Where the Humanities and Neuroscience Converge and Become So Much More

September 08, 2021

Vishva Nalamalapu

At Grinnell College, it is difficult to avoid the pull of taking courses across a range of disciplines. And that is to everyone’s benefit. By surrendering to the pull, students develop a broad base of knowledge and skills, as well as the deep understanding of a topic that results from learning about it through the perspectives of different disciplines.

Neurohumanities, a course Ralph Savarese, professor of English, and Joe Neisser, professor of philosophy, cotaught in spring 2021, took interdisciplinary learning to the next level. Through the course, Savarese and Neisser created a structure for “more vigorous interaction” between disciplines, from English and philosophy to neuroscience and beyond. Students had “to be prepared to move from one discipline to another, one set of vocabulary to another,” says Savarese.

A Multidisciplinary “Shmear”

Being such an “emergent, multidisciplinary field,” the neurohumanities do not have a clear definition. Savarese and Neisser embraced that ambiguity. Neisser says, “We went out of our way to try not to define it.”

By the end of the course, depending on their backgrounds and their experiences in the course, the students all had slightly different ideas of what the neurohumanities were. However, those ideas all fit within “the multidisciplinary shmear that is at the intersection of all these humanities, social sciences, and neuroscience fields,” Neisser explains.

The course covered topics ranging from neurodiversity (differences in individual brain function and behavior) to aesthetics to music and memory. Through these topics, Savarese and Neisser explored, “What can cognitive science tell us about literature, philosophy, music, spirituality, and art? What can these things tell us about the brain?”

Savarese and Neisser structured the six-week course around visits from guests that happened once or twice a week. Savarese describes the list of guests as “unbelievable.” It is composed of professors of English, philosophy, classics, and story science, as well as authors, editors, college presidents, deans, and more.

Savarese intended to expose students to a range of topics within the neurohumanities, as well as enable them to explore one of those topics more deeply. He wanted them to leave thinking “that was weird” and then to think more critically about ideas related to neurohumanities in the future.

Teachers Learning, Learners Teaching

Both Savarese and Neisser carry out research within the neurohumanities. Despite that, they learned a lot from the visitors, from the students, and from each other. “Being in the same room with Ralph, an absolute leader in his field, and getting his nuanced and deep take on all the stuff that was coming before our students was a real eye opener for me and really just a treat,” says Neisser.

Ralph Savarese writes at the intersection of critical disability studies and cognitive approaches to literature, “insisting again and again on a difference model in scientific accounts of the brain.” He co-edited the first collection of essays on neurodiversity, was a neurohumanities fellow at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences, and wrote the book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor. He is now working on a book about Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, and “neurocosmopolitanism.” 

Joe Neisser studies subjectivity, embodiment, and the brain. He is currently researching déjà vu, and his most recent publication, “Repetition, or Déjà vu and Embodied Consciousness,” is in the book Memory Quirks. He also wrote the book The Science of Subjectivity. He is part of a multidisciplinary research group studying the relationships between memory, consciousness, and the brain, including distortions in consciousness, memory, and the feeling of familiarity. Their publication, “Subjective Distinguishability of Seizure and Non-seizure Déjà Vu: A Case Report, Brief Literature Review, and Research Prospects,” is forthcoming in Epilepsy & Behavior.

This learning, of course, also went from the faculty to the students. Neisser describes his role in the course: “I was like the crow, bringing shiny little gifts to the students.” These gifts took the form of visitors, videos, articles, and examples. Saverese contends that Neisser did far more than bring students shiny little gifts. Together, they created a distinctive course, one that had not existed at the undergraduate level, says Savarese.

The course could not have been as distinctive, as successful as it was without the students. The faculty and visitors were blown away by “the preparation, the willingness to engage, the quality of questions.”

Bringing Together and Valuing Diverse Views

The faculty, students, and visitors created a space where they could openly discuss neurodiversity at both a societal and personal level. They discussed what is socially constructed as “normal” brain functions and behavior, and some people discussed how their own brain functions and behaviors related to those constructs. Savarese says, “I was amazed that a Zoom space could be intimate and safe enough” to do that.

Not only was neurodiversity discussed openly, but it was discussed in a way that challenged the idea that there is only one normal way for a brain to function and a person to behave. They explored, “What does it mean to push back hard against a medical conception of a departure from some putative neuronorm?” says Savarese.

That environment of open discussion that challenged norms was especially evident when Johanna Meehan, McCay-Casady Professor of Humanities, visited. Savarese reflects on that class: “The language of [safe spaces] seems so flat compared to the experience of being in a room where some really tough stuff is being talked about with a disparate group of people in compelling ways where you realize, after the conversation, ‘I needed all those perspectives.’”

Having all those perspectives caused some disagreements, but those disagreements only made the course better. “What we really ought to be doing in academia is putting ideas forth, trying to refine them, trying to be clearer about what we disagree on. That in itself is a huge endeavor,” says Savarese. The faculty, students, and visitors undertook that huge endeavor, and they learned far more about the ideas as a result.

The epitome of this was the visit with Johanna Meehan, during which the class discussed adopting children who had experienced early childhood trauma. “We could really debate this … in a way that seemed urgent, that seemed like we weren’t just intellectualizing about the neuro. We were asking really serious questions about social obligations and also hope,” says Savarese.


Those discussions were built on a foundation of shared respect, shared curiosity, and a shared desire to better themselves and society. This was evident in the interactions between Savarese and Neisser, who call each other comrade, laugh often, go on long, valuable tangents, and conclude those tangents with “I miss you, man!”

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