Your Internet Brain’s On Coleridge


At the City University of New York's Graduate Center, a friend of mine named Lydia Hazen is testing subjects to see whether they have greater perception of certain colors or shapes after reading poems by Wallace Stevens. She's engaged in what the New York Times recently dubbed “neuroscience lit crit,” in an article wondering whether it's “the next big thing” in literary studies. (?)

Exciting – but hardly the “new thing”; it should more accurately be called an experimental trope on the oldest traditions of modern literary criticism and philosophy in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The infamous English Romantic – opium addict, plagiarist, long-winded talker and poet of fragments – was also a metacognitive theorist far ahead of his time, who now appears to me a startlingly contemporary figure.

Today, we have blogs, text-messages, FaceBook updates, Twitter. Coleridge had his notebooks. He'd keep at least five in his pockets at all times, while walking for days through the Cumbrian mountains or Quantock foothills, or dazed in a laudanum mist, and scribbled indiscriminately into them everything that popped into his head – which was considerable. He had over 200 notebooks in all, spanning 40 years of his life from 1794 onward, and after his death, many became scattered among his admirers in the British Isles and America, seeding the American Transcendentalists, late Victorians like Gerard Manley Hopkins, and British Modernists like Virginia Woolf. Then they were re-collected, collated, edited and annotated over a period of 50 years by Kathleen Coburn at the University of Toronto.

She completed the project in 1996.

What emerged was an astounding record of a mind overwhelmed by the collision of ideologies – moral, natural-philosophical, cultural and political, during the volatile French-Revolutionary and Napoleonic years at the height of English empirical philosophy as the Enlightenment metamorphosed into the Industrial Revolution – and trying to contend with them, and reconcile them, in real time. Specifically, from around 1796 to about 1808, Coleridge was incessantly burying into four related questions: how does perception work; how does the mind think; what is the Imagination; and how does perception become thought become action?

In other words, the questions that neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists are contending with today, Coleridge was wrestling with in the early 19th century via minute observations of his own mind in the process of thinking and perceiving. The similarities are sometimes startling.

For example, in 1805, Coleridge describes a landscape he particularly enjoys, saying

…Yon long not unvaried ridge of hills that runs out of sight each way, it is spacious, and the pleasure derivable from it is from its running, its motion, its assimilation to action/

Coleridge had, during this period, come to understand thought as an embodied entity – thought as literally the motion of the mind. In this passage, he views his pleasure in perceiving the landscape deriving from his eyes' action in apprehending it; as if the eye were to execute the action of a painterly hand in composing the scene.

On January 26, 2009, published an intriguing neuroscience report headlined, Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity real-time as participants read, “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.”

Nicole Speer, lead author of this study, says findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.

“These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing,” says Speer, now a research associate with The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Mental Health Program in Boulder, Colo.

What's really interesting is that while this study considers reading as a dynamic process, shifting back and forth between states of motion mimicry, memory, and imaginative composition (the very same dynamic theory of mind that Coleridge was considering throughout his life), it doesn't have anything to say about pleasure, which was so important to Coleridge as an inducement to read the text of the landscape.

The pleasure, Emily Yoffe wrote in Slate on August 12, 2009, stems from the dopamine buzz of seeking, according to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in his book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Yoffe writes,

Panksepp…has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, 'Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.' …For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs…. When we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

Coleridge was thoroughly aware of his own irrepressible seeking drive; much more so everyone around him. The critic William Hazlitt, in his landmark study of the English Romantic poets The Spirit of the Age, skewered Coleridge for his lack of intellectual fixity, disappointed that the greatest poet of the age couldn't stay in one mental space long enough to write the greatest poem of the age. He wrote, “Our author's mind is (as he himself might express it) tangential. There is no subject on which he has not touched, none on which he has rested.”

Hazlitt attributed this flakiness to a lack of Will(power), and in Coleridge's notebooks from theColeridge_01 mid-1790s to the early 1800s the poet delves deeply into the construction of the Will – extending a sequence from feeling to perceiving to thinking (or “conceiving”) to finally “move and impress motions.” Coleridge is here conflating motions (i.e. actions) of both the mind and of the body, but if we were to concentrate on mental will, would that not be similar to what we define by the word “attention”? In many articles over the last year, considerable attention has been paid to the psychology and neurobiology of attention, as technology and the demands of modern life have morphed us into “multitaskers.” David Glenn writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

early scholars [in the 1890s] were largely interested in whether attention is generated by conscious effort or is an unwilled effect of outside forces. The consensus today is that there are overlapping but neurologically distinct systems: one of controlled attention, which you use to push yourself to read another page of Faulkner, and one of stimulus-driven attention…

In other words, what occupies our attention is the result of both willed and unwilled motions of the mind. As Glenn goes on to discuss, however, the trouble is, different people have differing capacities to block stimulus-driven attention. Two differing remedies are proposed by educators in the article, in keeping with the strange era in which we find ourselves, divided in attitudes toward our increasingly digitally-mediated consciousnesses. David E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has banned all digital devices and note-taking, in an effort to direct students' concentration upon his lectures and his pre-prepared notes.

Over at UCLA, however, Professor emerita of English N. Katherine Hayles argues that the new multimedia world generates “hyper attention” in which a multisource environment can augment education. These two polar views appear to depend upon the trust one places in students: to wit, whether one believes students' dopamine-fueled reward systems operate enough, or too much, on the “seeking” impulse.

Coleridge's notebooks could deliver considerable insight into the struggle between these two polarities, which Coleridge framed as “passive” and “active” mental motions and constitute his theory of mind and the “Imagination.” To a certain extent, this is the perennial mental dilemma between seeing the forest and seeing the trees. In a hilariously famous passage in the Notebooks, he writes,

…a grievous fault it is / my illustrations swallow up my thesis – I feel too intensely the omnipresence of all in each Platonically speaking – or psychologically my brain-fibres, or the spiritual Light which abides in brain marrow as visible light appears to do in sundry rotten mackerel & other smashy matters, is of too great an affinity with all things –

We could talk all day, and long into the night, about this incredible passage with regard to Coleridge's mind alone, but right now it interests me in conjunction with an article in New Scientist published on June 29, 2009 concerning Disorderly Genius: How chaos drives the brain. It describes how – in its theory of mind, finessing the willed / passive-attention dichotomy – the brain is always a system on the edge of chaos, “with periods of stability followed by catastrophic periods of instability that rearrange the system into a new, temporarily stable state.” Taking a close look at Coleridge's notebook entry above, it's a perfect example of a system in “self-organized criticality”: he's trying to balance the spiritual and the corporeal in a dynamic tension, even as he insists his “illustrations swallow up” his thesis. We, too, are attracted by the magnificent, grotesque, and weirdly errant image of sunlight glinting off the scales of a dead fish – our attention is being distracted by an example of his own distraction, perfectly exemplifying the mental dilemmas studied, and described, by psychologists and neuroscientists in the last year.

While I'm thrilled by this “new” direction in literary studies, and think it might provide considerable depth and texture to our understanding of perception, cognition, memory, and advances in education, I remain annoyed that such scholarly directions appear to place the humanities as handmaiden to science. The fact that psychology and neuroscience are currently confirming, on an experimental and electrochemical level, what was experientially apparent to a poet more than 200 years ago, should make us question whether our own civilizational consciousness has been unbalanced.