ANU Open Research Repository has been upgraded. We are still working on a few minor issues, which may result in short outages throughout the day. Please get in touch with if you experience any issues.

Nervous Aesthetics: Cognitive Science, Literary Criticism and the Modern Novel




Bartlett, Michael James

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Recent movements in literature and the humanities have drawn upon insights gleaned from cognitive science. For some scholars this is viewed as a renaissance while for others it represents a dangerous trend towards reductionism. This project offers to mediate between these two perspectives, showing the promise and the pitfalls of this new interdisciplinary engagement. This thesis argues that the role of perceptual processes in relation to aesthetic engagement with literature is ripe for further study. The first two chapters present a combined literature review and methodology study. A detailed comparison of ‘cognitive poetics’ theorists Tsur and Stockwell in Chapter One is used to establish how cognitive science expands and revises literary criticism’s critical toolbox. Chapter Two focuses on the ‘neuroaesthetic’ theories of Ramachandran, Zeki and Barry, and from this develops a framework to discuss perceptual tension in literature. Following this, the thesis offers three case studies of modern authors whose literary style invites comparison with the current neurological understanding of perceptual and sensory processes. Chapter Three explores the notion that Jack Kerouac’s prose style in On the Road is musically inspired, and conducts a detailed comparison of the key features common to both language and music, including rhythm and tension. Chapter Four re-examines the idea of Impressionism influencing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, using evidence from cognitive science to fully articulate the connection between literary and visual Impressionism. Chapter Five is a study of Vladimir Nabokov’s prose, framed around a critical investigation of the significance of his synaesthesia to his writing. By exploring the broader nature of cross-modality and what it can inform us of the workings of the mind, this chapter shows how distinctive stylistic features influenced by cross-modality recur throughout Nabokov’s writing, and how he exploits cross-modality for aesthetic effect. Collectively these studies offer an account of how literary criticism infused with cognitive science can illuminate new understandings of aesthetic and perceptual engagement with literature.



cognitive science, neuroscience, neuroaesthetics, aesthetics, cognitive poetics, Tsur, Stockwell, Ramachandran, Zeki, Livingstone, Barry, Woolf, Kerouac, Nabokov, Lolita, On the Road, Mrs Dalloway, music, jazz, bebop, visual art, impressionism, synaesthesia, cross-modality, phonetics, rhythm, tension, metaphor




Thesis (PhD)

Book Title

Entity type

Access Statement

License Rights



Restricted until