2016 – Neurohumanities conference

Chers collègues, chers amis, dear friends,

Nous vous invitons chaleureusement à la journée d’étude « Literary States of Consciousness », qui se tiendra le jeudi 2 juin 2016, à l’Institut du monde anglophone de la Sorbonne Nouvelle (5, rue de l’École de médecine, Paris).

Cette journée se déroulera en anglais.

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Organisateurs : Pierre-Louis Patoine et Deborah Jenson
Avec le soutien du laboratoire PRISMES (EA 4398) et du Neurohumanities Research Group (Duke University).
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10:50                 Opening
11:00–12:45      Embodied experience of fictional environments
Alexa Weik Von Mossner (University of Klagenfurt)
Embodied Simulation and Emotion in the Evocation of Literary Environments
Dominique Makowski, Marco Sperduti, Pascale Piolino (Sorbonne Paris Cité / INSERM, Center for Psychiatry & Neuroscience,)
The Sense of Reality as a feature of proto-Consciousness, its Alteration and Generation induced by Fictional Worlds
Coline Joufflineau (Paris 1 / Paris 8)
Slow Times and Accelerated Transformations: to Read and to Meditate
12:45–13:45      Lunch
13:45–15:15      Duke Neurohumanities Summer School
Student presentations
15:15–15:30      Coffee break
15:30–16:40      Meandering thoughts, streams of consciousness
Jérôme Sackur (École des hautes études en sciences sociales / CNRS)
Varieties of Access to the Stream of Consciousness: Descriptive Experience Sampling, Neurophenomenology and Automatic Writing
Christof Diem (University of Innsbruck)
“How Can I Return to Form, Now My Formal Thought Has Gone?” – Meandering Thought in Contemporary British Drama
16:40–16:50     Coffee break
16:50–18:00      Summoning the past, subverting the future through altered states  
                          of consciousness
Christine Lehleiter (University of Toronto)
Beyond Consciousness: Literary States of Memory
Gilles Viennot (Université de Fayetteville)
Novels from the Past: the Last Road Map Against Deathly Nonsense
18:00–18:30      Roundtable
With Deborah Jenson and Leonard White (Duke University), Grazia Pulvirenti and Renata Gambino (Catania University)




Alexa Weik Von Mossner (University of Klagenfurt)

Embodied Simulation and Emotion in the Evocation of Literary Environments

My presentation will take a closer look at how exactly literary texts evoke environments in the minds of readers and how both the environments themselves and characters’ relationships to them are imbued with affective meaning. Drawing on the neuroscientific concept of liberated embodied simulation (Gallese & Wojciehowski 2011), it will argue that embodied simulation processes are of central importance not only to readers’ engagement with characters, but also when it comes to their engagement with literary environments. By way of illustration, the paper will briefly consider two genres that have often been hailed for their ability to powerfully evoke natural environments—nature writing and environmental fiction. A comparative look at John Muir’s The Mountains of California (1894) and Bonnie Nadzam’s novel Lamb (2011) will allow for a consideration of the central role of literary perspective in the creation of “instruction manuals” (Caracciolo 2014) that invite embodied simulation. It will also provide an opportunity to engage with claims made by scholars such as Richard Gerrig and Patrick Colm Hogan that there is no qualitative difference between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to narrative transportation and readers’ affective engagement with the storyworld that is evoked by a literary text.

Dominique Makowski (1)(2), Marco Sperduti (1)(2), Pascale Piolino (1)(2)(3)

1) Memory and Cognition Lab, Institute of Psychology, University of Sorbonne Paris Cité, Paris, France

(2) Center for Psychiatry & Neuroscience, INSERM U894, Paris, France

(3) Institut Universitaire de France, Paris, France

The Sense of Reality as a feature of proto-Consciousness, its Alteration and Generation induced by Fictional Worlds

In order to understand the nature of altered states of consciousness, we have to first explain the emergence of primary consciousness. This primary state assumes a distinction, along with a heavy connection, between the Self and the surrounding world experienced as “real”. The question of why or how do we know that the world that surrounds us is real is one of the main concerns of philosophy. From Plato to Nietzsche, through Descartes, Kant and Schopenhauer, many philosophers have conceptualized the relation between the Self and the World. This issue is becoming investigated in the domain of cognitive neuroscience under the name of Sense of Reality (SoR). The SoR, – the subjective experience of an environment as real – might be the cornerstone of normal consciousness, allowing for the generation and preservation of a mental space where representations of the world might take place and make sense. As such, it is considered as a feature of proto-consciousness (i.e., necessary for normal conscious states to arise). Often taken for granted, there are cases where this process is altered, as in the depersonalization/derealisation disorder, a psychiatric illness where patients experience the world as unreal. Interestingly, unreal worlds can, under certain conditions, generate a SoR. This is the case of fictional worlds (mediated by books, movies, or computerized environments), which can temporally overtake the primary one. We believe that the key mechanism underlying the SoR is emotions, which enable a coherent connection between the external and the internal world, allowing for consciousness to be.

Coline Joufflineau (Institut ACTE UMR 8218, Université Paris 1 ; Labodance, Labex ARTS H2H, Université Paris 8)

Slow times and accelerated transformations: to read and to meditate

According to an embodied­cognition perspective and the empathic theories of reading (Patoine, 2015), we read with our all body. Certain contemplative and hypnotic practices (Holroyd, 2003), by emphasizing the interaction of the attention, of the imagination (Santarpia et al., 2008), and of the kinesthesic and interoceptive sensations (Shor, 1970), can contribute to the understanding of the ” body states ” underlying the ” literary states of consciousness “. A specific attention at the present moment, decoupled by the direct motor action (Dewey, chapter XI, 1934) (Schaeffer, 2015), but coupled with the object of attention, as well as an increase of the acuteness and the aeisthesis, seems common to ” the fictional experience ” (Schaeffer, 1999) as to the hypnotic and contemplative experiences.

We would like to explore these relations between the fictional experience and the states of consciousness altered in the hypnosis and the meditation from the practice of two contemporary choreographers (C.Contour and M.Gourfink), and by crossing the data in first person perspective (Rainville, 2004) and in third person perspective (Metz­Lutz, 2010) during and just after these practices. We will focus on the temporal distortions and the change of the spontaneous motor tempo, the vivacity of mental imagery according to types of text (Mendelsun, 2015) (Santarpia, 2010), and the changes of body perception (Naranjo et al., 2012). To do it, we will present 4 experimental studies* led before and after 2 hours of a form of meditation which has the peculiarity to call on to a precise vocabulary, images, and several words in Sanskrit (Travis et al., 2001). We will put in dialogue the results with ” the fictional experience “.

*These studies were conducted within the framework of an interdisciplinary thesis at the cross roads of aesthetics, cognitive sciences (experimental psychophysiology), dance and contemplative practices (hypnosis and meditation), and within an interdisciplinary project (Labodanse.org).

Jérôme Sackur is Directeur d’Études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris), and researcher at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique (CNRS  / EHESS / ENS). His research focuses on consciousness, metacognition and mind-wandering, by means of cognitive experiments and models.

Varieties of access to the stream of consciousness : Descriptive experience sampling, neurophenomenology and automatic writing

Contemporary cognitive theories of consciousness excel at characterizing the conscious quality of momentary experience, both from a psychological and neural perspective. By contrast, the question of the temporal dynamics of consciousness is still very much inchoate. Is there something like a stream of consciousness or thought? If so, what are its organizing principles? Convincing conceptual and operational strategies for such general questions are yet to be devised. Still, progress has been made on some aspects of these questions. Thus I will describe some recent experimental work on mind-wandering (the tendency our mind has to drift away from the task at hand), and its modulation under hypnosis. I will then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of current experimental paradigms, that mostly rely on random probing of the state of mind of our participants. I will conclude by a speculation about the insights that could be gained from the literary genre of automatic writing and from its potential laboratory analogues.

Christof Diem is a university assistant at the Department of English at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). He is currently working on his PhD project on unstructured thought in early modern British drama. He studied English Philology and Linguistics as well as French Literature and Linguistics at the University of Innsbruck and at Université René Descartes, Paris 5, Sorbonne. His research interests include British theatre, cognitive literary studies, postmodernism/poststructuralism and gender studies/queer studies. He previously presented papers at conferences at the University of Innsbruck and at Goldsmith’s, University of London.

“How Can I Return to Form, Now My Formal Thought Has Gone?” – Meandering Thought in Contemporary British Drama

In this paper I wish to study the cognitive dynamics of what I will call, drawing and expanding on Spinoza’s notion of conatus, “striving” or “meandering thought” in contemporary British plays by Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson and Martin Crimp. I will come to define meandering thought as conflicted and disorganised, multimodular speech, including frequent derailment, inconsistencies, circumstantiality and tangentiality. Referencing Ellen Spolsky’s theories of “the modular mind,” i.e., the intricate interaction of neural connections, sensory modules and higher-level “representational structures,”[1] I will show that meandering thought queers speech, makes it stutter and stumble, and, by means of uncanny recategorisation or, better, trans-categorisation, constantly weaves and unweaves the subject and its understanding of the world. I will further argue that “conative thought” shares some characteristics with what has been described, in psychiatric textbooks, as schizophrenic language: a language that eschews the boundaries between internal and external, between self and other; a language, in short, that, in many cultures, is “unthinkable.” As cognitive scholars invested in Darwinian epistemology have convincingly maintained, however, it is culture that restricts nature and thereby defines the limits of thought – and not, as has often been assumed, vice versa. Following Elizabeth Grosz’s contention that a specific culture only ever actualises a minute subset of potentialities inherent in nature, binding it according to the needs of a specific human moment,[2] I will consequently argue that meandering thought, as presented by Kane, Neilson and Crimp, can be understood as a character’s attempt to open up that culture-specific actualisation of nature so as to express innovative and – often – socially subversive ideas; his or her attempt, to borrow a phrase by Deleuze and Guattari, to identify new “lines of flight.” For, as Spolsky reminds us, “failures” – breakdowns in communication; demonstrations of cognitive excess in “literary states of consciousness” – “are more tellable;”[3] and destabilising imaginative landscape “play their part in the biological dynamic of life, holding entropy at bay.”[4]

Christine Lehleiter (University of Toronto)

Beyond Consciousness: Literary States of Memory

When the German author Heinrich Gerlach was released from captivity in Russia in the late 1940s, he was unable to rescue the novel on his Stalingrad experience that he had written during captivity. Eager to rewrite the novel, but finding himself unable to access the traumatic memory, Gerlach turned to a hypnotist. Put into an altered state of consciousness, Gerlach was able to remember and eventually rewrite his Stalingrad experience. Recently, the effectiveness of the method was confirmed when the original novel was discovered in Russian archives by Carsten Gansel (Encke).

This paper inquires into altered states of consciousness and the ways in which they might facilitate access to (traumatic) past events with particular attention to the role of literature. While in Gerlach’s case the altered state of consciousness is the precondition for a literary work to (re)emerge, the reverse question is of similar significance: namely, how literature produces and depicts altered states of consciousness and how these states relate to memory. I will discuss this question by closely examining Marcel Beyer’s novel Kaltenburg (2008), in which the narrator struggles with his inability to access the past by merely rational means. Against a conceptualization of memory based on mimetic and rational processes, Beyer proposes a notion of “corporeal memory” (Körpergedächtnis), which he defines as “a memory that is not controlled by […] consciousness but only by [the] body” (qtd. in Brandstädter, 19; transl. mine).

The pertinence of Beyer’s consideration of the physiological condition of memory is highlighted when we take into account that the novel’s protagonist, Kaltenburg, is often read as a representation of the ethologist (and Nobel prize winner) Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989). In the final segment, this paper investigates how Lorenz’ behavioural studies relate to Beyer’s literary attempt to locate memory outside the limits of controlled subjectivity.

Works cited:

Beyer, Marcel. Kaltenburg. Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp, 2008.
Brandstädter, Mathias. “‘Mein Körper ist nicht Gedächtnis, sondern er hat Gedächtnis’ – Marcel

Beyers Konzeption eines Körpergedächtnisses als Prototyp ästhetisch vermittelter Hypothesenbildung im gegenwärtigen Gedächtnisdiskurs.” Literatur für Leser 1.10: 15- 25.

Encke, Julia. “Der Krieg und die Hypnose.” FAZ (11.03.2016)

Gilles Viennot est professeur de Français à l’Université de Fayetteville (Arkansas, USA). Il a obtenu une thèse de littérature française, consacrée à Michel Houellebecq, à l’Université du Kansas, sous la direction de Van Kelly. Il enseigne la littérature, le cinéma et le français.

Novels from the past: the last road map against deathly nonsense

The contemporary trend in the French novel is resignation: authors increasingly abandon the ambition to represent reality. The baudrillardian simulacrum that replaced it seems to have “defeated” the most ambitious novelists, including Houellebecq and Jauffret. Instead, their weary tone and narrations focus now on a ghostly, bleak word. Their decomposed, nonsensical new writings report their shame of feeling unable to assess and warn. The denaturation of man by science and its all-out quest for pseudo-efficiency (centered on competition) has killed the drive for life and for literary words. But is literature out of the equation? Not quite. Houellebecq filled his novels with references to novelists and political thinkers. Since our current world, so desperately one-dimensional and absurdly functional, doesn’t seem worth representing, our past culture, via the novel from the Nineteenth century, offers a precious and unique mental road-map that leads us to regain a grasp on our humanity, and redeem our coldly technological, detached existence. In these novels, sad, disturbing dreams abound, as a sign of a profound distress. Substance abuse is paramount. In The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq, the character, stays afloat thanks to wine and antidepressants, but clearly admits that it is literature that brings him his last joys. Even the quest for sex, which in the previous novels offered chaotic surges of ecstasy when everything else was failing to move or fulfill, is now forgotten. Jed, the main character, is unable to live with Olga. The frequent nightmares involve cutting, slicing, maiming, and confirm that the atomization and rampant, deathly emptiness is seized with pain and shame, but accuracy (for how long?) by our weary minds. Houellebecq, in line with Baudrillard, another dark diviner, calls for immediate reaction.

[1] Ellen Spolsky, Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 20-26.

[2] Elizabeth Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 48.

[3] Ellen Spolsky, “Purposes Mistook, Failures Are More Tellable,” Talk delivered in Burlington, Vermont, 2004.

[4] Ellen Spolsky, “The Biology of Failure, the Forms of Rage, and the Equity of Revenge,” in: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 48.