Applying My Irish Experience

As a part of the course I have taken, I have to apply what I’ve learned to my life in the form of a project, a paper, or whatever I chose. I’ve read a lot about how reading Literary Fiction can increase empathy, but I guess what I am most interested in is the emotional response my own creative writing can illicit in others. I wanted to copy the experiment done here but with a brand new piece of my own Fiction.

The first step to completing the project was to complete my story (easier said than done). I made sure that, after I had written the story, I selected the passages I thought were most emotional and defined what emotion I intended to illicit in the reader. The next step was to develop a streamlined instructional page. Because many of the subjects I would be using would come from other areas than Missoula, I had to make sure the experiment was easy to interpret from a mere typed text. I included an instruction page that asked the subject to read the passage provided. When they felt an emotion, they would mark or type “E” next to the passage. If they had a memory triggered, they would write or type “M.” Any other thoughts would be marked with a mere “T.” Subjects were told only to provide marks when they felt any of these things strongly, and not to feel that they needed to provide any marks if they felt nothing. They were also encouraged to define the emotion, memory, or thought and to quantify it’s intensity if they felt it was necessary.

I wanted to do this project because I felt it was the perfect combination of Science and the Humanities in a way that will help me with something I truly care about: writing. In the end, I hope to leave with some helpful raw data that surprises me and gives me a new angle to view my own work from.

As I have yet to finish this project, I will update the blog with the results. I predict that women subjects will be more apt to report emotion than men, that the emotional reports will be lower than I anticipate, and that unrelated thoughts will be higher than I anticipate.

Newgrange: Prehistory and The Mind

What do you picture when you think about Neanderthals? Probably something like this: Prominent brow, big nose, lots of hair, and tiny, close set eyes. People think of Neanderthals with stone tools, spearing mammoths, being ambushed by Cro-Magnons. But people hardly think of Neanderthals as having any kind of spiritual inclination. Newgrange was built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, making it older than the pyramids and stonehenge. It is speculated by archeologists that it was built to serve a religious purpose, which for me, is probably the most interesting aspect of Newgrange.


Although pictures inside were not allowed, you can see from the outside on the entrance stone the swirl pattern that was present in much of the chamber. Not much is known about this pattern. It is speculated to mean anything from life to psychedelic mushrooms. What I think is interesting is that, although the meaning remains unknown, everybody acknowledges that it must have some meaning. We think about Neanderthals as being akin to apes: unintelligible. But here we have a complex structure built by them, one that might have been used for spiritual/religious purposes. In order to have religion, one must first have a mind. And so, to me, Newgrange is an amazing example of the fact that the Neanderthals might have had sentience, although we typically do not interpret them that way.

If you are inside of Newgrange on the Winter Solstice, you can see the whole chamber light up for a solid seventeen minutes. Nobody knows what this means. What they do know is that Newgrange was constructed geometrically so that this illumination of the chamber would happen every year during the Winter Solstice. This is consistent with the notion that Newgrange was built for religious purposes. Why else would they construct it so that it would only be fully lit for a mere seventeen minutes out of the year?

To have spiritual beliefs is to have a mind. You can look at bones, you can carbon date them, but you cannot measure the capacity to have consciousness (just yet). Newgrange was a wonderful compliment to the idea that the Sciences and Humanities must diverge to get the whole picture.

A Pilgrimage to Ireland

Going to Ireland is a sort of rite of passage, a pilgrimage, for anybody who takes an interest in Literature and Creative Writing. Ireland is a small place– it could probably fit into the state of Montana twice. Yet Ireland has spawned some of the most prolific figures in Literature: Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, and and W.B. Yeats, just to name a few. One begins to wonder, what is it about Ireland that makes people so prone to write and to write well? And so it seems a natural extension of the person interested in Literature and writing to travel to the country. Lucky for me, I was able to compliment this journey with a course exploring the scientific basis behind the mind. This meant not only did I study pieces of Literature from these important Irish authors, but I also studied the neuroscience behind what separates the mind from the brain and as such, how we can begin to decipher where creativity originates on a biological level.


People tend to think about sentience in two ways: 1) That we are just glorified monkeys 2) In a spiritual sense, where we have souls. Both of these are valid perspectives but, in recent years, we have begun to bridge this gap and some people now understand human consciousness as a balance between both of these. The course I took focused heavily on this perspective.

My professor for the course, Dean Comer, had a saying (which I am certain he gleaned from another man who “had a saying”) that the simplest problems go to Physicists and if they can’t solve it, then on to Chemists who pass it on to Biologists who then pass it on to writers. So if you really think about it, Science and the Humanities are not that far from each other. I often have thought about them as separate entities where you either are a “science” person or a “humanity” person, and neither of these people could mix. James Joyce is sometimes known as the father of stream of consciousness, where he attempted to write how somebody might think. His novel Ulysses, showed a single day in the mind of his characters. While many might view this as a venture in the humanities, maybe we need to see it as a venture in science. Doesn’t modern day Neuroscience try and explain how the mind works? And when Neuroscience can’t provide an indefinite explanation, writers take up their pens and to their typewriters to explain it in the best way they know how. What is being human? All these instruments and tools we use to do things are only so we can explain how we feel inside to somebody else. Science and Literature, they aren’t so different in that way.

As time goes on, people seem to invest more of themselves into a scientific perspective than into a humanitarian perspective. People put less value on the humanities and more value on the sciences. Sciences are STEM careers, lots of sciences directly feed into a nice and neat job after college. How many times have I been asked, with an incredulous look, “And what do you plan to do with that major?” I don’t know, I guess. Lots of us don’t know. But we ought to stop thinking about these specialties as such different schools of thought and start thinking of them as diverging on the same.