“Learning to See” explores neuroscience and literature

Sienna Axe, A&E Reporter

What can German literature tell us about the human brain? On Wednesday, Nov. 6, Dr. Sonja Boos, an associate professor in the department of German and Scandinavian at the University of Oregon, showed Whitman’s German department — along with a few unaffiliated-yet-interested attendees — the answer.

Dr. Boos’ lecture, entitled “Learning to See: Neuroanatomy and Cytoarchitectonics in Rilke’s Paris,” was centered around Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel, “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.”

The novel, argued by some to be more of a long prose poem, is focused less on plot and more on the psyche and thought processes of its first-person narrator, the titular Malte. Dr. Boos used this as an example of the connections between literature and neuroscience, something she has been researching extensively for her current book project, “Poetics of the Brain: The Emergence of Neuroscience and the German Novel,” which Amazon lists as scheduled to arrive in 2021.

Dr. Boos opened the talk by reading a passage — a description of a dilapidated building — from the novel’s original German text and explaining that it showed the effect of industrialization on modern city dwellers, one she called a “pervasive feeling of horror.” What followed was a deep dive into German literature, the human brain and changes in psychiatric and neuroscientific thought over time.

Emily Jones, assistant professor of German Studies & Environmental Humanities at Whitman, said that Dr. Boos’ analysis of the neuroscience involved in her lecture was especially impressive.

“I think Dr. Boos’s work is excellent,” Jones said. “Her depth of research into the history of neuroscience is impressive since it’s pretty far outside her normal specialty as a literary scholar, and her reading of Rilke’s novel — especially the scene she close-read with the house’s removed facade — totally changed how I think about [it].”

According to Jones, the German department wanted to bring Dr. Boos to Whitman for her interdisciplinary research.

“We especially wanted to invite Dr. Boos because we are interested in how she is bringing together the disciplines of literary criticism and the neuroscience,” Jones said. “[Whitman German Studies professor] Eva Hoffmann knew Dr. Boos… and suggested her as an exciting interdisciplinary scholar.”

Sophomore Adam Rosenberg attended the lecture to fulfill a requirement for his German 205 class and came away intellectually inspired.

“I just thought that it was really well researched, and clearly a ton of work and effort was put into it,” Rosenberg said. “The depth of knowledge that she represented… was just very impressive, and I would like to do something like that in my academic career.”

Sophomore Julien Comardelle, who attended the lecture to fulfill a requirement for his German 105 class, appreciated Dr. Boos’ discussion of how literature described the neuropsychological schools of thought of the time.

“One of the biggest takeaways was her discussion of how Rilke and others talked about the development of the medical gaze,” Comardelle said, referring to the shift Boos described from understanding the brain as something more esoteric and spiritual to understanding it as a more scientific organ.

Comardelle was also impressed by Boos’ argument that literature’s understanding of the human brain was sometimes ahead of the scientists of the time.

“She talked about brain slides, and how [scientists] were able to reconstruct a human brain from that, whereas in Rilke, who came somewhat before that, their discussion of how the mind is structured… is ahead of the scientific understanding,” he said. 

Jones hopes that the talk helped deepen attendees’ understanding and appreciation for how different studies can feed into each other.

“I hope that attendees at the talk were convinced that studying literature’s relationship with science is productive,” Jones said. “So often we treat these fields as at best tangentially related, but they are really often interacting with one another.” 

She also hopes that students will be inspired to master a new language, saying that Dr. Boos’ understanding of the original German contributed to her ability to construct some of her arguments.

Comardelle had a takeaway very similar to what Jones was hoping for.

“You can really see how the study of a language can apply to things you wouldn’t expect,” Comardelle said. “Like, you wouldn’t expect German literature to talk about brain science — but yet it does. And even if you have a basic understanding of the German language, you can get an appreciation for the complexity of that kind of translation… it was really interesting how she was able to deal with that kind of problem.”

Dr. Boos’ research not only introduces some interesting points about German literature and neuroscience, but it also acts as a compelling argument for interdisciplinary studies, something very near and dear to many students at this liberal arts school we call home.