“Your Brain on Fiction”

March 27, 2012 in Afternoon, Home, Learning, Reading

This might be a good way to bring my Day of DH to a close.  A meditation: amid the day’s digital chatter, a story from the New York Times appeared in my Facebook feed (from the NYT itself) entitled:

Your Brain on Fiction

Published: March 17, 2012


AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Full story: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html

Oh, the irony.  Though I think it is important that the piece does not equate reading a novel to reading on paper (though I would argue that there is something particular to that medium and configuration of object and embodiment and reading that deserves attention).  And I am not sure how reading a novel seems “old fashioned,” perhaps in contrast to the assumed hectic and scattered multi-tasky nature of supposed 21st century life.  I am reminded of N. Katherine Hayles’ essay on “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” in Profession 2007.

Teaching with Pinterest?

March 27, 2012 in Afternoon, Home, Reflecting, Teaching

I have been hearing the latest buzz about Pinterest, the e-bulletin board (though not the fun, exciting kind circa 1988).  Basically, as far as I can tell, Pinterest serves as a potential collage or storyboard or archiving space, or as my friend Tim Welsh says, a place to put up a wishlist for shopping.  Part of my CHID 480 class is that I want them to collect “artifacts” — basically, real world examples, links, texts, images, media — that relate to the course’s central questions, topics, theories, and readings.

So I have set up a Pinterest for the class.  The things I do like about the platform is that the layout establishes the feel of a “collection,” I can invite multiple pinners to the board, and people can leave comments on each artifact posted.  (I suppose I could have used a Tumblr.  And I might still.)  One downside so far is that comments cannot be edited once posted.  So, will this be a good technology to employ?  I am not sure yet.  But  think these kinds of experiments — as long as they are transparent as possible, high risk, but low stakes (after all it’s not your students’ fault if something doesn’t quite pan out as planned) — are useful for figuring out what technologies to use, what your best practices are, and how students might use or game the system.


DH Break

March 27, 2012 in All Day, Home, Uncategorized

Click.  Watch.  Play?

Teaching on Facebook?

March 27, 2012 in Blogging, Email, Home, Morning, Reflecting, Teaching

Screenshot of the Facebook group for my CHID 480: Mediating Identities class:

The Facebook group will serve as one of the technological platforms used by the class, particularly as they manipulate their own digital personas and presences.  Experiments and experiences like these will make up what I am calling their “Identity Logs” or “iLogs,” which I have defined as:

Over the course of the quarter, you will keep and maintain a weekly “identity log” or “iLog,” recording, detailing, and thinking about your own identities and identifications, particularly those mediated by and through technologies. Your “iLog” will function as a kind of identity workbook, an analytical and metacognitive journal, and reading notes, connecting your observations and experiences to the texts, theories, and ideas of the class. Periodically, you will be given specific log prompts, provocations, and experiments, and you will share your logs in class, on the class blog, or via the class’s social media. These logs are more than just summaries or personal reactions and will be evaluated on completion, clarity, focus, coherence, critique, and your ability to concisely formulate arguments.

Of course, as with most things, even if it’s on Facebook, even if it’s a system they are familiar with, even if it is supposed to be ‘fun’, that does not mean students will automatically, wholeheartedly take to it like proverbial fish to digital waters.  It took some email-poking and cajoling to get most of the class joined, and I imagine it will take a few more days before everyone is part of the group.  Then moving on to actually using the platform for academic and critical purposes is whole other can of worms…

Digital and Real Day of DH Friends

March 27, 2012 in Blogging, Home, Morning

Check out the blogs of some people I know and think are wicked smart:

Adeline Koh: http://dayofdh2012.artsrn.ualberta.ca/members/adelinekoh/

Paige Morgan: http://dayofdh2012.artsrn.ualberta.ca/members/paigecm/

Jentery Sayers: http://dayofdh2012.artsrn.ualberta.ca/members/jenterysayers/

Victoria Szabo: http://dayofdh2012.artsrn.ualberta.ca/members/vszabo/

Timothy Welsh: http://dayofdh2012.artsrn.ualberta.ca/members/twel/

Day of DH 2012, Start

March 27, 2012 in Admin Service, Home, Morning, Reflecting, Teaching

March 27.  For me, just the second day of the Spring Quarter here at the University of Washington.  Yesterday, Monday, was the first day of instruction and the first day of my class CHID 480: “Mediating Identities: Technologies of the Self,” a new class for the Comparative History of Ideas department and one that I had to design from the ground up.  Unlike some of the other more literature or writing based courses I have taught in the past, this course will focus mainly on readings, discussions, and everyday examples of the intersections of identity and technology.  It is also the first class where I have (more) fully invited digital technologies–particularly social networking technologies)–into the course as collaborative spaces, assignment laboratory, and archive of course material and discussion.

As I wrote in last year’s Day of DH, most of my interaction with digital technologies is entirely quotidian.  But, I think there is something remarkable about how quickly and how ubiquitous said technologies have become integrated into (and interrupt?) my life.  Digital alarm (though my body’s so accustomed now to these rhythms that I wake up before it).  Power up the desktop PC.  Bio.  Then sit down with a cup of tea while email opens, instant messengers launch, and Facebook starts its scroll.

For the most part, the start of my day is purely administrative.  Are there any emails from students yet?  Who has added my class?  Who has dropped it?  Are there emails from the various projects and groups and committees I work with: the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group, the Critical Gaming Project, the English Graduate Student Organization, and so on.  Already I see a number of emails from various listservs I subscribe to: CULTSTUD-L among others.  Besides email, there is material to be prepped for class and the start of the quarter.  (Invariably, I have new adds to my course and need to get the new students up to speed.)  I open Microsoft Word to work on teaching documents.  I am pinged by my sister and a colleague on Google Talk.  Even my phone chirps that I have unread texts, moves on Words with Friends and Draw Something, and upcoming appointments.

As I was thinking about what technologies to foreground in my CHID 480 class, I realized that I wondered about the amount of digital noise we have to sift through, navigate, respond to, and ultimately ignore.  I mean I have read reports about how multi-tasking culture is allegedly changing the ways our brains work (for good or for not).  But even from a practical point of view, a pedagogical one, what is the value of adding another technology or exchanging one technology for another actually do?  Is it more than just add technology and stir?  I suppose these are the questions that I will discover some of the answers to over the course of the next ten weeks.

These are the things on my mind at the moment, but now I have to go put out a few digital fires.


Hello world! Welcome to Day of DH 2012!

March 19, 2012 in About Day of DH, Afternoon, Home

Greetings and welcome!  It’s that time of year again!  This is my second year participating in the Day of DH 2012 collaborative community.  I am looking forward to see what people are thinking about, writing about, talking about.  Given the increased attention to the digital humanities, I think these collaborative spaces are a unique opportunity to snapshot the work we are all doing and the affordances and challenges of said work.  Good luck and good blogging!