What gives particular objects and performances the qualities that lead to their categorization as “art”? In literary studies, recent theoretical approaches that emphasize sociocultural context have dampened enthusiasm for inquiry into the aesthetic, not simply directing attention elsewhere but frequently asserting that the entire category is the constructed handmaiden of sociopolitical power. But this decades-long eschewal of the aesthetic has perhaps had its day. In How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art, Paul B. Armstrong notes this neglect and proposes that neuroscience offers some important insights into aesthetic activity.
The goal of Armstrong’s book is to demonstrate the correlation between aesthetic activity and brain structure and function. Relating this goal in his introductory chapter, Armstrong notes—in a nod to Norman Holland, one of the fathers of cognitive literary studies—that the significant explanatory gap between neuroscience and literary analytical practices limits the former as an interpretive tool. Nevertheless, in Armstrong’s view, neuroscience is far enough advanced for scholars to draw inferences about the literary reading process. Moreover, the new field of neurophenomenology is continuous with the speculative tradition of Continental phenomenology and with reader response theory, fields to which Armstrong links his observations through the book. In his words, “the correlations between neural and phenomenological accounts of the temporality of cognition as nonlinear, horizonal, and reciprocal have important parallels not only in Heidegger’s description of the hermeneutic circle as a structure of anticipation but also in Iser’s conception of reading as a to-and-fro process of consistency building” (p. 21).
Armstrong posits that, while the aesthetic tradition has often, contradictorily, sought the essence of art in harmony on the one hand and disunity on the other, the interplay between harmony and disunity is at the core of aesthetic response. Because it emphasizes the brain’s fundamental plasticity, in Armstrong’s view, [End Page 267] neuroscience confirms the insights of phenomenology and the psychological tradition of William James.
Thus, in chapters two through four, Armstrong ties findings about cognitive and perceptual functions to the concept of play, broadly conceived. Noting at the outset that reading is not directly linked to perception (sight or hearing), Armstrong reviews research on reading and language, demonstrating that language processing is not on the whole a localized activity. Following neuroscientists including Francisco Varela and Stanislas Dehaene, Armstrong promotes the notion of a highly plastic, or “bushy,” brain with many connections between diverse areas and much flexibility of function. Sensibly inferring from this that “a ‘bushy,’ decentered brain would not be likely to have aesthetic experiences located in only one area of the cortex,” Armstrong supports his claim with neuroimaging studies (p. 42). Following contemporary work in neuroaesthetics as well in insisting that aesthetic processing is not categorically distinct from other kinds of processing, Armstrong speculates that “the ways in which art’s harmonies reinforce or rewire neuronal assemblies may have a distinct impact on modes of perception and cognition in everyday life” (p. 47).
In this manner, Armstrong moves from the complexity and plasticity of brain processes to inferences about aesthetic function. Thus, the “to-and-fro process of consistency building” mirrors the functionality of the brain. For instance, distinct brain areas process different aspects of vision (immediate stimulus, orientation, shape, and color), and this fact, along with the evidence of optical illusions and experiments in word recognition, points to the interplay between perception and cognition that constitutes seeing. The evidence that the brain is open to ambiguity and plays with divergent syntheses of visual information harmonizes with Elkhonon Goldberg’s research on novelty, which suggests that cortical areas dedicated to routine and to open-ended operations are simultaneously activated in the experience of novelty.
From this, Armstrong surmises that art and the aesthetic break predictability by engaging in a to-and-fro of routine and novelty. Extending this argument further, Armstrong claims that the brain’s temporality is connected to the capacity for play. Rather than experiencing life as sequential moments, humans are...