Mapping the Mind and Minding the Map: Digital Humanities, Literature, and the Mind

“And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.”

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Literature provides us with some of the most poignant insights into the workings of the human mind. The intersection of cognitive science and literary studies has yielded fruitful insights into the ways in which we produce and experience texts, think, and communicate. A lesser surveyed—albeit still valuable—area of exploration is the intersection of digital humanities, cognitive science, and cognitive literary studies, which can reveal insights into the cognitive basis for DH tools and methodologies as well as shape future directions for DH work informed by these fields. I begin this post by exploring how our production and processing of DH visualizations like maps, graphs, and other representations are rooted in neural processes and embodied cognition. I then explore what cognitive approaches to literature can bring to DH work, examining the challenges certain narratives pose to canonical visualization tools and how these texts and approaches allow us to rethink the boundaries of these tools and the visual representation of complex mind states.

Visualizations We Live By

From mathematical graphs and scientific models to artistic representations, humans have been using visualizations to communicate and convey information since antiquity. Data visualization is often at the forefront of digital humanities work, from social network models to GIS maps and timelines. These visualizations are also the most iconic images and products associated with DH. In the first section of his now seminal Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti presents the “trio of artificial constructs” that lend their names to the title of his book. The new forms of knowledge outlined in Moretti’s text are all understood in terms of the visual: “Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models.”[1] Differentiating his work from traditional forms of literary analysis is the utilization of models “from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory.”[2] These visualizations are powerful because they allow us to uncover hidden insights into texts that are overlooked or otherwise unrevealed by traditional methods of reading and textual analysis.

Part of what makes the work outlined in Moretti’s text—and DH at large—so fascinating is precisely the fact that these models are drawn from fields ostensibly unrelated to literary studies, like mathematics, geography, and evolutionary biology. Although not mentioned in Graphs, Maps, Trees, it is important to note that DH visualizations are deeply rooted in cognitive science and the related fields of psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience. While not exclusive to these disciplines, many of the mental schemas that structure work in these fields undergird or otherwise resemble DH visualizations. Concept maps are popular tools for brainstorming and structuring knowledge relations (Figure 1.a.). Cognitive maps are mental representations of a given environment and can convey metaphorical or literal spatial knowledge (Figure 1.b. and Figure 1.c). Because the creation of cognitive maps provides insights into the mental processes required to produce them, they are a critical tool in cognitive geography studies, a field that explores how people mentally conceptualize space and place. A subset of cognitive maps, fuzzy cognitive maps visualize relations between concepts and ideas and the strength of their interrelation (Figure 1.d.).

final-blog-post-photosSemantic maps and networks represent the semantic relations between concepts and can structure other types of visualizations like concept maps. Semantic relations have also been used to map the brain itself; UC Berkeley neuroscientists discovered that visual processing of objects can be represented in organized, overlapping maps that correspond to certain brain regions, producing a visual semantic space shared by all study participants. These brain-mapping technologies have also been used in literary neuroscience studies in recent years. Stanford researchers, for example, have used fMRI to track brain activity changes while reading a certain author or work of literature, producing images of the brain “on Austen.”

The Brain’s Semantic Space

Our production and processing of these visualizations also have a cognitive basis. Maps and other types of visualizations are generated in the hippocampus and the visual system, and visualizations are often more effective ways of presenting information because our brains are visually wired. Even language itself and the ways in which we produce and comprehend visualizations are rooted in embodied cognition. In their influential texts Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss how our metaphors are mechanisms of the mind that depend upon our physical experience of location, space, time, and movement. Our metaphorical language and concepts are structured through embodied experience, and without these perceptions, these concepts would be incomprehensible. Lakoff and Johnson consider, for example, orientational metaphors like “happy is up; sad is down” (e.g. “My spirits rose/sank).[3] DH visualizations like geographic maps and timelines that conceptualize how people, things, and events are situated in time and space all depend upon our understanding of the body in its physical environment and are consciously or unconsciously interpreted according to these perceptions.[4]

There are also resemblances that can be drawn between Lakoff and Johnson’s work on conceptual metaphor (further broken down into orientational, ontological, and structural metaphor) and specific DH visualizations. Conceptual metaphors are metaphors in which one idea is understood in terms of another. The more concrete or understood concept is referred to as the source domain and the more abstract or metaphorical concept that we attempt to comprehend is referred to as the target domain, and the relations connecting these domains produce a set of cognitive and linguistic mappings.[5] This language calls to mind social network maps produced on platforms like Gephi, where edges are produced from relations between sources and targets.

“It is Nothing Jointed; It Flows”

Having explored the cognitive foundation of visualizations, including those frequently used in DH, I now wish to consider what cognitive literary studies and the related fields of affect theory, psychology, and affective neuroscience can bring to DH. In our DH seminar on social network analysis, we discussed texts that would be resistant to social network mapping or otherwise difficult to social network map, like the works of Samuel Beckett, for example. While we can produce some kind of visualization on almost every literary text, I have been considering the challenges that arise when trying to map works that deal with complex mind states. Especially for narratives that focus on the mind like modernist stream of consciousness works, how can we meaningfully, visually represent the workings of the mind as they represented in a literary text?

In his pioneering work in which he coins the phrase “stream of consciousness,” William James reflects, “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” Almost all DH visualizations depend upon some manifestation of the jointed—of knots, nodes, and discrete, bounded relations, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to represent a stream of consciousness. Another challenge that arises from mapping conscious thought can be connected to Moretti’s work on operationalizing and character space in Stanford Literary Lab Pamphlet #6. He considers the following sentence in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.” Moretti asks, “Where does Mr. Bennet’s ‘space’ end and Mrs. Bennet’s begin, in this sentence?”[6] For narratives that exist largely in a character’s mind, how do we go about making these semantic divisions? When mapping these kinds of narratives, we must also be attentive to differentiating when a character is speaking to another character, thinking of another character, or observing another character, which makes a difference in the types of relations that are represented.

In conclusion, I am thinking of other complex theories that structure our conscious experience and literary narratives but are difficult to visually represent, like vitality affects, the process of transmission or entrainment, intersubjectivity, theory of mind, and the problem of other minds. There is a moment in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway when Peter thinks of a moment in the past with Clarissa in which, “They went in and out of each other’s minds without any effort.” This moment is a misreading on Peter’s end and not reciprocated by Clarissa, but intersubjective exchange is essential to stream of consciousness narratives. How can we represent intersubjectivity in DH models? The same holds true for perceived relationships, like the invisible, “thin thread” Clarissa imagines connecting individuals in the passage that I used as the epigraph of this post. One possibility is for our maps and other visualizations to incorporate more fuzzy logic principles that allow for greater nuance and complexity in these relations and representations.

What all of these mental states and experiences have in common is that they are more about the “how” than the “what” or the “why,” as Daniel Stern says of vitality affects in Forms of Vitality.[7] The focus of Stern’s work is:

The “dynamics” of the very small events, lasting seconds, that make up the interpersonal, psychological moments of our lives: the force, speed, and flow of a   gesture; the timing and stress of a spoken phrase or even a word; the way one breaks into a smile or the time course of decomposing the smile; the manner of shifting position in a chair; the time course of lifting the eyebrows when interested and the duration of their lift; the shift and flight of a gaze; and the rush or tumble of thoughts. These are examples of the dynamic forms and dynamic experiences of everyday life. The scale is small, but that is where we live, and it makes up the matrix of experiencing other people and feeling their vitality.[8]

These moments transpiring on a micro level shape our everyday experiences and are often at the heart of our literary narratives. DH is heavily steeped in cognitive studies, which structures the key logic behind the visual products of DH work. Going forward, there is a lot of work that can be done with texts that have been of interest to cognitive literary theorists. One of the most fascinating aspects of literature—and in particular some of the modernist texts that I have discussed here—is the ability to represent qualia. While qualia are, by nature, private and ineffable and therefore never fully representable, there is great potential for using affect theory, literary cognitive studies, psychology, and related fields to more meaningfully represent the “how” of literature and conscious experience in DH.



Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. U of Chicago Press, 1980.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso, 2005.

Moretti, Franco. “’Operationalizing’: Or, The Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory.” Stanford Literary Lab, December 2013.

Stern, Daniel N. Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development. Oxford UP, 2010.

[1] Moretti 1.

[2] Moretti 2.

[3] Lakoff and Johnson 15.

[4] It is important to consider, however, how these perceptions are also culturally shaped. As Lakoff and Johnson note: “For example, in some cultures the future is in front of us, whereas in others it is in back” (15).

[5] See also Lakoff and Johnson’s individual work on image schemas that structure the conceptual metaphor mapping process.

[6] Moretti 2.

[7] Stern 8.

[8] Stern 6.


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