From The New York Times:
To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.” (Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them. As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.” This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read? Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said. At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.
The brain may be it. Getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy, Mr. Gottschall said, is like “mapping wonderland.”