Literature and the Brain by Norman Holland

Paul Campbell


Holland, Norman. Literature and the Brain. Gainesville, FL: PsyArt Foundation, 2009, viii + 457 pp. Print.


Norman Holland’s Literature and the Brain is as ambitious and inclusive as the title suggests. In four sections, Holland attempts to lay out an empirically-supported theory of aesthetic experience. After advocating for a “neuropsychoanalytic” approach to literature that combines cognitive neuroscience with psychoanalysis, Holland outlines the neurological processes at stake for the reading experience most central to his theory – transportation and enjoyment (20). He ends by proposing answers to what he terms “The Big Questions,” such as the nature of creativity and evaluation, and the value of literature (276). He considers all his topics from three levels of abstraction, including the neurological, the literary-theoretical and even the evolutionary; this work is a tour de force of synthesis. Holland is perhaps the most notable figure in literary studies to support a non-reductive, empirically-grounded approach, making this contribution important both for the information it provides and for its potentially field-opening power. Any literary academic not familiar with the emerging sub-discipline of literary reading will benefit from this accessible volume. Literature and the Brain could easily serve as the central textbook of an advanced undergraduate or graduate course on reading processes.

A central tenet of Holland’s theory is that literary reading (or film watching, as he assumes near interchangeability) is marked by transportation, which requires “poetic faith” or “suspension of disbelief” (39, 60). This is possible because

If we know that, by its very nature, we cannot affect what we are paying attention to, as is the case with literary and artistic works, we inhibit motor impulses from our frontal lobes. We may then disregard whether what we are perceiving is true or not. We may shut down our judgments of realism or probability. (72-73)

The inability to act on perception is central to his argument. The problem is that the inability to act on perception is not unique to literature or art and need not require our “reality checking” mechanism to be turned off (69). For instance, I know I can do nothing about the news clip I am watching on CNN. However, this does not mean that I turn off my reality checker; I may be scrutinizing the truth value of the clip very carefully. I may or may not be transported or absorbed into the clip, but this clearly depends on factors that Holland does not differentiate.

A caveat is attempted when he states that “It is precisely the cognition that I cannot change what is represented in the literary work, that it is not part of my real world, that leads me to feel uncritically and intensely the emotions that I would feel if it were real” (103, italics his, bold mine). He positions unchangability appositively to part of my real world when the two are clearly not dependent on each other, let alone equivalent. If real-worldness is taken to be an important criterion of literary experience, there is a contradiction: how can we judge this if our reality-checking mechanism is turned off? Even if we grant that it is turned off after we make this initial evaluation, we know that we can become transported by real-world stories, making his aesthetic claims suspect. Holland then goes on to suggest that “We respond emotionally more to literature and to media, perhaps even more than when we are paying attention to realities” without citing evidence (102). He can, perhaps, be forgiven for not noting evidence to the contrary provided by Thalia Goldstein (2009) given the publication date.

A second large problem arises when Holland attempts to answer one of his big questions: why do we read literature? Initially, he states that “Nothing in the thing itself marks art off from non-art. When we agree to treat a thing as literature and enjoy it as literature that makes it literature” (343). However, Holland attempts to move beyond conventionalism by exploring the difference between “high” and “low” literature, suggesting that “No one would claim that the pleasure we get from the current best-selling romance novel or mystery story or soap opera ranks with Hamlet” (354). A conventionalist, of course, could well argue that we have historically granted Hamlet special status, which accounts for its increased quality. Or, one could argue that for some a popular novel like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) is equivalent to Hamlet, invoking a cultural or class-based conventionalism. However, Holland believes that literature and art “achieve their ‘higher’ purpose only when we think about them” (343, italics his). The process of achieving this higher purpose is described further: “We can simply enjoy. We can respond emotionally, uncritically. Alternatively, we cogitate. We think in a purely intellectual way about a literary work” (356). If thinking or reflecting is the key to the ‘higher’ experience of literature, why should we rate Hamlet higher than pulp fiction? If there is nothing in the work itself that distinguishes high from low, art from non-art, how can we take it as given that Hamlet is ‘higher’? Must there not be something about some human works that qualify them as art and about some artworks that qualify them as ‘high’? Of course. And you do not necessarily have to abandon a conventionalist position to believe this. However, by failing to tell us what it is – whatever it is – that makes Hamlet high art capable of somehow better facilitating reflection, Holland cannot account for his own distinctions.

In the end, Literature and the Brain lands close to my heart: “Fully engaged with and thinking through works of literature and the arts, we uncover our own individuality. We open ourselves to the largest truth of who we are, who we have been, and who finally we will be” (359). For my money, this is where literary investigation gets most interesting. How does literature open me to my own individuality? What privileged access can it give us to personal truths? In what sense can it enter me as I enter it and make fresh my experience? In the end, how can literature help me to fulfill the Delphic Oracle’s command, quoted by Holland, to “Know thyself” (320)? Sadly, the book stops. Literature and the Brain turns out to be the important first half of what should be a two-part series, engaging how we experience the immediate enjoyment aspect of literary reading but remaining silent on literature’s profound higher self-implicating powers.


Note: See Daniel Mantei’s response to Paul Campbell's Review of Literature and the Brain by Norman Holland. -Ed.


Works Cited


Goldstein, Thalia. “The Pleasure of Unadulterated Sadness: Experiencing Sorrow in Fiction, Nonfiction, and ‘In Person.’” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3.4, (2009): 232-237. Print.




Paul Campbell is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta specializing in the study of early twentieth century poetry. His research examines the relations between mystic experience and literary reading from an embodied, empirical, phenomenological perspective focused on the experiences of contemporary students.



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