A new neurohumanities program will foster collaboration between multiple disciplines and parts of the brain.
Deborah Jenson, director of undergraduate studies for Romance studies; Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Lasana Harris, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, are co-conveners of the Neurohumanities Research Group, co-sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. The group is dedicated to expanding research and scholarship in the field—which emerged in 2009—by offering both courses and study abroad programs. The new Duke Neurohumanities in Paris program will allow students and faculty to diversify their understanding of the two fields through shared experience over the course of six weeks in Paris, Jenson said.
“One goal is to broaden and diversify the content of the neuroscience major,” Jenson noted.
Jenson and her colleagues hope to shed light on new means of analysis by combining the two fields. By evaluating the role of specific breakthroughs in neuroscience—such as mirror neurons, which are cells that are activated in the brain as if an observed action were being performed—Jenson hopes to not only allow for the advancement of literature through the methodologies of neuroscience, but also to improve understanding of neuroscience through the study of culture.
“With mirror neurons, you are basically living another person’s experience,” Jenson said. “It’s as if there is an internal film that coincides with somebody else’s. You are mimetically imprinted with somebody else’s experience.”
Jenson said she believes this phenomenon is one of many that can be used to improve analysis of literature.
“We have been wondering how can you maximize the synergy between neuroscience faculty and humanities faculty and make it accessible to students,” Jenson said. “One thing we thought of was having a prolonged experience of taking faculty’s courses. In a six-week summer program, the faculty could be sitting in on the other side’s presentations.”
Although the field of neurohumanities is new at Duke, it is not unprecedented. At “Poetry of Neuroscience,” a discussion held in March, senior Arianne Soo and another classmate recited poems they wrote based in neuroscience.
“The poetry reading brought together a small but very diverse group, including undergraduates, graduates and researchers from the English and neuroscience departments, as well as psychiatrists,” Soo wrote in an email Wednesday.
Soo is currently working on a thesis in creative poetry writing, focusing primarily on understanding mental illness from both first and second person perspectives.
From using poetry in order to understand and cope with illness to integrating the approaches of different disciplines for a holistic understanding of issues such as emotion, memory and consciousness, Soo said she sees great potential in the field of neurohumanities.
Duke is one of the first major universities to pursue the interdisciplinary field.
“I hope that Duke can play a leading role in the creating of this discipline,” Harris wrote in an email Thursday.
Although he believes that the combining of the two fields will be difficult, Harris said he is optimistic about the continuation of the interdisciplinary field.
Jenson said she hopes to see new scholarship in neurohumanities, and is hoping to create a DukeImmerse program abroad that would be dedicated to the subject.
“Scientific research cultures are all anglofied,” Jenson said. “They are often highly developed in the United States, everything is translated from other places. Does that mean in the end, that we don’t understand really important difference in scientific cultures?’