Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Take on Neuroscience and Literature

If someone interested in neuroscience and literature was to take a look at my work, what would they find? Quite a bit, but it’s scattered across a lot of publications written over the course of – yikes! – almost four decades. It’s something that’s been on my mind a long time, but I’ve never really gone at it, front and center. It’s always been attached to some other line of thought, most likely some species of cognitive science.

Perhaps the place to start is with two informal working papers, one on Mode and Behavior [10] and the other on Literature, Emotion, and Unity of Being [13]. The second ends by linking Wordsworth’s notion of poetry as recollection in tranquility to the biochemistry of mind, which is also a central feature of Mode and Behavior, where it is linked to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, The Expense of Spirit – some of my earliest publications used that poem as an example ([1] and [2]). 

Beyond this, my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil [6], has quite a bit on the nervous system and anticipates a line of research in interpersonal coupling and synchrony that’s been popular over the last decade and a half. We you consider the fact that oral delivery preceded written texts, those ideas are relevant to literature as well. That book also has a conception of pleasure that has implications for aesthetics.

Finally, there’s a very long paper, “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind [7]. The early sections update the work I did at Johns Hopkins between, say, 1969 and 1972; they’re mostly descriptive in character. A later section, Low Down and Abstract, speculates on how that structure is embodied in the brain.

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Here’s an annotated list of the most relevant work, with formal publications first and then some informal pieces I’ve self published. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

Formal Publications

[1] Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics.  MLN 91:  952-982, 1976. Download at:

This is hardcore cognitive science. But there are neural allusions all over the place and the section on faculty psychology and the will addresses the issue of how the brain represents its own actions. That, in my view, is what faculty psychology is. I take up this issue, self-representation, in somewhat more detail and sophistication in a more recent paper [5].

Abstract: A cognitive network is a type of semantic model developed for simulating natural language on digital computers. A concept is a node in the network while connections between nodes represent relations between concepts. One generates a text by tracing a path through the network and rendering the successive concepts and relations into language according to the appropriate conventions. Elementary concepts are grounded in sensor-motor schemas while abstract concepts are grounded in patterns of network relationship. The semantic structure for Shakespeare's "Th' expense of spirit" (Sonnet 129) is given by an abstract pattern for the Fortunate Fall, which is linked to a pattern specifying a fragment of the conceptual basis for faculty psychology.

[2] Lust in Action:  An Abstraction.  Language and Style 14:  251 - 270, 1981. Download at:

Abstract: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 is considered in two analytical contexts. The main context is as a case study in abstract cognition as studied by David Hays and his students. In that model a three level cognitive system (systemic, episodic and gnomonic) is linked to the world through a sensorimotor system. As an example, the concept of lying (“…lust/ Is perjur’d…”) is constructed within a network that represents the relationship between an utterance, some state of affairs in the world (figures 4 and 5). The essay the introduces another context, that of a cognitive system embedded in a brain whose activity is realized though complex electrochemical processes. The situation depicted in the poem is then described as that arising in a network where one set of cognitive capacities is active in anticipation and pursuit of sexual satisfaction while a different, and incompatible, set of capacities is active after satisfaction has faded into the past. The poem itself is a contemplative record of that maddening cyclic action.

[3] Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process.  American Journal of Semiotics 5:  59 - 79, 1987.  (with David G. Hays) Download at:

If you’re familiar with “West Coast” cognitive linguistics, then you can think of this as a neural account of Fauconnier/Turner conceptual blending.

Abstract: Karl Pribram's concept of neural holography suggests a neurological basis for metaphor: the brain creates a new concept by the metaphoric process of using one concept as a filter — better, as an extractor — for another. For example, the concept "Achilles" is "filtered" through the concept "lion" to foreground the pattern of fighting fury the two hold in common. In this model the linguistic capacity of the left cortical hemisphere is augmented by the capacity of the right hemisphere for analysis of images. Left-hemisphere syntax holds the tenor and vehicle in place while right-hemisphere imaging process extracts the metaphor ground. Metaphors can be concatenated one after the other so that the ground of one metaphor can enter into another one as tenor or vehicle. Thus conceived metaphor is a mechanism through which thought can be extended into new conceptual territory.

[4] The Evolution of Narrative and the Self.  Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2): 129-155, 1993. Download at:

Read the opening and "Lusts and Epiphanies" (much of which is in a working paper [10]) and decide whether you want to go on. The rest is more cognitive than neural.

Abstract: Narratives bring a range of disparate behavioral modes before the conscious self. Preliterate narratives consist of a loose string of episodes where each episode, or small group of episodes, displays a single mode. With literacy comes the ability to construct long narratives in which the episodes are tightly structured so as to exhibit a character's essential nature. Complex strands of episodes are woven together into a single narrative, with flashbacks being common. The emergence of the novel makes it possible to depict personal growth and change. Intimacy, a private sphere of sociality, emerges as both a mode of experience depicted within novels and as a mode in which people read novels. The novelist constructs a narrator to structure experience for reorganization.

[5] First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000, 

Abstract: We can think of the self as the result of interaction between subcortical systems for regulating the global brain state and largely cortical systems for representing the current body state and autobiography.  The personal pronoun system is at the interface between the cortical and subcortical systems. By constructing a network model for the pronoun system that is grounded in basic machinery for social interaction we show how the pronoun system allows speakers to achieve self-reference and how this capacity engenders the illusion of a unified self. The same model allows us to see that there is no essential difference between reliving incidents from one’s own past and giving life to imaginary characters in ritual and in literary works. Such imaginative experience may play a role in maintaining the coherence of the self through different emotions.

[6] Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books, 2001. Though it’s about music, this is my most extensive exploration of the newer psychologies in relation to art. Taken together chapters 2, 3 and 4 present a sophisticated, if a bit abstract, approach to neural embodiment and to pleasure and anxiety. This is my core thinking on these issues. You can download final drafts of chapters 2 and 3 at this link:

[7] Ayahuasca Variations. Human Nature Review 3 (2003) 239-251.

Abstract: This is a review essay of Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience (Oxford University Press, 2002), which is a detailed phenomenological account of what happens when one takes ayahuasca, a psychoactive concoction from South America. Ayahuasca is traditionally taken in the company of others and accompanied by music, which paces the visions and affects their content. The effect is that of entering another world. I offer some speculation about underlying neural processes, much based on the work of Walter Freeman’s speculation that consciousness is organized as short discontinuous whole-hemisphere states. I also speculate on the similarity between the dynamics of ayahuasca experience, as Shanon has described it, and the dynamics of skilled jazz improvisation; and I point out that what Shanon reports as a second-order vision seems to be involved in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.

[7] “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt:  A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003, URL:

The first a longest part of this essay is descriptive: this is how “Kubla Khan” is put together. But there’s a second part where I speculate about how that structure is related to underlying neural mechanisms.

Abstract: Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" has a very coherent structure. Two movements of the poem are each divided into three sections; in both cases the middle of those three in turn has three subsections and again, the middle of the middle has three subsections. The first movement ends with "A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice," a line which is then repeated at the structural midpoint of the second movement. This structure encompasses both semantics and sound, uniting both in a single coherent mental act. The semantics of the poem’s first movement involves a series of cognitive blends in which the neural self provides one input while Xanadu imagery provides the other. The semantics of the second movement involves manipulating the reality status of successive mental spaces. Underlying the entire poem is a “walk” by core brain mechanisms tracing territorial, sexual, and attachment patterns through the poem’s semantics. Coleridge’s 1816 preface embodies an abstract pattern  that paradoxically asserts and denies the poem’s validity. On the internal evidence, the poem is whole and complete.

[8] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608.

This places a computational account of literary form in the context of neural embodiment. Read the sections Practical Criticism and its Vicissitudes, Embodiment: Literature in the Brain, and the opening of Computation: Literature in the Mind, and then decide whether you want to read more.

Abstract: Naturalist literary theory conceives of literature as an adaptive behavioral realm grounded in the capacities of the human brain. In the course of human history literature itself has undergone an evolution that has produced many kinds of literary work. In this article I propose nine propositions to characterize a treatment of literary form. These propositions concern neural and mental mechanisms, and literary evolution in history. Textual meaning is elastic - through not infinitely so - and constrained by form. Form indicates the computational structure of the act of reading and is the same for all readers. Over the long term, literary forms become more complex and sophisticated.

[9] Synch, Song, and Society, Human Nature Review 5 (2005) 66-85:

This updates my thinking from Beethoven’s Anvil and has some remarks on the origins of symbolic thought.

Abstract: After an introductory chapter, Mithen has six chapters that are more or less about music and the brain. The second part of the book consists of ten chapters starting with a review of primate communication and then presenting Mithen’s speculative reconstruction of the steps leading through the origins and elaboration of musicking to its final differentiation into language and music. All of these chapters contain useful information and intelligent synthesis that is well and cleanly presented to a cumulatively brilliant effect. Rather than attempt to review all of this material I will only cover the topics that, for better or worse, I found interesting. I will then offer some speculations of my own on music and sociality and conclude with some general remarks.

Informal Working Papers

[10] Mode and Behavior (2012) 29 pp. Download:

Abstract: This document collects a number of blog posts on the theme of behavioral mode. In this form the idea originates with Warren McCulloch, one of the grand old men of neuroscience and cybernetics. This conception would also give basic credence to the psychoanalytic conception of organ modes—oral, anal, and genital—though, ironically, McCulloch had little use for Freud—he entitled one of his papers “The Past of a Delusion” as an allusion to Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. 

McCulloch’s idea is simple: The most basic decision any vertebrate can make is to commit to some mode of behavior—such as exploring, eating, courting, fighting, playing, etc. Any more specific direction is elaborated from within one of these modes. What gives MuCulloch’s idea its force is his argument (and accompanying model) that modal commitment was mediated, not by the most sophisticated and evolutionarily advanced brain tissue, but by the most elementary and evolutionarily old brain tissue. This tissue, known as the reticular formation or the reticular activating system, is at the core of the brainstem. In effect, it has veto power over the cerebral cortex, but also, the power to activate the cortex. 

The seven posts in this document explore the implications of McCulloch’s conception of behavioral mode. In particular, these seven posts explore the implications of mode for our understanding of art and our construction of the self. They also lay the foundations for a pluralist view of the world.

[12] What is this New World, this Pacific of the Mind? New Savanna blog post, October 18, 2013. URL:

If you want to take a walk on the wild side, read this post. The last section of this post, “A Note on the Possibility of Neural Investigation” suggests that it might one day be possible to detect a structure of binary oppositions in the neural trajectory a literary work traces through the brain.

[13] Literature, Emotion, and Unity of Being (2014) 14 pp. Download:

Abstract: Unity of being is both an aesthetic and an ethical ideal and it is about organizing desire, action, and emotion into a pattern of overall coherence. Such patterns are necessarily culture specific and somewhat arbitrary in their disposition of underlying biological materials. Stories involving often painful and embarrassing aspects of human behavior provide a means of publicly acknowledging and affirming the bewildering diversity of our behavior. Thus publically affirmed, these nonfictions are the means of constructing the neural 'scaffolding' on which we recall and organize the events of our lives.

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