Faculty Bookshelf: Paul Armstrong

The Neuroscience of Reading and Art

Paul B. Armstrong

 

"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?

Reviews

"An original interdisciplinary study positioned at the intersection of literary theory and neuroscience." -- Johns Hopkins University Press

"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, SEBL Journal

"Armstrong explores the ways that neuroscience and literary theory can be mutually illuminating about the processes of reading and about the aesthetics of literary response. He makes explicit some of the most vital, yet heretofore overlooked, connections between the aims of literary criticism and cognitive neuroscience. There are wonderful insights in How Literature Plays with the Brain, and it is clearly the work of a strong critic who is well educated on both sides of the science-humanities divide." -- G. Gabrielle Starr, New York University

ISBN: 978-1421410029