ENGL 5975 Neurofiction

Neuroscience has provided an account of consciousness based on physiological processes in the brain, which has given rise to the concept of the “cerebral” or “neural” subject or the idea that a person is rather than merely has a brain. Historians like Fernando Vidal describe this concept of “brainhood” as an “ideology” that is historically contested, contingent, and contradictory, as it simultaneously constructs and undermines a fixed and stable sense of self.

Neuroscience has also inspired new ways of representing mental states in literature, and Marco Roth’s 2009 essay “The Rise of the Neuronovel” both identified and criticized the emergence of this new literary subgenre for its simplified and reductionist explanations of “mental function…in terms of neurochemistry.” Vidal notes, however, that “neuronovels problematize rather than merely assert the neurological belief that humans are essentially their brains,” as consciousness is often represented as emerging from “interactions with the environment” or “social relations.”

Neuroscience has also inspired new interpretive approaches that focus on how neuroscientific knowledge is represented in literary texts, and in 2010 The Guardian described the emergence of neurological literary criticism (or “neuro lit crit”) as “the cutting edge of literary studies.” This subdiscipline also intersects with the field of disability theory, as these texts often focus on characters whose brains are developmentally delayed, disordered, disabled, damaged, diseased, or divergent, and they can often be interpreted as promoting either the medical or social models of disability. Neurofiction thus contributes to ongoing debates about determinism and reductionism, as it invites readers to reconsider the relationship between psychology and physiology or the mind and the brain, and it also encourages readers to reflect and/or question cultural assumptions about various neurological conditions.

This course will explore how neurofiction either reinforces or challenges the ideology of “brainhood” and “neuronormativity” (i.e., the norms of neurotypicality and neuroableism) by examining how it represents cognitive processes like thinking, remembering, learning, reasoning, etc. It will also address the broader significance of these representations by positioning them within their social, historical, and political context.