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SHAPE-ID webinar on interdisciplinarity and the Neurohumanities

SHAPE-ID’s third webinar asked what the experiences of researchers working in the emerging area of the Neurohumanities can teach us about the challenges and potential of interdisciplinary research between the Arts and Humanities and STEM disciplines. Why engage in such research and how are researchers navigating the significant distances between their respective disciplines? Representing perspectives from different disciplines and at different career stages, panellists Professor Thomas J Carew (New York University), Professor Sonja Smets (Institute for Logic, Linguistics and Computation, University of Amsterdam) and Amelia McConville (Trinity College Dublin), discussed challenges and best practices from their own experience of engaging in interdisciplinary research. The presentations showcase the potential for interdisciplinary research with meaningful roles for arts and humanities researchers and we hope will inspire researchers to learn about and engage with interdisciplinarity. The discussion was chaired by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (Trinity College Dublin), Principal Investigator of the SHAPE-ID project Chair of the Irish Research Council.

Tom Carew, Dean Emeritus and a Silver Professor in the Center for Neural Science, New York University, presented on a series of ‘NeuroViews’ he and collaborator Mani Ramaswami (Trinity College Dublin) will soon publish in the journal Neuron. The collection explores the Neurohumanities as “an emerging partnership for exploring the human experience” and includes essays on neuroaesthetics; language, music and emotion; cultural memory; and moral decision-making. With essays by leading neuroscientists, the collection aims to showcase how collaboration between the neurosciences and humanities can be mutually beneficial, with humanities scholars gaining a richer and deeper insight into how the brain engages with the world, and neuroscientists expanding their relationship to the wider world of culture outside of the laboratory. Tom highlighted the need to overcome barriers, such as the view among many scientists that humanities approaches lack rigour, and outlined several parameters that could indicate progress in collaborations: enhanced communication between the fields; greater conceptual connectivity in both fields; and actionable outcomes from the joint research.

Sonja Smets, Professor in Logic and Epistemology and scientific director of the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation at the University of Amsterdam, shared insights into how (and why) the institute manages interdisciplinary research between the sciences and humanities, both internally and through partnerships with other Universities. She highlighted the importance of shared spaces for researchers to collaborate; of fostering disciplinary excellence as a foundation for confidence in interdisciplinary work; and of the need for researchers to be actively interested in learning and willing to take time to learn from one another to address issues of mutual interest. Sonja provided concrete examples from her own field of the divisions that arose between logic and cognitive science, and the value in overcoming these to gain a more complete perspective; as well as giving examples from the study of music and cognition at the ILLC. Interdisciplinary research is difficult, she acknowledged, but “when it succeeds it can unlock truly innovative ideas”.

Amelia McConville, an interdisciplinary PhD researcher working towards her doctorate on visual poetics, poetry, and Neurohumanities at Trinity College Dublin, drew on her doctoral research to present insights on best practice in interdisciplinary research. Amelia emphasised the dangers of asymmetrical relations in interdisciplinary research and the need for nuance, care and humility when negotiating the dynamic between disciplines to avoid reductivism on either side. She identified some ‘red flags’ from Neurohumanities studies of poetry including, on the one hand, neuroscientists overdetermining the importance of certain brain areas ‘lighting up’ when people read poetry; and, on the other hand, humanities researchers resting insights on simplistic ‘left-brain/right-brain’ dichotomies. While concepts such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences can imply a hierarchy that creates barriers to equitable exchange between disciplines, Amelia notes that “the space of interdisciplinarity offers an opportunity to move past these categories and forge reciprocity”.

We were joined in the Zoom room by over 90 participants from all over Europe and from the US, South America and India, as well as by Mani Ramaswami and contributor to the Neuron collection Yadin Dudai, both of whom responded directly to the presentations. Questions and contributions from participants led to a fascinating discussion around language and terminology, embodiment and experience, the challenges of funding silos and the balance between seeking clear value from a collaboration that allows each discipline to advance its understanding of problems, and the importance of embracing cultural change as a long-term project and remaining open to where we might find answers to the mysteries we do not yet understand. Despite the challenges, panellists ended on a note of optimism for the future of interdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscience and the humanities.

Recordings of all our past webinars and details of our upcoming webinars are available here. You can subscribe to our mailing list here to make sure you receive updates on our events and activities.

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