Literature and Neuroscience

The AILC-ICLA Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience was established at the instigation of Suzanne Nalbantian, who became its chair in 2012 to promote innovative, interdisciplinary work conjoining literature and brain science. The twenty-first century has been called the Century of the Brain, and the widespread progress of modern neuroscience has opened up possibilities for alliance with the humanities. In recent years, some of the leaders in the field of neuroscience have called for input from the humanities in order to progress beyond the study of the functional brain to the larger investigation of the science of mind.

Comparative Literature, in particular, with its study of the multifarious embodiments of lived human experience and with it natural, syncretic optic is a rich resource for such consilience. Such productive interchange between the disciplines has been the goal of this committee.

This committee consists of permanent members– three neuroscientists and four comparatists– and has included numerous other researchers who have participated according to the topics that have emerged.

From Comparative Literature, the specialists are:
– Suzanne Nalbantian (Long Island University) (Chair)
– John Burt Foster (George Mason University)
– Peter Schneck (Osnabrück University, Germany)
– Donald Wehrs (Auburn University).

From neuroscience, the specialists are:
– Jean-Pierre Changeux (Pasteur Institute, Paris)
– Paul M. Matthews (Imperial College, London)
– Robert Stickgold (Harvard University).

These seven members, along with the thirty-one other participants over the years, have met in various settings, including symposia at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island (NY) and in Group Sessions of the ICLA, namely at the Paris and Vienna congresses. It was fitting for the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux to give a keynote address at the Paris ICLA Congress, so that the ICLA as a whole experienced his own effort of merging science and the humanities.

Expanding upon this address, Changeux and Nalbantian co-authored an article entitled “A Neurobiological Theory of Aesthetic Experience and Creativity” for the Proceedings of the XX ICLA Congress, edited by Anne Tomiche and published in 2018 (Garnier, Paris).

The research committee has fostered collaborative studies of higher brain functions, including those regarding memory, consciousness and creativity. To date, Suzanne Nalbantian has organized four symposia on this subject matter:

– The topic of memory was treated at a symposium at Cold Spring Harbor Lab in 2012 with nine participants.
– The topic of consciousness was investigated in four Group Sessions of the Paris ICLA Congress in 2013 with thirteen speakers.
– The topic of creativity was explored at Cold Spring Harbor Lab in 2014 with thirteen participants.
– The topic of cultural memory was dealt with by nine speakers in two Group Sessions at the Vienna ICLA Congress in 2016.

A tangible outcome from some of this work is the new interdisciplinary volume on creativity, entitled Secrets of Creativity: What Neuroscience, the Arts and Our Minds Reveal, which will come out in late Spring 2019, published by Oxford University Press. This volume includes perspectives from studies of literature, the visual arts, music, and cutting-edge research from psychology and neuroscience.  Members of the ICLA Research Committee have contributed chapters, and other comparatists have been solicited for this book. This volume of twenty chapters, edited by Suzanne Nalbantian and Paul M. Matthews, with an Introduction by Suzanne Nalbantian, will be the first of its kind to present an interdisciplinary view of this intricate subject matter. It is a very exciting development. A description of the book can be downloaded here: Secrets of Creativity-Book Description.

The research presented at the Vienna Congress on cultural memory could be the seed of another edited volume. Nalbantian has created a Table of Contents for this prospective volume and a list of contributors who could be included in it. ICLA members who might want to join in coediting a publishable volume on this topic are invited to contact us.

Looking forward, another topic that can be considered at a subsequent meeting is that of the specific methodology of research that is required for such interdisciplinary work. We would welcome an institution in the US to host a conference for this venue.

New members are welcome to join the ongoing work of this committee.  Please contact:

To download the yearly reports of the Committee to the ICLA, click below:

Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2019-21
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2018-19
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2017-18
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2016-17
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2015-16
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2014-15
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2013-14
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2012-13
Research Committee on Literature and Neuroscience Annual Report 2011-12