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A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field: Bridging the Humanities -Neuroscience Divide

A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field:  Bridging the Humanities -Neuroscience Divide

by Barbara Maria Stafford, Editor
University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2011
368 pp., illus. 80 b/w.  Trade, $$85.00; paper, $29
ISBN: 978-0-226-77055-0.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Any book that helps demolish the stubbornly ingrained gospel of Cartesian bifurcation is, indeed, welcome. This book is a fairly major contribution to this deconstruction project not only in exposing Cartesian fallacies, but also suggesting positive, practical ways of putting "Humpty Dumpty back together again." The humanities and the neurosciences are two powerful "ways of knowing," and as all contributors to this volume agree, these two disciplines must start working co-operatively if we are to advance in unravelling the mysteries of existence and the part that our minds, brains and bodies play in this existence.

Stafford's aim in creating this book was not to provide definitive guidelines for bridging the humanities neuroscience divide per se but to literally develop a field guide that would point the way for future research. She uses the term "Meta-Field" to describe this new approach: "In addition to being a field guide, this book serves as a primer to intellectual possibilities and best practices in a metadiscipline that does not yet exist" (p. ix).

A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field is a scholarly collection of essays from leading thinkers in both the humanities and brain sciences. As such it is not really suited to general, popular readership. The essays presuppose a broad knowledge of modern critical/cultural theory and at least a basic familiarity with neuroscience terms and principles. The book is illustrated with numerous black & white drawings, diagrams and photographs. There are nine wide- ranging chapters as the following titles indicate. These are preceded by Stafford's own introductory essay: Crystal & Smoke.

Chapter 1 – Tentacular Mind discusses Stoicism, neuroscience, and the configurations of physical reality.
Chapter 2 – The Extended Mind is an anthropological study on mind, agency, and smart materials.
Chapter 3 – Tartini's Devil assesses how peripheral mechanisms underlie sensory illusions.
Chapter 4 – Sociovisual Perspective looks at how understanding of visual form has changed over history, delving deep into the neurophysiology of seeing and the social construction of vision.
Chapter 5 – Ayahuasca Shamanic Visions integrates aspects of neuroscience, spiritual experiences, and psychotherapy with particular emphasis on drug induced experiences.
Chapter 6 – The New Archaic is about a new neurophenomenological approach to religious ways of knowing.
Chapter 7 – Lifting the Foot discusses the neural underpinnings of the "pathological" response to music.
Chapter 8 – Alvar Aalto's Astonishing Rationalism looks at the famous Finnish architect's approach to design, human expectations, and occupation of buildings, and his disagreement with Le Corbusier's philosophy of buildings as "machines for living."
Chapter – 9 Semantic Reciprocity discusses cultural change specifically from the angle of visual art and corrects some of the erroneous assumptions made concerning the Renaissance period.

One thing that stands out from the research that produced the essays in this book is that the brain, mind, and embodiment are far more complex than most researches ever dared imagine. As Stafford mentions; "A major message of this book is that one way of getting past what Damasio saw as the "abyssal [Cartesian] separation between body and mind" is for neuroscientists not to limit their cultural considerations to the evidence provided by grammatically complex symbolic languages. We know that our gesturing and tool-making hominid ancestors lacked such syntactical activity. What they had, and we still have, are sophisticated compositional structures for mirroring complex mental and social situations by performing them as intersubjective events" (p. 45).

The new story beginning to unfold, as encapsulated in Stafford's new meta-field is a Kuhnian paradigm breaking work in progress. The essays in this book will challenge many "hide-bound" academics' stale and outmoded paradigms, and certainly make most readers sit up and think very seriously about the future direction of their research. "The essays … are proof that the neurosciences cannot dispense with the humanities in their analyses of the brain. Equally, the humanities must reckon with scientific findings. Desegregating those who address the outer and inner worlds gets rid of warring over prestige and funds" (p. 58).

Last Updated 8 October 2011

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