Main menu

Reviews of the Cognitive Futures Conference

Cognitive Futures Conference Image

Review by Shao-Hua Wang (MML)

April at Worcester College, Oxford means all kinds of sensory delights: the magnificent dining hall, the lake, the huge college ground, and most of all, the stimulation of the mind.

The theme of the 2015 Cognitive Future in the Humanities Conference is 'History and Cognition'. Any consideration of history, however, inevitably leads to a care of the future.

Many keynote lectures stress an urgent need to bridge the gap between literature (or humanities in general) and science. Indeed, literature offers rich resources to cognition; it serves as an archive of human experiences and emotions, as Professor Cave presents. Yet, we need a set of language that is available to both sides. We need to demonstrate to 'the scientist' that our interest in the human cognition is not just for fun and interesting but also crucial to an understanding of the brain. Or, perhaps, we need to persuade the scientist that apart from different institutional divisions and funding schemes, we are fundamentally all intrigued by how our mind works. As literature plays with the brain (here I shamelessly borrow Professor Armstrong's book title), we have attempted the first few steps in an interdisciplinary project. Professor Cuddy-Keane's finishing lecture has shared her crossing of the border. She describes how studies of the brain have been fast developed and one must keep up with the latest publishing. These developments change how we look at aesthetic experiences. Her project, as well as all other highly interdisciplinary researches presented in the conference, have put into dialogues cognitive science and literature. We are conscious of the challenges ahead. And yet we have draw on the blurred canvas a line of our 'vision' (as Lily Briscoe does at the very end of Woolf's To the Light House – I cannot resist the Woolfian side of my brain).

Finally, with a long reading list gathered from the three-day conference, I believe that we are also making history. 

Review by Viktoria Herold (Mst/ MML)

Cognitive criticism was not on the syllabus of my English literature undergraduate degree. I first came across it by chance, flicking through the 3rd edition of Peter Barry’s Introduction to Theory. Commenting on the methodology of several essays found in the 2002 special edition of Poetics Today, the seminal Literature and the Cognitive Revolution, Barry writes, ‘Since about half of each essay is devoted to explicating the theory in question, this shifts the centre of literary study a long way towards the study of cognition itself, and there would need to be very solid and convincing grounds for doing that.’ At the time, this comment struck me as unduly critical. After having attended the third Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Conference it seems to me that this comment is actually missing the point. The conference has shown me that the need to justify the study of cognition is the very thing that makes cognitive approaches so exciting: the three days were devoted to acquiring, sharing and defending knowledge that has the capacity to enrich the paradigms of both the Humanities and Science. Depressive Realism (Magdalena Antrobus), neuroscientific and literary perspectives on biographical memory (Richard Brown), the visualisation of literary texts (Renate Brosch), or a cultural Darwinian analysis of witch persecutions (Steije Hofhuis) are just a few examples of thought-provoking talks (that prompted me to jot down many question marks and ‘look that up!!’s into my notebook).

For a first-year Masters student and a newcomer, the conference programme’s fusion of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and technology was a source of exhilaration as well as confusion. Fortunately the roundtable discussion on the last day assured me that to ask, ‘What do you actually mean by “empathy”, or “mirror neurons”, or “enactivism”?’ is crucial to forging ‘cognitive futures’. After all, it is not the goal of an interdisciplinary conference like this to smooth over differences, be they linguistic or conceptual. The keynote lectures by Professor Terence Cave and Professor Hans Adler nevertheless explored and celebrated the belief that scientific and aesthetic knowledge cannot be separated: as they argued, there is a long and rich tradition of interdisciplinary research waiting to be (re)discovered. The conference’s topic, ‘History and Cognition’, was therefore a very fruitful one, and I am glad that it served as my introduction to the field.