Literary Neuroscience as Rehabilitation? (Or, ‘Prevent Crime; Employ English Majors’)

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published on September 11, 2012.

According to neurolaw, a successful and just legal system will be one that concerns itself with the steps moving forward with the specific brain on trial. If our behavior is influenced by our biology and circumstance, it is irreducibly complex to assess a criminal’s culpability in a way that is both satisfying and scientifically-informed. Instead of comparing and judging the sizes of one’s frontal lobe or another part’s propensity for firing (or not firing) certain chemicals while also factoring in one’s upbringing and the effects social institutions can have on our behavior, our legal system should focus on rehabilitation rather than strict punishment.

The question is, though, how should we go about rehabilitating. The answer: in a manner that gives the criminal the cognitive “tools” to not only distinguish right from wrong but to be able to guide their behavior accordingly. While there are many ways in which this can be done (one neuroscientist suggests the “prefrontal workout”) something that has caught my attention is the fledgling field of Literary Neuroscience.

At Stanford University researchers are investigating the ways in which literary study – in this case of Jane Austen – affects the brain. Going into an fMRI machine, participants were expected to first “leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.” The literary scholar leading the project, Dr. Natalie Phillips

said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.”

The article continues,

The researchers expected to see pleasure centers activating for the relaxed reading and hypothesized that close reading, as a form of heightened attention, would create more neural activity than pleasure reading. If the ongoing analysis continues to support the initial theory, Phillips said, teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) “could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus”[italics mine].

Now, it should not surprise us that since education can influence how we understand the world that it can also affect the wiring of our brain. After all, it is a tenet of neuroscience that “the mind is what the brain does.” Still, studies like this are necessary since they give us an insight into how differentapproaches to education affect the three pound piece of meat that is us.

Although literary neuroscience still has a ways to go, I am anxiously waiting to see what comes to bear and how literary training could be used in the criminal rehabilitation process. For example, if we discover that critical reading can change the brain in a way that makes us better decision-makers, why not use that to the legal system’s advantage? Assuming it is not dismissed as “cruel and unusual punishment” at least we would be moving our legal system forward and – finally – English majors would be able to actually use their degrees in the real world.

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Drawing a giraffe is the least bizarre thing David Sedaris’ done

Originally posted on Giraffes Drawn By People Who Should Not Be Drawing Giraffes:

David Sedaris

Writer David Sedaris

David Sedaris (web | wiki) is a comedian and essayist known for his numerous memoirs including Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008). His latest book is Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013). Even if you don’t know him by name, I can guarantee you’ve heard him on National Public Radio and This American Life.

I first read Sedaris’ work years ago when, traveling through Denver, I bought When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Passing through for a wedding and not feeling particularly social, I’d escape to my hotel room or an abandoned broom closet to read. Family hunted me down, telling me to put it away, but this only led me to smuggle the book around as illegal contraband. I’d hold it beneath tables and spend more time in the bathroom than was necessary.

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Read my review of Joseph Amato’s “Buoyancies” in the Rain Taxi Review

Rain Taxi Volume 19 Number 4 Winter 2014

The Rain Taxi Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 4. Winter 2014.

I’m happy to announce that my review of Joseph A. Amato’s Buoyancies: A Ballast Master’s Log (Crossings & Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014) appears in the latest print edition of The Rain Taxi Review of Books. Don’t worry: My article’s short. (Plus, if you get bored of my writing, you can literally turn the page and read an interview with Beat poet Diane di Prima).

An excerpt:

It is about time Joseph A. Amato wrote a book of poetry. At the age of seventy-six, the Southwest Minnesota State University professor emeritus is the author of twenty-six books of nonfiction, ranging from family history to culture studies of walking, dust, and surfaces. Though a resume one would not expect from a new poet, it is his affinity for the unexpected that marks his charm as a writer. …

You can find a few of Amato’s poems on his website here.

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War Veteran, Texas (from Amerika 1926)

This week I’ll be publishing daily poems written in response to photographs from E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s (2007, ed. Phillip Prodger). Some of these I may compile into a manuscript (tentatively: Amerika 1926). This is #5 (the last).

EO Hoppe War Veteran Texas

War Veteran, Texas, 1926 by E.O. Hoppe

War Veteran, Texas

As long as men rule over other men, there will always be war,
there will always be veterans. Each will return home, a symbol

or sacrifice. Each will return to find trenches and barbed-wire snaking
through their lawn, their bedrooms. Open skies are never clear.

Every man is a nation, and when it comes to his own self-preservation,
every man is a nationalist.  No medal or monument will fill the wounds.

Not even he knows what he fought for, fought against.

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Locomotive, Boston Railway Station, Massachusetts (from Amerika 1926)

This week I’ll be publishing daily poems written in response to photographs from E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s (2007, ed. Phillip Prodger). Some of these I may compile into a manuscript (tentatively: Amerika 1926). This is poem #4.

EO Hoppe Amerika Locomotive Boston

Locomotive, Boston Railway Station, Massachusetts, 1926 by E.O. Hoppe

Locomotive, Boston Railway Station, Massachusetts

The signal bridge is empty, one set of tracks in the snow.
The locomotive knows where it’s been, why some fields are silent.

The dead are buried along the way, progress moving on rails of bone.
Tired eyes see a day’s work behind, a year’s work ahead.

You can tell when a man’s given up by how he swings a hammer.
It’s not the iron that hits the earth but the spirit.

All of this the engine carries departing the cold winds of Boston.

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Cemetery, Fredericksburg, Virginia (from Amerika 1926)

This week I’ll be publishing daily poems written in response to photographs from E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s (2007, ed. Phillip Prodger). Some of these I may compile into a manuscript (tentatively: Amerika 1926). This is poem #3.

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Cemetery, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1926 by E.O. Hoppe

Cemetery, Fredericksburg, Virginia

A soldier, complete, his rifle in front of him, oversees a garden
of plain tombstones. The empty pastures await the next century.

What is it we memorialize? It’s not missing limbs.
It’s not a bullet through the head. It’s not watching a man die.

There is not a single war that’s spared the life of the next soldier,
only decided the next battlefield on which he’ll lie.

What a great and noble thing it is to be torn to pieces.

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Slave Quarters, Old Plantation, Savannah, Georgia (from Amerika 1926)

This week I’ll be publishing daily poems written in response to photographs from E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s (2007, ed. Phillip Prodger). Some of these I may compile into a manuscript (tentatively: Amerika 1926). This is poem #2.

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Slave Quarters, Old Plantation, Savannah, Georgia, 1926 by E.O. Hoppe

Slave Quarters, Old Plantation, Savannah, Georgia

Five brick houses, lined neatly in a row beneath the trees, each
a single room with two windows, a chimney, and a warning:

God sees everything, but I see more. And where would you go?
When freed, they did the same work for the same people.

One wonders what they said in these walls, if they still speak
and worry and cry across Amerika. Of course they do,

these quarters are not homes but holding cells.

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