Peter Garratt (ed) The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture

Peter Garratt (ed) The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2016) xvii + 259 pp. £66.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-59329-0

Academic and cultural institutions have grown increasingly ambitious in their approach to interdisciplinary and collaborative study. The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture is an edited collection which showcases this, as its authors research work within the cognitive sciences and contemporary theories of the embodied mind to reveal the complex interplay of internal mechanisms of the body and external influences which shape our thinking. The book studies a variety of outlets, from literary narratives to art installations, within different historical periods. The research in this book enriches our understanding of these new approaches within the humanities and more specifically, the potential to incorporate scientific understandings as Garrett writes 'bringing the biological brain (or mind-brain, as it sometimes gets called) back into critical discourse was one of the distinctive primary moves for addressing how cultural minds are embodied.' 1

It is difficult to comment meaningfully on where this book fits into the wider body of literature as this field is still in its infancy. What can be said however, is that this book is extremely helpful in pointing towards secondary reading materials: preliminary research which lays the foundations for the ideas developed in this book, such as Mark Rowland’s The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology, as well as anticipating future areas of research, specifically in the final section of the book which looks at digital technologies. The book is divided into three sections which appear in the following order: ‘Theorising the Embodied Mind’, ‘Reading Culture’ and ‘Cognitive Futures.’

The opening chapter of the book, ‘Enactive Perception and Fictional Worlds’, by Merja Polvinen, draws on embodied cognition to infuse fresh ideas into existing narratological debates around how readers experience and conceptualise fictionality. Polvinen writes about the advent of something called 4E cognition which proposes that human thought is embodied, emotional, enactive and extended. Using China Miélville’s novel The City and The City Polvinen describes how ‘[f]rom the enactive perceptive, reading fiction is a way of encountering how things appear to be (life-like) by making contact with how things are (fictional).’2 This eloquently captures the way in which our imaginative engagement may not be compromised by our ability to reflect on the rhetorical underpinnings of a narrative, and vice versa. The implications of this theory are wide-ranging, particularly with regards to the moral status of narratives, or how they may be involved in developing our moral imagination.

The following chapter sees Marco Bernini write about ‘The Opacity of Fictional Minds: Transparency, Interpretive Cognition and the Exceptionality Thesis.’ Bernini considers how texts may allow readers to see the process of self-reflection in characters with keen introspective tendencies. On some occasions we are made to how this process can be triggered by external influences such as individuals asking what they are thinking or what prompted them to act in such a way. This chapter is a dense and difficult read, for it requires a relatively secure understanding of continental and contemporary philosophy. However, it offers a wonderful insight into how characters may come to understand themselves and what techniques authors may use to represent this process.

Barbara Dancygier’s chapter ‘ “Un-Walling” the Wall: Embodiment and Viewpoint’ focuses in on the work of the graffiti artist Banksy to reflect on how materiality impacts the process of meaning making. Contemplating how a wall may be creatively transformed so it no longer appears to retain its material integrity, Dancygier considers how we may re-think the symbolic meaning of the wall.  Banksy does this by having the wall appear like a sticker, a piece of paper or even a curtain. We no longer view the wall as a barrier, separating spaces and people but as something less permanent or fixed. These meanings surface from changing our perception of the material nature of the wall. Dancygier then turns her mind to more metaphorical examples as she discusses A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tom Snout, the fictional character who acts as the wall separating Pyramus’s and Thisbe’s gardens. By having an individual play this part the audience is made aware of the mechanisms of the play (which is itself contained in a play), so that the play builds on the idea of people as barriers both literal and metaphorical. Admittedly, the jump from Banksy’s work to Shakespeare’s is a little strange but Dancygier’s insightful view on how they may be compared is refreshing.

The chapter which follows is entitled ‘Textures of Thought: Theatricality, Performativity and the Extended/Enactive Debate’, and in it Teemu Paavolainen analyses the rhetorical imagery deployed by ‘4E cognitive theories’, revealing how theatricality and performance are now used as metaphors in the philosophical and cognitive science literature. Paavolainen explains that if we propose that metaphors are not simply figures of speech but create the very ‘textures of thought’ the possibility of change lies in attending to what our metaphors conceal or reveal. This chapter makes the perfect stepping stone between the first and second sections as it asks that the reader pause to consider what language we may use to have such discussions.

Miranda Anderson then proposes in her chapter that we must recognise the specific terms in which Renaissance mind conceptualised, and examines the print culture of Shakespeare’s age as an ecology for distributing cognition. She draws on contemporary and Renaissance ideas around the extended mind and subject in order to offer a close reading of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 77.’ Anderson argues for the significance of what is deliberately absent from the page and how this shapes the reader’s thoughts, an intense reading practice which could be fruitfully applied to Shakespeare’s other sonnets. The following chapter continues the book’s interest in Shakespeare as Laura Seymour’s '"Her Silence Flouts Me": Stillness in The Taming of the Shrew' dissects the use of embodied silence on the Shakespearean stage. Seymour is particularly interested in performing femininity.  Whilst most attention is focused on words and grand gestures, Seymour asks that we take a closer look at how audiences interpret their absence. The theory of ‘cognitive underload’ would have us believe that people rely on embodying their thought in speech and gesture, yet Seymour recognises how The Taming of the Shrew complicates this. Whilst the absence of these behaviours can be taken to mean the character are passive and subservient, if well performed the audience may read something more into it. The theory of ‘offline cognition’ puts forward the notion that stillness is a marker of intense thought. This is reminiscent of how we think about the blank spaces on poems, which shapes the silence and the temporality of the piece. In terms of what this means for Shakespearean characters, or indeed any visual performances, it asks audiences to take notice of characters even when they are quiet and subdued, for perhaps this is when they are at their most interesting. Of course, this means that one can read the restrained performances of the female characters in The Taming of the Shrew as indicative of resilience, an internal world which cannot be controlled so easily.

Michael Sinding conceptualises psychosocial action in terms of energy substance moving between bodies and believes such a model provides an important insight into the creation of meaning, discourse and worldviews. In his chapter ‘From World to Worldview: An Energy Principle of Psychosocial Dynamics' he advances the argument that this conception of energy exchange is important in representing psychosocial causation, especially in metaphoric and narrative representations. Sinding writes that we imagine mental life in terms of bodily life because we experience and conceptualise both in terms of structured pattern of ‘sensorimotor energy’ – that is to say, patterns of force fortified by that which is material. This chapter sets the scene for further research which would look at discourse structure and processing in order to get a better understanding of how we trace other worldviews in texts.

The chapter which follows sees Karin Kukkonen reviewing how literary uses of language moderate embodied thinking. Again, Kukkonen is aware of what is yet to be studied as she identifies a gap in both an empirical and theoretical understanding of the place of reading in the predictive-processing model. In her chapter, 'Bayesian Bodies: The Predictive Dimension of Embodied Cognition and Culture' Kukkonon draws on neo-Bayesian approaches to prediction currently being developed by individuals like Andy Clark. She contemplates the role of prediction processing in textual comprehension and the management of surprise in guiding the reader’s response to narratives. In the following chapter, Nigel McLoughlin's 'Emergences: Towards a Cognitive-Affective Model for Creativity in the Arts', the cognitive-affective modal of creativity is considered. For McLoughlin the creative novelty exemplified by poetic metaphor is grounded in affective experience, and neuroscience has helped to establish this phenomenon. For instance, ‘conceptual blending theory’ helps us to understand a wide range of phenomena including metaphors as it suggests that we subconsciously ‘blend’ elements and vital relations from diverse scenarios in order to make connections. Whilst both Kukkonen and McLoughlin make an admirable attempt to take the reader through these concepts, a prior knowledge of the work of George Lakoff and Mark Turner would be useful.

Nicola Shaughnessy and Melissa Trimingham co-author a chapter on ‘Autism in the Wild: Bridging the Gap Between Experiment and Experience.’ In this chapter they write about how participatory performance may affect those with autism. They report on a collaboration between Drama, Psychology and the Tizard Centre at the University of Kent, ‘Imagining Autism: Drama, Performance and Intermediality as an Intervention for Autism’. The project examined the potential of drama and performance to influence the main diagnostic features of autism: communication, social interaction and social imagination. A series of immersive installations were designed to develop these areas.  Shaughnessy and Trimingham examine how the installations offered a hybrid space which combined various theories which informed the creation of the piece and the behaviours and activities which could be observed. Their impressions highlight the significance of having a range of individuals, coming from different areas, working together on projects so that they may draw on a range of expertise and theoretical perspectives.

In the final section, Matt Hayler persuasively argues, in 'Hardware, Software, Wetware: Cognitive Science and Biohacking in the Digital Humanities', that digital technology finds itself at the epicentre of both the cognitive and medical humanities. Using the wonderful example of the American television series Sherlock Holmes, Hayler describes a scene where Sherlock apologises for Watson’s family troubles, more specifically her father’s affair. Watson is astonished at how he could know such a thing and asks that he reveal how he did it, to which he replies ‘Google.’ This is a character who is the embodiment of supreme cognitive skill, renowned for his ability to recognise patterns, use critical thinking and inductive reasoning. Yet in this moment, and indeed other moments throughout the series we see that these powers can often be supplemented through digital technologies. Hayler recognises how these technologies change our process for remembering and for finding out.  In order to make the most of these technologies we are required to submit ourselves to them, to upload the information, to work ‘how best to store things in memory, of committing to the way that the machine works so that we can function better with it, alongside it, thought it, within it.’3

Garrett’s book is an eclectic set of essays which often asks the reader to make difficult jumps in terms of breadth and specialist knowledge. Owing to the diversity and density on which the book operates, I believe it calls for a second reading. However, this does not reflect poorly on the book but is rather symptomatic of what Matt Hayler would describe as ‘growing pains.’4 It is because the ‘Cognitive Humanities’ has so much potential that means it is too early to pin down where its boundaries are.  Furthermore, the academics and practitioners working in this area are far too curious to not continue to push these boundaries. The book will certainly spark conversations which, in the spirit of interdisciplinarity, reward serendipity and ask that we share our findings so that we may approach our research with something unexpected.

Morven Cook, University of Liverpool


1 Garrett, ‘Introduction: The Cognitive Humanities: Whence and Whither?’,

2 Polvinen, ‘Enactive Perception and Fictional Worlds’, 31.

3 Hayler, ‘Hardware, Software, Wetware: Cognitive Science and Biohacking’ 221.

4 Ibid, 213