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Science and fiction: once more with links

A few weeks ago, during the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was asked to contribute to the Guardian’s ‘What I’m thinking about…’ series which was capturing some of the debates and conversations going on in Charlotte Square Gardens. A few of the links didn’t make it through into the published piece, so here it is again with all the links reinstated:

Whether it’s finding bosons or parking cars on Mars, science can give fictional characters a whole lot of different new things to think about. But can the influence ever work in the other direction—can scientists ever find inspiration in fiction? That’s a question that came up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this weekend. In the first of a series of events funded by the Wellcome Trust, I was in conversation with the US novelist Ben Marcus, whose novel The Flame Alphabet thrillingly recasts language as a deadly toxin, forcing us to rethink its relations with private thought and public communication. One thing we talked about was how the sciences of human experience, including psychology and cognitive neuroscience, have to be interested in that experience from the inside. There’s no better way of getting at the subjectivity of an individual consciousness than through a skilful fictional narrative. Fiction can also be a laboratory for testing out different explanations of human behaviour. When Darwinism and psychoanalysis reshaped our conceptions of humanity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers were there as barometers of those new understandings. Neuroscience promises a similarly profound shift in how we make sense of ourselves, and we can look to writers to explore whether brain science will ultimately provide us with satisfactory accounts of who we are.

Memory is another area where the insights of writers can spark scientific enquiry. You could argue that all novels are at some level about memory, and writings on the topic are a rich source on the subjectivity of the experience. Autobiographical memory is defined as our memory for the events of our own lives, and the recent science of this topic forces us to rethink it in quite a radical way. Rather than recording events like a video camera, we reconstruct past events by integrating many different kinds of information, creating a kind of multimedia collage which can differ subtly from telling to retelling. In immersing myself in this topic, I didn’t only look at the work of scientists. Novelists have always been attuned to the vagaries of autobiographical memory, from Proust’s writings about the links between memory, sensation and emotion to A. S. Byatt’s delineation of subtle phenomenological distinctions between kinds of early memory. Looking further back, medieval writers turn out to have been remarkably prescient about memory’s recombinative, future-oriented function, while the understanding of narrative has been highlighted as a limiting factor on small children’s ability to do autobiographical memory. If we want a better understanding of how the brain tells stories about the past, it seems that we could do worse than read fiction.

This ‘reconstructive’ view of memory also raises questions about the genre of life writing. When we read a memoir, we are often asked to take the vividness of the memory as a guarantee of its veracity. In contrast, writers like Janice Galloway have been praised for acknowledging the narrative, storytelling nature of memory. At her event on Sunday, I had the chance to ask Galloway whether memoirists should do more to acknowledge the reconstructive nature of their art. From the writer’s point of view, she responded, there is no ‘should’ about it; each life-writer has to negotiate their own relationship with the past. Artful, emotionally charged narratives, like our own ordinary and precious memories, will always hold a distinctive kind of truth, whether or not they are literally accurate representations of what happened.

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