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Norman Holland on the brain and literature

Casablanca movie scene

In his book “Literature and the Brain,” Professor Norman N. Holland details how we may respond so deeply in both creating and experiencing literature – novels, plays, poems, tv and movies – and the neuropsychology underlying our often intense engagement with stories and characters.

Holland comments on one primal story that so many of us enjoy:

“Seeing Casablanca for the umpteenth time, we come to the final scene.

“Will Humphrey Bogart put Ingrid Bergman, the woman he loves, on the plane with her heroic but dull husband who needs her?

“Every time I wonder, though I know perfectly well he will.

“Since Aristotle, people thinking about literature have encountered such psychological puzzles.

“But literary theorists from earlier times have faced the limitations of the psychology of those earlier times.

“Only in the last century have we had a ‘scientific’ psychology. Only in the last few decades have we had a neurology with which we can observe actual brain systems.”

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He writes of another iconic film:

Jessica Biel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“The cute blond starlet, looking for her missing friend, opens a creaking door. She walks down a dark hall. And we’re thinking, Don’t go there! Don’t go there!

“And then the maniac in the hockey mask lunges out from a dark corner, brandishing a chain saw. You jump and I jump and all the people around us jump.

“Yet you and I and all of us know deep down that the blond and the maniac are just light flickering on a screen. We still jump—why?”

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The photo is Jessica Biel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).

Another actor in the film, Erica Leerhsen, had an interesting comment:

“My biggest fear would be life… or definitely, myself. I think that’s at the core of most horror movies or even movies like The Wizard of Oz. You think you have to go through this thing, but you end up having to face yourself.”

Maybe that is one of the most meaningful values of literature.

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Norman N. Holland “is an American literary critic and Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar Emeritus at the University of Florida.” [Wikipedia]

One of his multiple books: Literature and the Brain.

The Amazon summary notes the book “goes straight to the human core of literature when it explains the different ways our brains convert stories, poems, plays, and films into pleasure.

“When we are deep into a film or book, we find ourselves ‘absorbed,’ unaware of our bodies or our surroundings. We don’t doubt the existence of Spider-Man or Harry Potter, and we have real feelings about these purely imaginary beings.”

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Sites related to the topics of this post:

IPSA (the Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts).

PSYART, the online discussion group for the psychology of the arts.

Some related Talent Development Resources pages:

The shadow self

Myth and story

Programs for Authors and Writer Entrepreneurs
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Norman Holland on the brain and literature

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2015). Norman Holland on the brain and literature. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Dec 2015
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