Brain, Self, & Environment


To Be, Or Not To Be?

To be, or not to be? – is not the question in this case. Literary texts that emphasize the representation of consciousness focus on what it’s like to be. Traditionally, they are understood to ask readers to observe and absorb the interiors of characters: what they feel and think, how they become who they are, what they fear and what they desire, how they are shaped by their actions and interactions.  Of course, there are at least as many ways of portraying the “inner lives” of characters as their are literary periods or genres. But writers who experiment with representing consciousness share at least one impulse: to find language and formal techniques for translating private, first-person experience so that it may be shared by others. Literary characters appear wholly realized (if constructed) for readers. This is true for noted fictional characters like Eliot’s Prufrock and Dostoyevky’s Myshkin, as well as figures from contemporary autobiography like Jean-Chrstophe in David B’s Epileptic or Alix Kates Shulman’s husband Scott in her memoir To Love What Is.

left brain right brain metaphor

The experience of the characters in these particular texts suggests a counterintuitive idea:  that consciousness does not come from within, but is actually a product of interactions with their environments–including their social worlds, the landscapes they inhabit, the interiors of their homes, and their interaction with other characters.  The following essays exemplify and promote an idea that is increasingly prevalent among philosophers of mind: that consciousness emerges through interactions between brain and environment.

In this sense, our projects are indebted to the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio and philosopher Alva Noë, whose work helps us understand and demonstrate literary depictions of consciousness as the product of brain and environment. Like a text or author, a literary character is a product of his or her environment. The question, in each particular case, is how does each text represent the peculiarities of the relationship between self and environment? In other words, why are these characters the way they are?

Alva Noë Explaining Why You Are Not Your Brain:





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