The University of Iowa

Science and humanities intersect in award-winning dissertation

Famed American poet Emily Dickinson once described the human brain as “wider than the sky,” “deeper than the sea” and “just the weight of God.”

Dickinson’s poetry is a shining example of how science and literature engaged with each other during the nineteenth century, and is a source in Stefan Schöberlein’s award-winning dissertation, “Cerebral Imaginaries: Brains and Literature in the Transatlantic Sphere, 1800-1880.”

Schöberlein, who earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa in 2018, analyzed several British and American texts of the time that not only dealt with how poets and novelists fictionalized the mind, but also how scientists presented their research discoveries.

Stefan SchöberleinIdentifying the importance of this intersection of sciences and humanities is a major takeaway from Schöberlein’s thesis.

“The idea that the sciences and the humanities are completely different things that happen on two different worlds is a fairly recent phenomenon,” says Schöberlein, now an assistant professor of English at Marshall University. “We should look back at a time when we didn’t have an artificial divide between sciences and humanities and see what we can glean from that.”

The Graduate College has awarded Schöberlein the prestigious D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize in humanities for his excellence in doctoral research in 2019. The Spriestersbach Prize is named for Duane C. Spriestersbach, who served as Graduate College dean from 1965 to 1989. Schöberlein also was selected as a finalist for the CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award. Iowa now has 15 finalists in this national competition.

“(Stefan’s dissertation) is an examination of how the emerging science of the brain in the 19th century began to influence and form the literature of the period, one that Stefan demonstrates is the ‘age of the brain,’” says Ed Folsom, UI Roy J. Carver Professor of English and Schöberlein’s dissertation advisor, in his nomination letter on his former student’s behalf.

Writers provide insight into the brain

Do we have free will? Is the mind fully in control of the brain? Is there a difference between “me” and “my brain?”

These questions addressed in nineteenth century texts are quite similar to those asked by today’s neuroscientists. This is no coincidence: the early nineteenth century is generally recognized to be the dawn of modern neuroscience. As Schöberlein observes, many foundational scientific insights about the brain used in today’s research were developed in the nineteenth century.

“The basic idea is that the brain is much more complex than it looks and has specific structures that have specific functions,” Schöberlein says.

While previous centuries described the brain as passive matter visited by mind and soul, the 1800s began to conceptualize it as a system of highly complex structures, subsystems, and mechanisms. 

More information about the brain was accompanied by a general increase of printed material. A boom in print culture, due to the cheap cost of producing books, journals, and magazines, gave philosophers, scientists and poets ample material to discuss new ideas about cognition.

Schöberlein examined the writings of Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, and Benjamin Rush among others to better understand the discourse of that day about what it means to have a brain.

He suggests Dickinson’s poems, for instance, would have been influenced by anatomic drawing about the brain and its hemispheric structure.

“(Dickinson) is referencing mental pain and ties it to the structure of the brain,” Schöberlein says. “She’s looking at a brain trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Besides the language of anatomists, nineteenth-century writers found another set of metaphors to discuss cognition: communication technology. Schöberlein noticed that authors, for instance, often used the telegraph metaphor to describe brain function.

“(Poets and novelists) talked about the brain as a telegraph hub, a station where messages were being passed,” Schöberlein says. “In using the telegraph to talk about the brain, they anticipated neurons in the brain before people knew we had neurons in our brains.”

Indeed, stories about PTSD as “crossed telegraph wires” in the head preceded the actual discovery of neurons in the brain by decades.

So if so many famous nineteenth-century writers had so much to say about the brain, why do we often not know about that today?

“Essentially, early neuroscience was a victim of its own ambition,” Schöberlein says. “Once you think you have a good understanding how the brain works, there’s an expectation to fix things going wrong with it—and the anatomists of the 1800s had little to offer, aside from institutionalization and practices that were rightly criticized as inhumane, even in their time.”

With the advent of the science of psychology in the late nineteenth century, many of these anatomical ideas about the mind quickly receded from public memory. Indeed, even literary historians often still tend to use concepts from late 1800s and early 1900s psychology to analyze texts from previous decades, Schöberlein notes.

“But that is prochronistic,” he says. “Dickinson had no clue about concepts like ‘repression’ or ‘trauma’—but she was remarkably well-versed in gyri, lobes, and grooves.”