The Neurosciences and the Arts

by Norman N. Holland

January 1, 2001


The neurosciences and the human sciences seek mind in two different ways. One studies special populations under experimental conditions. The other proceeds from the assumption set out by Chomsky and Freud, that whatever all humans do must be innate in the brain. Combining these two approaches is leading to insights into the arts. Understanding the brain processes that use universal grammar suggests the special "exercise" function of poetic language. Metaphor as embodied thought is probably hard wired in the brain also. The sociality inherent in our brains explains audience and reader response. Systems in the brain for a persistent identity explain also the persistence of artists' styles. Infants' experience with animate and inanimate objects may explain our dual experience of literature and the arts: emotional and analytical.


I and my fellow PSYART editors read and publish articles about the application of psychology to the arts. As editors, we may occasionally take the liberty of airing our own opinions in these even airier electronic pages. It is in that spirit that I offer this rather speculative piece.

--Norman N. Holland


    For a couple of decades now, I have been exploring certain new developments in the field of literature-and-psychology or, in general, the psychology of the arts. I believe something very profound is happening to the theory involved, les sciences de l'homme, as the French say, these "human sciences." I think we who study literature or art or philosophy or history are no longer studying just the various texts or techniques in our disciplines. I think we are now, as Mark Turner (1991) wisely insists, studying how the human mind works when we are doing literature or art or philosophy or history. What is art? also asks, What is mind?

    When we raise these questions, we humanists are in much the same position as the neuroscientists. For them, too, the ultimate goal is the discovery of mind--What is it? How does it work? How did we get it? I think of neuroscience and the human sciences as like two very small human beings energetically tunneling in from opposite sides of a very large Alp.

    The Alp is big, and the two sides are far from a useful connection. Nevertheless, we can begin to sense, at a distance, what those connections might turn out to be like.

    I imagine the neuroscientists tunneling in from the west, and the humanists from the east. I am afraid the neuroscientists on the west side of the Alp do not listen much to sounds of digging from the humanists on the east side. Humanists, however, listen very closely to what the neuroscientists are doing; they read popular writers like Damasio (1999), Pinker (1999b), Edelman (1992), Ratey (2001), Gazzaniga (1992), and many others. Often the humanists in their eagerness jump the gun, as I am perhaps doing. We demand from popularizations of neuroscience firm knowledge despite the neuroscientists' careful labeling of their "big" ideas as speculation.

    At any rate, the neuroscientists and we of the human sciences, even if we are divided into two groups, share the same hope. Although dwarfed by the mountain, we hope our diggings will meet in the middle of that huge Alp and there discover this mysterious, magical treasure, Mind. We hope.


    From the human science side, Noam Chomsky and his group in the 1970s set out the basic reasoning when they began talking about Universal Grammar or UG (Chomsky, 1975). If all human languages share certain common grammatical practices, then that common grammar must somehow be built into our brains. If making sentences using subjects and verbs is something everybody does, then you must be able to infer something about the brain from that fact. In general, then, we in the human sciences, such as linguistics, can infer things about brain and mind from things that all human beings do. Grammar, for example, must be innate just as much as a four-chambered heart or a five-fingered hand.

    From the neuroscience side, the tunnelers are digging more directly. Instead of inferring from all humans, they work from specialized populations, Vietnam veterans or left-handed people or victims of autism. The neuroscientists' strongest evidence comes from people with brain damage (from accidents, strokes, or tumors, for example). By comparing the sites which are damaged to the mental abilities that are impaired, the neuroscientist hopes to isolate the brain function corresponding to a given behavior.

    In effect, the lesioned patient (or animal) provides the special case. To explore the consequences of that specialness, the neuroscientists create special experimental situations that do not correspond to ordinary life--"non-ecological" situations as the psychologists say. That is, after all, how you do experiments: with controlled conditions. Having found a certain mental process, they then try to model it and look for sites or systems in the brain that would correspond to the different elements in the process. My brief account, of course, grossly simplifies what neuroscientists do on their side of the Alp, but perhaps it will serve for our purposes.

    Within that general framework of special populations and experimental conditions, explanations get very complicated indeed. Some rely simply on neuroanatomy, parts of the brain, as when the neurologists say that the right side of the brain tends to be the side that reasons holistically, while the left side deals with sequential processes. Neurophysiologists would go further, combining anatomical features into systems that connect typically, higher brain functions in the neocortex or outer limbic system to regions in the midbrain or pons. Neuropsychologists try to correlate behaviors, particularly in carefully orchestrated experimental situations, with regions or systems in the brain. Often their work takes the form of modeling a behavioral process, like speech, and using the behavior of people with lesions in certain areas to try to localize some part of that process.

    Those systems and indeed 99% of neurons communicate with one another by means of neurotransmitters, and these are what neurochemists and neuropharmacologists study. Neurotransmitters are exceedingly complex. Estimates are that there are as many as 200 different neurotransmitters, only fifty of which have been investigated deeply. Also, a given neurotransmitter may act differently in different parts of the brain. And further, the brain talks to the body by means of hormones, and the body talks back to the brain using both hormones and neurotransmitters.

    Finally there are explanations of developments or behaviors as expressions of genes (or, more properly, clusters of genes). We have genes that program us for this or that. It is important, however, to remember that any genetic explanation has to have two parts, because a gene only expresses in a certain environment. To explain a genetic phenomenon, one must point to the genes plus the environment that triggers the gene to express. Hence the claim that there is a "gene for violence" has to be unpacked. The claim means that there is a gene such that, one, if the individual has that gene and, two, if the individual grows up in a violent environment, the gene will adapt the invidividual to that environment. It will lower serotonin levels and lead to more violent responses to stimuli.

    I see one curious difference in approach between the human sciences on the east side of the Alp and the neurosciences on the west. So far as the west side is concerned, in the course of two years of attending lectures and papers by neurologists, I can remember only two that dealt with children and both were about dyslexics, a special population. Often, in textbooks of brain science, no mention is made of children at all. Foetal development of brain, yes--there is a lot of discussion of foetal brains--but not childrens' brains. The humanist side of the Alp, however, shows considerable interest in children's patterns of development. The linguists and anthropologists on the east side of the Alp focus strongly on children's acquisition of language or metaphor or pretense and children's psychological development within a culture. Both are assumed, in this tradition, to have foundations in the brain.

    As you can see, all this is very complicated. In the U.S.A., it takes four years of further study after the four years of medical school to qualify as a neurologist, and, even after that, there are usually a series of fellowships with senior researchers before the tyro is ready to undertake independent research. As so often in psychological work, it is hard to draw general conclusions from highly specific procedures. As a result, the neuroscientific literature consists of very precise experiments and techniques with very tentative suggestions of their larger implications. Life is easier, if less reliable, on the humanists' side of the Alp, where we find linguists and anthropologists and theorists of literature. We are all too ready to jump to sweeping generalizations, expanding the neuroscientists' carefully circumscribed work to span the universals in human behavior.


    In a way, Freud anticipated Chomsky's reasoning when he wrote the Project for a Scientific Psychology in 1895. Like Chomsky, he was trying to reason backward from universal human behaviors like dreams and symptoms and desire and satisfaction and inhibition to structures in the brain. Unfortunately, working in the 1890s, he did not have concepts with which to model these behaviors neurologically. At the time of the Project, the neuron was still a hypothesis, one that Freud accepted, to be sure, but one that many of his colleagues still did not. Further, it was not until the 1920s that Loewi and Dale established that it was by means of neurotransmitter molecules that neurons communicated with one another. Necessarily frustrated in his attempt, Freud never published the Project and turned to psychology. In his later writings, lacking electronic models which would have served nicely, he had to resort to hydraulics, which proved at best a very clumsy analogy. He never gave up hoping, however, that someday biology and neurology would confirm his ideas.

    There is another way to reason backward from human universals. This is evolutionary psychology, a development over the past few decades (Cosmides & Tooby, 1997). Some neuroscientists work in evolutionary psychology and many more agree with its general principles. The argument is that anything all humans do must have been selected for in an evolutionary process.

    We hominids--our branch of the primate order, pongid family--have been around for some five million years. But our particular species, homo sapiens sapiens, has only been around for about a hundred thousand years. So far as we know, there have been no evolutionary changes in our make-up in that time. For example, gossip. All humans talk about other humans; we gossip. It has been suggested that gossip serves for us the same purpose that grooming serves for other pongids. It helps us maintain a mental index of individuals that tells us who outranks whom, who is good for a favor, who is likely to be hostile, who would be useful at a hunt or a childbirth, and so on, knowledge that enables us to survive in a social environment. Gossip obviously conferred a tremendous evolutionary advantage on those primates that developed it, and so with language. (But, one can ask, what advantage does poetry or fiction confer? Evidently some advantage, the evolutionary psychologists would say, since all human cultures do these things.)

    There is a particularly interesting branch of evolutionary theory called Baldwinian evolution, after the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin. Baldwin argued that social changes in, for example, technology could create changes in the genome. For example, as long as humans were in Africa as hunter-gatherers, if adults could not digest milk, that was a valuable trait. It may have protected against illness or death from stale or diseased milk. It certainly left more milk for the infants who needed it. As a result, people who had lactose intolerance would have more surviving offspring than people who didn't. Their genes would predominate. But, when people moved into Europe and began to cultivate herds of cattle, lactose intolerance would be a negative trait. People who could survive a famine on milk would have more offspring than people who could not tolerate lactose. Over time, people with lactose intolerance would be represented less and less in the gene population and ultimately they would be almost gone from the genome itself. And it happened. European populations generally tolerate lactose and African populations generally do not. In effect, a cultural change led to a genetic change, over a relatively fewer number of generations than biological evolution requires. A cultural change had effect of a Lamarckian evolution without the false genetic mechanisms Lamarck posited. Indeed, Baldwinian evolution proceeds without any genetic mechanisms, only a cultural differentiation in number of surviving carriers of one's genes.

    Baldwinian evolution may have something to say about literature. Is it possible that people who are skilled at certain cultural activities like dance or story-telling gain a favored position in the gene pool? Is it possible that we have poetry and drama because the genes that give rise to poets and actors and, indeed, appreciative audiences are specially selected for in the world of homo sapiens sapiens? Ellen Dissanayake suggests that the arts develop our ability to make something special, to single one thing out from the stream of experience, and that this ability gives the arts evolutionary value.


    On the humanists' side of the Alp, one powerful idea has been the development of X-Bar theory, with its suggestion of a universal grammar at least for phrase structures. Steven Pinker has a superb exposition of the theory in The Language Instinct, and that is what I am adapting here (Pinker, S., The language instinct, 1994, pp. 74-152).

    Consider a noun phrase about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senator from New York from Arkansas The grammatical structure of the phrase consists of a header, "senator," which provides the organization for the rest of the phrase. The header "senator" takes an argument, a property that goes with it: being a senator includes being a senator representing some particular state, hence the senator from New York, header plus argument. From New York is essential, but one can also say inessential things about that senator, namely, that she really hails from Arkansas. This inessential fact is an "adjunct." Note how the meaning of the sentence changes if we say the senator from Arkansas from New York Adjuncts cannot come between the header and its arguments. The form of the sentence determines its meaning.

    Now consider a verb phrase: I gave money to the senator in February Now it is the verb "gave" that is the header, and its arguments are what one gives and whom one gives it to, essential grammatical participants for the verb give. (The "I" is called a specifier and need not concern us here.) One argument is "money," and we would not put the adjunct "in February" between "gave" and "money." We would not say, I gave in February money to the senator We might say I gave money in February to the senator, since the adjunct "in February" does not disrupt the header-argument connection.

    The same rule applies to a prepositional phrase. In the phrase, "in February," the preposition "in" is the header and it requires an object, the argument, "money." We would not interrupt their connection by saying, in I gave February.

    The rule applies even to word formation. In English, the rightmost affix is the header to a word like psychoanalytic from which I can coin an ideological term, psychoanalyticism. Rules similar to X-Bar rules prevent my saying psychoanalytismic.

    In short, there is a single X-Bar rule in English that applies to verb, noun, and preposition phrases and to word formation, one rule. As it turns out, there are similar X-Bar rules for many other languages. English is an SVO language. That is, we normally arrange a sentence in the order, subject-verb-object, I gave money. Some other languages, like Turkic or Japanese, are SOV languages. The object comes before the verb, the header. It turns out that those languages do not have as we do, prepositions which precede their objects (header followed by argument). They have postpositions, which follow their objects (argument followed by header) But with that reversal the same X-Bar rules apply to prepositional phrases in those languages and also to noun and verb phrases.

    Hence we get the claim of universal grammar. We can have the same rule with a switch from header first to header last to change the rule for English to the rule for Japanese. This is the basis for Chomsky's claim that we have something like eighty switches in our brains for language, which are set this way or that by the language environment in which we grow up. We inherit a set of linguistic tendencies or "principles" and a specific language experience sets the "parameters."

    In a later book, Words and Rules, Pinker (1999a) explores the way we know how to inflect regular and irregular verbs and nouns. In Engish, we normally form the past tense by adding -ed: help-helped, walk-walked, and so on. How do we know that the past tense of go or lead or drink isn't formed that way? How do we know that we should use drank instead of drinked? In English, we normally form the plural of a noun by adding -s How do we know that the plural of man is men, of sheep is sheep, of mouse is mice? How do we know that we should say cans and not cen or houses and not hice? Pinker suggests that we process regular and irregular forms in different brain systems. He further posits a system that looks at a word, house, say, then scans a list of irregulars in memory, does not find it, and then applies the regular rule. In a very tentative way, he suggests that the scanning of the list of irregulars takes place in the left temporal-parietal regions and the application of the rule for regular forms occurs in the left frontal lobe (Pinker, 1999a, pp. 267-68).

    What, if anything, does all this have to do with literature? It suggests that the kind of play with language that we experience in poetry or "musical" prose involves the brain in a different kind of processing from the logical, step-by-step sequential processing of language that neurology traditionally associates with the language centers like Broca's area, Wernicke's area, and the arcuate fasciculus. This special, "poetic" language must jump around in our brains in unusual ways, like a kind of exercise. Thus, there is evidence that we process initial consonants differently from final consonants and fricatives (¦f¦, ¦s¦, or ¦z¦) and affricates (as in eigh¦th¦) in a special place. If so, then, rhyme and alliteration would exercise those areas in unusual ways. English-speaking Broca's aphasics tend to omit grammatical morphemes, while German and Italian aphasics tend to substitute one grammatical morpheme for another (Taylor & Taylor, 1990, pp. 384-86). In general, it appears that we process the details of language (those that we play with in the sound effects of poetry) by many different systems in the brain. Poetic language makes us exercise those different centers in unexpected or challenging ways. In that sense, the ability to create or participate in poetry or chant may confer an evolutionary advantage in the form of better linguistic skills for communication, persuasion, cheating, and so on.

    In general, however, I am skeptical about explanations from evolutionary psychology. They quickly degenerate into speculation about life 100,000 years ago or evolutionary advantages that we can ony guess at. Nevertheless, many people on both sides of the Alp value this approach highly.


    Another group of linguists has developed yet another claim to linguistic universal: metaphor. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) have described metaphor as a process by which we use ideas about a source, something that we understand pretty well, to understand a target, something that we understand less well. The example they give (and the one everyone uses who expounds this theory) is the metaphorical mapping, LOVE IS A JOURNEY. From this mapping, we can generate metaphorical sentences like: We're not getting anywhere in this relationship. This relationship is on the rocks We've lost our way We've come to a dead end We're spinning our wheels We're getting on swimmingly We're headed for the altar. Or that country-and-western song, "We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love." All of these enable us to talk about something complicated, love, in terms of something physical and visible and well understood, getting from here to there.

    These "cognitive linguists" estimate that we do about 90% of our talking and thinking in this kind of metaphor. (Only those statements are non-metaphorical that do not go from one domain to another, from source to target, like, This car has three wheels.) Further, all known cultures make source-to-target metaphors this way.

    Within this general framework of source-to-target mapping, one can distinguish "primary" and "secondary" metaphors. Secondary metaphors use sources from a particular culture like our fast lanes and freeways. Primary metaphors stem from universal human experiences, usually physical experiences, like up-down, fast-slow, hot-cold, near-far, balance-imbalance, and so on. Primary metaphors can and do occur in, apparently, all cultures.

    If all cultures use this mapping, then this kind of metaphorical reasoning from source to target must be wired into our brains. Neurologist Antonio Damasio (1999, p. 347n4) has suggested that this concept of metaphor matches his insistence on an "embodied mind." That is, he argues, our core sense of self and, indeed, all our higher mental activities are based on the representation of the body in the brain. Hence, at a deep, physiological level, our most abstract thinking is grounded in bodily experience. In effect, our bodies are source domains for the various target domains of our cognitive processes. And Damasio can point to pathways in the brain that could be the basis for this kind of hard-wired metaphorical thinking. Very tentatively, Lakoff and his group have developed neural network simulations that mimic the metaphorical system of traveling from here to there along a path.

    Whatever the brain processes for metaphor are, understanding metaphor as this kind of mapping from source to target opens up the possibility of the analysis of poems and stories. In More than Cool Reason, Lakoff and Mark Turner (1989) do superb analyses of a William Carlos Williams poem and a multitude of proverbs. In effect, the analysis of metaphors that link our bodies to abstractions point us to connections between the various sensory and motor cortices and the cognitive centers of the prefrontal lobes.


    Neuroscience extends toward literary interests yet another way: toward our emotional responses to texts both as individuals and, collectively, as an audience. In Poems in Persons (Holland, 1973; Holland, 2000), I wrote about collective responses in a psychoanalytic, non-neuroscientific way. Looking at the commonality of audience reactions--everybody laughs, everybody boos--I suggested a mechanism. In a theater, to the physical play or film in front of any one member of the audience, are added the reactions of those around that individual, at least to the extent that those reactions are visible: "They are laughing." "They are moved." "They are restless." "They think this is awful." These responses by the others around me license my own. They are saying, it's all right to laugh, it's all right to cry, it's all right to think this is a piece of trash. In psychoanalytic terms, I have my own defense mechanisms by which I relate to the work. But, in an audience, I fuse my defense mechanisms with the behavior of those around me. I borrow from them a license to do what they are doing, to laugh, to boo, to applaud, to cry. In psychoanalytic jargon, I introject their response and merge it with my own.

    Mel Brooks' outrageous movie, The Producers (1968), illustrates the principle at work. The producers, hoping for a huge (and profitable) tax loss, have put on a musical comedy glorifying the Third Reich with songs like "Springtime for Hitler." At first the audience sits there in shocked, stunned, and stony silence. A few people indignantly walk out. Then someone laughs, then someone else, and finally the whole theater explodes in laughter. The audience has been provided a defense--treat this monstrosity as a joke--and, to their horror, the producers have a hit on their hands.

    Peer opinions exercise a surprisingly powerful influence. Many psychological experiments have shown that a group opinion will make an individual change even such black-and-white factual statements as the relative length of two lines. In the theater, producers and directors have sensed this for centuries and hired claques and catcallers and "canned" laughter accordingly.

    From a neurological point of view, our brains are specialized for social behavior. We have "mirror neurons" that react the same way when we watch someone perform an action as when we perform it ourselves. In our brains, we are social animals, and, in a way, our minds are porous. The opinions--the psychic strategies, really--of others seep in and mingle with our own, changing and adapting our brain processes to theirs. We are built for intersubjectivity, for shared knowledge and shared feelings. Specifically,in the brain, the amygdala plus the orbital frontal cortex provide the components for a social brain system that means we will probably respond to an action on stage or screen as our fellow-humans do. The neuroscience corroborates the psychological and psychoanalytic theories of audience reaction.

    We do not limit our sociality to being in an audience, though. An individual reading at home alone feels emotional responses to a literary text. Why? We will all respond to certain situations in the real world with anger or sexual jealousy or desire or fear. Social situations evoke standard responses, with, of course, a lot of individual variation. Writers of fiction and poetry describe social situations in order to evoke emotions. A mirroring process in our brains guarantees that we will probably respond the same way to imaginings of those situations, to their fictional representation in words, as to the situations themselves. To an extent, we lend our minds to the novel we are reading or, perhaps more accurately, we introject its events and persons, feeling them as if they were our own experience.

    At least we do that when we are "absorbed" or "engrossed" or "rapt." Coleridge's phrasing is classic: the "willing suspension of disbelief." Neuroscientist Leslie Brothers (1997), like such psychoanalysts as D. W. Winnicott or Donald Stern, suggests there is an archaic state in which we do not distinguish self from other. For the psychoanalysts, one reaches that infantile state in adult life by regressions. For Brothers, the social brain is always responding to other faces. She concludes that the amygdala's projections to orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate guyrus and temporal pole cortex (and other structures) provide the basis for the social brain and this self-other merging Brothers (1997, 56). The psychoanalysts trace it to early infancy when mother and infant are only half-separate emotionally. The baby-watcher Colwyn Trevarthen (Trevarthen, 1979) has demonstrated how a mother's baby-talk, as she leans over her infant, evokes the infant's responsive movements of arms and limbs in time to her phrasings. It is a "dance" in which the two partners are perfectly attuned to one another. According to a psychoanalytic critic like me, we sometimes recapture that "dance" when we become "absorbed" in works of art. According to a neuroscientist like Brothers, we do so through our social brain. The two explanations converge.


    Metaphor and emotional response are two literary concepts for which we may be able, even now, to state a neurological basis. Style is another. As a literary critic, I'm acutely conscious of styles. With some writers, Hemingway, say, or Faulkner, you only have to read a few sentences to be able to say, That's Hemingway, that's Faulkner. We use this sense of recognition when we parody a writer, as in the well-known Ernest Hemingway contest held every year in Key West: who can write the best bad Hemingway sentence? We recognize styles in other arts as well, for example, music. Mozart or Beethoven or the Beatles--a few bars and you know which composer you're listening to even if you don't know the particular piece of music.

    We also read people in everyday life in terms of styles. We say things like, "Oh, that's just like Ken." Or, "Steve isn't himself today." In other words, we can see a recurring pattern in the way someone writes or talks or walks, and we see new behaviors against that previous pattern that we have recognized.

    These styles are extremely persistent. Bernard Malamud once said to me, "Every novelist only writes one novel." Commenting on an exhibit of Willem de Kooning's late works, done when de Kooning's mind was deteriorating, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote (1990): "Style is the deepest part of one's being, and may be preserved, almost to the last, in a dementia." "Style, in short, is the deepest thing in one's being" (Sacks, 1974, p. 239n).

    It is "style" in that sense that I wish to explore here. From the point of view of the human sciences, Heinz Lichtenstein (1961; 1977) has, I believe, provided the strongest way of approaching these patterns. Lichtenstein proposed thinking about a person's "style" as a pattern and variations on that pattern, like a theme and variations in music. You can--and we do--understand a person by formulating such a theme or themes, although rarely do we do it explicitly. We sense a pattern in a person's choices and then look at variations on the theme. As in music, one theme can have an infinite mumber of variations, but one will always be able to discern the theme underneath the variations.

    In music, a theme is an idea in musical notes. To understand human identities, however, one has to use words to formulate a theme. Lichtenstein argued that each of us has such an "identity theme," acquired in the early relationship between infant and mother (or "primary caregiver"). He clained that this theme was instilled in the person by the early relation of primary caregiver and infant.

    HLichtenstein gave a number of instances, and, in my own work, I have done the same (Holland 1975, pp. 67-112; 1982, pp. 143-171; 1989). The example of "Dr. Vincent" suggests the robust persistence of identity. Dr. Vincent (Holland, 1985, pp. 67-73) was a victim of Chinese brainwashing (reported by Robert Jay Lifton [1961, pp. 33-59]). From his earliest years, Dr. Vincent had cut himself off from other people. My father, he said to Lifton, "didn't succeed to have my inside" After medical training, he had emigrated from France, choosing an isolated life, practicing in rural China and hunting in the wild, where he did not have to confide in anyone. Liften speaks of his "basic core of character" as "the experience must be his, or it is no expeerience at all." I read his identity theme as: To need is to give up one's insides, a prospect he abhorred.

    Arrested and brainwashed into confession, he flipped inside out. He became a compulsive confessor, eagerly complying with the brainwashers. Even after his release, he would pour out his feelings to anyone who would listen. It was as though a glove had been turned inside out: it went from left to right but remained a glove. That is, Vincent's centering theme, giving up his insides, remained central, but he flipped from not giving out to the opposite. Then, once he was released, he gradually returned to his old, isolated self, refusing, for example to give further interviews to Lifton.

    Lichtenstein's leading case was a woman who completely changed her life as a result of psychoanalysis, yet retained the same core issues and patterns. He concluded that so persistent an identity theme was somehow instilled in the brain through the unique intersubjectivity of this child and this mother. This cild learns to be the child for this particular mother. Writing in the 1960s and '70s, however, Lichtenstein lacked either neurological or psychological backing for his thesis.

    Recently, Allan Schore, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has scoured the neurological literature, has provided support for Lichtenstein's ideas. Schore himself doesn't do brain research, but he has read and put together an astonishingly large body of neurological work. His book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (1994), contains some 2300 references (Schore, 1994).

    From the outset, Schore says, maternal interactions regulate emotions. He draws on the baby-watchers, such as Colwyn Trevarthen (1979). Specifically, the mother serves as an external regulator of the neurochemicals in the infant's developing brain. Schore finds two critical developmental stages.

    He situates the first critical period at the end of the first year of life, as the child becomes more mobile. Maternal stimulations, particularly through gaze and experiences of joy and reunion as the child walks away and comes back--these experiences activate the sympathetic nervous system. They produce neuroendocrine changes, in Schore's technical language, innervation of orbitofrontal areas, particularly in the early maturing visuospatial right hemisphere. Specifically, these positive experiences create dopamine releasing axons in the orbitofrontal cortex and they encourage maturation of the ventral tegmental forebrain-midbrain circuit. Ascending subcortical axons form a neurochemical circuit of the limbic system, particularly the sympathetic ventral tegmental limbic circuit. The child acquires the capacity to form an interactive representational model that underlies an early functional system of affect regulation. In ordinary language, the child regulates its own positive emotions through recognition of the maternal face and the positive emotions in that face.

    Schore theorizes a second critical period associated in the second year, say 14-16 months, with the onset of socialization procedures. At this time, the child experiences shame: Get your fingers out of the light socket! These experiences of shame, of feeling that you've done something wrong, lead to a different pattern of psychoneuroendocrine alterations. Schore sees an expansion of another limbic circuit; he names the parasympathetic lateral tegmental limbic circuit. This then gets wired into the orbitofrontal cortex, creating an inhibitory system. To me, it is no surprise that Schore's two stages correspond roughly to the traditional psychoanalytic concepts of an oral and an anal stage, a stage of fusion and a stage of inhibition and separateness.

    These mother-child interactions will be unique for each mother-child pair. What Schore says these developments have created, then, is a unique pattern of affect regulation. It seems to me that, in this unique pattern of choices, Schore has proposed a neurological basis for what I, following Lichtenstein, have been calling a style or identity. Affect regulation, it seems to me, is what regulates virtually all other brain processes. That is, the feeling you get after you look at something or hear something or eat something determines what you will do next. Affect regulation determines what will "feel right" to you as you make choices fromt he repertoire the world offers you. A brain-based pattern of affect regulation will be the neurological basis for the identity theme we infer as we observe an individual's choices. Schore's stages leading to lifelong patterns of affect regulation correspond in neurological terms to Lichtenstein's identity theme arising from early mother-child interactions and my literary concept of a style that derives from early childhood experiences.

    In my own mind, I combine that sense of a persistent identity theme with another strain of neuroscientific thought, the social brain that reacts in common with all other humans. In effect, then, the neuroscientists are providing the humanists with the neurology for explaining one of the most puzzling aspects of the literary process. We respond to an artistic or literary work to some extent as others do but to a considerable extent in an individual way. The neuroscientists offer, I hesitantly suggest, differing, but not contradictory, mechanisms for these two kinds of response. One would be the circuits Brothers associates with the social brain. The other would be the circuits Schore associates with the individual's pattern of affect regulation.


    There is one last, large literary issue about which, it seems to me, neuroscience has something to offer, the nature of our literary responses. As critics from time immemorial have pointed out, we humans have two kinds of response to a text we are looking at literarily. In one, we are, perhaps, absorbed or rapt. We respond to situations or words or characters emotionally without much thinking about ourselves reacting (Schafer, 1968, pp. 101, 109-110). As described above, in section 6, we respond emotionally to social stimuli as other humans, indeed, as other primates might. In another mode, we analyze, we interpret, we theorize the literary work. We respond intellectually, suppressing the emotional response. We are distinctively human, homo sapiens sapiens sapienting away.

    I think these two different responses may come from a distinction we learned to draw very early in life. Among these baby-watching psychologists studying early infancy, there is some agreement that, very early on, at the age of 27 weeks (perhaps innately therefore), infants show that they can tell animate from inanimate objects (Premack & Premack, 1995; Leslie & Keeble, 1987). They distinguish animate from inanimate by whether moving objects' movements are caused internally or externally. Understanding internally caused movements leads via a "naïve psychology" to the social intelligence about such things as motives that we share with our primate kin. Understanding externally caused movements leads to a "naïve physics," including an idea of cause-and-effect. We may be born with these understandings in place, but they surely come into being at least within the first two years of life. They are, as you would therefore expect, hard to overturn.

    In responding to literature, when we respond emotionally, we invoke our special perception of animate objects. We bring into play the emotional responses of fear or desire or anger that other primates would feel under similar circumstances. The line between self and other can blur (as I suggested in Holland, 1968, pp. 63-103), or we introject the behavior of the people around us in an audience, merging their defense mechanisms into our own (as I suggested in (Holland, 1973, 2000, ch. 3).

    Imagine the situation in a play or a movie, where you are part of an audience. You can be sitting back (as in Brecht's alienation-effect, smoking and watching, thinking judgmentally about what you are seeing). Or you can be identified with a character and you can be taking in defense mechanisms from others in the audience. What happens when you are reading a book? You can be absorbed into the book, or you can be theorizing it, planning a critical article, say.

    In other words, our dual relation to a literary work combines two things that the neuropsychologists distinguish: our different relations to animate and inanimate objects. Experiencing literature, I treat it as if it were (or embodied) an animate being like myself with feelings and motives. IExperiencing literature that way involves constructing those human attributes inside oneself. Using the porous social brain, one feels art and literature "in here." One responds with emotions to the situations described.

    By contrast, when I am being a dispassionate, analytical critic, I take an intellectual, unfeeling stance toward an object evidently "out there," external to myself. Analysis and theory, intellection, judging take the place of emotional experience.

    Very, very loosely, the distinction corresponds to a right-brain reaction as contrasted to a left-brain reaction. Naturally, in different situations, we do one or the other or both, as need be. I can be more precise and less split-brain. in one relationship I am thinking sequentially and logically, following the prototype of the "naive physics" of infancy. In the other relationship, I am responding in terms of infancy's "naive psychology." Each has its different brain physiology.


    Clearly, in that paragraph and indeed in all the above, I have been pushing the neuroscientists' careful step-by-step science as far as I can and probably farther than they would care to go. While the psychologists who watch babies see them distinguishing animate from inanimate objects, they have not, so far as I know, found a basis in the brain for this. Similarly, while X-Bar structure or metaphor may be universal, no one has isolated the brain mechanisms for them. So too, "mirror neurons" may not be enough to generalize to a social brain. No one has confirmed the idea that basic circuits for affect regulation establish an identity in the first two years of life.

    Nevertheless, looking from an investigator's overall perspective on the human sciences, I think the tunnelers at opposite sides of that huge Alp of mind are beginning to hear the otehr party. Both sides are beginning to make connections that tell us about the arts. Deep down, I see a profound connection between my concerns, particularly literary criticism and theory, and the new knowledge being developed about the brain. What can I say, then, to my fellow literary theorists? Hey, come on and help us dig!


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "The Neurosciences and the Arts". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2001, Published: January 1, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Norman N. Holland