Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) xv+221 pp. Hb $49.95, Pb, EPub, Mobi, PDF $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1576-5
Although this study covers ground familiar to anyone conversant with scientific and/or humanist perspectives on such notions as empathy, de-familiarization or hermeneutics, Armstrong’s analysis - as suggested by the title - is addressing both audiences in his well researched and richly documented explanation of how brain processes frame the aesthetic experience. Indeed, his fundamental assertion is that the human brain is hard-wired to react in specific ways to certain aesthetic forms. The author is quick to point out, however, that such biological constraints can never fully explain an individual’s reaction to a work of art, because particular historical, emotional, and social circumstances make each aesthetic experience subjective and irreducible to scientific causality. In recognizing this unbreachable 'explanatory disciplinary gap,' Armstrong repudiates any attempt to reduce art to science.
The Preface and Chapter One ('The Brain and the Aesthetic Experience') present the foundational concepts brought to bear in Armstrong’s subsequent account of the neurobiology of the aesthetic experience. First and foremost, optimal cortical functioning depends upon both constancy and flexibility. Although the brain is predisposed to respond to stable forms, it also relies on the integration of stimuli that challenge this stability, setting off a hermeneutic spiral that helps to maintain its vital plasticity. Indeed, cognitive constraints already in place constitute the familiar/habitual that allows us to recognize the unfamiliar/novel; a healthy brain subsequently extends the range of the familiar by including the erstwhile unfamiliar. Variations on this essential dynamic scaffold succeeding discussion. In the end, the hermeneutic intuitions of philosophers such as Husserl, Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty, or of aesthetic critics like Iser, Bakhtin or Poulet converge with what the brain imaging studies of Iacoboni, Rizzolatti or Ramachandran continue to reveal about the coupling and decoupling of neurons in virtually all areas of our decentered brains.
The ability to learn to read, for instance, relies on a pre-existing cortical network called the 'visual word form area' or 'the brain’s letterbox' located in the lower left hemisphere and Chapter Two (“How the Brain Learns to Read”) investigates reading in terms of our innate capacity to recognize stable visual forms. Universal in scope, this fundamental cortical function has been repurposed through evolution to allow humans to recognize the culturally variable grapholects that constitute human languages (spoken words trigger cells in a different part of the brain). Although invariant object recognition is pre-given, the ability to accommodate an unnatural and culturally conditioned activity such as reading testifies to the plasticity of the brain. As far as the aesthetic experience is concerned, Armstrong underscores the benefits of consonance and dissonance: defamiliarization in art, music, or literature can be the key to aesthetic pleasure, because it satisfies the brain’s need to play with established and new forms, thereby ensuring the flexibility and openness required for adaptability.
Clearly, then, consistency building ensures in large measure our ability to experience aesthetic phenomena thanks to the ever-changing configuration of gestalts within a flexible brain. In Chapter Three, Armstrong investigates 'The Neuroscience of the Hermeneutic Circle,' and cites numerous studies to confirm that the brain is actually hard-wired to experiment with ambiguity and conflict (essential for physical and social survival). Scientists have also succeeded in mapping topological areas of the brain in which visual, aural, and tactile stimuli are processed. Signals from the outside are received and sent to distinct but interconnected cortical areas for further processing. These revised neurobiological states contribute in turn to the feedback loop; brain activity is a continuous effort to integrate discontinuities within pre-existing networks. Consequently, perceptions are open to revision and the brain can entertain conflicting interpretations. What all this means for the aesthetic experience is that we initially read or appreciate a work of art based on pre-existing repertoires of understanding that are bound to generate different points of view and critical approaches. The universal need for constancy and for play can bring frustration or delight to the more or less rigidified brain faced with innovation and transgression.
Armstrong further elaborates what has become the key concept in his essay - the play between habit forming and cortical rewiring- in Chapter Four, 'The Temporality of Reading and the Decentered Brain'. Neuroscientists have discovered that neurons are actually firing before conscious awareness occurs. This temporal gap separates expectation and fulfilment or irritation and actually provides time enough for the brain to be open to interruptions in consistency. It can also signify changes in established neuronal assemblies and the possibility of reading, listening to music or seeing a film from a fresh point of view. The aesthetic experience changes brain structure through the creation of habits and conventions, on one hand, and through de-habituation and novelty, on the other.
The final chapter, 'The Social Brain and the Paradox of the Alter Ego,' examines another way in which the aesthetic experience can modify human behavior. Referencing research on mirror neurons - cells that fire when an action is observed or simulated - Armstrong reminds us that reception of a work of art relies on inter-subjectivity, that is, our ability to embody ways of seeing and acting that do not necessarily correspond to our own. Does a particular work of art reinforce or disrupt our habitual patterns? At the very least, reflecting upon and sharing our aesthetic experiences provides an opportunity to study ways of knowing at different times and in circumstances unlike our own. The exchange between the artist and the audience relies on mirror neurons and such shared intentionality can modify the structure of the brain and trigger changes in behavior.
In the end, the humanities retain a vital and relevant role in cultural evolution. What is transmitted and how it is transmitted 'develops our ability to collaborate with others' by enhancing 'shared intentionality' (172). Though the aesthetic experience cannot occur without the brain, it remains the work of the humanities to generate conflicting and mutually enriching interpretations, to examine the impact of historical and social contingencies on aesthetics, to highlight individual variability and creativity, and to emphasize the formal qualities of a work of art. Certainly, the humanities began intuiting cortical processes long before brain imaging ever existed, indicating that neurobiologists might continue to benefit from their hermeneutic intuitions.
Kathryn St. Ours, Goucher College h