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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