Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review: Literature and the Brain

In Literature and the Brain (©2009 The PsyArt Foundation, Gainesville, FL) Norman N. Holland combines his love of ideas, questions, and answers with his love for literature. Like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink or The Tipping Point, Holland’s is the perfect vacation or bedtime reading for the learned person interested in human behaviors, in this case, in thinking about literature. This is not a book that analyzes particular pieces of literature, as many of his other books do, but one that asks questions such as “Why do we feel real emotions at things we know are fictional” and what allows us to suspend disbelief, as well as explores “how the brain both enables and limits us in creating and responding to literature.”

To answer and explore some of these, Holland elucidates workings of the brain and looks at our relation to reality in general. Apparently, when our brain is cognizant that it cannot (or needs not) act or change the outcome of a situation, for example, on a work of art as when viewing a movie in a theater, then the motor cortex 'relaxes' allowing the limbic system its freer emotional expression.
He describes four changes in the brain when we are transported by reading a book or watching a play: our perception changes in relation to the body, to the environment, in reality testing, and in our emotions.

Holland provides biological and evolutionary reasons why we can lose awareness of our bodies and the world, and why we can cease to judge reality, allowing us to react emotionally toward fictional characters as if they were real. He explores why literary works engender such strong emotions by explaining the functioning of the brain, its cortical and subcortical workings. Holland says that the sole purpose of the brain is to move the body as in the four F’s learned by all medical students: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual reproduction [the latter ‘F’ an example of the joy of surprise, as in a joke or well-turned phrase. ]

In explaining how the retina and the occipital brain perceive electrical physiological processes as something “out there,” he begins:

“Sensing objects as ‘out-there’ in a not-me world is useful, even essential, for survival. I have to know that somewhere beyond my skin is a mountain lion, a banana split, or Marilyn Monroe, depending on which basic need I am trying to satisfy at the moment.”

In Literature and the Brain Holland makes complex ideas accessible to the lay person. It is a rich book of neurological and psychoanalytic ideas about emotion and motivation, combined with thoughts from philosophers and poets, and peppered with humor. His avuncular writing style leads the reader into comfortable conversation with the author. Sometimes there are lovely metaphors: “A poem lies inert, like Sleeping Beauty, until we love it into life.” [Loving both poems and fairy tales, and with its allusion to sexual awakening, this one delighted me, despite the unconscious misogyny intimating that women find life from men.] Sometimes there is frank science: "...the brain stores information: not in the cells, but in the patterns of linkage between cells." But, throughout, there is the desire to read and understand more.

For the psychoanalyst, there are both ideas to fortify traditional views (about free association; the structural theory of id, ego, and superego; repression; and sublimation) and contemporary ones (cultural construction of our worlds; subjectivity; and negotiation of agreement about understanding) as well as those to support both (implicit learning and varying memory systems; how our brains are interconnected, porous to another’s person’s feelings). And when Holland writes about our enjoyment of tragedies (such as Hamlet) “…we fit them into our schemas for understanding the world. By making sense of them, we tame them.,” we think not only of Piaget, or Stolorow, or even Maurice Sendak, but we also resonate with what goes on, in part, in treatment with our patients. Later, privileging the left brain and insight, Holland notes how “Symbolization makes meaning possible,” however idiosyncratic and personal that meaning may be. But he also notes the importance of implicit connection, what Benjamin may write about as the joy of two subjects sharing a moment of like-mindedness, when he quotes the student Ellen “…this book [referring to the cartoons of Kliban] proves that someone else sees what I see.”

SEEKING behaviors and CONSUMMATORY behaviors, essential to the survival of the species, shed light on why we make meaning from and sense of literary works. Authors create a problem and we hunger for its resolution. We seek to learn the meaning of things. We seek to be reassured. Seeking satisfactions and getting them both bring us pleasure. I took pleasure in reading Literature and the Brain. In it we “discover this mysterious, magical treasure,[the] Mind.”

review by Lycia Alexander-Guerra, M.D.

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