International Conference- Why the Humanities?

Why the Humanities:

Answers from the Cognitive and Neurosciences

July 9-12, 2015

Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center
215 S. Depeyster St., Kent, Ohio 44240

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The purpose of this conference is to highlight and enhance the contributions that humanities education makes to personal well being, responsible citizenship, and social justice.

Recent studies in the cognitive and neurosciences indicate how humanities education can develop the following key cognitive and emotional capabilities that are essential not only for personal well being but also for responsible citizenship and social justice:

  • Empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling
  • Mind Reading, the ability to understand the thoughts and intentions of others
  • Metacognition, the ability to monitor and regulate one’s own perceptions and judgments of others
  • Bias Correction, the ability to compensate for distortions in one’s judgments of others
  • Self-Knowledge, the ability to recognize troublesome traits or motives in oneself
  • Self-Other Overlap Recognition, the ability to apprehend similarities between oneself and others who appear very different from oneself
  • Moral Judgment, the ability to form accurate and fair assessments of oneself and of others

Featured Speakers:

Nancy Easterlin

Research Professor of English at New Orleans University

She is the author of several books, including A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation, employing cognitive and neuroscience in the analysis of literature.


Angus Fletcher

Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at The Ohio State University

His research focuses on the function of narrative and dramatic forms in fostering more tolerant, plural, cooperative societies—the kinds of societies that are more effective at developing progressive solutions to hunger, disease, and the other material problems of our biological world. He is the author of Evolving Hamlet and numerous articles.


Hunter Gehlbach

Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University

The author of numerous articles, he is an expert on the crucial social-cognition capability of perspective taking, on pedagogical strategies for developing it, and on designing questionnaires to measure this and other capabilities of social cognition.


Suzanne Keen

Professor of English and Dean at Washington and Lee University

She has conducted empirical research on how reading novels can activate and enhance empathy, sympathy, and other emotions and is the author of Empathy and the Novel, several other books, and numerous articles.


David Comer Kidd

PhD Candidate in Psychology at The New School for Social Research

His dissertation, the results of which were published last fall in a widely read and discussed article in Science, found that reading literary texts enhances people’s ability to infer other people’s mental states.


David Miall

Professor of English at the University of Alberta

He has conducted numerous empirical studies of literary reception and is the author of Literary Reading: Empirical and Theoretical Studies, in which he explains how reading literature can change readers’ capabilities and habits of cognition and feeling.


Keith Oatley

Novelist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Toronto

Among his many publications is Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, in which he offers empirically based explanations of how reading literature can increase empathy and other elements of emotional intelligence.


Natalie Phillips

Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University

She is co-founder of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab, which uses neuroscientific tools, such as fMRI and eye tracking, to explore the cognitive dynamics of literary reading.


G. Gabrielle Starr

Professor of English and Dean at New York University

She pursues research in neuroaesthetics, a relatively new field of inquiry that uses the tools of cognitive neuroscience to explore the contours of aesthetic experience. Her most recent book is Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience.

Lisa Zunshine

Bush-Holbrook Professor of English at the University of Kentucky

She is the author of many articles and books, including Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, which explains how specific literary passages induce and possibly train readers to infer others’ mental states.


Plenary Session, Dix Room
Moving Forward: How to Advance the Humanities with the Cognitive and Neurosciences

Presiding: Mark Bracher, Professor of English, Kent State University



What teachers can get from the conference:
  • Two continuing education units (tuition waived)
  • Presentations by cognitive and neuroscience researchers on key cognitive capabilities fostered by humanities study
  • Discussions of the personal and social benefits of these capabilities
  • Workshops on the best educational practices for developing these capabilities
  • Opportunities to initiate collaborative research projects with other teachers and/or university researchers


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Ohio Humanities


This conference is made possible, in part, by the Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this conference do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Generous support is also being provided by Kent State University’s College of Arts & Sciences, College of Education, Health and Human Services, the Departments of English, History, Modern and Classical Language Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology, and the Institute for Applied Linguistics.