those processes eventuate different outcomes among different individuals.
The discussion shifts to theory of mind, simulation theory, and mirror neurons to help us negotiate personal and social emotions. Simulation can occur immediately after birth, whereas theory of mind occurs around age four (since only by then can one understand how others do not share the same beliefs). Critics of simulation theory say the problem is that we are supposedly simulating something we already know; but the upshot is that we surely have simulation and theory of mind capacities, and the bridge to both might lie in mirror neurons (132). There are skeptics who do not place such high importance on mirror neurons, but that fact is that discussion of them (along with theory of mind and simulation) re-centers any debate about the value of the arts around the social brain hypothesis. Armstrong suggests that what is key here is the notion of alter ego – the paradox of knowing oneself through another, and this doubling capacity (135) is clearly part of our psychology and neurobiology (whether theory of mind, simulation theory, or mirror neurons) and what accounts for play in reading.
Since mirror neurons are located in a motor cortical area, and since the thrust of Armstrong’s thesis has been on the metaphorical motion and movement of play in reading, he understandably spends quite a bit of time exploring mirror neurons. In fact, Armstrong goes as far as saying that motor neurons (perhaps more than theory of mind or simulation) are responsible for speculating about another person’s intentions (139). Armstrong values theory of mind and simulation (as he seems to be more a synthesizer than a destroyer of approaches), but he keeps hovering over and finally landing on mirror neurons and their motor reflection. For instance, he talks about so-called canonical neurons which are stimulated not simply by action but by objects that can (or have the potential to) act (149). This revolutionary finding means that a property of some mirror neurons is in control of our response to cultural artifacts (150).
The mirror neuron area is also involved in language (since vocalization is rooted – still apparent – in gesture), and so narrative and reading are akin to the doubling, as-if feedback we see in simulation theory and especially in mirror neurons. Language is a neurobiological social connector because it literally “reanimates” (158) us via visual and motor areas in the cortex. Armstrong’s book is a testament to the value of the arts and the humanities since their processes and productions generate ideas that are literally the physical (neurobiological) stuff of which we are made.
- Gregory F. Tague