Neurological Diversity in Literature

Science traditionally explains brain illnesses, neurological diseases, and developmental disorders by turning to the facts. But that approach may at times overlook more subjective experiences. As a result, living with — let alone understanding — neurological diversity gets lost in translation.

After completing his neuroscience-based memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, Professor Jason Tougaw (Queens College, The Graduate Center) set about using the scientific research he’d culled to examine how literature addressed neurodiversity. “Most of the writers I cover actually engage the science directly as well,” he said in an interview. “I needed to be at least as informed as they are.” The result is his new book, The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience, which brings together the seemingly disparate threads of the humanities and sciences.  

The Elusive Brain moves from autobiographical writing that analyzes the mind-body connection (Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman) and autism (Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay’s How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move), to more fictional approaches that illustrate conditions like Tourette’s (Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn) and epilepsy (David B.’s L’Ascension du Haut Mal). Through close readings of each literary form, Tougaw shows how writers engage with neurological differences in ways science might eschew. Such writing, he explains, “work[s] by telling stories about brain-related experiences that invite readers to consider a full range of philosophical and social implications of the relations between their brains, minds, bodies, and worlds.”

Tougaw’s approach may not jive with literary and science scholars interested in keeping to their respective lanes, but with a co-sign from renowned neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux, who penned the foreword, he sees promising returns for those interested in a more interdisciplinary approach. Narratives of neurodiversity are, as he said, “redefining how we think about what it means to be human and what the range of experiences is.”

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Book Cover: 'The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience' by Jason Tougaw
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The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience
Yale University Press, 2018

Work By
Jason Tougaw (Associate Professor, English) | Profile 1 | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Queens College The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
“A Novel Look at the Brain in Literature” (GC News) “The Elusive Brain” (Psychology Today column)

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