Excellent article by Michael Bérubé, former MLA president.
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
While I think that the developments in neuroscience are a radical and important breakthrough, I think this article oversells a little bit the novelty of the approach.
Starting with Nietzsche, whose early work has a striking affinity with chemistry and its chain reactions, and on to Foucault, whose archaeologies unearthed language as an operating system for human consciousness, and not to mention psychoanalysis at all, there has been a long tradition of taking current scientific and cultural insights and mapping human reactions to literature &c onto those insights.
These neuroscientific observations are, of course, new and different, but it’s not as if some of the connections presented here as new are, in fact, new. New-to-science, maybe, but then again, the humanities have always dealt with problems that were as yet too complex for mere science.