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Leslie Heywood
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The recent “neuro-revolution” in poetics has tended to replicate the privilege granted to cognition over affect in other areas of neuroscience. What is most important, from this perspective, is the prefrontal cortex and its attendant brain systems: those most linked to tertiary processes, the “higher” forms of reasoning that are unique to the human brain, the kind of meta-critical capacity that distinguishes us from our dogs and dolphins, elephants and apes. Research in neuroscience has been guilty of the same biases until recently. The term cognitive neuroscience was often taken to describe all brain processes, as if all brain processes were cognitive, primarily because of the assumption that emotion is regulated by cognition and that cognitive processes occur first, structuring the emotion in fundamental ways. “Cognitive gating mechanisms” were seen to inhibit emotion and determine its expression, thus representing emotion as raw material that is only given its form through cognitive processing—emotions are viewed in cognitive terms. This is called a “top down” model of information processing. However, the most recent advances in neuroscience tell a different story, one that makes a convincing argument for a “bottoms up” model, and one that has wide implications for poetics and the value we have granted to the cognitive over the affective. Any such attempt to purge affect and narrative is doomed to failure, since it ignores the indissociable relation between affect and cognition, emotion and reason, biology and culture, the brain and the mind. As current neuroscience has spelled out in some detail in its theories of “functional connectivity,” the one is not possible without the other.[i] Instead, “brain-behavior processes” are the products of interaction effects between each, neural circuits that include the control functions of the primary process emotional states themselves. In fact, recent advances in affective neuroscience argue for “more realistic models that incorporate dynamic properties and bidirectional interactive multi-way communications.”[ii] Instead of occurring through a top-down hierarchy in which cognition occurs first and is the controlling mechanism, neural activity has recently been shown to occur bidirectionally in multiple regions. Furthermore, as the phylogentically oldest part of our brains, the affective systems are most linked to fundamental survival mechanisms that “provide a necessary foundation for higher functions to operate” (Cromwell and Panksepp 2032). Crucially, these are the systems shared across all mammalian brains, and point to an affective experiential universality across all mammalian species, including humans. From a neuroevolutionary perspective, the affective remains fundamental. It is not a matter of cognition always generating a behavioral response, for instance, such as reader response. In fact, quite often, it is the more fundamental processes that inform behavior, those “from the gut” responses linked to the embodied, “so powerful it gives me the chills” effect in aesthetic response—a response in the autonomic nervous system triggered by adrenaline. With this new information, it’s time to examine the interaction effects, the feedback loops between affect and cognition in poetics. An affective neuropoetics would, like Jaak Panksepp’s affective neuroscience, proceed from the bottom up, locating the... Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 24, 2013