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How Literature Plays with the Brain

The Neuroscience of Reading and Art

Paul B. Armstrong

Publication Year: 2013

"Literature matters," says Paul B. Armstrong, "for what it reveals about human experience, and the very different perspective of neuroscience on how the brain works is part of that story." In How Literature Plays with the Brain, Armstrong examines the parallels between certain features of literary experience and functions of the brain. His central argument is that literature plays with the brain through experiences of harmony and dissonance which set in motion oppositions that are fundamental to the neurobiology of mental functioning. These oppositions negotiate basic tensions in the operation of the brain between the drive for pattern, synthesis, and constancy and the need for flexibility, adaptability, and openness to change. The challenge, Armstrong argues, is to account for the ability of readers to find incommensurable meanings in the same text, for example, or to take pleasure in art that is harmonious or dissonant, symmetrical or distorted, unified or discontinuous and disruptive. How Literature Plays with the Brain is the first book to use the resources of neuroscience and phenomenology to analyze aesthetic experience. For the neuroscientific community, the study suggests that different areas of research—the neurobiology of vision and reading, the brain-body interactions underlying emotions—may be connected to a variety of aesthetic and literary phenomena. For critics and students of literature, the study engages fundamental questions within the humanities: What is aesthetic experience? What happens when we read a literary work? How does the interpretation of literature relate to other ways of knowing?

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

Why should a professor of literature like myself find neuroscience so fascinating? That is a question I have often asked as I found myself swept away by a growing sense of excitement and urgency while reading the technical, often dauntingly difficult neurobiological literature about action potentials, neuronal assemblies, ...

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1. The Brain and Aesthetic Experience

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pp. 1-25

There are many good reasons to undertake cross-disciplinary studies, but one compelling justification is that a problem one wants to solve cannot be adequately addressed with the tools of one’s discipline alone. That is clearly the case with neuroscience and art. ...

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2. How the Brain Learns to Read and the Play of Harmony and Dissonance

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pp. 26-53

Aesthetic experiences in different arts share some features and qualities, although certain experiences are of course specific to a particular art, as are their neurological and physiological correlates. Harmony and dissonance can characterize music, visual art, and literature, for example, but there will necessarily be differences in the neurological processes ...

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3. The Neuroscience of the Hermeneutic Circle

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pp. 54-90

One of the curiosities of contemporary neuroscience is that it has rediscovered some of the ancient truths of hermeneutics, the long philosophical tradition devoted to the study of interpretation.1 The central tenet of hermeneutics is that interpretation is circular. ...

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4. The Temporality of Reading and the Decentered Brain

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pp. 91-130

The lived experience of time is intuitively obvious—until we begin to examine it, and then it can seem deeply paradoxical, even scandalous. As Augustine famously asked: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is, and try to explain, I am baffled.”1 ...

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5. The Social Brain and the Paradox of the Alter Ego

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pp. 131-174

One deficiency of much neuroscience is its neglect of the social dimensions of the brain. This problem is no doubt in part methodological. It is easier, after all, to study an individual brain with an fMRI apparatus or to attach an electrode to a single cell—not that the technology of either procedure is simple— ...

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pp. 175-182

I probably would not have written this book if I hadn’t spent a dozen years as a dean.1 That may sound odd, since doing administrative work is often (rightly) regarded as mind-dulling drudgery, and time spent in an administrative job is time not available for research and teaching. ...


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pp. 183-212


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pp. 213-221

E-ISBN-13: 9781421410036
E-ISBN-10: 1421410036
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421410029
Print-ISBN-10: 1421410028

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 23 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013