Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Poetry, Music, and the Brain

New research has demonstrated that reading poetry stimulates not just the areas of the brain dedicated to reading, but also those areas related to introspection and the emotion areas that are also stimulated by music. In other words, rhythmic poetry stimulates not just the language portions of the brain, but the music portions as well. This may imply that all of the positive attributes of music are equally applicable to poetry.

I have discussed before how music improves vocabulary. Imagine, then, how much more poetry would improve vocabulary over music, given that it actually has words in it. And I have discussed how music improves our ability to interpret emotions. Music is emotional training. Is poetry stimulates the same areas, so too is poetry emotional training. And of course, I have recently noted the discovery that literature improves theory of mind and, thus, empathy. And of course increasing empathy means increasing morality.

The connection to emotions -- suggesting poetry, like music, results in a kind of emotional training -- also suggests a further connection to moral development, given the work of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt demonstrates the emotional underpinnings to morals (developing further Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments); this in turn suggests that if we develop and train our emotions, we will develop and train our morals as well.

The poet who wants to have the most impact on his readers will thus be the poet who simultaneously creates the most musical poetry and challenges his readers with a certain degree of difficulty, requiring them to interpret the work to at least some degree. And the teacher who wants literature to have the strongest impact on his students will have them read precisely such works.
Update: The supramarginal gyrus, associated with time perception and language (including reading), has been discovered to be involved in empathy. Yet another connection between literature -- especially poetry -- and empathy.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

From Good and Bad to Good and Evil -- On Moral Emergence

One of the most famous stories is that of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and being thrown out of the garden. Most interpretations of this story argue that Adam and Eve rebelled against God in doing so. However, we have to face a real problem in the fact that Adam and Eve could not have known that what they were doing was evil before they ate from the Tree, given the fact that they were in fact in a state of ignorance. If you do something out of ignorance, you are not rebelling. Your actions may be bad, but they are bad insofar as they will not gain what you think your actions will gain you. You are simply wrong, ignorant.

This understanding of the fact that there is a difference between bad and evil, and that the bad is done out of ignorance, while the evil is done out of knowledge and is thus an act of rebellion, should in fact help us understand the meaning of the story.

If, as Plato argued, people do bad things out of ignorance of the good, we can begin to see what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are in a state of ignorance about good and evil. This is necessarily true, as they have yet to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you are without knowledge, you are ignorant, by definition. Now, God told them the consequences of eating from the Tree -- that they would die. However, the serpent told them that if they ate from the Tree, they would not die. They are given two pieces of information, but do not have the knowledge of which is in fact true. They made a choice out of their ignorance, listening first to the first Being to tell them something, then listening to the second to tell them something, acting on that information each time. When they eat of the Tree, that is when they in fact gain knowledge. From here on out, they have knowledge, meaning ignoring what they know and acting against that knowledge is an act of evil. Adam and Eve have thus moved from good vs bad to good vs evil.

What we see in this story is a metaphor for the process of moral growth. We go through life doing things that are bad out of ignorance that what we are doing is bad. Then a moral teacher comes along and teaches us that what we are doing is bad. Once we agree that what we were doing was bad, we move from the state of good vs bad to the state of good vs evil. A person who is a racist because of ignorance and residual tribalist ethics is a bad person; a person who is a racist even though he knows racism is bad is an evil person. A person who advocates a minimum wage out of ignorance of the economic effects is someone advocating a bad policy; a person who advocates a minimum wage even though he knows the economic effects is someone advocating an evil policy.

From this we can see that moral teachers come from a variety of places: religion, philosophy, the social sciences, perhaps even on occasion government. The social scientist is included because the social scientist discovers what are good and bad institutions, structures, and policies. They thus educate us out of ignorance (the realm of good and bad) and into knowledge (the realm of good and evil). These ethical orders do not create ethics in a clean, clear-cut fashion. It is a complex, messy process. And it takes time for a society to fully adopt new morals. This should suggest to us that we need to be a little more patient with people who are still in a state of ignorance, as they have yet to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil for the particular virtue we wish to actively promote. At the same time, we do have to encourage them to eat. For innocence, ignorance, and simplicity is not virtue. It is painful to be thrown out of the Garden, but we are better (more interesting and more complex) people for it when it happens.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Literature Improves Theory of Mind

I have argued previously and elsewhere that literature makes us more empathetic. This is supported by the work of Jonathan Gottschall. This is important because empathy underlies certain moral judgments. If you want to be more moral, more empathetic, and thus more able to live in an increasingly connected, highly pluralist world, read more literature.

But wait! There's more!

There is now evidence that reading specifically literary fiction improves the reader's theory of mind. This is tied to the complexity of the texts. Literature exercises our minds. Of course, if one's theory of mind is improved, one's empathy must of necessity be improved as well. The more mind I attribute to you, the more empathy I feel toward you.

If we combine this with the fact that poetry moralizes by weirding and the fact that surrealist literature makes our thinking more complex, and we can begin to see how important literature of all kinds is to our moral development.

And theater, because it draws people together, makes us want to work more together to solve social problems, according to Russell Berman.

Combine all of this with my arguments in The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts, and we can see that literature makes us more moral by complexifying our thinking in general, fine-tuning our theory of mind and expanding our empathy, and even moving us to act.

Imagine what literature classes would be like if we taught them using this knowledge.