Posture in Purgatory

A couple of weeks ago I went a conference on ‘Visualising Posture in Dante’s Comedy’, organised by Heather Webb from the Italian Department in Cambridge, and Vladimir Mirodan from Central St Martins College in London. The first session included Mirodan’s students performing scenes from Purgatorio: they created the postures and movements of the prideful, envious, and gluttonous. This worked beautifully, even in the sterile environment of a seminar room: one interesting quality was the way they moved through the sinners’ journey into their characteristic purgatorial shapes. In the poem the reader initially has to infer the reasons why (for example) it’s fitting that the prideful find themselves bent over under the weight of huge rocks; in performance, the movement was realised in front of us.
      This, and the insightful ways in which the Dante scholars unfolded the significance of movement in his work, would have been a satisfying conference on its own. But the event also brought in – to a building one minute from my office – two scholars who have completely changed the way I think about movement in literature.
      One was Vittorio Gallese, the cognitive scientist who played a key role in the discovery of mirror neurons and the exploration of their significance. The other was Guillemette Bolens, author of The Style of Gestures, a brilliant book I think, which explores how the human capacity for enriches our experience of literature. ‘Kinesic intelligence’ means mentally simulating, engaging with, understanding, interpreting, the movements of others. This happens when the movements are physically present and when they are represented in written form.

neuron2Lower down in this past I shall give a brief introduction to the work of Gallese . Before doing that, though, I will note perhaps the most cheering outcome of the day for me. I had thought that the mirror neurons field, and the kinesic intelligence field, were rather at odds. The emphasis on ‘intelligence’ discerns the latter from what is happening at a sub-personal level, in the mirror neuron system. You could simplify it into things done by the mind versus things done by the brain (but I’m not sure anyone involved would like the two things to be opposed quite like that). As it turned out, Gallese was quick to say that his experiments into ‘experimental aesthetics’ did not aspire to explain the humanities, but rather to complement and correlate. So it’s possible to learn from and work with both, while still keeping track of crucial differences in their reference points and goals.

neuron2Gallese’s team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and then repeated the findings in humans. The same neurons that are activated in movement are also activated when monkeys and humans watch movement. There is still debate about what this phenomenon is and what it means, but the field has expanded in two ways. First, this mirror system and the ‘embodied simulation’ it allows (i.e. we are constantly re-embodying what we see at a neural level) has been seen as the basis of planning, assessing attentions, empathy and even aesthetic experience. I traced this path in an essay called ‘The Shakespearean Grasp’. Second, it has been shown that sensory experiences and even emotions are mirrored in a related way: we seem to simulate pain, disgust, and so on, in our neurons.
      For anyone who does not know about this, and who is interested in the thought that readers of literature may in some way simulate the experiences they read about, a question follows quickly: is there any continuity between watching an action and reading about it? The experimenters offer is a rather resounding ‘yes’. A few references:

* Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Stephen M. Wilson, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Marco Iacoboni, ‘Congruent Embodied Representations for Visually Presented Actions and Linguistic Phrases Describing Actions’, Current Biology, 16 (2006), 1–6, sets out to ‘compare activity related to linguistic stimuli with activity related to action observation’ (p. 4). Its ‘results suggest a key role of mirror neuron areas in the re-enactment of sensory-motor representations during conceptual processing of actions invoked by linguistic stimuli’ (p. 1).
neuron* O. Hauk, I. Johnsrude, F. Pulvermüller, ‘Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex’, Neuron, 22 (2004), 301-7, finds that the words ‘kick’ and ‘lick’, etc., activate the appropriate action centres in the brain.
neuron* An intriguing nuancing of the idea: R.A. Zwaan, L.J. Taylor, M. de Boer, ‘Motor resonance as a function of narrative time: further tests of the linguistic focus hypothesis’, Brain and Language, 112 (2010), 143-9. Here they found motor-neuron resonance when the action words were placed in the present, and in the past, but not when they expressed future intentions.
neuron* See also, for an instance of sensory simulation, A. Barrós-Loscertales, J. González, , N. Ventura-Campos, J.C. Bustamante, V. Costumero, M.A. Parcet, and C. Ávila, ‘Reading “salt” activates gustatory brain regions: fMRI evidence for semantic grounding in a novel sensory modality’, Cerebral Cortex, 22 (2012), 2554-2563. They say ‘we conclude that the meaning of taste words is grounded in distributed cortical circuits reaching into areas that process taste sensations’ (p. 2554). I am a bit unsure about how to take ‘meaning’ here, but the immediacy of the link between reading a word and the activation of sensory neurons is striking.

neuron2Gallese has done a lot to orient his work in philosophy and latterly (along with collaborators) in literary theory. I think these works represent a congenial introduction to his work for those coming from the perspective of fiction. Incidentally, they post-date the reading I did for ‘The Shakespearean Grasp’; or possibly I restricted myself to a particular pathway through his experiments. Anyway, I didn’t mention them there, but I don’t think I’d have said anything differently.

* In ‘Embodied Simulation Theory: Imagination and Narrative’, Neuropsychoanalysis, 13 (2011), 196-200, he responds to Siri Hustvedt’s piece ‘Three Emotional Stories: Reflections on Memory, the Imagination, Narrative, and the Self’ in the same journal (pp. 187-96).

neuron* With Hannah Wojciehowski, Gallese has written ‘How Stories Make Us Feel: Toward an Embodied Narratology’, California Italian Studies, 2 (2011), i.e. here. This gets further into proposing ways in which the terms of literary criticism might be reframed. So instead of an ‘objective correlative’, there may be a ‘subjective correlative’. The big idea is that we should think of aesthetic experience as ‘liberated embodied simulation’, a form in which to simulate intense emotions and actions through the re-use of mental states.
neuron* see also Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski, ‘The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: An Interview with Vittorio Gallese’, California Italian Studies, 2 (2010), i.e. here.

One interesting thing that became clearer in reading these pieces was that the discovery of mirror neurons emerged from a search for ‘canonical neurons’. These have been rather eclipsed, but there is evidence for them and they are fascinating. These are neurons that activate when performing an action (such as using a hammer) but also when looking at the object involved in the action. The brain – the argument goes – routinely responds to objects in the world by tracking their possible uses and interactions.

neuron2Finally, a couple of times I have heard and read Gallese quoting literary examples with approval (there’s a passage from Dante in the ‘Toward an Embodied Narratology’ mentioned above). He sees them as instances where ‘art anticipates science’. I suppose I might be forgiven a counter-suggestion, playing with chronology and keeping to the partisan theme of this blog, that the experiments are instances of ‘science repeating what art already knows’ – but really it’s a dynamic exchange between the two that I like (and he does too, I think).

It is worth crediting the phrase originally to Ellen Spolsky, ‘Elaborated Knowledge: Reading Kinesis in Pictures’, Poetics Today, 17 (1996), 157-180.
There are other pathways into and through this sort of embodied, simulating cognition. I found the way in which Gallese gradually expanded out from motor simulation to other (apparently higher) cognitive functions extremely suggestive when thinking about drama. Others choose their cognitive-scientific guides for different, good reasons: Barsalou, Damasio, Gallagher, Decety, Rizzolati, Iacoboni…
Friedemann Pulvermüller’s homepage has a lot more to follow up:
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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