In my book, The Subtle Knot. Early Modern English Literature and the Birth of Neuroscience (McGill-Queens University Press, 2018), I argue that in the early modern period, poetic form underpinned and influenced scientific progress, allowing for an important crossing of conceptual borders for the mutual benefit of the advancement of knowledge. Specifically, I am interested in how the language and imagery of seventeenth-century writers and natural philosophers reveals how the age-old struggle between body and soul led to the brain’s emergence as a curiosity in its own right.
Investigating the interdisciplinary intersection of the humanities and sciences in the works of authors ranging from William Shakespeare and John Donne to William Harvey, Margaret Cavendish, and Johann Remmelin, I describe how early modernity came to view the brain not simply as grey matter, but as a wealth of other wondrous possibilities – a book in which to read the soul’s writing, a black box to be violently unlocked, a womb to nourish intellectual conception, a creative engine, a subtle knot that traps the soul and thereby makes us human. For seventeenth-century thinkers, I argue, these comparisons were not simply casual metaphors, but integral to early ideas about brain function.
In many ways, the modern disciplinary boundaries separating science and literature were porous in the early modern period, allowing for connections across field-lines which would eventually lead to some foundational metaphors in modern neuroscience. In demonstrating how the disparate fields of neuroscientific history and literary studies converged, The Subtle Knot weaves the narrative of how the mind came to be identified with the brain.
Lianne Habinek is the author of The Subtle Knot: Early Modern British Literature and the Birth of Neuroscience (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in the journals Textual Practice, Shakespeare, and Configurations, as well as in essay collections. She has received fellowships from Wellesley College, Yale University's Medical Library, and the Huntington and Folger Shakespeare Libraries. Her undergraduate work, in literature and in neuroscience, was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA); her graduate work was at King's College, University, Cambridge (United Kingdom) and Columbia University, USA. Her research interests are in 17th and 18th century British literature and natural philosophy, book history, and the history of (neuro)science. Most recently she was an Assistant Professor at Bard College. During her fellowship at the USIAS (2019-2021) she is affiliated with SEARCH.