Without question, cognitive neuroscience - the study of the biological processes that underlie the way we think - has enjoyed a renaissance in the last 20 years and has an increasing media presence. No wonder. Clinical case studies make for fascinating reading: we're easily captivated by remarkable stories of phantom limb patients, or people who radically change after sustaining a brain injury (for a witty account of some of these, see cracked.com). But neuroscience isn't confined to the clinical. Its increasingly seen as a discipline that has ideas to offer the humanities and even politics - so much so that sceptic Raymond Tallis has warned against 'neuromania', the reductive idea that understanding the nature of neural activity is a way of understanding practically everything else, from 'neuroaesthetics' to 'neurolaw'.
I'm not a neuroscientist, my background's in a different way of understanding the world: what Michael Ruddy called the 'heart language' of poetry (I won't call myself a 'poet' - as Don Paterson says, 'poetry, like murder, describes an act, not necessarily a permanent disposition'). So what's all this got to do with me?
Art is by no means separate from neuroscience's influence and many theorists have turned their attention to it. In his book 'The Tell Tale Brain', V.S. Ramachandran suggests a theory of aesthetics, based on his experience as a scientist of the brain. Meanwhile, cognitive poetics often draws on neuroscience. Evidence such as the discovery of 'mirror neurons' has been used to explain how readers experience texts. Writing in the TLS in 2006, A.S. Byatt looked at John Donne's work in terms of some of these ideas, concluding 'I do not imagine that we are yet within reach of a neuroscientific approach to poetic intricacy'.
I believe she's right. Poetry, mysterious enough to those who write it, remains still more mysterious to neuroscience (discussing synaesthesia, Ramachandran concedes 'we don't have the foggiest idea of how metaphors work or how they are represented in the brain'). Experimental processes seem very distant from the intuitive, contextual acts of reading and writing. I don't believe we'd benefit from attempting fMRI scans on poets absorbed in scribbling a masterpiece any more than we'd gain from using a sonnet to explain a brain lesion. But that doesn't mean that poetry and neuroscience can't have an interesting dialogue.
In 2007, Jonah Lehrer published a great book called 'Proust was a Neuroscientist', about the ways in which artists from Whitman to Woolf have artistically anticipated or pre-empted key discoveries in neuroscience. His contention is that real insight comes from combining different ways of exploring the world: 'the reductionist methods of science must be allied with an artistic investigation of our experience...the experiment and the poem compliment each other. The mind is made whole'.
I'm a first year PhD student at Sheffield University, blundering my way through three years research into how and why this might be the case, whether neuroscience and poetry would have anything interesting to say to each other if they met in a bar on a dark night. In particular, I'm looking at metaphor, synethseia, apophenia and the ultimate problem for both poets and neuroscientists: how to reconcile our subjective experience of the world with our means of understanding and expressing it?
Like writing poetry, doing a Phd can be a strange business. So, to stop myself losing the plot entirely, I considered a diet of whisky for the next few years or perhaps talking constantly to my two docile dogs ('I've got this new theory: hear me out and you'll get a pork pie'). Then I decided to...start a blog instead. This site isn't intended as a weighty source of academic work, but a forum for sharing sources and ideas, however speculative they might be. I won't be posting heavy articles, just links to things of possible relevance and interest to various topics. Above all, I'm interested in other people's opinions, theories and drunken brainwaves, whatever form they might take... So please feel free to join me on this perilous journey through poetry, the brain and everything in between.