According to a new article in Stanford University News, researchers studying the brain patterns of PhD students have created fMRI images that “suggest that literary reading provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.” The article barely avoids saying that, for scholars of literature, their findings couldn’t have come at a better time: if we are no longer allowed to believe that literature can tell us things worth knowing, then we should be glad if science proves that it’s good for brain-maintenance.
Of course, the study isn’t the first to pair literary reading with neuroscience or even fMRI technology. A New York Times article from 2010 about the “next big thing in English” discusses several others, including a study at the University of Kentucky researching the novel’s “levels of intentionality” in light of evolutionary psychology and the Literary Lab at Stanford University, where Professor Blakey Vermeule is studying evolutionary explanations of free indirect discourse.
So what are the benefits of this kind of research? For some, it’s all about the bottom line. “To Jonathan Gottschall, a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half.” The humanities are dying, and what they need is an injection of The Next Big Thing, something to make their particular kind of inquiry sexy and relevant in an age seemingly dominated by the presence of science.
There is something somewhat suspect, though, in that very eagerness for “the next big thing,” because a next implies a next implies a next, a continual struggle just to survive. And if the tools of evolutionary biology can teach us anything, it’s that a species truly suited to its environment doesn’t just survive; it thrives.
Marco Roth, asked to respond to the Times article, seems to have this same concern in mind. “Learning about which part of your brain lights up when you come across a passage of free indirect discourse seems less interesting to me than learning what free indirect discourse is, how and when it emerged, and why a novelist might choose to use it, as a free and conscious choice. Teaching and learning such things may not help you find a mate or even get tenure, but they’re still as much a part of what we know and how we know as our neurotransmitters, even if cash-strapped universities seem determined to forget about them.”
Scientific studies of literature often do seem to have this trait in common, that they only tell us what we already know; for readers of literature the suggestion that fMRI scans reveal “how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions” seems tautological. However, this is not to disparage science, or its approaches to literature. After four decades during which literary studies routinely conferred on itself an authority to pronounce on all fields—history, political theory, sociology, epistemology—it now is asked to, and sometimes is happy to, abject itself before natural science. And this reversal is not an irony, but a logical development. A rigorous and rational literary criticism, alert to its disciplinary limits and authoritative within them, is the only intellectual offering that scientists, or anyone else, will be interested in from literary scholars—or should be.