Photo by Bob Jacobs, Laboratory of Quantitative Neuromorphology Department of Psychology Colorado College http://www.ColoradoCollege.edu/IDProg/Neuroscience/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In recent weeks I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the influence of neuroscience on our understanding of our own thoughts and behavior. Does knowing about the brain affect how we make sense of our experience? How do we, as ordinary people, react to the new knowledge that the neuroscientists are telling us about? Here's how I put the question in a recent blog post:
For me, the best way of exploring these reactions is through a medium that might seem to have little to do with the realities of neuroimaging head coils and 3-Tesla magnets. Writers of fiction have always been barometers of change in how humanity has understood itself. Ideas from Darwinism and Freudianism, to take two examples, quickly permeated literary fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [...] Will neuroscience permeate fiction as rapidly and pervasively? Are the barometers already twitching?
We have been hearing a lot recently about how psychological and neuroscientific research can help us to understand how fiction has its effects. But can it work the other way round, too? Can neuroscientists learn anything from the study of fiction?
I have been suggesting that they can. Wanting to explore these ideas with someone who really knows about them from both sides, I got in touch with acclaimed science writer Jonah Lehrer, whose new book on creativity, Imagine, is currently riding high. Jonah was kind enough to suggest that we do a Q&A on his blog, The Frontal Cortex. You can read the results (and a great comment thread) here.
Put simply, the idea I wanted to explore was that reading fiction can help us to understand what neuroscience means to people: how it helps them to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, and to come up with explanations for why they do what they do. As a writer, I have tried to do this by creating a fiction in which human protagonists are understood in neuroscientific terms. My hunch was that putting neuroscience into a novel would allow me to test out how far you can push that kind of explanation of human behavior. As I explained to Jonah, this is not about being critical of the science itself, which will be judged by public, well-established criteria:
With this project, I’m more interested in what the person in the street takes from the science. I start with a character, Yvonne, who is immersed in this way of thinking about the brain, to the extent that it has come to shape her understanding of her own experience. [...] The question then is: what happens to that philosophy when things start happening—for example, when Yvonne is forced to make moral choices? If you’re brought up to believe that freewill is an illusion, what do you do when circumstances force you to act?
You can read more about the novel that resulted here. Unsurprisingly, I think this is a debate that has implications for the way that people write fiction, as well as how they approach communicating the results of brain science. And it is also part of a bigger question about how we explain why human beings do what they do. In a follow-up blog post, I wanted to get at the specific question of whether neuroscientific explanations are any good at explaining characters' motives:
Often, [...] neuroscientific detail in fiction is an accompaniment of behaviour rather than a driver of it. Compare that to the situation with Darwinian and Freudian views of mind. Fiction writers have always dealt with people acting without knowing why, and they have often framed these unconscious motivations in evolutionary or psychodynamic terms. [...] I’m not sure that neuroscience can—yet—match the power of these explanations for characters’ motives. [...] I want to know whether it’s possible to have a fiction of everyday life where brain is the driver of behaviour. In A Box of Birds, Yvonne understands herself differently because of what she knows about her own nervous system. And that, at several key points in the plot, affects how she goes on to act.
In the novel, Yvonne’s philosophy of materialism comes under sustained attack from her lover and former student, James, who believes that neuroscience is just one of the narratives we construct to make sense of our existence. In telling of how this battle plays out, I wanted to dramatize a debate between two of the predominant philosophical positions of our time. On the one hand, we have Yvonne’s neuromaterialist view that the human mind, self and soul are nothing more than bundles of nerves and chemical reactions. On the other, James is telling us that we exist to make sense of our experience in terms of narratives, and that the stories we tell about ourselves and our pasts have the capacity to change our future.
These are questions that seem ideally suited to a fictional exploration. In his blog for the New York Review of Books, the novelist Tim Parks has been pointing out how the narrative nature of our own selves means that we cannot help but make sense of our experience in terms of stories. I have made a similar claim recently for the nature of autobiographical memory. Most intriguingly of all, the evidence (from the study of memory and other topics) that the brain is effectively a storytelling machine points to an integration of the neuroscientific and narrative perspectives. Brain science does shape our understanding, but it is essentially a neuroscience of story.
Unlike my fictional protagonist James, I'm not into bashing neuroscience. I think it is giving us some wonderful new perspectives on why we are the way we are. But I do want to understand what neuroscience means to ordinary people. For me, the best way of doing that was to put those ideas into a novel. Others, of course, will have different approaches to this question of how we spin the webs of ourselves. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.