Monday, April 5, 2010

What Science Can Tell Us About Literature, What Literature Can Tell Us About Science

In college, my favorite classes were always interdisciplinary in nature. To me that’s what a liberal arts education is about: being able understand the connections between seemingly divergent topics.

The article “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know,” from Thursday’s New York Times illustrates this multidisciplinary approach as it pertains to the study of literature. The article discusses a new approach to studying fiction that incorporates elements of evolutionary theory, psychology and neurology. For example, did you know that three is the ideal number of characters for a reader to keep track of? Or that evidence of humans’ seemingly counter-evolutionary tendency toward altruism (explained, among other places, in the third chapter of SuperFreakonomics) can be found in literary works as early as The Odyssey?

Some worry about the “death of humanities” in an economic climate where many students are choosing traditionally practical majors (engineering, computer science) over less concrete ones (art history, creative writing). It’s clear however, that using science and psychology to answer questions about why people enjoy fiction can enhance the studies of both literature and science.

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