Jane on the Brain: Science of Social Intelligence Meets Jane Austen
The thought of Darcy and Elizabeth as walking computers, calculating the sum of neural activity, is likely to irritate many Austen enthusiasts.
2017 marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Through the centuries she has endured as certainly one of the greatest novelists of all time if not the greatest. What has been the secret to her remarkable success and longevity? Well obviously, her trademark acidic wit and brilliant observation of the society she lived in are key elements. But, former English professor and practicing psychotherapist Wendy Jones argues that what truly elevates Austen above, say, Georgette Heyer, was her remarkable empathy and rich understanding of human psychology. Indeed, Jones argues in Jane on the Brain that Austen’s works contain insight into the deepest realms of the human mind.
To that end, Jones offers us a unique blend of literary analysis, psychology, and the latest cutting-edge discoveries of neuroscience. The ball at Meryton that is the kickoff event for Pride and Prejudice is deconstructed according to what happens when Darcy’s first sight of Elizabeth travels through the retina and optic nerve to register in the pre-frontal cortex. And in that long, convoluted journey therein lies why he first considered Lizzie only ‘tolerable.’ Marianne’s disastrous reunion with Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is connected to the automatic nervous system and Jones considers Marianne’s heartbreak a textbook definition of clinical depression. Emma Wodehouse (Emma) is a model in self-deception. Such legendary literary nightmares like Sir Walter Elliott of Persuasion and John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey show all the earmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and so on.
Jones even illustrates how Austen’s understanding of self-control and empathy are the bedrocks of civilization as we know it and key to leading a moral, emotionally healthy life. Of course as Jones also makes clear there are a few tricks with applying Regency era norms to our era. In fact the first thing Jones mentions in the introduction is that applying Austen’s formula for matrimony (gratitude and esteem) led to her unhappy first marriage. Turns out these days when women can support themselves the value of passion and romance has greatly increased. And nobody marries first cousins anymore either.
It makes for a complicated and sometimes dense (a lot of technical jargon here!) read but one that never fails to interest the leader even if you don’t always agree with her conclusions. Consider it the beginning of a discussion as it were. Perhaps one that should be had over scones and tea.