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Beckett and Brain Science

About us

This was an AHRC-funded project run jointly between Warwick (Elizabeth Barry), Birkbeck (Laura Salisbury) and Reading (Ulrika Maude), which aimed to produce collaboration between literary and theatrical scholars and clinicians and researchers in psychiatry and neuroscience, and use the work of Samuel Beckett to interrogate current concepts of mental disorder. Psychiatric disorders are constitutively disorders of persons (Oyebode 2002) and concern their sense of selfhood. Much of Beckett’s work is vitally concerned with consciousness and the phenomenology of perception and experience, making it a rich field of investigation in connection with such disorders, and with brain science in general.

Samuel Beckett has long been read as a writer who asks questions of the locus of the human, and the relationship between literature and society’s deepest sense of itself. This project extended this tradition into a new arena, using Beckett’s work as a test case to ask specific questions of the relationship between literature, theatre and the scientific and medical understanding of the mind. Workshops involving scholars and practitioners in the arts and sciences contributed to an important current debate about the human side of medicine, and gave an intellectual framework to the intuition of many clinicians that literature offers a means to understand challenging mental and neurological conditions. Dialogue with these clinical experts also offered those in the humanities new lexicons for explaining and describing the human.


The first phase of the project comprised three workshops exploring the ways in which Beckett in writing and performance might enhance the understanding of clinical and conceptual categories of mental experience. The first workshop, at the University of Reading on 27th April 2012, used the world’s largest Beckett archive to explore the empirical resources key to understanding Beckett’s knowledge of psychiatry, neurology, and psychoanalysis, and explore how this knowledge and interest informed his work. Leading experts on Beckett, including his biographer and friend James Knowlson, offered insights into his psychological concerns, and modernist scholars such as Ronald Schleifer reflected on the important relationships between modernism and medicine which frame this project.

Further information

The Beckett and Brain Science team went on to collaborate on the AHRC-funded project Modernism, Medicine and the Embodied Mind (at the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and Warwick in partnership with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute). Please contact either Elizabeth Barry (English) or Jonathan Heron (IATL) for more information about these projects.

'SB's articulation of unceasing inner speech' The Guardian

'A new discovery for science and art': The Observer

'Voice, breath and embodied learning': Durham blog

'Your brain: a theatre of the absurd': Sheffield blog


The final workshop, at the University of Warwick on 18th September 2012 heard from psychiatrists and doctors who use Beckett’s work to reflect on their own clinical understanding and practice, and in their teaching. It explored the potential for producing new kinds of scientific knowledge through performance. Building on work done by members of the working group at Warwick (Matthew Broome, Jonathan Heron) on open-space learning in the teaching of psychiatry, Beckett’s work in performance offered a practical challenge to epistemologies current in medicine. Experts in the fields of psychiatry, neurology, philosophy and theatre reflected upon the challenges to medical classifications produced by experiential approaches to the study and treatment of the mind.


The second workshop, at Birkbeck College, University of London on 22nd June 2012 built on the first to produce a series of ‘shared texts’, asking theoretical questions about bringing Beckett studies and brain science together. Scholars such as Catherine Malabou and Lois Oppenheim gave keynote addresses, and then clinicians and scholars came together to respond to Beckett texts from the concerns of their subject area in the afternoon.