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A new kind of science writing

I was moved last weekend by a new blog post from the eminent cognitive neuroscientist Uta Frith on the inspiration that Jorge Luis Borges offered her as a young researcher. Borges is well known among psychologists for one particular story, ‘Funes the Memorious‘, in which the eponymous Funes is left (after a riding accident) unable to forget anything. ‘My memory,’ he complains, ‘is like a garbage heap.’ Condemned to store every irrelevant perceptual detail, Funes suffers from a crippling inability to abstract or generalize:

He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (Penguin, 1998), p. 135.

Frith makes the connection to another prodigious memorizer, A. R. Luria‘s neuropsychological case study known as S. As examples of ‘systems with no information reduction’, Funes and S. are considered by Frith to shed light on the mysterious syndrome of autism, which has sometimes been characterized as involving a difficulty in separating meaningful from irrelevant information.

I am always delighted to read more about Luria, whose writings to my mind have important and largely unacknowledged implications for cognitive neuroscience. Did Luria know of Borges’ story, or the other way round? Frith is doubtful. Jonah Lehrer has considered this question, and also wonders whether a link can be proven. We know that real-life equivalents of Funes exist. So-called hyperthymestic syndrome is rare: so rare, in fact, that only about six cases have ever been described. Here’s a lovely Radiolab piece, also from Lehrer, on the perils of remembering everything.

When setting Funes off against S., it’s important to recognise some crucial differences between the scientific and the literary cases. Beyond his prodigious memory capacities, S. (real name: Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky) is probably even more famous for his synaesthesia, a capacity that Funes is not mentioned as having. Funes presumably suffered a brain injury after his fall from his blue roan horse; no such neurological insult is recorded for Shereshevsky. Funes is an unhappy mnemonist: insomniac, cognitively disabled, ‘battered’ by an ‘inexhaustible reality’. Shereshevsky, for all his pecularities, was able to function in his world, although Luria describes him as ‘a somewhat anchorless person, living with the expectation that at any moment something particularly fine was to come his way.’

Uta Frith’s real interest in her blog post is in the way that fiction can inspire scientific writing. One observation that I would want to add to her analysis is to note what a brilliant writer Luria was. This is him on Shereshevsky’s personality:

An individual whose conscious awareness is such that a sound becomes fused with a sense of colour and taste; for whom each fleeting impression engenders a vivid, inextinguishable image; for whom words have quite different meanings than they do for us—such a person cannot mature in the same way others do, nor will his inner world, his life history tend to be like others’.

A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist (Harvard, 1968), p. 151. 

This is science writing that takes the human seriously, and which might belong in what Jonah Lehrer has called ‘a fourth culture’, one which ‘will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience’ (Proust was a Neuroscientist, Houghton Mifflin, 2007, p. 196). Plenty of fiction writers have travelled in Borges’ direction, of course, incorporating science into their fictions. Lehrer has nominated Ian McEwan’s Saturday, with its metaphysically anxious neurosurgeon protagonist, as the standard bearer of the new fourth culture. I myself am much less convinced about this example, for reasons I will explain at this talk in London on Saturday and in future posts on this blog.

I guess that Frith would be enthusiastic about the cultural shift that Lehrer describes. (For those who aren’t used to seeing scientists of her stature showing such literary erudition, I should point out that she is the only psychologist I know who has managed to slip an allusion to Goethe into the title of a book chapter.) Here’s how she gives voice to her dream:

Imagine writing fiction as if it were a scientific account, footnotes, references and all. Imagine writing up empirically based research as if it were a suspenseful narrative. I have been seeking this kind of cross-over, but have never achieved it myself.

It’s important to set the limits of this kind of ambition. I for one will not be submitting any journal articles written as suspenseful narrative, not any time soon. The reporting of science in academic journals needs to hit certain targets of clarity, detail, interpretative balance, context, intellectual rigour and brevity. The scientific article has developed its own aesthetic, and to me it is an attractive one. A well-written paper can be a joy to read (as we scientists know when we referee manuscripts that fall far short of these standards). But reading journal articles does not press the same buttons for me that reading good fiction or non-fiction does. I don’t think it should even try to do so.

For me, Frith’s question bears more on the kind of writing we do to engage with and communicate science, rather than the scientific reports themselves. There, I would argue that the dominant genre is indeed suspenseful narrative. If that is true, I would argue that Frith already has her wish. Joshua Foer’s recent book on ‘mental athletes’ (which also showcases S.’s story) is a good example of how effective science writing can be when it is shaped as a thriller, complete with clearly demarcated plot-drivers and end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

I think, though, that this kind of hang-onto-your-hats thrillerism is the least that science writing can learn from fiction. I don’t read thrillers, on the whole: too often I find them formulaic, psychologically shallow and uncomfortably constrained by the rules of their genre. I hate to say it, but that’s my feeling about much science writing as well. A genre has grown up that seems never to examine its own methods, where facts are told (often in a faintly patronising, gee-whiz tone) rather than being shown, or allowed to be felt. You could be forgiven for thinking that there was no other way of doing it.

I’m not happy with that orthodoxy, and will keep trying to find new ways of writing about science. When I embarked on The Baby in the Mirror (published in the US as A Thousand Days of Wonder), I wanted to write a science book that read like a novel. The story was about a person—my daughter—and so it had to take character seriously. But it had to be good on the science as well. The book that emerged didn’t work for everyone, but I at least felt that I was on to something. It suggested a new direction, one which I am exploring further in my new book, which will also be preoccupied with bringing the ‘subjective’ into ‘objective’ science.

I think that science writing can take character seriously, and that it can care about subjective experience, emotion, and a self’s relationship with the world. It can be about how people make sense of their reality, as well as about the reality itself. It can do all that while still being true to the science. This is particularly true of writing in the cognitive sciences, where people—their minds and their brains—are our focus. Suspenseful narratives don’t have to be about things happening and goals being met; they can be about changing emotions, the dizzingly complicated to-and-fro of who knows what and who feels what about whom. There are examples out there already, such as some of the writing in the neuropsychological tradition of Oliver Sacks (which in turn owes a debt to Luria and others). An intriguing recent example is Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land, where the tone is elegiac, reflective, drunk with wonder at the miracle of the (even damaged) human brain. I hope to see more of this kind of writing about science, and dream (like Frith) of reading more books that go beyond the cliches of pop science and give us some of the emotive complexity and richness of literary fiction.

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