Literature and the Brain

Three years ago at Stanford, I caught a bug. I am not talking about the affliction that plagued us all globally. I had been fortunate to escape in 2020, though I did inevitably catch COVID a couple of years later, while ensconced in the warm cocoon of home in Singapore. This event did have a rather pleasing and reassuring end, since my body combated the deadly virus on its own. Given my medical history, my oncologist had been all set to advise taking Paxlovid, a drug sparingly prescribed in Singapore, but its use was obviated. We were all reassured that my previously compromised immune system had stepped up well to the new challenge.

The onset of COVID in 2020 had relegated the latter half of our DCI Fellowship at Stanford to Zoom, as all classroom contact had been shut down. We had stayed on in Menlo Park and completed our ‘distance learning’ from just outside the campus. At that stage, our Dean had very generously made us an offer, to return to campus anytime over the next three years, to do a Make-up Quarter. With the pandemic having receded, I am now back for the Winter Quarter along with a dozen of our cohort (of 2019-20). Gauri, the inveterate artist, is immersed in her thespian journey (Railgaadi and more), so I am flying solo this time.

And my bug is back! That’s what prompted me to write a childhood memory last week as I restarted this blog and shared my memoir. I do appreciate the warm reception from my followers, all four of you! I received some insightful and fun feedback. One school friend, then a junior, now a UK-based Senior Physician and Thoracic (a Pulmonologist to the Americans), shared his memory – “The same Mr Singh thrashed me with a TT racquet”. I replied to him in jest with a suggestion that we initiate a ‘Class action’. Maybe we should look within our school network for pro bono lawyers, after all they would empathise. Another dear friend, my bff, asked of me “Why did you replace DV with Mr Singh?”. That query led me down a rabbit hole. I will spare you the gory details, but it transpires that circa 1980, I was whacked, not once but on separate occasions by two different educators. In a nutshell, my previous narrative was entirely accurate, but the dramatis personae need a modification, actually only the perpetrator needs to be Mr Varma! And the second slapstick story is kept away for a rainy day.

Having succumbed to the bug, many of the Courses I have enrolled in relate to Writing and Reading! My previous journey on this path is here

Enjoying Neuroscience and Humanities

What falls below, or beyond, rational inquiry? How do we write about the awe we feel in front of certain works of art, in reading lines of poetry or philosophy, or watching a scene in a film without ruing the feeling that drove us to write in the first place?

How does fiction make us better at reading minds? Why do some TV shows get us to believe two contradictory things at once? What do we see when we read; whether the language we speak affects the way we think; and why do different people react differently to the same book. Plus: is free will a fiction, or was I just forced to say that?

Two of my courses cover the themes above. One is Wonder: The Event of Art and Literature, and the other Literature and the Brain. They are totally independent Undergrad courses, though to my brain, they form part of a continuum. They are taught respectively by an Art History Professor and a leading Neuroscientist Professor. Each team up with a different Professor of Comparative Literature. The courses blend principles of Neuroscience, experimental psychology and philosophy with Art History and Literature to make for some truly ‘mind’-blowing discussion, intuitive inferences and mental gymnastics as tips for a Writer.

Reading for me, though very enjoyable, is somewhat of a struggle. So I am delighted that one of the curriculum ‘readings’ is to watch Season 1 of Westworld, the HBO show. I have been goaded for years by my first born to watch this, but finally got down to it only last month, since it was prescribed schoolwork! And what a Masterpiece it is. A strong recommendation in case you are a poor soul who hasn’t partaken it yet. As a courtesy (to the 4000 of you), I will refrain from (m)any spoiler alerts!

Coming back to the subject, claims that the Professor made in class are on the following lines:

Because the brain is a team of rivals, fiction like Westworld can help us cultivate habits of mind that allow us to live better lives. Great works of literature do not have to be didactic. Good writers steer clear of preachy art. In summary, Literature raises questions without trying to teach us anything. Puts a different spin on reading Classics.

More specifically and contemporaneously, Westworld raises questions like:

  1. Would a conscious AI be a ‘person’ in the moral sense?
  2. Could AI ever achieve human style consciousness?
  3. Could AI ever make ‘great’ Art? (Roll over Open AI and Dall e!)
  4. What is the true value of ‘great’?
  5. Are human beings just machines?
  6. Do we have free will?

I can go on but hope this whets your appetite sufficiently to watch WW!. Only Season 1” is my daughter’s command, one I faithfully obey, now (देर आए, दुरुस्त आए).

The other aspects of Literature, discussed in class related to cultural beliefs and psychology. We talked about Bilingualism and Exophonic Writers, the practice of writing in a language that is not one’s own. After all, language is the door to culture. For those who recall my earlier fascination with the Course “German in 5 Words” (link here – I continue to aspire to create a Hindi Appreciation Curriculum. It is contingent on when I convince my better half to create some room in her busy life and share some of her समय तथा ज्ञान. In class I reflected on the recent success of her theatrical production Railgaadi with a शुद्ध Hindi script. It was truly amazing how it appealed to a diverse audience of all ages – from high school kids to young adults to senior citizens, parts of the play resonating with all. Which brings me back to my learning in class on how good writers appeal to prejudices in a reader. Cognitive biases are supposed to be a good writer’s best friend, used to hook the reader and misdirect them (like magicians draw their attention away from the real action), to succeed in plot twists. Evidently, Gauri has latent talent and knowledge of empirical and evolutionary psychology to have her finger so firmly on the pulse of her audience. Unless it’s just her startlingly impressive intuition which has frightened me for a long time!. There are plenty of poetics of surprise in her scripts, masterful in their effect.

On a related aspect of socio-psychological beliefs, we also debated another topic close to my heart, how and why Oriental and Western people think differently: Asians more holistically with a focus on relationships; Westerners more reductively with an individualist focus! I learnt about Joseph Henrich and his WEIRD work (Western Educated Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) of history with similar concepts. It felt surreal to be learning about this as I relish my frequent sabbaticals at Stanford, away from my life in Asia, often to test this strongly held belief of mine!

I have picked up lots more material on this fascinating topic which I frankly need to digest. Why? Because I have an Assignment due and the weekend is almost over. I promise to return to add to this. Unless of course, other charming subjects in the coming week have captured my mercurial imagination! There is a plethora of distractions in this candy store.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s