Thursday, April 20, 2006

Losing yourself superfrontal gyrus activity in a book

I was just discussing with one of my brighter students the difficulty of quantifying the distinction between "literature" and "just regular old writing." People who believe in "literature" tend to be vague and muddy about where exactly the boundaries lie, which is basically fine because the idea of a canon does more harm than good. But as I said to this student, it would be really nice to have quantitative data about brain functioning when reading literature and how it differs from brain functioning when reading... well, when just reading. We have data on what happens in the brain when reading a word, reading a nonword, reading a word in limited context, but not (to the best of my knowledge, though I'd be thrilled to find out I was wrong) on reading fiction versus doing other things.

I think it would be useful. But at the same time, I realize that the results would hardly be conclusive, since so much goes on in the brain when reading; fMRI results would be messy, and it's not like there's a single measurable moment of electrical impulse that defines literary reading. It's probably more effective to break it up. So I find it pretty interesting that according to this article, data imply that there is a substantive change in brain functioning associated with the sense of "losing yourself" in a task (or in a book?). From New Scientist, which you may have noticed is one of my favorite sources:
Goldberg found that when the sensory stimulus was shown slowly, and when a personal emotional response was required, the volunteers showed activity in the superfrontal gyrus – the brain region associated with self-awareness-related function.

But when the card flipping and musical sequences were rapid, there was no activity in the superfrontal gyrus, despite activity in the sensory cortex and related structures.

"The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected,” says Goldberg, “and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited."
It's far from a conclusive experiment, since they seem to have collected data from only nine participants, and fMRI data really are a lot muddier than they're often presented. But it's an interesting implication, and perhaps a first step towards a quantifiable criterion for "great" (or at least engrossing) writing.


Laura said...

How do you think that having a quantifiable criterion for great writing would affect issues of canon, which you say "does more harm than good"? Wouldn't we, in some way, be defining the canon to end all canons--The Canon That Science Built?

I would find this kind of data fascinating, but I'm not sure how it would be useful. What do you anticipate?

4/21/2006 1:48 PM  
jess said...

I'm definitely not hoping to use this data to ratify the canon; I really think the idea of the canon is thoroughly outdated, and I'm hardly going to try to save it. But the side effect of jettisoning the canon is that we're left without a firm handle on what "good literature" is. When we had a canon, good literature was the stuff that was ratified by the rich white guys in academia. That's an idea I have no desire to save, but the fact is that we don't really have an alternative definition. So it seems like we have two options: Accede to the idea that there is no distinction between literature and any other writing, or base our criteria on something more objective than "what the intellectuals have deemed to be okay."

Any brain data would still give us only fuzzy boundaries; I don't think it could possibly be specific enough to start etching out a new canon, and we wouldn't want that. But it would be useful to show that there's some quantitative difference (not just difference in historical valorization) between good literature and, well, not-good literature. Just because I'm anti-canon doesn't mean I'm willing to say that no distinction exists. It just needs to be tagged to something more reliable than a hegemonic academic history.

4/21/2006 5:52 PM  

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