Jess Keiser (A’06), assistant professor of English at Tufts, in his new book, “Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience” (2020), investigates the relationship between literary forms and scientific advancement in 17th and 18th century English literature. Terming a hybrid body of work, which includes scientific writing using literary metaphors and literature incorporating science to explore the psyche, as “nervous fiction,” the book asks important questions about the relationship between the body and the mind, between “rational” scientific inquiry and literary expression.
Speaking at a virtual book talk sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at Tufts on Oct. 2, Keiser began by introducing the scientific underpinnings of the 17th and 18th centuries. This period saw advances in what is now known as neuroscience, of which the strikingly detailed studies of human cerebral anatomy by British physician and natural philosopher Thomas Willis in 1664 were a pinnacle, and it included René Descartes’ questioning of how nerves convey sensory information across the body.
Crucial to understanding the “nervous fictions” is the mainstream view of the nervous system at the time. Keiser explained that, according to this view, as the brain sends and receives commands to and from the body, the pineal gland acts as what Tufts Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Professor of Philosophy Dan Dennett dubs “Cartesian theater.” For example, in visual experiences, the eyes perceive sense stimuli and the nerves connected to the eyes then place the patterns perceived on the pineal gland; in this sense, the pineal gland is “where thoughts and stimuli are unified.”
The understanding of the nature of nerves also underwent a transformation during this period. Instead of the earlier categorization of nerves as “animal spirits,” later 18th century natural philosophers described nerves as solid tubes that vibrate like musical strings; one can strike an emotional note with another, causing their bodies to quiver in response.
Ideas like “Cartesian theater” and synchronized vibrations are attempts by then-scientists to explain neuroscientific concepts using metaphoric devices — precisely what Keiser categorizes as “nervous fiction.” In addition, literary writers at the time also employ scientific figures to experiment with the idea of “interiority.” Keiser explained that, despite nervous fictions being fusions of science and literature, the two tenets are often in conflict in those works.
The most popular metaphors of the brain and the nervous system at the time include a “castle, a kingdom or a state.” The body is often depicted in hierarchical terms: the pineal gland as a throne, animal spirits being servants and so forth, according to Keiser.
Keiser also introduced the idea of “virtual witnessing,” a notion found in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which scientific documents were written as if the readers were present at the experiment. Because the nervous system is incredibly hard to be delineated this way, Keiser argues that science writers thus adopted figurative devices to reproduce “the illusion of entering into the nervous system.” He cited philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who proposed the idea of a “double-life legend,” that all “outward and public actions are matched by internal and private ones.” According to this theory, , when one smiles on the outside, something within their interiority is smiling as well, Keiser explained. Thus, nervous fictions take a microscopic view into the inner workings of our brain and attempt to explain how they translate to outward actions.
Nervous fictions have also made contributions to the mind-body problem — how do the physical and biological aspects of the brain translate to our mental and psychological inner world? In his book, Keiser argues that nervous fictions directly respond to this philosophical dispute.
“My argument is that the nervous fictions are a response to that gap, that sense of how do we get from matter to mind,” Keiser said. “[The] nervous in this concept is really nervous in two senses: about the [biological] nerves, but also nervous as an adjective about anxiety and uncertainty.”
Keiser went on to discuss what he deems are the top five nervous fictions. Among those are a passage on the brain when in love from Thomas Willis’ book, “Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes” (1683). It proposes that when one is in love, all the animal spirits in other parts of their body would rise to the brain to watch the image of the lover, as if in a theater. Keiser argued that the personification of animal spirits is necessary for Willis to connect them to the feeling of love.
Other nervous fictions discussed by Keiser were Margaret Cavendish’s “The Worlds Olio” (1655), which introduces panpsychism, the idea that “everything thinks,” including everything in the nervous system; for example, a hand has intelligence. In Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen” (1759), the narrator describes perceiving a vibration in his heart when speaking, yet “the brain made no acknowledgement. There’s often no good understanding betwixt them.” In “The Hypochondriack” (1777–1783), James Boswell criticizes the practice of anatomy, comparing the soul to a watch in a case that should not be opened, or else it will be ruined.