JANE AUSTEN AND SCIENCES OF THE MIND by Beth Lau, ed., Reviewed by Alan Palmer
 

JANE AUSTEN AND SCIENCES OF THE MIND
Ed. Beth Lau
(Routledge, 2018) 237 pp.
Reviewed by Alan Palmer on 2019-01-21.

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Does the world need another book review that starts with the question, "Does the world need another book about Jane Austen?" In my view, the answer is yes (to both questions). The world does need this book because, as Beth Lau says in her exceptionally clear and helpful introduction, "despite the widespread recognition of the special congruity between Austen's novels and cognitive science, no book has been devoted to this subject. All of the studies of Austen from a cognitive or evolutionary perspective thus far have been in the form of articles, book chapters, or passages in chapters" (2).

This volume is designed to fill that gap. Three of its ten essays-- William Nelles on the juvenilia, Beth Lau on Northanger Abbey, and Patrick Colm Hogan on Persuasion-- apply what psychologists call theory of mind (that is, our ability to follow the workings of other minds). Matt Lorenz applies social identity theory to Pride and Prejudice. As part of a project involving brain scan experiments, Natalie Phillips and eight colleagues link readers' attention and memory to passages from Mansfield Park. The other five essays analyze specific aspects of the minds of Austen's characters by means of various scientific disciplines. Alan Richardson reads memory and imagination through cognitive psychology; Kate Singer reads emotion through neuroscience; Wendy Jones reads love through neurobiology; and Kay Young reads resilience through social psychology, which Bethany Wong applies to play. While Richardson, Singer, Jones, and Young consider a number of novels, Wong focuses on Mansfield Park.

In her introduction, Lau clearly explains cognitive approaches to literature and demonstrates their usefulness for mainstream literary critics. She deals convincingly with some of the common objections to cognitive approaches, including complaints that they are, as she puts it, "reductive, deterministic, and at odds with historicist and cultural scholarship" (3). That last worry is particularly important. As Lau points out, "far from being ahistorical or blind to particular contexts, a cognitive approach to literature provides a more extensive, comprehensive historical and contextual background" than has commonly been realized (3). Several authors in this book, including Phillips and Richardson, link modern cognitive studies with philosophies of mind current in Jane Austen's time (especially David Hume) in order to show that, in fact, historicist and cognitive perspectives can enrich each other.

So interdisciplinarity can be fruitful. But it comes with pitfalls that can be difficult to avoid, especially when it includes literary studies. Here are four of the most common pitfalls: (1) taking one element of a discipline as established truth without sufficiently acknowledging that it may be controversial and hotly contested within that discipline; (2) applying an idea from a non-literary discipline in such a rigid or exaggerated way as to distort its application to a literary text; (3) transferring a notion from one discipline to another in rather fanciful, strained, and even quasi-metaphorical ways that wrench the notion from its natural habitat; and (4) using interdisciplinarity as window-dressing for conclusions that could just as easily be reached in other ways. Unfortunately, this collection avoids none of these pitfalls. Nelles, Lau, and Hogan fall foul of the first; Singer, the second; Wong, the third; and Phillips, the fourth.

First, the theory of mind has taken a central place in cognitive approaches to literature, thanks in good measure to Lisa Zunshine's groundbreaking book, Why We Read Fiction (2016). Theory of mind richly and rewardingly prompts us to examine novels in terms of what characters know about the workings of the minds of other characters and, just as interestingly, what they mistakenly believe about how other minds are working. Jane Austen's novels are particularly suitable for theory of mind analysis, as shown by this passage from Persuasion, where Wentworth and the Elliot family meet in Bath:

It did not surprise, but it grieved Anne to observe that Elizabeth would not know him. She saw that he saw Elizabeth, that Elizabeth saw him, that there was complete internal recognition on each side; she was convinced that he was ready to be acknowledged as an acquaintance, expecting it, and she had the pain of seeing her sister turn away with unalterable coldness.

Nevertheless, scholars in various fields-- narratology (David Herman), philosophy of mind (Daniel Hutto and several others), social psychology (Charles Fernyhough), and psycholinguistics (Marissa Bortolussi)-- have decidedly negative and tenaciously held views on the subject of theory of mind. As shown by their contributions to a special issue of Style in 2011, they find it flawed, misleading, and either wholly unsuitable or useful only if handled with great care. The same goes for the related concept of mind-reading.

Herman, for one, argues that theory of mind is an internalist perspective on the mind that is inconsistent with the embodied and situated nature of cognition because it necessitates a Cartesian dualism between minds "in here" and the world "out there." Better alternative analytical tools, he claims, include the notion of persons and the approach called enactivism (Style 45:2 [2011]: 265-71). Likewise, Fernyhough objects that theory of mind means claiming that one mind--one sealed container--can represent what is going on in another; but narrative and social constructivist accounts, he contends, dispel many of the difficulties about social understanding that theory of mind mistakenly assumes (Style, 45:2 [2011]: 272-75). According to Hutto, we need not read other minds to keep track of them; there are basic, embodied, and enactive ways of responding to other minds that do not require making the sort of conceptually-based mentalistic attributions that theory of mind involves (Style, 45:2 [2011]: 276-82). Finally, according to Bortolussi, empirical cognitive studies provide a lot of evidence to show that the value of theory of mind has been greatly overestimated (Style, 45:2 [2011]: 283-87).

Yet none of these objections to theory of mind gets a hearing in the present volume. Neither Nelles, nor Lau, nor Hogan mentions the objections at all. Although all three use of theory of mind adroitly, they all miss the chance to recognize that the concept is deeply contested.

I am certainly not suggesting that literary scholars should stop using the term. Quite the opposite. On the contrary, as I've just said, the essays in this volume amply illustrate its value. And I am certainly not suggesting that scholars who apply theory of mind must be overly defensive and exhaustively rehearse the debates about it every time they employ it. But I am suggesting that they at least recognize the debatability of its value. (See for instance Hogan's account of the problems involved in applying theory of mind to novels in "Palmer's Anti-Cognitivist Stance" [Style 45:2, 2011].)

Turning from theory of mind to neuroscience, I believe that in applying to Austen's characters the neuroscientific ideas of Antonio Damasio. Kate Singer distorts the nature of the emotions they feel. According to Damasio, she states, "'emotions' are the unconscious somatic responses -- changes in breathing, facial expressions, heart palpitations, bodily jerks and tics like nervously twirling hair -- while 'feelings' correlate to more conscious representations of our emotions through words such as 'anger,' 'sadness', and 'joy'" (96). Yet Singer often uses the word emotion in the usual, much wider sense as well as in its Damasian sense of "unconscious somatic responses," sometimes employing both within a single sentence. In the same sentence, for example, she mentions both "the messy process by which emotion [Damasian sense] gets translated into feeling and back again" and women's "most deeply felt emotions" [clearly the wider sense]. (96). This is confusing. (To be fair, Damasio himself is similarly inconsistent.)

At some points, Singer plausibly and satisfyingly stresses that emotions and feelings are difficult to disentangle in practice or relationally "messy," as stated above--partly because emotions can turn into feelings "within milliseconds" (96). But the transformation may also take much longer. According to Singer, Austen' characters "often seem to spend prolonged moments in states of suspension between emotion and feeling - for example, Anne's agitation upon first meeting Wentworth that lasts almost until Lyme" (99). But if emotions are solely defined as "unconscious somatic responses," how long can they last before fully becoming feelings?

In over-stressing the distinction between emotions and feelings, Singer overlooks many of the cognitive and social aspects of emotion. Asking "what particular kind of raw affect Austen portrays when her characters get agitated," Singer cites Elizabeth's reaction to Darcy's first proposal in Pride and Prejudice: "Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent" (qtd. 97). Yet the affect here described is not raw at all, but rather cognitively processed to a high degree. Several of these elements (astonishment, doubt, and a decision to remain silent) involve sophisticated mental functioning and deliberate, self-conscious thought. They also happen to be accompanied by the bodily reactions of staring and blushing.

Aside from problems such as these, Singer makes the concept of media do a large amount of heavy lifting. To include "the framing comments of Darcy's housekeeper" (102) with letters and pictures in a list of various "media" seems to me to be stretching the term. In addition, I fail to see why Singer yoked together in this essay two very different theses, on emotions and media.

Wong's account of Mansfield Park has merit. In applying some elements of social psychology to the implications of play, she illuminates the character of Fanny. But the concept of the narrator deployed in this essay is decidedly shaky. What does it mean, for instance, to call the narrator a "wise mother" (151)? Even saying this of the implied author (a concept of which Wong seems unaware) would be a bit of a stretch. Given how rigorously Nelles explores the role of the narrator in the essay before Wong's, her account of this topic is unfortunate and hardly enhances her analysis of play in Mansfield Park.

Phillips and her eight colleagues offer what seems at first to be a report on a laboratory experiment involving fMRI scans on graduate students. Although I found this chapter fascinating and enjoyable, I'm afraid that it falls into the category of interdisciplinary window-dressing, for it simply analyzes the close reading skills of those students and the importance of concrete images in their recollections of blocks of text. The scans described at the beginning contribute nothing to the substance of the essay. To be fair to Phillips and her colleagues, the work described in this chapter is only a small part of a much larger project which does involve fMRI scanning. But when taken apart from that project, as the article stands here, its effect is definitely misleading. Since the window-dressing objection is often levelled at cognitive literary studies, it seems a shame to invite the charge.

One last objection of my own: I am surprised that a book about cognitive approaches to literature does not mention David Herman, who has done more than anyone to lay the theoretical groundwork for the advances made here. I never thought the day would come when a volume of this sort would ignore him.

But these criticisms should certainly not deter potential readers. Jane Austen specialists will, I'm sure, find in this book many insights into the novels and also much to interest them about the current state of cognitive science. Overall, the standard of the writing is high and the chapters by Nelles, Richardson, and Hogan are outstanding. In the introduction, Beth Lau endorses William Nelles's view that the application of cognitive approaches promises to revolutionize Austen studies (5). That's a tall prediction, but I hope it's right. In any event, this is a good beginning. In spite of the resistance it provokes, this book made me want, yet again, to re-read Jane Austen.

Alan Palmer is an independent scholar.


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