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Neuroscience in fiction

Publication day for A Box of Birds is just around the corner, so it was good to get a chance to set out some of the motivations behind the novel in last weekend’s Guardian Review. As I explained in the piece, fiction gives us an unparalleled opportunity to understand the value of neuroscientific accounts of behaviour and experience. A lively comment thread has been building: you can join in here. The poet Helen Mort has written a thoughtful response on her blog, including a wonderful poem about Phantom Limb Syndrome.

A reminder that you can order the trade paperback edition of the novel here.

I’ve reproduced the article below with a few additional links:

We are in the middle of a debate about the status of neuroscience. Against the deceptive allure of neuroimaging and reported sightings of ‘brain centres’ for everything from sarcasm to religious experience, there are stern reassurances that, if we were ever to work out the scientific basis of consciousness, it would be too complicated for us to understand. We use lazy neurospeak and stock up on brain porn, but do we draw from it knowledge we can use? Is neuroscience really changing the way we understand ourselves?

It might sound like an unlikely source of evidence, but we can find out something about the proper treatment of neuroscience by looking at how it functions in fiction. If tracing behaviour and experience to its neural underpinnings really offers a new understanding of humanity, novelists are bound to draw on it in revealing how their characters understand themselves. And writers’ use of neuroscientific ideas will tell us something about how we consume such explanations and what meaning we extract from them.

In one sense, neuro-explanations seem to challenge the mechanisms by which novels work. Neuroscientists warn us that we may have no freewill, no ‘self’ at the helm of our behaviour; their work shows that our memories are leaky reconstructions and that even our visual perception of the world is a system of illusions. How do these messages change what we do, how we feel, how we decide to live? Fiction is a perfect medium for exploring these questions.

Which makes it slightly surprising that the neuro doesn’t actually feature all that prominently in literary fiction. A 2009 article by Marco Roth pointed out that bookish neuroscience is often connected with atypical and pathological behaviour. For example, Gary Lambert’s depression in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections gives a central role to his screwy neurotransmitters, but we don’t get neuro-explanations for the (debatably) more sane members of the Lambert family. Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker is more interested in the brain-damaged patient, Mark Schluter, than with the science-inflected self-descriptions of his neuropsychologist, Gerald Weber.

If neuroscientific ideas are really going to prove their worth to novelists, they need to be able to provide satisfactory accounts of ordinary, non-pathological experience. One novel to attempt that is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which tells the story of the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, and his run-ins with the violent, chromosomally-disordered Baxter. Intimate with the workings of the brain, Perowne sees his own experience in terms of the bioelectrical processes that underlie it. Feeling a ‘sustained, distorting euphoria’, for example, he speculates that ‘there’s been a chemical accident while he slept—something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting […] a kindly cascade of intracellular events’.

Perowne’s professional familiarity with neuroscience certainly colours his reflections on himself, but it’s not clear that it changes his relationships with his own experience and behaviour: it doesn’t make him less trusting of his own memory or visual perception, for example. More importantly, this immersion in neuroscience doesn’t change the story. Setting aside a couple of episodes where Perowne’s medical knowledge is directly exploited, the plot of Saturday would not unfold any differently if he had been ignorant of brain science. Baxter’s wild behaviour ultimately has a genetic rather than a neurological cause (he suffers from Huntington’s disease). When Baxter’s course of action is violently altered, it is poetry—a recital of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’—rather than neuroscience that is effective in changing behaviour. Brain is a correlate of action, not a driver of it.

Other novelists are less optimistic about neuroscience’s capacity to make a difference. In Sebastian Faulks’ recent A Possible Life, the neuroscientist Elena pins the human capacity for self-awareness to a particular junction between ‘Glockner’s Isthmus’ (a fictional nexus of selfhood) and ‘the site of episodic memory’. While the neuroscience of Faulks’ tale fails to withstand close scrutiny, more interesting is the discovery’s lack of effect on the protagonist. Fêted internationally for her momentous breakthrough, Elena can’t connect her new neuroscientific reality to her own experience—or she won’t let herself. ‘She knew it to be truthful, valid and endlessly provable, but she didn’t allow the implications to affect the way she lived’.

Faulks’ story seems to be telling us that, even if the scientific message turned out to be manageably simple, being able to reduce quintessentially human mental capacities to neural processes would not add much to our understanding. Perhaps neuroscience will continue to be most useful in accounting for disorder; indeed, perhaps its way of working will be to turn everything into the pathological. Roth’s complaint about the fictional dominance of neuro-dysfunction mirrors a wider trend, evidenced in the recent outcry about the psychiatry manual DSM-V, to see clinical symptoms where once we would have seen ordinary human variation.

Another reason for not expecting to see too many neuro-explanations in fiction is that they may just be too complex. Novels give us manuals for living, accounts of who we are that we can use as human beings, and neuroscience may be working at the wrong level of explanation. The kind of neuro-explanations that we might one day arrive at might be too complicated for most of us to understand. If that’s the case, we’re unlikely to see novelists trying to weave them into a narrative. Fiction might function as a litmus test: not of what is true, but of what is useful.

It’s also possible that we won’t always privilege neuro-truth above other kinds. Just as genetic explanations seemed less seductive once the human genome (with its surprisingly small complement of genes) was described, so our enthusiam for the brain might wane as we recognise that much of its work actually translates into the functioning of a disappointingly small number of ‘core’ networks. There is still mind-bogglingly complexity—subsidiary neural centres ‘plug in’ to core networks in all sorts of complicated ways—but it might be of a more boring kind than that promised by a tally of 86 billion neurones.

Fiction exists for its own purposes, and writers and readers will rightly resist attempts to turn it into ‘evidence’ for or against anything. It’s possible that neuroscience is just too new for its ideas to have permeated literary fiction in the way that those other paradigm-changers, Darwinism and psychoanalysis, did. As a novelist, I am interested in exploring characters for whom the networks of the cortex are a real, charged presence. How does this understanding affect what you do when things start happening, when you have to make moral choices? Because of the way it puts subjectivity, character and moral action at its heart, the novel is the ideal crucible for the experiment.

Charles Fernyhough’s literary thriller A Box of Birds, about brains and those who work with them, is published by Unbound on 7 May.

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