The Brain as Common Ground

New discipline seeks to bridge neuroscience and humanities.
April 1, 2012

When a few dozen students and faculty members gathered last fall for the first meeting of Duke’s Neurohumanities Research Group, neuroscience professor Michael Platt welcomed them by acknowledging the fuzzy boundaries of the fledgling discipline. “If you’re wondering what neurohumanities is, so are we!” he said.

Six months later, the group continues to congeal. Cosponsored by the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and the Franklin Humanities Institute, the interdisciplinary group is working to create more intersections between brain sciences and the humanities. The group’s organizers point out that scholars in those fields often study similar concepts—such as the meaning of language or how people react to music—but they approach them in different ways. Neurohumanities is about bridging that gap.

“We believe that Duke can be an international leader in this enterprise and powerfully shape the definition and scope of this new transdiscipline,” says Deborah Jenson, a professor of Romance studies who along with Platt and neurobiology professor Richard Mooney convenes the group.

The group has invited guest lecturers such as Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at the research organization 2AI. Changizi, who did postdoctoral work at Duke in psychological and brain sciences, talked about drawing inspiration from art. “Artists, and the humanities themselves, are experimentalists on what minds like and don’t like,” he said. “So what is it that artists have discovered about the mind, and what is repeated enough that it can tell us something about the brain?” Other lecturers have ex- plored topics such as cognitive approaches to literary focus and what it means to “read the brain.”

Jenson also launched Duke’s first neurohumanities course this past fall, a broad sweep of literature and neuroscientific techniques called “Flaubert’s Brain.”