On Turning Your ‘Lit-Crit’ Brain Off

SculptureHeadIf you’re a lit major like me – or, indeed, if you’ve ever studied just about any subject in the humanities and/or the sciences – you’ll probably remember a moment some years back when you realised that you had two brains.

And no, I don’t mean literally, in a kind of futuristic space-agey way (let’s face it, one brain is often hard enough to keep track of, and you probably don’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘bad hair day’ until you’ve got two craniums to deal with). But if you’ve ever been involved in an area of prolonged study that requires you to think critically, to analyse, to dig for deeper meaning, then you’ve probably found that this kind of thinking begins to leak into your everyday life.

Suddenly every image, word, and sound is hiding something under its surface. A movie, a television advertisement, a newspaper article – it’s never just that. It’s a text just waiting to be deciphered, and you begin to approach every such text with the question, ‘what is this film / advert / cloying but frustratingly catchy pop song trying to make me think?’. And, perhaps more importantly, ‘am I going to let them make me think that?’.

For me, this began happening regularly about two years into my degree. My sister began complaining that I could never just watch a movie without trying to dissect it. Apparently this makes films less enjoyable, for some reason. Nowadays, of course, she has a rather different opinion (a well-earned point goes to the humanities once more!) but at the time I remember being rather puzzled that I had ever been able to watch or read in any other way.

Of course, all this can be rather exhausting, and so naturally you begin to develop two brains. One, the analytical one, you have to learn to tune out sometimes. The second, the everyday brain, the one that is semi-grounded in reality and knows how to deal with basic social interaction, is constantly hovering in the background, like an anxious waiter, too scared to leave you alone in case you run out of water or accidentally choke on your spaghetti (all of which, naturally, would have a terminal impact on your ability to leave a generous tip).

And let’s face it, nobody wants to spend time with a know-it-all who spends the entirety of The Avengers dissecting the complex racial and gender-based prejudices of the American superhero movie genre (in case you’re wondering, yes, I have indeed done this), or carrying on a long-winded commentary about cultural stereotyping in children’s films (and this).

Sometimes, people just want to sit back and enjoy the show. Sometimes you just want to sit back and watch the show.

If you haven’t guessed yet, this is all by way of being a rather long-winded explanation as to why I’ve been absent from this blog for so long (disguising a discussion post as a half-baked excuse for my long absence? Why yes, I believe I just did!). Yes, I have been away for a while. And yes, I did indeed turn down my Lit-Crit brain for a few months. Because let’s face it. If the rumours are true, and we’re exposed to an average of five thousand advertisements a day, spending two or three minutes dissecting each and every one would be exhausting. And would probably leave very little time for those basic tasks necessary for proper functioning in society: showering, sleeping, applying deodorant and suchlike. Sometimes we need to take a bit of a break.

But here’s the remarkable thing: just because you, say, turn down your analytical brain and spend two months reading random novels, drinking tea, and eating biscuits – doesn’t mean your Lit-Crit brain can ever really be turned off. The most you can do – sometimes for the sake of your own sanity, or that of your nearest and dearest – is turn down its volume for a while. I may have given more weight to my everyday brain of late; but my Lit-Crit brain never let me forget it was there, too.

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Basically what the past two months looked like. (Image Credit)

We live in a world full of words. And images. And sounds. And they’re all trying – with varying levels of success – to make us think something. Most of the time, that what we really, really want, more than anything else, is to buy stuff. Our Lit-Crit brains (and all variations thereupon) are our best defence in this scramble for the contents of our pockets.

Studying texts has always been a way to sharpen these skills for me, and everyone does this in different ways. The ability to analyse the world and my experience of it is the single greatest thing my English degree taught me. We need these skills. That much is apparent.

But fear not, this is not a shameless plug for the English course at your local college (enrolments begin August 2015; apply early to avoid the rush!). Mostly, I think, it’s about how your Lit-Crit brain never really switches off, and maybe that’s an entirely good thing. And maybe I will, eventually, allow my Lit-Crit brain to triumph and write a post about the books that I read over this little blogging break of mine. Or maybe not. The important thing, I think, is learning how to balance the two.

Do you find it difficult to switch off your analytical brain? Should you? I’d love to know what you think! Because, to be honest, I’m kind of in two minds about the whole thing.

Main Image Credit: Sculpture in Boboli gardens via photopin (license)

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16 thoughts on “On Turning Your ‘Lit-Crit’ Brain Off

  1. Don’t turn off your Lit-Crit brain. The world needs more deep thinkers.

    The only time I would switch off that part of my brain is when enjoying nature.
    Other than that, keep it on. There are too many brain-dead zombies walking around.

    My pet peeve of this world is when I feel the need to be critical of something, especially culturally (or politically, or religiously – need I keep going?) related, but I am surrounded by a bunch of dead heads, w/o a pulse. Ugh! I think that is why I love journaling so much.

    • It’s definitely difficult when you’re in a social group (usually people you don’t know very well) and you just want to over-analyse but they’re not interested, or don’t get it. Or, in my case, aren’t used to my weird, tangential way if thinking. :D

  2. As an English major in the making, this post resonates with me so much. I went to see Cinderella a few months ago with my sister at the movie theater and couldn’t stop dissecting it on the ride home. She enjoyed it, but I just…couldn’t. I believe I said “There’s no substance to it” multiple times, haha.

    I love my “lit-crit brain”, but balance is key. Thank you for reminding me of that:)

  3. I don’t tend to analyze films that much (perhaps I should, though), but with books? I have to make a conscious effort not to dissect word choices and symbolism and wonder why the author chose a particular name for a particular character. Somehow, I do think I’m missing out on something when I spend a whole story trying to figure out its meaning, rather than taking it in as a whole. Then again, stories can be powerful influences on people. I think for the most part, trying to find the deeper meaning is a good thing.

    • Definitely! And, of course, everybody reads and watches differently. I find films fun to analyse, but a lot of the time I just find myself wanting to sit down and relax with a movie. Whereas books require a little more thought and effort to begin with, which I think naturally lends itself to more critical thinking as you read.

  4. So true Major. Ever since I began teaching film as text some years ago, I always watch a film with an analytical eye, appreciating costuming and aspects of cinematography, musical score etc with an academic zeal! Then I give my insufferably opinionated English-teacher rating at the end. I don’t always do this aloud, however (or my friends would hate me!)

    Nice post Major! :)

  5. I resonated with this post SO MUCH! I was also majored in English in university, and when I graduated I had such a hard time turning my lit crit brain off that I stopped reading altogether for almost a year. I know. It pains me just thinking about it! Since then it seems like I’ve been able to keep a good balance between analyzing texts and reading exactly what is on the page for what it is. I think my blog helps me keep my “English major” brain sharp but I’m also happy to read for fun and not go too deep into the rabbit hole. Great post :)

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Karen! Wow, a year is such a long time! Although I remember long reading slumps that would last months too; I seem to remember it was the same for me after I graduated high school. And blogging definitely helps a great deal, it’s nice to be able to lay out all your thoughts about something, and get other people’s opinions. :)

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