For Educators

Neuroscience in Literature

  • Published15 Apr 2019
  • Author Emma Lindberg
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN
Funny photograph of a toy brain with toy glasses resting on an open book
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Synopsis:

Who says studying the brain has to be confined to a science classroom? Using the examples provided, help your students identify neuroscience clues in their English and literature classes.

Integration into the Curriculum:

  • Health
  • Biology, AP Biology
  • Anatomy and Physiology

Teacher Background:

Literature is peppered with references to brain diseases and disorders. In some cases, authors are explicit when talking about these conditions, like in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club (spoilers). Palahniuk revealed to the reader that the antagonist, Tyler Durden, was a hallucination and the narrator suffers from insomnia.

In other cases, authors’ descriptions of disorders predate the scientific discovery of their character’s illness. In their 2015 paper titled Did the “Woman in the Attic” in Jane Eyre Have Huntington Disease? Elizabeth A. Coon and Anhar Hassan note “references to neurologic disorders are frequently found in fictional literature and may precede description in the medical literature.” In 1872, George Huntington described Huntington’s disease in his paper “On Chorea,” 25 years after Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre was originally published.

Instructions:

Throughout their paper, Coon and Hassan pull quotes from Jane Eyre that show signs of the three symptoms of Huntington’s disease listed in “On Chorea.” Following their model, ask your students to write a paper where they hypothesize what neuroscience disease or disorder a character in literature might have based on clues or descriptions left by the author. Students should pull direct quotes from their literary source and use the Brain Facts Book or BrainFacts.org as one of their neuroscience sources. Chapters 11–15 of the Brain Facts Book highlight a variety of neuroscience diseases and disorders, as well as their symptoms. 

Looking for prompts to share with your students?

  • Ophelia went “mad” in Hamlet after her father died. Ask your students to investigate the descriptions of her madness, supporting or disputing the claim.
  • A few literary critics have diagnosed Boo Radley from To Kill A Mockingbird with autism, can your students support or dispute this claim?
  • Medical students have debated whether Gollum from Lord of the Rings has schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or schizoid personality disorder. Can your students settle the debate once and for all?

Content Provided By

BrainFacts/SfN

Coon, E. A., & Hassan, A. (2015). Did the “Woman in the Attic” in Jane Eyre Have Huntington Disease?. Tremor and other hyperkinetic movements (New York, N.Y.), 5, 323. doi:10.7916/D8ZS2VN8