“More than 60 years ago, literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “A specter haunts our culture — it is that people will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married,’ let alone understand the language of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but will as a matter of course say ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.'” In the face of recent unbridled successes in neuroscience — which are nothing short of staggering — it would appear that Trilling’s inevitable future is upon us, at least in the pages of our novels.
Austin Allen, associate editor at Big Think, wrote, “I believe it actually will become harder to speak of Faulkner’s Jason Compson as ‘evil’ in a metaphysical sense — or as a raging but thwarted id, or an instrument of repressive patriarchy — rather than positing some kind of defect in his orbitofrontal cortex.”
This all paints a dark future for the novel in the face of neuroscience. Aside from spawning a new literary trend, neuroscience threatens to suck the fun out of analyzing characters and speculating about their motives. Even worse than diminishing the fun of reading novels, neuroscience also threatens to undermine our favorite pastime as readers of novels: passing judgment. This poses the terrifying and compelling question: How will knowing our own brains affect literature?”
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“Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, […] neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells.
Because literary books “are” so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story.
Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us “us”, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives […] help us develop empathy. […] individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective […]
With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.”
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How to foretell a dictator? By scanning his brain (which, perhaps, should be a pre-requisite for all presidential candidates):
“They are usually charming, charismatic and intelligent,” wrote James Fallon, an American neuroscientist, in Psychology Today.
“They brim with self-confidence and independence, and exude sexual energy. They are also extremely self-absorbed, masterful liars, compassionless, often sadistic and possess a boundless appetite for power.”
Col. Gaddafi was “paranoid, narcissistic, power-hungry and vain,” he said.
After studying the behaviour of dictators, Mr. Fallon determined that genes, upbringing, abnormalities in the brain and a lack of empathy all played a role in forming such a person.
And, he concluded, “It is no coincidence that all dictators are men.”