Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Imaginary gardens with real toads: How ink marks on a page become neural images and emotions in a brain
by Stephens, Darryl Gregory, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2007, 273; 3311642
Abstract (Summary)

Reading charms text into flesh. This dissertation explores the neural magic that underlies this literary transubstantiation by following text from page to eye to brain to image and emotion.

The first chapter, “Page↔Eye,” demonstrates how our eyes translate text from the language of light (electromagnetism) into the language of brains (electrochemistry). We see how visual processing informs literature. For example, our preference for black letters on white pages results from black exciting foveal cone cells more than colors do; mechanics motivates aesthetics. Also, we examine how the conscious flow of words derives from five-character, foveal snapshots of text that pulse into our brain—text-image saccades. Text-images are introspectively invisible, but we can witness their effect on poetic lines.

The second chapter, “Eye↔Image,” explores how brains make sense of text. For example, when we read “rose,” our mind blooms red and green, petal and thorn. To see how, we follow a path from our eyes to our visual cortex, which binds the visual signal into cohesive shapes. Afterwards, "the visual word form area" recognizes the shapes as words and sends them off to trigger the sensations they represent. We imagine what we read because when consciousness looks in to see what we are experiencing, it finds itself full of fiction—to read a sign is to perceive a signified.

The third chapter, "Image↔Emotion," assesses how literature makes us feel. While reading, our brain evaluates word-generated images to determine appropriate responses—for example, readying us to fight or flee if we imagine a spider. Literary emotions happen when we feel our response. In Dante's Inferno, Francesca and Paolo kiss when they read a romance because the words affect them—trembling mouths and pallid skin. They are rutted into desire by what they read. We also reflect on mirror neurons to show that identification happens because we imagine characters in neural tissue we use to imagine ourselves, blurring the boundary between self and other. Last, we observe neural habituation when we eavesdrop on neurons communicating, strengthening connections between image and emotion. When we read, we create ways to think and to feel.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McQuade, Donald
School: University of California, Berkeley
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 69/04, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Neurology, Psychobiology, Literature, Cognitive therapy
Keywords: Brain, Cognitive, Emotions, Imagery, Imagination, Literary theory, Neural images, Neuroliterary, Reading
Publication Number: 3311642
ISBN: 978-0-549-60986-5
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