Cognition, Culture, and the Arts

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Narrating, Understanding, and Reading

by Peter Hanenberg (Volume editor) Wolfgang Hallet (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 132 Pages
Series: passagem, Volume 15


The aim of the volume is to show in which sense the study of culture, literature and the arts can contribute to a better understanding of human cognition. The collection of essays is questioning whether culture is exclusively human and discusses evolutionary substrates of narrative and the interfaces between culture, stories and cognition. The contributions examine the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of literary reading and analyse other techniques of sense-making in the arts through imagined dialogues and the experience of ambiguity. The final contributions are dealing with musical cognition, the relation between music, aesthetics and cognition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Is Culture Exclusively Human? (Alexandre Castro-Caldas)
  • On the Evolutionary Substrates of Narrative (Katja Mellmann)
  • To Read and Why to Read: Interfaces between Culture, Stories and Cognition (Vera Nünning)
  • Why there is no such thing as a “Superreader:” On the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of literary reading (Susanne Reichl)
  • Telling vs. Showing. Imagined dialogues, the conversation frame, and sense-making in the arts (Ana Margarida Abrantes)
  • The uncanny, the brain and the pleasure of ambiguity (Peter Hanenberg)
  • Weather Reports: Discourse and Musical Cognition (Per Aage Brandt)
  • Music, Aesthetics And Cognition: ‘Musical Prose’ In the Fin De Siècle (Elisheva Rigbi)
  • Series index

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In 2011, Ana Margarida Abrantes and Peter Hanenberg published a volume with the title Cognition and Culture. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue as nº 5 of the series passagem, to which the present volume (as nº 15 in the series) replies 10 years later. In 2011, many of the contributions were presented as an attempt to map the field of the still widely unexplored intersection of Culture and Cognition. While Per Aage Brandt tried to define the concept of culture as a grounding question for cognitive semiotics, Mark Turner and Alexandre Castro-Caldas addressed the origins and foundations of human culture and cognition, Peter Hanenberg and Vera Nünning searched for interfaces between cognitive science and the humanities, Augusto Soares da Silva and Maria Clotilde Almeida tackled the linguistic dimension in the negotiation of meaning, and Ansgar Nünning and Ana Margarida Abrantes explored metaphor and narrative as key concepts in the study of culture and cognition.

Ten years later, the field has developed substantially. The Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience titled Critical Neuroscience (2012) has introduced a vital debate of what could be seen as a fashion underlying the expanding use of terms like cognition and neuroscience, the Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (2016) has shown how neuroscience itself has overtaken issues of culture as its own field of research, Vera Nünning’s Reading Fictions, Changing Minds. The Cognitive Value of Fiction (2014) has brought the issue closer to the field of Literary Studies, and a small volume on Cognitive Culture Studies (Hanenberg 2018) has suggested the outlines of a discipline whose ambition is twofold in enhancing understanding of both human cognition and cultural artifacts and practices.

It is in this line that the present volume simultaneously broadens and narrows the scope of interest. It broadens comprehension by addressing cultural artifacts ranging from literature, theater and fine arts to music. And it narrows the perspective to the demands of specific hermeneutic tasks concerning concrete cultural objects. The overall aim of the volume is to show in which sense the study of culture, literature and the arts can contribute to a better understanding of human cognition.

The volume starts with a contribution by neuroscientist Alexandre Castro Caldas, who asks whether culture is exclusively human. He concludes that we share with animals basic neural mechanisms that contribute to a social brain which in turn allows social information transfer. However, this interaction ←7 | 8→results in the emergence of new behaviours, which make the difference between human and non-human culture.

From here, Katja Mellmann focuses on the evolutionary substrates of narrative. Building on the proto-‘narrative’ format of language and on a particular cognitive mood for oral tradition, narrative form increases memorability of the stored information and works as a highly elaborate means of self-objectification and self-knowledge of humans, therefore far from just being purely pleasure-motivated play.

Vera Nünning explores further the interfaces between culture, stories and cognition, discussing narratives as a privileged way of worldmaking by critically addressing the relation between fiction and ‘theory of mind’. Stories, the author argues, interpret and communicate beliefs about the human mind, about human communication and behaviour and enhance the capacity for understanding others. Narrative schemata provide specific and flexible frames for understanding experiences and actions. Therefore, the choice of what to read and which stories to tell can be decisive for the success of narrative training as suggested here.

What are, then, the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of literary reading? This is the question addressed by Susanne Reichl while exploring the act of reading as a way of imposing order on chaos. Readers, she suggests, first normalize the “chaos” of a polyvalent text and thus reduce it to an understandable order, and then expand it again by mapping onto it scenarios available to them within their own sociocultural frame of reference. Such processes, being both social and individual, automatic and conscious, reductive and expansive, are shown on examples by Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, Ursula LeGuin, Hanif Kureishi, Anthony Burgess, Lois Lowry or Veronica Roth, whose texts frequently ask for advanced forms of problem-solving and resist any quick and easy reading.

Ana Margarida Abrantes takes the reflection from narrative to the conversation frame as a means of sense-making in the arts. She takes her examples from Philipp Roth’s novel Deception and from a Portuguese dance performance by Tiago Rodrigues presented by Barbora Hruskova. In both cases, fictive interaction serves as a model for cognition in conceptualizing reality, pinpointing as an aesthetic act what otherwise is used as a common strategy of sense-making.

Peter Hanenberg turns attention to the processes of sense-making concerning the installation Uncanny River (The Crossing) by the Portuguese artist João Biscainho. In an attempt to describe contexts and conditions without which this installation would not be what it is, the article aims at offering a set of exploratory challenges which any spectator of the installation may face. While Buscaino’s ←8 | 9→work invites a nonterminating task of sense-making, it points to the pleasure of ambiguity as a constitutional feature of the arts.

The contribution by Per Aage Brandt opens the final section on cognition and music, taking up the previous topics on sense-making and fictive interaction in time and space, beyond referentiality. Starting with an analysis of meteorological metaphors in the description of music experience, Brandt explains why both artists and listeners mentally see spaces when music is produced and perceived: as a constant relation to the value of beauty, truth or moral good and the imaginary space of the spirits. Arts weaken codes in recombining their components, thus allowing the culturally decisive human mental capacity to immediately transcend the immediate.

The cognitive processes in music reception are further addressed by Elisheva Rigbi who explores the so-called musical prose at the turn of the 20th century, which at the time was widely considered difficult, to the point of incomprehensibility. Musical prose exposes the listener to a series of isolated, self-contained moments, which hardly can be brought into a cohesive cognitive process. Understanding the challenges that this music meant for the holistic tendency to cognitively prioritize overall temporal patterning in aural experience, is a topic of as much interest to cognitive science as it is to cultural history – the two fields exemplarily explored in Rigbi’s contribution to this volume from the perspective of evolutionary musicology.

It is in this encounter of culture (in its historical dimension) and cognition that further work must be done. We cannot understand the way we think and make sense of what we are doing and how we are living without looking simultaneously at the cognitive conditions of our mind and its material and social performance in culture and along history. The challenges of contemporary societies, from sustainability to Artificial Intelligence (and further pandemic incursions), may make a New Humanism necessary. Such an endeavour will not succeed without interdisciplinary perspectives on narrating, understanding, and reading: where cognition, culture and the arts meet.

Lisbon, Gießen, May 2021

Peter Hanenberg & Wolfgang Hallet

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Chiao, Joan Y., Shu-Chen Li, Rebecca Seligman, and Robert Turner. 2016. Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience. Oxford: University Press.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
Culture Studies Cognitive Sciences Music Studies Art and Meaning Narratology
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 132 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Hanenberg (Volume editor) Wolfgang Hallet (Volume editor)

Peter Hanenberg is a Professor for German and Culture Studies at Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon, vice rector for research and innovation and director of CADOS, Católica Doctoral School. He coordinates the research group on cognition and translatability at the Research Centre for Communication and Culture in Lisbon. His research focuses on the literary representation of the idea of Europe and on the intersection of cognition and culture. Wolfgang Hallet is a former Professor of Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany. He was a founding member of the Executive Board of the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture and the Head of its Teaching Centre. In literary studies he has researched and published on contemporary novels, the spatial turn, the multimodal novel, and methodologies of intermediality and multimodality.


Title: Cognition, Culture, and the Arts