Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes

By Carol Clark

No one can predict where the conversation will go when novelist Salman Rushdie talks about the creative process with Seana Coulson, a cognitive scientist who studies language with multiple meanings. But when two bright minds come together to explore a deep mystery from entirely different angles, you can expect sparks.

“Metaphors and the Mind” is a day-long symposium at Emory on Thursday, March 8, bringing together writers and neuroscientists to exchange their thoughts on language, creativity and the brain.

“We hope that everyone, both the scientists and the writers, will leave the symposium with new ideas about experiments they’d like to try,” says Laura Otis, an Emory professor of English, who organized the symposium with Krish Sathian, a neurologist at Emory's School of Medicine. “We each have different kinds of knowledge, and we want to see how combining them can lead to new ways of looking at things.”

Emory creative writing professors Rushdie, Jim Grimsley and Joseph Skibell will converse with three leading neuroscientists: Coulson from UC San Diego, Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania and David Kemmerer from Purdue. The symposium is hosted by Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain and Culture and the Laney Graduate School’s New Thinkers, New Leaders Program. It’s free and open to the public. Click here for more details.

The event grew out of a graduate seminar, “Images, Metaphors and the Brain,” that Otis teaches with Sathian. Students from neuroscience, psychology anthropology, religion, English and comparative literature are enrolled.

“We have amazing conversations,” says Otis, who researches how scientific and literary thinking coincide and foster each other’s growth.

The seminar explores everything from Sathian’s research on how the brain puts together visual imagery and touch sensations to English professor Patricia Cahill’s work on the theater and the sense of touch in early modern England.

Bringing together students from a range of specialties gives them glimpses of how different minds work. “Occasionally someone will use just one word to express a complex thought, and then just assume that everyone else gets their meaning, but often that isn’t the case,” Otis says.

Otis bridges the complexities of science and the humanities more easily than most. She was part way through a PhD in neuroscience when she realized that she didn’t want to be a scientist. “I loved studying how something binds to a cell, and a cell opens and things start pouring in or out,” she recalls. “I’m fascinated by the biology underlying memory, identity and communication.”

She could function okay in a lab environment, and was good at many of the technical tasks, but she didn’t enjoy the collaborative atmosphere. “It just didn’t feel right. I’m a loner, I work best on my own,” she says.

Otis had always loved language. “I was trying to beat down my passion,” she says, “because I thought that studying literature was selfish, and wouldn’t help humanity the way that science can.”

She eventually reached a breaking point, becoming so unhappy that she couldn’t continue on the path to neuroscience. Then she found her niche in a PhD program in comparative literature at Cornell. Otis’ interests and passions combined to put her at the vanguard of a growing movement to bring together the experiences of artists and the findings of neuroscience.

“You can learn things from science, and you can learn things from storytelling and other forms of art. Now we are putting the two together,” Otis says. “It’s a fertile field of new ideas about the mind.”

Above photo of books by iStockphoto.com.

Metaphors activate sensory areas of the brain
Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie
Sorting truth from false memories

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