Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.
Interest has bloomed during the last decade. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard, has since 2000 hosted a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Over the years participants have explored, for example, how the visual cortex works in order to explain why Impressionist paintings give the appearance of shimmering. In a few weeks Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard, will give a talk about mental imagery and memory, both of which are invoked while reading.
Ms. Zunshine said that in 1999 she and about 10 others won approval from the Modern Language Association to form a discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature. Last year their members numbered more than 1,200. Unlike Mr. Gottschall, however, Ms. Zunshine sees cognitive approaches as building on other literary theories rather than replacing them.
I've also been following the development of the field of neuro-psychoanalysis since I read Allan Schore's huge and copiously referenced book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, at the most recent "turn of the century." Given the explosion of research at the intersection of science, psyche and culture over the past decade, it does seem like a very long time ago that I was introduced to Schore's work.
In the last sentence of the excerpt above, the article notes Ms. Zunshine's idea that cognitive approaches build on rather than supplant other literary theories. This has been an interesting part of the journey for me into neuro-psychoanalysis: how do I integrate the science without losing the soul, which I see as what's being analyzed in psychoanalysis.
Patricia Cohen's article is well worth the read.