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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

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The Biologist and the Literary Critic:
A Conversation About Cognitive Science and Literary Studies

Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke

Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke are colleagues at Bryn Mawr College who, over the course of the past five years or so, have collaborated on a range of activities: courses, working groups, symposia, brown bag sessions and essays about all of the above. In the latter, they explore common ground they have discovered together. Here, they take time to explore some of the persistent the hope that others may find them useful also. Please join them as the conversation continues in the on-line forum.

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April 12, 2006

So, Paul, hundreds of cups of coffee later--here's where I'm at.

You'd asked me to prepare a bibliography of materials on the intersection of cognitive science and literary studies; you'll find that link above. As I was doing the (relatively tedious) work of putting together this list, it felt as though I were drawing a family tree, without including the stories to which such a geneology is only an index: the aunt who hid out in the attic, the uncle who had to leave town suddenly....

So how about this? I tell you what I'm noticing @ this intersection--where literature feeds cognitive science, and cognitive science feeds literature, and you talk back a bit....?

One difference between how you (as a cognitive scientist) and I (as a literary critic) approach the world seems to lie in the relative emphasis we place on the importance of individual identity. We have very different modes, for instance, in terms of the way we credit (or not) our sources of information. For me, ideas always have legs, emerge out of particular bodies--and an important aspect of my evaluation of stories (my deciding, for instance, whether I can trust a particular account) has to do with where-and-who it comes from, what their particular investments, individual limitations and sightlines might be. Whether they tell the story with a frown or a grin on their face, whether they are looking me in the eye or not, as they tell their tale. Your approach is very different: you generally don't flag people from whom you take ideas (and actively encourage writers in Serendip's forums not to do the same).

Given this difference, it makes sense that I was led into the study of literature--writing about lives (in particular), while you were drawn to biology--knowing about life (in general). And yet (paradoxically? or @ least curiously), my focus has been on what happens in the "outside": on relation of the self to the environment, how it is mirrored, refracted, and shaped in its engagements, how it actually comes to know itself through interactions with others nearby. In contrast, your interests have focused largely on the inside of the organism--in particular on the bipartite nature of the brain, and how it "talks" to and re-shapes itself in the process.

Generally, these two p.o.v.'s are complimentary; each helps to fill in blindspots of the other, and that certainly may be one reason why our collaborations have been as generative as they have been. I'd even go so far as to grant that literary studies is a part of what Nancy Easterlin has called "bioepistemology"--the view that knowledge is made, and made in relation to the capabilities of human knowers. What has actually interested me most (so far) has been what Easterlin terms the "cognitive imperative": the human need to organize sensory imput in a meaningful fashion. What has seemed to interest you more has been those explorations beyond what is already shaped--the generativity of pushing past what is known. If the "brain operates flexibly within parameters that both enable and constrain knowledge" (Easterlin, again), then I've been looking @ the constraints, while you've been insistently attending to the enabling.

I've spent my professional life, for instance, trying to understanding narrative, coming to realize that it's our means for getting a grip on the randomness of the universe, first by identifying causes and their effects, then by laying them out in a linear fashion. I've been most interested in the "ends" of stories, in the ways we use them to get somewhere. Your own move into "non-normal" inquiry seems to have involved a different focus: a consistent unsettling of the linear, an activity that involves noticing the edges of stories, going beyond the endings to give new accounts of what's been omitted from the old. While I've been trying to get to the mountaintop (say, sort of), you've recognized the limitations of hill-climbing, and gone more freely exploring, unbound by what has been done so far...

What might rubbing those differences together get us, in terms of the current intersection of neurobiology and literary criticism? I've just been looking through the essays recently collected by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. In the "forward from the scientific side," E.O. Wilson says that human nature is being defined with increasing precision. He emphasizes the "inherited regularities of sensory and mental development," and the ways in which human behavior is "severely constrained relative to the combined behavioral repertories of other animal species." But I find myself now far less interested such constraints (in terms of looking, as so many of the essays in that volume do, at shared theories of human nature). I am in thinking about them instead as the ground and provocation for the imaginative possibilities that exceed what it is we have been dealt, biologically....


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