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22.04.11 Dresvina/Blud (eds.), Cognitive Sciences and Medieval Studies

22.04.11 Dresvina/Blud (eds.), Cognitive Sciences and Medieval Studies

This volume is a thought-provoking introduction to the approaches, problems, and potentials of interdisciplinary work between cognitive sciences and medieval studies. Both its perspective and its audience are mainly medievalists, but it actively pushes back against the pitting of STEM and humanities disciplines against each other. It not only considers how cognitive sciences might provide useful lenses for humanists working in medieval studies, but also engages with the messier and potentially more fruitful ways of working with both disciplines, noting that while the cognitive sciences mainly developed in the last two centuries, “the debates that drive exploration in the cognitive sciences are questions with long philosophical pedigrees” (1). Dresvina and Blud argue convincingly in their introduction that both fields can benefit from engaging with each other.

Dresvina and Blud’s introduction will be useful to medievalists new to learning about the cognitive sciences as well as those wishing to think more about their uses, implications, and limits; they assume no prior knowledge of these sciences and the section “What is Cognitive Science?” provides a clear, concise, well-organized, and informative introduction to this branch of science while acknowledging that it does not have a static definition. They give a brief history of the concept of cognitive sciences and each of its constituent disciplines (philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, computer science, and psychology) as well the “cognitive revolution,” the “name eventually given to a trend that began in the 1950s as a movement combining psychology, linguistics and the developing computer sciences with the goal of applying scientific method to the study of the human brain” (4).

The stated aims for the volume, which they accomplish skillfully, include providing humanities scholars with tools from cognitive science, “address[ing] the estrangement that still persists between the sciences and the humanities,” and showing how the study of the past overlaps with modern psychology, neurobiology, and other fields (6). Their frank discussion of the complexities and controversies in working across these fields will be valuable to any medievalists thinking about engaging with the cognitive sciences more in their research or their teaching (these complexities are further developed in the essay by Matthew Rampley, discussed below). In particular, they caution against replicating “the potential insensitivity of neuroscience to various cultural issues,” noting that the recent emergence of the field of cultural neuroscience aims to address these issues, in contrast to “the universalising trends of mainstream bioscience” (7).

Dresvina and Blud conclude their introduction with a discussion of the “cognitive turn” in the humanities and its coincidence with “the shift in the cognitive sciences themselves, prompted by the rise of ‘embodied cognition,’” which they explain has its roots in anti-Cartesian philosophy (8). The movement away from considering the mind and body as separate entities, they note, creates space for finding more common ground between cognitive science and medieval thought on cognition. But they also caution against the biases inherent in assuming continuity between different minds and bodies, including those that come from a universalizing western gaze. They note that “scholars of race, culture, disability, gender and sexuality have also offered incisive comments on the necessity of interrogating the assumptions that inform cognitive theory” and they argue for paying more attention to the roles of occupation, class, and religion (8). They find the role of religion and religious experience to be one area ripe for more work between cognitive science and medieval studies.

The chapters are organized into four parts--Questions of Method; Case Studies: Histories of Neuroscience, Psychology and Mental Illness; Case Studies: Reading Texts and Minds; and Case Studies: Approaching Art and Artefacts--with an afterword by art historian John Onians. The contributors range from contingent scholars to full professors, work at institutions ranging from community colleges to top research universities, and come from five primary disciplines (literary studies, history, art history, philosophy, and psychology) and five countries, although most of them work across disciplines and national/linguistic divisions. The wide range of perspectives, approaches, and objects of study in this volume makes it useful for those interested in broader questions about cognitive sciences and those interested in applying cognitive sciences in specific ways in their own teaching and research.

In “How Modular are Medieval Cognitive Theories?” José Filipe Silva explores one important similarity between medieval theories of cognition and the contemporary concept of modularity, arguing that they share an understanding of the mind as modular. Examining theories of mental faculties of Aristotle, Avicenna, Albert the Great, and Nicholas of Oresme, he considers how they resemble Jerry Fodor’s theory of cognitive modules, in which we process different types of information and tasks separately from one another. Ralph W. Hood, Jr.’s chapter, “An Unrealised Conversation: Medieval Mysticism and the Common Core,” asks what modern cognitive science can contribute to our understandings of medieval mysticism and vice versa. Examining William James’s contributions to the “common core thesis” of mysticism, which posits that the experience of mysticism does not vary by religion, historical period, or other markers of specificity, Hood argues that James has been interpreted in ways that have limited the conversation between cognitive psychology and religious studies, and that the study of mysticism can help to heal this divide. Finally, Matthew Rampley’s compelling “Questions of Value: Brain Science, Aesthetics and Art in the Neurohumanities” uses an example of phrenology from 1850 to demonstrate the dangers of “parallel attempts to apply insights and methods from brain science to the understanding of art and culture” (59). Rampley deftly explains the procedures by which brain scans are used to measure neural activity and the limits of what those scans can tell us; he goes on to argue that much work on mirror neurons depends on our ability to perceive a gesture as intended (he uses the example of a blink, a wink, or an involuntary muscle twitch). He concludes that research in the neurohumanities must take special care in its claims to universality in matters of culture and aesthetics.

Part II begins with Daniel Lord Smail’s “Neuroscience and the Dialectics of History,” which uses environmental history as a model to put neuroscience and history, which he calls “strange bedfellows,” in dialogue (83). Observing that “the Hegelian philosophy of history was instrumental in dividing the realm of biology from the realm of history” which he argues “cast a very long shadow over the practice of history” (85, 86), he departs from models that treat cognitive processes as sovereign and from those that treat culture as sovereign. Smail uses a case history of late medieval violence and chronic stress to examine what it might look like for them to evolve together, to be coeval. Wendy J. Turner’s “Medieval English Understanding of Mental Illness and Parallel Diagnosis to Contemporary Neuroscience” advances a different type of “environmental model,” arguing that impairment varies depending on the familiarity of one’s environment (97). Focusing on stress disorders and psychoses and examining medieval administrative and court records, Turner explores what she calls parallel diagnosing, analyzing the language of medieval diagnoses for their similarities to diagnoses today, while being careful not to “diagnose medieval health complaints using terminology of today” (99). This essay is particularly rich with historical examples. The next chapter, “Attachment Theory for Historians of Medieval Religion: An Introduction” by Juliana Dresvina, uses attachment theory to examine the role of adaptation in “periods of heightened, obsessive religiosity, such as we find in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period in the West” (122). Dresvina applies the “main interpretive technique--that is, discourse analysis informed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience--to a variety of pre-modern examples of life-writing” (123). She gives an accessible overview of attachment theory and its applications to religion before turning specifically to examining medieval childrearing practices, attachment styles encouraged by medieval circumstances, and finally a case study of Margery Kempe. Demonstrating the higher likelihood of childhood loss of a primary attachment figure in the Middle Ages and considering the idea of God as an attachment figure, Dresvina argues that we can consider the development of Margery’s attachment to God as a parental figure as the result of insecure attachment to a parental figure in her childhood.

Part III begins with Godelinde Gertrude Perk’s “‘A Knot So Suttel and So Mighty’: On Knitting, Academic Writing, and Julian of Norwich,” which considers the form of Julian’s writing through a cognitive lens, drawing on its similarity to the process of circular knitting and the concept of the “word-knot.” In its resistance to interpretive certainty, Perk argues, Julian’s Revelation creates a meditative reading experience that “blurs the binary, Cartesian mind-body distinction” in much the same way as knitting (155). Perk argues for considering the “alterity of medieval cognition,” noting that although cognitive science approaches can be universalizing, they are not incompatible with studies that recognize the “alterity of the Middle Ages” (158, 148). Victoria Blud’s “Making Up a Mind: ‘4E’ Cognition and the Medieval Subject” considers the usefulness of the 4E model (which, she explains, argues that “cognition is embodied, embedded, enacted, extended”) for understanding pre-modern thinking (163). Using the concept of the extended mind, which she notes is the most controversial of the four Es, Blud argues that Julian used her writing as a way of extending and distributing the cognitive process, in which she used her first written text, “a resource that is outside both her head and her body,” to produce her second, longer text. Antonina Harbus’s chapter, “Cognitive Approaches to Affective Poetics in Early English Literature,” uses cognitive approaches to contemporary affective processes at work in reading Old English elegies to argue that certain linguistic and poetic features influence certain cognitive processes in ways that can be predicted, suggesting a continuity in cognitive and affective processes over time. Her readings of The Wife’s Lament and The Wanderer demonstrate that these poems’ forms activate both cognitive and emotional processes in their readers. Like Perk and Blud, Harbus draws on the concept of the 4E to examine cognition as an embodied process.

The two essays in Part IV, Nadia Pawelchak’s “Medieval Art History and Neuroscience: An Introduction” and Jeff Rider’s “Spoons, Whorls, and Caroles: How Medieval Artefacts Can Help Keep Your Brain on Its Toes,” both consider the cognitive aspects of engagement with medieval material culture; Pawelchak through a reading of how medieval audiences may have responded to a scene carved into an ivory mirror case and Rider through an analysis of a modern audience’s cognitive engagement with medieval objects. Pawelchak convincingly argues that neuroscience can construct potential cognitive maps for medieval subjects without flattening out the differences in the brains of individual people, drawing on reception theory’s construction of hypothetical audiences with different “cognitive styles,” and models what a range of responses to the same artefact might look like (200). Rider uses the concept of affordances to compare the different ways the mind engages with motor skills when encountering objects similar and dissimilar to those we may use (a spoon and a drop spindle), and then turns to the process of reconstructing a medieval carole, a dance, arguing that forming a mental simulation of the dance from written sources will “enlarge our motor and visceromotor repertoires” (230). Both of these types of engagement with medieval artefacts, Rider argues, enhance our neurocognitive abilities.

John Onians’s Afterword, “The Medieval Brain and Modern Neuroscience,” explains the way a turn to cognitive sciences has expanded and deepened his own study of medieval cultures. Onians draws on the methods in each of the essays in the volume to theorize the shift from classical to medieval culture, as well as to critique some of Rampley’s cautions about methods arising at the intersection of medieval studies and the cognitive sciences.

What some may see as a weakness of this volume, the fact that its essays take different approaches and at times openly disagree with each other, seems to me to be a strength in a volume that attempts to grapple with the melding of two disciplines that have long had an antagonistic relationship. My only small criticism of this volume is that some of the authors could provide more context for readers outside their field to understand what may seem like basic terminology to them. This seems especially vital for a volume that spans so many disciplines and approaches, and some chapters, notably those by Rampley and Smail, do this extremely well; some chapters, like Hood’s, required that I go elsewhere to figure out what “common core” meant in the study of mysticism. Nevertheless, each essay has not only notes but its own select bibliography, making it easier for interested readers of individual essays to follow up with further reading. I learned a great deal from this volume, and any medievalist interested in cognition likely will too.