Monday, June 11, 2012

Literature references in science: insightful or annoying?

"It is in our brains that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings" -Oscar Wilde
(image source)

 I am pretty into literature, and I am generally in favor of art + science collaborations. I recently gushed about how cool it was that Aldous Huxley (famous author) was the half brother of Andrew Huxley (Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). But honestly, I cringe almost every time I read a paper with "Proust" in the title. This is most likely because psychologists and neuroscientists tend to pick Proust and his Madeleine scene when they want to misrepresent some literature in a scientific context describe the idea that scent evokes memory.

(Madeleine recipe here)
In Swann's Way, Proust writes that as he savors the taste of the cookie dipped in tea, the memories of his childhood begin to take shape, like those little sponge things that are shaped like pills until you drop them in water and then they slowly morph into the shape of a triceratops. Or as he more elegantly states it:
"And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."  
-Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, In Search of Lost Time
While this is one beautiful passage among many in Swann's Way, it is not necessary for me to be a neuroscientist to enjoy it. Likewise, while it is a valid and interesting scientific question to ask "do odor and taste more strongly activate memories than vision, touch, or hearing?" It is not necessary to know that some guy wrote something about it sometime to understand the study or to understand why it is an interesting question.

Recently, scientists set out to study exactly this phenomenon.  Toffolo et al. (2012) constructed a study where people were put in a room with visual, auditory, and olfactory cues and watched a film.

One week later (hardly Proust's lengthy 'lost time') the same people were put back in the room with only one of the three cues, either visual, auditory, or olfactory.  They had the participants self report their memories of the film.  They found that the type of cue didn't make an enormous difference, but that odor cues enhanced the memory more than auditory cues, and the same amount as visual cues.

Toffolo et al., 2012 Figure 2
Interesting. Inconclusive.

But it's not only Proust, any famous author who has made an observation about how people sense things, or how ideas are in the brain not the world, or that we remember things a certain way can be the "basis" for a scientific study. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Dante and James Joyce and many other literary legends have made statements that could be used or misused in a scientific context. But should they?

Here's the real issue. Does a literary quote within a scientific paper add anything to it? Does it make the science more accessible?
I am tempted to say no. I have yet to see a scientific paper using a literary quote in an insightful or helpful way. At best it is cute or entertaining. But at worst, it can be annoying, distracting, and misleading.

Is it only about accuracy? I feel the same way when science mis-interprets literature as I do when someone yells "The LTP has potentiated!" or other such science-sounding nonsense in a TV show. If you are going to use science jargon in fiction, it's best to get it as close to correct as possible.  (I give Dollhouse some points for effort for at least knowing that LTP is a thing, but minus points for not realizing that the "P" in "LTP" stands for potentiation)

And if you are going to use literary quotes in science, it's best if they actually have some relevance, and it's even better if you have actually read the book.

I truly love a good quote about human nature, or a beautiful poem about sensation vs. perception.
This poem certainly gives me a pulse of dopamine:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—      
-Emily Dickinson

But, is it really better if we combine science and literature? They serve different purposes and I don't see the benefit of combining the two.  Particularly I don't see how the addition of literary quotes aids my understanding or interpretation of a scientific paper.

However, I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

© TheCellularScale

ResearchBlogging.orgToffolo MB, Smeets MA, & van den Hout MA (2012). Proust revisited: odours as triggers of aversive memories. Cognition & emotion, 26 (1), 83-92 PMID: 21547759

Here's a particularly cringe-inducing title:

Chu S, & Downes JJ (2002). Proust nose best: odors are better cues of autobiographical memory. Memory & cognition, 30 (4), 511-8 PMID: 12184552

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