Response to Campbell’s Review of Literature and the Brain

Daniel Mantei


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


Norman Holland’s Literature and the Brain is the latest in a long list of Holland’s publications to focus on the reader’s role in the “transaction” between the text and the reader (299). As Paul Campbell points out (see Campbell’s review of Literature and the Brain in this issue), Holland takes an empirically informed, neuropsychoanalytic approach to address such broad and historically vexing questions as “how and why we do literature” (5). Throughout Literature and the Brain, Holland displays an incredible breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, but the real strength of the book lies in Holland’s ability to fluently meld objective scientific knowledge – the ‘whats’ and the ‘wheres’ of neuroscience  –  with the “science of subjectivity,” psychoanalysis, as he discusses the subtleties of literary experience (19). Holland weaves his way through the text in a thoroughly relaxed style, and at times it seems as if you are sitting in Holland’s study with a cup of tea, entranced by his conversational prowess and versatility. Holland’s style will surely ease the apprehension of literary scholars, students or members of the interested public who are new to the neuroscientific approach. In addition, for first-timers, Holland includes a well-written appendix, which in this case is no vestigial organ; in fact, this appendix is essential for those without a background in neuroscience, and I echo Holland’s recommendation that those who need it should read this appendix before proceeding too far through the body of the book (6). As Campbell mentions,Literature and the Brain would surely make an excellent introductory text for a course on reading processes. Yet, the book would serve equally well as a Sunday afternoon read as Holland plots out the experience of literary reading much like an investigation in a good detective story: from the feeling of being transported into a text, to the enjoyment of literature and finally to the broader cultural processes at work in an aesthetic encounter. While it may not have the furious page-turning quality of a Dan Brown novel, I assure you Literature and the Brain will be a far more satisfying read than The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Like any detective story though, you will be able to poke holes in the plot if you look hard enough. The tremendous scope of Literature and the Brain makes the text particularly susceptible simply because the breadth of the text necessitates sacrificing in-depth analyses of many issues that Holland raises. This is particularly true of Holland’s claims about being transported into the world of the text. Campbell points out that we are capable of this feeling of being transported or absorbed into stories regardless of their ontological status as fiction or non-fiction. Campbell’s critique here is certainly justified, but I do not believe he goes far enough: cogitating on the issue of transportation reveals other important inconsistencies in Holland’s argument that merit further discussion in this review. Holland claims that when we are transported into a textual world “we lose track of self and world… because we know we will not try to change [the work of art]” (47-8). While this may be true of literary reading, being unable to change the work is more a limitation of the media of film and literature, not strictly a pre-condition for absorbed experience. Holland begins to recognize the inherent limitations of these media when he discusses a type of literature “in which we do have to act on the work”; he notes that

With the advent of computers came hypertext, in which the reader must continually choose a path through a narrative or poem. Because the reader constantly acts on the work, the experience of being transported becomes impossible. The world cannot evaporate, nor can we feel transported into the world of the story. Instead, we are busy at the computer. (41)

While this may be true of experience with hypertext, this lack of absorption may result not from one’s ability to influence the narrative per se, but from a lack of familiarity with hypertext as an aesthetic medium. This issue becomes much clearer if we focus our attention on an aesthetic experience with much more contemporary relevance: computer game-play. Certainly, gamers are absorbed into the play world and clearly have a sense of agency within that world; this agency is, in fact, part of what makes computer games so enjoyable. In order to create a robust theory of aesthetic experience, as it appears that Holland is aiming for in Literature and the Brain, Holland must also consider how transportation works in new varieties of interactive media, if only to stay consistent with his claim later in the book that “Literature and media are… transactive” (299).

Emphasizing a transactive model of aesthetic experience, however, points to other inconsistencies in Holland’s book. Most glaringly, the transactive model contradicts Holland’s adherence earlier in Literature and the Brain to the reader-active model of literary reception. While taking the reader-active stance proves consistent with Holland’s conventionalist view of art later in the text – the whatever we think is art is art argument discussed by Campbell – the conventionalist explanation emphasizes only the object-status of the text while leaving out a critical component of the transactive process, namely the content and structure of the text. Surely, it is not merely public opinion that labels art as either high or low (or determines the “cultural capital” of the work, to follow Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology), but something about the text in and of itself that makes it high art, as Campbell claims. Holland proposes a possible remedy for this distinction between high and low art; although, he does not claim it as such: in trying to account for the sameness in interpretations in a reader-active model, Holland refers to experiments conducted by Rafael Malach, Uri Hasson and their associates, stating that “They found a good deal of shared [neurological] response (up to 65% for an artfully edited film like a Hitchcock)” (179). What is the reason for this shared response? Holland proposes that it is “…because of directorial control” in the film; that is, it is the structure of the text combined with the virtual content evoked by the language or images in the text that account for this shared response (179). While it is true that, on the surface, each reader constructs the text world by perceiving the words that compose the text through our own individual sensory organs as Holland so vehemently argues, this position fails to recognize the inter-subjective nature of cognition and the inter-subjective nature of language in particular (177). Language only functions as a communicative medium if it is recognized as inter-subjective and attains bi-directional status (that is, your words and my words can denote the same referents); this is what differentiates human communication from other forms of non-referential, primate communication (Tomasello, Call and Gluckman 1067). I would like to remind the reader here that whenever we approach a new text we are not building a text-world from scratch. The text provides a frame for our mental house and furnishes our mental spaces with virtual objects to which we can respond in our own unique way; the virtual objects evoked by the language of the text are not simply the products of our imaginations nor are they simply confabulated (why else would we bother reading the book or watching the film in the first place?). What we as readers do is decorate the text-house with our own personal associations. We then choose which pieces of furniture we sit on and which objects we focus on in the room. In short, where the strong reader-active model fails is in distinguishing between reading a text and purely confabulating a story. Where the strong cultural capital appraisal of a text as high or low art falls short is in failing to take account of the structure and content of the text. Both arguments, unfortunately, suffer from the classic neurological fallacy of failing to recognize the inter-subjective component of cognition: whenever we utilize symbolic language, as all art does, we cannot escape the social aspect of our being.

While I am critical of particular strands of Holland’s argument, I would like to emphasize that, despite its occasional shortcomings, Literature and the Brain is a very welcome addition to the growing field of empirically-informed theories of reader response. Holland should be commended for his valiant attempt to bridge the disciplinary chasm between neuroscience and literary studies, especially in a form that is so accessible to scholars new to this type of research. Of course, any attempt to address such large issues as ‘what happens to us when we read’ will always leave one feeling there is more to be discussed, and Holland does not pretend that he has resolved these issues in his book. What Holland has done, however, is laid the groundwork for his readers so that they can discuss these issues from a more theoretically and empirically-informed viewpoint. Literature and the Brain has certainly earned its place on my bookshelf, but I do not imagine it will be there long before it is pilfered by an interested colleague.


Note: See Paul Campbell's Review of Literature and the Brain by Norman Holland. -Ed.


Works Cited


Bordieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Ed. Randal Johnson. Irvington, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993. Print.

Tomasello, M., Call, J., and Gluckman, A. “The Comprehension of Novel Communicative Signs by Apes and Human Children.” Child Development. 68. 6 (1997): 1067-81. Print.




Daniel Mantei is an MA student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. His research is dedicated to empirical studies of poetic experience; he is currently investigating the effect that reading song lyrics has on a person’s experience of popular music.



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