Brain Waves

* Randolph F. Helfrich and Robert T. Knight, ‘Oscillatory Dynamics of Prefrontal Cognitive Control’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 916-30.
* Sepideh Sadaghiani and Andreas Kleinschmidt, ‘Brain Networks and APLHA-Oscillations: Structural and Functional Foundations of Cognitive Control’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 805-17.
* Scott R. Cole and Bradley Voytek, ‘Brain Oscillations and the Importance of Waveform Shape’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 137-49.

This blog is about what literature knows about your brain (I promise), and it also has to be about why it would be literature that knows these things. There are various kinds of answer to this: they might relate to what happens to language in literature, to the cultural roles that literature plays, and they might relate to the forms that literature takes, the ways it organizes our words and our thoughts into certain shapes in space and time. These three essays made me think about the latter possibility: this idea of oscillation, waviness, as a characteristic of the brain, might somehow map onto or be spoken to by the motions of literary forms, the manipulations of cadence in prose, and especially in verse.
      Now I’ve heard it said that the iambic rhythm of poetry (unstressed-syllable-then-stressed-syllable, unstressed-then-stressed, unstressed-then-stressed, etc.) is like a heartbeat, or like footsteps as they walk or run. Could we say that this pattern is like the on-off of brain function — of ‘thought’ — as it’s observed by the scanners? Obviously the safest answer is ‘not really’, but maybe this field of ‘oscillatory dynamics’ could have room for different spheres and manifestations?


First let’s get real about the Trends essays that really don’t offer much crossover at all. Sadaghiani et al. are talking about very rapid oscillations that don’t lend themselves to interdisciplinary generalisations. Cole et al. are also involved in very technical and specific business that doesn’t give me a literary loophole. They build on the observations that the waveforms of neural oscillations aren’t sinusoidal, i.e. they aren’t regularly shaped curvy waves: ‘these nonsinusoidal features may provide crucial and so far overlooked physiological information related to neural communication, computation, and cognition’. It all seems like very clever stuff, from the observation to the prospects for future research, but as far as my selfish purposes are concerned there is still only the most general parallel to offer with the waveforms of poetry and prose.


Might Helfrich et al. be more promising? Yes, in that they are a bit less clear that the oscillations are all super-fast (though deep down I know they are), and Yes, in that the focus is on the large scale, on the ‘profoundly rhythmic quality’ seen in ‘the functional architecture of cognition’. This is irresistibly suggestive, to me at least. However, there has to be a bit of No as well, as we are still deep in the electrical patterns here, far from the conscious or the personal.
      They are interested in the prefrontal cortext (PFC), which seems to be the part of the brain responsible for ‘executive control of goal-directed behavior’. They turn to a nice metaphor to capture its work: it ‘serves as a conductor to orchestrate task-relevant large-scale networks’, and in that role it proves ‘highly flexible’, able to ‘rapidly integrate task-relevant information according to the current contexts and demands’. It seems that research shows ‘neuronal oscillations have a causal role for perception and cognition’ (perhaps a loosely understood causal role, but a causal role nonetheless), and Helfrich et al. extend this to other higher cognitive functions.
      Concluding, they say that ‘accumulating evidence supports the notion that endogenous oscillatory activity in large-scale networks has a causal function for goal-directed behavior and constitutes a promising direction for future research to unravel core mechanisms of goal-directed behavior’. (‘Unravel’ again, just like two posts ago; does this metaphor suggest something about a current idea of the mind as a knotted, knitted thing?) This leaves me thinking: what poem would I quote now, to show how an oscillatory-style rhythmic pattern contributes to the processing of complex material into something heading towards a goal? And then I think, what poem would I not quote to make that point? I think I will leave things general at this point, observing a long-range stand-off between the rhythms of brain and verse. Perhaps I’ll bump into a poem at some point that’s perfect for making things more specific.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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