The Intersection of Neuroscience and Humanities (Spotlight Series #2)

By Scott Song

For the past thirty years, more and more technological advancements have been made in the field of neuroscience. With techniques like EEG (electroencephalography), fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and MEG (magnetoencephalography), monitoring the activity of the brain in real time has never been easier. Our modern ability to accurately pinpoint electrical firing patterns, which is the brain’s way of communication between cells, has widely opened the door for furthering our knowledge about the inner workings of the brain in clinical settings.

However, in addition to greatly aiding medical research, these novel developments have also sparked an itching curiosity in one specific trait that makes us humans, well, human: emotions. As humans, all the thoughts that we have, all the mental states that we experience, and all the feelings we express are simply a manifestation of electrical bursts occurring within our brains all the time. Thus, it is not that big of a stretch to say that neuroscientists have already undertaken the task of uncovering the biological roots of a variety of core human characteristics in addition to emotion, such as problem-solving, reasoning, and morality. Due to the nature of scientific research and the scientific method, neuroscientists will soon be able to effectively map out and potentially predict human behavior from the physical layer, which no other discipline has truly been able to accomplish. With these future applications potentially redefining human behaviors and sensations, neuroscience as a field is poised to face its first intersection with humanities; traditionally, these two disciplines have been seen as wholly distinct from one another.

In a Stanford study done in 2012, an fMRI machine was used to track blood flow in the brains of people who were reading short passages, noting their patterns of distractions. In another study done at Yale, fMRI was used once again to better understand the process of reading. Outside the area of literature, neuroscience has also seen its way into the visual and performing arts. Researchers have already investigated the activity of certain lobes of the brain in response to seeing paintings at UCL, which concluded that paintings that were considered beautiful resulted in increased activity in the frontal cortex, while ugly paintings led to an increase in activity at the motor cortex. Experiments have also been conducted in measuring electrical activity while watching dance performances.

Though the applications of this technology in literature and the arts seem countless due to their emotional nature, it will still be a while before the results from these experiments see future use due to how overwhelmingly complex the human brain is. However, in the future, neuroscience results may inform discussions in other fields like education, law, history, sociology, and philosophy, seeing as how important understanding human behavior is in all of these fields. The intersection of neuroscience and humanities is a crucial start to better understanding ourselves as humans.

Vivian Lu