An English Professor at DIBS

Monday, October 8, 2012
Humanities Writ Large

by Ralph James Savarese

I began my Mellon Humanities Writ Large fellowship with two weeks of “Neuroscience Boot Camp,” a program for Duke’s incoming PhD students in the fields that comprise contemporary neuroscience. Michael Platt, the director of DIBS, Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences, generously invited me to participate, and I jumped at the opportunity. I must admit, however, to being a bit nervous. I was certain to be twenty years older than the other participants, and I was an English professor. Although I had never donned a tweed jacket in my life, and although I had long been publishing in the field of disability studies, where my specialty was autism, I was infinitely more accustomed to analyzing poems than to using FSL, a software program, to analyze fMRI data. Not only would the boot camp have lectures on such things as “neurotransmitters, receptors and effects” and “sensory systems and cortical circuits” and “the role of glia in synaptic connectivity” and “comparative anatomy of the vertebrate brain,” but it would also have labs, yes, actual labs. The labs would engage topics like optogenetics, molecular genetics, computing tools, transcranial magnetic stimulation, fMRI, EEG, and channel activation by sensory chemicals.

I’m happy to report that I was warmly welcomed by professors and students alike. I learned a tremendous amount about all manner of things, and the labs turned out to be especially rewarding. I witnessed a real-time fMRI, in which a fellow boot camper tried to access his midbrain through imagined motivation. While lying prostrate in the scanner, he pictured himself running to the soundtrack of “Eye of the Tiger” and he was able to dramatically move a bar on a computer screen that measured mid-brain activation. I also got to do TMS with post-doc Franzi Korb who served as our guinea pig. TMS is increasingly being used to treat depression and beginning to be used to treat autism. And I got to do an EEG experiment with another post-doc guinea pig. We learned how to put on the EEG skullcap and to apply a gel that ensures conductivity. I discovered, counter-intuitively, that a subject’s lack of hair offers no conductive advantage. To the contrary, with such subjects, the researcher often has to use very fine sandpaper to ready their sun-worn scalps. (I took note of this because my own scalp, shall we say, is a bit sun-worn.) Although I have read countless studies that used these technologies, actually seeing how they work and working them myself added much to my abstract knowledge.

Once the school year began, my HWL fellowship had me doing a number of things. First, I joined the Neurohumanities Research Group, which concerns itself with the neurological underpinnings of humanist pursuits; as a literature professor I’m particularly interested in the underpinnings of literary language and poetry. I opened the group’s speaker series with a lecture on September 19th entitled “What Some Autistics Can Teach us About Poetry: A Neurocosmopolitan Approach.” Here are two links to the talk—one an abstract for the paper I delivered and the other a blog post by someone who attended the talk.

In the lecture, I presented the poetry of a phenomenally gifted classical Autist named Tito Mukhopadhyay, a young man I have worked with now for a number of years. Tito had never been included in a regular classroom until I started Skyping him into my classes at Grinnell. (He once replied to an interviewer’s question about his formal education, “My school is the doubt in your eyes.”) This semester Tito and I are reading Moby Dick together, and it pleased me to be able to tell him that Herman Melville once remarked, “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Every Friday night for an hour we discuss the novel by Skype.

One of the most interesting things about Tito, aside from the quality of his verse, is the therapeutic use to which he has put metrical poetry. Tito has used it both to calm his considerable anxiety and to facilitate fine motor performance. In my lecture, after critiquing the findings of researchers like Francesca Happe who argue that autistics have great trouble with figurative language, particularly metaphor, I drew a parallel between how time works in a lyric poem and how it works in the mind of a literate classical Autist. Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

“What… makes the lyric a distinctive mode of discourse,” argues Cecile Chu-Chin Sun, in The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric, “is this: it has its own particular temporality of duration which is never ‘still’ but constantly and vibrantly moving even though, like a dance, it is not really going anywhere.” In lyric poetry “past, present and future are shading into each other and thereby melting into an organic whole”.

…Tito, interestingly enough, had great trouble with the concept of time when he was younger. He did not seem to know how to get from one moment to the next. Lyric time did not match up with the linear time of everyday life, and that mismatch caused profound agitation. …How fascinating, then, that Tito first encountered poetry as a result of his mother’s desperation—he was so plagued by anxiety as a young child and she had so run out of ideas as to how to mollify him that one day she popped into her recorder a tape of British poetry, metrical British poetry, and he stopped dead in his tracks, becoming quite calm.

In his interview with me in Disability Studies Quarterly, Tito reports, “Mother reads, and still recites, poetry most of the time as a background to my sound environment. It gives me a secured feeling because of the predictability formed by the pattern in words” (6). When I pressed him on this, he replied, “A rhyme is a very linear auditory experience. And so is the beat—be it in tetrameter or in pentameter. It arouses the cortical mind with certain meaningful language experience and arouses the subcortical mind with the expectation of the mechanical beat that is offered by the lines of the poem. Anxiety is subcortical. Anxiety gets diluted by the experience.”

Might the beat have served as a kind of linear-time prosthesis, moving him in a measured way into the future of the poem and, by extension, life?

Consider this poem that Tito wrote at age eleven, which uses rhyming couplets and a steady meter to evoke a trip to London. Notice how it plays with words while remaining resolutely in lyric time:

Tower of London
Strong as death
Breathing the echoes of last breaths
Of those punished by the law
Their misty breath is what I saw
And there’s Big Ben, Big Ben
Telling us now is when
And Churchill Churchill standing there
In the chill
With your stick to lean your weight
Pity the stick did not break
People stiff and people swift
People of busy mood
People friendly and people good
Under the cloudy skies
People with sincerity undisguised
I did not manage to see the Queen
Yet her palace with grave discipline
Stood since yonder ages thus
I saluted it from the red bus

Astonishing the compression—Tito finds England’s mythic past in the exhalations of city dwellers; indeed he finds winter’s chill at the end of the former prime minister’s name. The torqueing power of the rhythmic couplets propels the poem forward. If you’ll allow me this flourish, perhaps we can think of poetic rhythm and rhyme as the titanium legs of Oscar Pistorious, the South African runner who recently competed in the London Olympics. The hyperbole seems ridiculous until you consider another of Tito’s claims: namely, that William Blake, the romantic poet, taught him how to tie his shoes—motor problems, for those unaware of this fact, are a significant problem in classical autism. By wrapping the tetrameter of a beloved Blake poem around his fingers, he managed, he says, at the ripe old age of nineteen, to execute the necessary movements.

We have no idea, really, what poetry is or what it can do….

The book I’m working on while at Duke, “A Dispute with Nouns: Autism, Poetry, and the Sensing Body,” presents a larger account of poetry as embodied knowledge. If, for example, hearing a metrical poem read aloud activates the listener’s motor cortex, then poetry might well serve as a kind of physical or occupational therapy. We already know that dactylic hexameter effectively treats heart arrhythmias. How might the linguistic production and reception of literate classical autistics, for whom embodiment cannot be ignored, guide an exploration of this very old art form—that is my question.

The second thing I’ve been doing on my HWL fellowship is lecturing in French Professor Deborah Jenson’s seminar, “Flaubert’s Brain,” which simultaneously explores the work of this literary giant while exposing students to the neuroscience of literary reading. I’ve given two full lectures—one on conceptual blending and the other on cognitive and evolutionary approaches to poetry. I’ve also given smaller lectures, including one on an fMRI study of anthropomorphism by DIBS faculty member, Lasana Harris. With Professor Jenson, I am participating in a neuropsychoanalysis seminar at the University of North Carolina. The seminar includes psychiatrists, psychiatry residents, clinicians and psychoanalysts. It offers yet another opportunity to think through the project of interdisciplinarity—in particular, how the humanities and sciences might productively interact. Lastly, with Professor Jenson, who has been an incredibly generous host, I am also participating in Haiti Lab events concerning trauma, as I have published a fair amount on trauma.

The final aspect of my HWL fellowship involves participating in the Emerging Humanities Network entitled “Learning to Listen: Empathy in Literature and Medicine.” Convened by Charlotte Sussman and Doris Iarovici, the network seeks “to investigate the conditions that erode empathy in future health professionals, and provide a space in which those conditions might be offset for students themselves.” “Overall,” Sussman and Iarovici write, “the workshops will make a case for why the study of literature—and perhaps the humanities in general—is not simply a matter of scholarly interest, but something that can make a real impact on lived experience.” As a group we’ve met twice and intend to keep meeting throughout the year. My interest in such a project lies in how doctors and researchers conceive of the difference that is autism. How this difference gets described very much affects how the parents of autistic children and autistics themselves imagine the future. In the context of autism, empathy is a loaded word, since the medical community has long believed that autistics are incapable of empathy. But maybe that belief—or, rather, presumption—suggests a failure of empathy on the part of the medical community. How might the notion of neurological difference facilitate empathy on both sides of the neurological divide? Dr. Christina Nicolaidis begins to answer this question in this wonderful article that can be accessed here.

The theme this year of the Neurohumanities Research Group is “Neurodiversity and the Humanities.” For those who are interested, I have published a lot about the neurodiversity movement, and I appear in the award-winning documentary about the movement called Loving Lampposts, Living Autistic. There is also a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, “Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity,” that my wife and I co-edited.

So, I’ve been quite busy at Duke, and I’ve only been on campus for seven weeks! I’m grateful to many people, including Peter Burian, Michael Platt, Richard Mooney, Lasana Harris, Laura Jenson, Linda Watkins, Alejandra Rodriguez, Beth Monique Perry, Christina Chia, and Laura Eastwood for their warm and generous hospitality.

Referenced People

Professor of English