A Novel Look at the Brain in Literature

September 14, 2018

In his new book, Professor Jason Tougaw explores the interplay between neuroscience and literature in the age of the neuro-novel.


Literature has long been a place to explore characters’ interiors, but getting specific — or scientific — about how and what they experience has been a different story.


Professor Jason Tougaw’s (GC, Liberal Studies/Queens, English) new book, The Elusive Brain (Yale University Press, 2018), examines the interplay between neuroscience and literature by exploring contemporary novels, memoirs, and graphic novels that investigate brain injuries, neurological disease, neurological practices, and more. Literature, as he shows, acts as a laboratory, one that gets readers closer to understanding the brain in ways the hard sciences might overlook.
The Graduate Center: What initially drew you to memory in general and neuroscience specifically?
Tougaw: There are two strands to that answer, one is more personal and the other is more intellectual, but they inform each other. I’d written a memoir called The One You Get. In the book, there’s a lot of stuff about my family’s brains — we had this mythology that our brains explained the impossible behavior of certain family members. I wanted to play around with that.
In the process, I was writing about a lot of literary works that depict things like consciousness, memory, dreams, and emotions. The physical brain comes up a lot in the history of literature — from Cervantes to the present — partly because it’s fundamental to human experience. I wanted to be in conversation with the kinds of research and debates happening in the neurosciences, rather than doing it in a separated way. Most of the writers I cover actually engage the science directly as well. I needed to be at least as informed as they are. Part of my goal was to write a book where I could account for the complexity and do it in language that would not be alienating for people.
GC: A forward from neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux seems like quite the co-sign for this kind of interdisciplinary focus. How did that come about?
Tougaw: I’m so grateful to him for doing that because it’s a sign of legitimacy for people in the sciences. He and I had crossed paths and worked together on panels and things like that. Also, he has a band called the Amygdaloids —it’s a band of neuroscientists who write songs about the mind and brain. I have a radio show at WJFF in the Catskills, and I played his music. He came on the show a couple of times. We had a relationship, so I sent him the manuscript and asked if he’d be willing to do it.
GC: Why are these neurological narratives so important?
Tougaw: It’s redefining how we think about what it means to be human and what the range of experiences is.
GC: It seems to expose readers to differences they might not otherwise grasp.
Tougaw: There are ways in which it happens on its own, like with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. But I think that any single book on its own is kind of a problem because what happens is it stands in for a huge range of people and experiences that it really can’t account for. When high schools all over the world assign this one book, which is a work of fiction, as a way of helping people become more sensitive about autism, it’s just a huge distortion.
GC: How do you hope literature can help readers reach a better understanding of the array of neurological conditions?
Tougaw: There’s an interesting thing that happens when you read, which is you sort of occupy your own point of view and a writer’s or character’s point of view simultaneously. They blend and, in the process, you get changed in little ways. The more people read and experience this kind of literature, the more they will think differently and feel differently, and then start to make connections. What I hoped to do was to look at the literature, and say, “How is the literature talking to the science?” as opposed to applying the science to the literature. Any application of science to literature ends up being so partial. I’m glad people have done it and I’ve learned from it, but it isn’t what I want to do.