Cognitive Literary Science

Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition, ed. Michael Burke and Emily Troscianko (OUP, 2017)

I finally caught up with this collection of essays. I think it’s important, not least because it takes the two-way nature of the literature-and-cognitive-science conversation seriously. It also made me remember what still seems to me a worthwhile exchange (in the post and the comments) between me and Emily Troscianko, way back when. (It was about how much literary scholars should commit to scientific models of the mind.)
      The introduction to Cognitive Literary Science (pp. 1-16) does a good job introducing the interdisciplinary field, and makes a key turn towards seeing literature as a way of contributing to scientific debates. The editors make some noteworthy predictions (p. 13), as follows:

… there will be more truly collaborative projects in the future;
… 4E cognition (i.e. seeing the mind as embodied, extended, embedded, and enactive) will ‘stay big, but grow more differentiated’;
… there will be more work on variations between readers (there’s on this, and it’s an interesting can of worms);
… there will be new thoughts about whether reading makes us better people;
… people will develop more ‘ecologically valid’ ways of studying reading;
… there will be experiments in the 4E style on the ‘haptics, kinaesthetics, and ergonomics’ of reading.

All of this sounds like it might well come true, and I am also hopeful about collaborative projects; I have some irons in the fire myself. I can’t give the lowdown on every essay but I thought I’d note a few things that struck me.


Patrick Colm Hogan’s is pleasingly upbeat about what Arthur Miller knows about your brain: ‘The play has implications for our understanding of the human mind. Specifically, it indicates that emotional memories are organized into stories, which is to say, particular causal sequences. These causal sequences are not necessary or law-like, nor even probabilistic. Nonetheless, they serve as models for construing and simulating later events: defining their causal configurations, filling in intentions or unobserved actions, reconstructing relevant memories, and so on. In consequence, the play suggests that one’s emotional responses are not responses to the current situation alone. They are, rather, responses to the current situation as organized and partially re-simulated by tacit references to narratively structures emotional memories.’


Merja Polvinen’s has interesting things to say about the imagination, and in particular how scientific experiments sometimes simplify what is meant by imagination in theory and practice. Polvinen mentions a landmark essay by Kidd and Castano which argued that fiction makes us better people; it has been mentioned on this blog at least twice, here (where the point was that there had been a failed replication) and also here (in a very pertinent guest post by Emily Trosciano, whose essay ‘Reading Imaginatively: The Imagination in Cognitive Science and Cognitive Literary Studies’, Journal of Literary Semantics, 42 (2013), 181-98 is exploring similar themes to Polvinen’s).


Karin Kukkonen some music for my ears when she says that the ‘literary genre of the fantastic… can serve as a repository of “found science”’.


David Herman’s has given me great stuff to think about in relation to my ongoing interest in animal minds, mentioned most recently here. As he says, his aim is ‘to steer a course between the Scylla of the radical inaccessibility of non-human minds and the Charybdis of experiential homogenization or flattening, by arguing that mind-ascribing acts, rather than occurring in decontextualized, one-off acts of attribution, always unfold within particular arenas of practice, or discourse domains’. His analysis looks at how non-fiction and fiction aren’t so different in the language used, or how prolific they are, when attributing mental states to animals.


These are a few highlights, then, but I’m omitting essays by some major luminaries. Overall, I think it’s a landmark collection.

Richard J. Gerrig and Micha L. Mumper, ‘How Readers’ Lives Affect Narrative Experiences’, pp. 239-57
‘Simulation and the Structure of Emotional Memory: Learning from Arthur Miller’s After the Fall’, pp. 114-33
‘Cognitive Science and the Double Vision of Fiction’, pp. 135-50
‘Fantastic Cognition’, pp. 151-67
‘Animal Minds Across Discourse Domains’, pp. 195-216
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

One thought on “Cognitive Literary Science

  1. simon

    Thank you! As ever. I’m looking forward to this book, when I get back to that project. V interested to see what comes on ‘… there will be new thoughts about whether reading makes us better people’- which I both do and don’t want to be true…..


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