The English professor who foresaw modern neuroscience

By | May 21, 2021

Christopher Comer and Ashley Taggart write:

In the 21st century, neuroscience has been able to extend our understanding of the brain beyond brain anatomy to an increasingly functional view of cognition. Every year brings new insights on memory and imagination, and reveals often surprising areas of convergence with fields such as anthropology and philosophy. Yet it was a Cambridge professor of literature, almost a century ago in the aftermath of World War I, who pioneered a view of cognition we can recognize as strikingly modern, and who appreciated what we are only now beginning to rediscover: the great potential of interactions between the narrative arts and brain science.

At the opening of the 20th century, such interdisciplinarity was resisted. Academic culture was defined by specialists in silos. One who refused to be confined was English critic I.A. Richards. A tubercular child who missed several years of school, Richards’ idea of recovery was to dedicate himself to mountaineering, spending much of his undergraduate career free-climbing the spires and turrets of his college at Cambridge. With his wife Dorothy Pilley, Richards ascended peaks in the Alps and elsewhere, such as those in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

An advocate of the empirical study of literature, Richards thought of himself as an “inventor” more than a critic. In his groundbreaking Principles of Literary Criticism, published in 1924, Richards laid out a perspective which was deeply unsettling to his contemporaries: “a book is a machine to think with.” Richards brought neurobiological perspectives to an understanding of our literary mind in an era when historical and biographical criticism was the norm, and the teaching of literature remained based on grammar and rhetoric. Indeed, he was thinking so far beyond the literary criticism and science of his day that we are still catching up. []

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