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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

This is Your Brain on Culture

How Stories, Poems, Plays, Movies and Other Arts Matter
Norman Holland specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain, available at See full bio

So! Poets and their interpreters use different brain systems.
Poets vs. Critics: Different Brain Systems

The CriticYears ago, when I was teaching in the legendary English Department at SUNY/Buffalo, one of our poets, Jerry Maguire,convoked a group to read poems. Jerry's idea was to bring poets and critics together in order to compare their readings.

What happened surprised me, at least, and, I think, just about everybody in the group. It turned out that poets and critics read poems quite differently.

The critics concerned themselves with things like repetitions and contrasts of themes and meanings. The poets, however, paid attention to repetitions and contrasts of vowels and consonants, rhythmic patterns, and all kinds of features of the sound of the poems. To be sure, there was a certain amount of overlap, but nevertheless, the poets and the critics were reading poems quite differently.

Now, it turns out, they may have been using different systems in their brains. Kenneth Heilman, a neuropsychologist at the University of Florida, has a fine paper setting out the "information-processing approach" to the various aphasias. He lists eleven different aphasias, and his paper uses the kind of block diagrams computer programmers use to distinguish and interrelate them.

Heilman mentions eight interconnected blocks, some referring to well-known and clearly defined brain regions and systems, others to geography less certain. He mentions, obviously, the auditory cortex (Heschl's gyrus) that somehow--no one knows how--breaks the incoming sounds into phonemes. Then there is a "phonological input lexicon," corresponding to Wernicke's area, that "remembers" the sounds of various words. There is a motor system that makes the sounds of speech and "phonetic-speech movement programs," Broca's area. It embodies the programs for forming various words and other sounds. Both these systems rely on a "phonological output lexicon" that remembers what those words and other sounds are supposed to sound like. At a still higher level of processing, the brain's intentional systems (anterior cingulate and frontal lobes) create what Steven Pinker calls "mentalese" and stimulate speech production systems to turn those mental thoughts or proto-utterances into physical words and sentences. On the input site, there are object recognition units (ventral temporal occipital lobe) that associate words with perceptions of objects. At, so to speak, the highest level of the whole verbal system, there is a semantic-conceptual field that deals with meanings (probably widely dispersed in the parietal and temporal lobes.

Block diagram of speech systems

All these are interconnected, mostly by two-way conduction. Heilman shows, in this article, how one can account for eleven different aphasias by the loss of this or that unit or connection between these various units iindicated by the letters n the block diagram. It's a powerful demonstration of the kind of thing an information-processing model can do.

One particular thing this model can do is explain what happened in Jerry Maguire's poetry group. People interpreting poetry have to be more concerned with themes and meanings--obviously. That's what professors and critics are paid to do. People composing poetry have to be more concerned with the output side of things, and what is special about poetry are the sounds. In very simple terms, the poets were reading poetry primarily in terms of Broca's and Wernicke's areas. The critics were reading primarily in terms of that top-level semantic-conceptual field.

No doubt matters are more complicated than that. I always tend to over-simplify. Certainly both groups used all these systems but with different weightings. But I do find this solution to the problem Jerry Maguire's group posed immensely satisfying.

The item I'm referring to:

Heilman, Kenneth M. (2006). "Aphasia and the Diagram Makers Revisited: An Update of Information Processing Models." Journal of Clinical Neurology 2.3: 149-162.

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