In British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, Alan Richardson offers a fascinating new approach to the topic of “mind” in British Romanticism. Richardson contends that the Romantic era witnessed a revolution in the concept of “mind,” a revolution driven by new discoveries in the field of brain science. Throughout the history of the western world, the mind had been regarded as an immaterial, disembodied thing, and when ordinary people did think about the mind as having a particular location in the human body, it was often regarded as residing in the heart, not the head. During the Enlightenment, the immaterial character of mental states was crystallized in the rationalist philosophy of Descartes, who coined the famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum [“I think, therefore I am”]. The Cartesian cogito was a numinous, ethereal substance that interacted in some mysterious fashion with the physical human body, from which it nevertheless remained utterly aloof and distinct. Such mind-body dualism was entirely compatible with traditional religious belief in the immortality of the soul, since it guaranteed that the mind would persist even after the demise of the physical body.
Only during the half-century conventionally associated with literary Romanticism (1780-1830) did medical researchers definitively establish that the brain is the seat of consciousness, the home of “mind.” This fundamental discovery had important ramifications in the development of a new science of the mind, grounded in the supposition that mental activity is an organic process that occurs in a physical body. This new brain science was a Pan-European phenomenon, and its most important practitioners were medical doctors: F.J. Gall in Austria, Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis in France, and Erasmus Darwin and Charles Bell in England. Through painstaking anatomical and behavioral studies, these scientists established that the brain is linked to the rest of the body by sensory and motor nerves, that the brain is differentiated into “organs” with discrete cognitive functions, and that various mental disabilities can be correlated with physical trauma to the brain. In his first chapter, entitled “Neural Romanticism,” Richardson elucidates several of the most important scientific developments that resulted from the advent of this new brain science: “the rise of comparative neuroanatomy, the framing of adaptationist and functionalist analyses of specific features of the mind and brain, a fundamental redefinition of the brain as an assemblage of parts or ‘organs’ rather than an undifferentiated whole, and anti-dualistic psychological models founded on the mind’s embodiment, placing novel emphases on automatic and unconscious mental processes and on body-mind interaction” (1-2). All of these scientific developments offered new ways of understanding the most fundamental processes of human thought, and consequently they posed an implicit challenge to the prevailing popular and philosophical concepts of “mind,” “body,” “self,” and “soul.”
In subsequent chapters, Richardson traces the impact of the new brain science upon several major writers of the Romantic period. In chapter two, “Coleridge and the new unconscious,” Richardson examines the poem “Kubla Khan” and its well-known introductory note from the standpoint of a brain-based conception of mind. Contemporary brain scientists were fascinated by the effects of psychoactive drugs; F.J. Gall, for example, argued that “a few grains of opium are enough to demonstrate to us, that, in this life, volition and thought are inseparable from cerebral organisation” (51). Indeed, Coleridge himself participated in “the first controlled scientific exploration of a consciousness-altering drug” (51) when he volunteered for Humphry Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. In this context, Richardson observes, Coleridge’s introductory note to “Kubla Khan” looks very much like a report of a scientific experiment involving a “reverie” induced by opium. Moreover, Richardson argues, the landscape of “Kubla Khan” presents both a “map of the human psyche and a representation (however fragmented or overdetermined) of the human body” (57). The poem thus exemplifies the radical new notion of an embodied consciousness, a working brain seamlessly interwoven with a physical body.
In his chapter on William Wordsworth, Richardson demonstrates how this notion of an embodied consciousness can shed new light upon Wordsworth’s discussion of language in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Rejecting the traditional distinction between poetry and prose, Wordsworth argues that both metrical and non-metrical forms of language are grounded in the human physiognomy that gives rise to them: “the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both” (81, citing Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth’s conception of poetic meter and diction never loses sight of the actual speakers of language, and he borrows key concepts from contemporary brain science in arguing that the metaphorical and vitally expressive powers of human speech emerge from a mind that is “embodied, organic, and emotive” (82). Wordsworth’s strong preference for “rustic” speech also makes sense in this context, provided that we accept his assumption “that rustics lead a life more richly involved with basic human tasks, movements, emotions, and natural objects than do urban sophisticates” (89). Surrounded by such a rich range of physical stimuli, rustic speakers typically develop cognitive and expressive powers far beyond the ken of mere city-dwellers.
Richardson addresses Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion in a chapter that elucidates contemporary concepts of brain trauma. Louisa Musgrove, after taking a headfirst fall onto the paving stones of a massive sea-wall, emerges with serious trauma to her brain, a condition that essentially changes her character, and inevitably (since this is Jane Austen) her marriageability. Louisa’s character is altered, “remarkably and apparently for life, by a single incident, a severe knock on the head” (97). Richardson observes that the (female) human body, and specifically the embodied consciousness of a passionate and sensitive woman, is essential to Jane Austen’s art in this novel, since the affective states expressed in skin or heart, nerves or brain, bespeak a mind that is ineluctably located within a physical substrate: the human body (112).
Perhaps the most important and persuasive chapter in this book concerns the poetry of John Keats. Although previous critics have commented extensively upon Keats’s study of medicine, no previous scholar has been able to ascertain Keats’s knowledge of brain science, for the simple reason that Keats recorded only fragmentary notes from the lectures that he attended on that subject by Sir Astley Cooper. At the Boston Medical Library, in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Richardson has found detailed manuscript notes taken by an American student on the same lectures by Cooper that were attended by John Keats in 1815-16. In these lectures, “Cooper endorsed a brain-based, corporeal approach to mind” (120). Cooper emphasizes the shaping role of sensory organs in perception, and he allows for an act of volition without the conscious participation of the individual subject. In essence, Cooper argues that “sensations” are the constructs of an embodied mind, not merely (in the Lockean sense) ideas that we passively acquire from experience (124). Richardson exemplifies these emerging concepts of neuroscience in a close reading of the “Ode to Psyche,” where Keats calls forth the “wreath’d trellis of a working brain,” an image that (in Richardson’s exegesis) evokes “the fibrous texture of the brain’s ‘medullary’ or white matter as described by Gall and Spurzheim” (124).
British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind is an important, paradigm-shifting book. It offers essential insights into the relation of literature and science during the Romantic period. It is not, nor does it purport to be, a definitive study of brain science in the Romantic period, and indeed students of Romanticism will find many future research topics here. Although Richardson acknowledges that Percy Shelley has more references to the word “brain” in his poetry than any other canonical Romantic poet (212), there is very little discussion of Shelley’s work in this volume. Nor is there adequate discussion of William Blake, who was closely linked to the radical science of the 1790s and who illustrated Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poems. Blake wrote of the Tree of Mystery: “There grows one in the Human Brain” (“The Human Abstract”). Of this tree, and of its roots and branches, there remains much to be written.