Vol. 2 No. 1: Victorian Literature and Science

Introduction: Victorian Literature and Science

Ian Henderson
(King's College London)

On 5 April 2010 the New York Times sponsored a debate in its online pages: 'Can "Neuro Lit Crit" Save the Humanities?'. The question rose from an earlier article in the same paper on the 'Next Big Thing in English' (31 March 2010), outlining work by (among others) Professor Linda Zunshine (University of Kentucky) which merges eighteenth-century literary studies and evolutionary psychology, referencing Professor Elaine Scarry's seminars on 'Cognitive Psychology and the Arts' at Harvard, and highlighting a project at Yale led by Emeritus Professor Michael Holquist which uses MRI scans to explore the mental functioning involved in reading complex texts. Behind these projects, it was claimed, there was recognition that science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature's very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Science, apparently, could also 'prove' the advantages for cognitive development of reading literature (part of its 'saving' function; it makes literary study 'relevant' to mental health) and there followed the startling suggestion that literary history might make manifest psychological evolution in humans.

Naturally the framing of the article and subsequent question for debate prompted critical responses,

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Published: 2010-05-22

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