This blog is two years old! A year ago I wrote a first annual round-up, which you can find here. I think I feel about as optimistic as I did then. It’s been more pleasure than pain writing regular posts, and I keep finding ways in which literary and scientific insights seem to speak to one another. A quick browse will lead you back through the topics covered. Consciousness kept sneaking in this year, as did the problems of knowing other minds; the limited language of smell, the aversive qualities of certain words (‘moist’), and ‘affective forecasting’ were other multi-post topics. Looking ahead to next year, I hope that some longer term research ideas I’ve had will feature, and I’ll keep on keeping track of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
When I read back, one part of one post struck me more than most. Responding to an article called ‘Unsolved Problems in Neuroscience‘, which listed a lot of big scientific questions that lie ahead, I was in upbeat mood:
So question XXI asks ‘What counts as an explanation of how the brain works?’, to which I want to answer, in this serio-poetico-glib spirit, how about Ulysses, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or Endgame, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses? And I would want to add the necessariness and also incompleteness of all of them together — and they all need reading again. And question XXIII asks ‘What are the different ways of understanding the brain?’. To its parenthetical suggestions (‘function, algorithm, implementation’) I want to add lyrically, epically, comically, tragically, novelistically, and on and on, blank verse and ottava rima, prose essay, verse essay, and on.
I wish I had been a bit less coy, because although ‘explanation’ may well not be the right word (it’s a bit too plain and functional), I do think that literature, especially in the variety and complexity of different literary forms, traces, and models, and knows about, the ways our thoughts work.
In my first annual round-up there was a passing reference to the film Field of Dreams, and for no particular reason I think that an annual baseball film reference could be a good tradition to consolidate. So you will find a typical moment from Bull Durham down below (which has some swearing in it, so if you’re in the habit of watching clips from this blog in church or with children, take heed). What a film that is: as subtle and acute as any romantic sport comedy could possibly be, with three top actors (Costner, Sarandon, Robbins) doing excellent work. I realise that readers may find it hard to wait for a year to know where next year’s clip will come from, so I’ll say now: it’ll be Moneyball (which I now have to watch again).