Thursday, April 8, 2010

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”


Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?

Room for DebateCan combining neuroscience and Jane Austen get a literature Ph.D. a job?
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Haskins Laboratories
An M.R.I. of a brain highlighting areas used during reading.
(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.
As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”
This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

To read the rest of the article, click here.

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