Saturday, August 13, 2005

It's all in the mind

Perhaps expecting the transfer from reading fiction to science is too much. If people's minds are not geared to doing so there is not much point in insisting there is something of value there.

I ought to admit that asking you to read about quantum mechanics was a tease - neither you nor I was the means to fully understand it - but one with a point: an enlightened reader recognising from popular explanations the strangeness of the quantum world cannot but turn fro this to philosophy, religion or spiritual matters in general. Into unknown territory. The modern consensus is that religion and science occupy different realms and are not essentially in conflict.

Both have thrown up ethical and moral dilemmas: now, in scientific-technological age we are constatly barraged both with the consequences of our over-consumption and its effects on the environment, but also with the belief that there will be a technological fix. This type of thinking is not dissimilar to religious thinking of a more fixed type.

In a collection of old cuttings I was sorting this one seemed somehow to help with the science vs. literature question. It is an extract from a book about the effects of brain damage in the same vein as Sack's, The Man who mistook his wife for a Hat. You might go one stage further to the autistic world. The autistic mind cannot leave out the details. Everything is seen or heard. This is very different from the normal mind which is more of a filter.

This in order to point towards psychology and neuroscience as more suitable areas of science to pair with why we prefer read fiction.

" Why does raw meat give me a hard on?" This is Michael, chopping sirloin ready for the stir-fry. Typically, he is going to the trouble of preparing a good lunch: beef in hoi-sin sausce. He's brought some beer, too. We're drinking straight from the can. Amy, his girlfriend, sits at the kitchen table, reading a magazine. "Michael!" she says, without looking up. Michael slides the diced beef into the wok where it sizzles in the hot oil. "Easy Amy. Only a twitch." He winks at me. Then he drops what he is doing and strides out of the room.

"Have a listen to this." he calls over his shoulder; and soon the place is awash with cascades of sound - brittle arpeggios, tumbling fragments of melody. He returns, head tilted back. "Koto," he says. "Japanese. Astonishing." From this angle the dent in his head , about three inches up from the right eyebrow, is now more noticeable.

Next day, I'm over at Stuart's. We sit in his stuffy front room. An ornate black clock - his early retirement present - clings to the way like a huge fly. Stuart locks me in his gaze. He is about to say something, but doesn't quite. It is a long pause.

Eventually he speaks. "I don't love you any more," he says, "Do I, love?" The words are intended for his wife, Helen, who sits beside him. "No, love," she replies. "So you say." There is silence again, except fro the tick of the insectoid clock. The dent in Stuart's head is above the left eyebrow.

Michael had climbed the tree to retrieve an entangled kite. He needn't have bothered, because the kite drifted down on its own accord. But he was high up by then. I her dreams Amy recalls how abruptly his voice was stifled by the creak and crack of a branch, and the wind-whipped silence of the fall as his body cleared the boughs. Hidden in the meadow grass was a spur of rock. The impact fracrured his skull and released a flash flood of bleeding into the right frontal lobe.

"I though his number was up," the surgeon told me. He had said as much to Amy as she kept vigil over the comatose body. "No point beating about the bush," he'd said. But after three days, Michael came back to life.

Stuart's twist of fate was a mororway pile-up. A bolt snapped and shot like a bullet from the vehicle in front. it came through the windscreen and through his forehead, and tore deep into his left frontal lobe. Despite the immediate dispacement of some brain matter, loss of consciousness was brief, as is sometimes the case with penetrating missile wounds. He told the paramedics he was fine and had better get home now. But they saw the brain stuff gelling his hair and put him in the ambulance.

Within an hour, surgeons were working to extract the foreign body from the interior of his head - a process also requiring the disposal of adjacent brain tissue. Part of Staurt went with it.

By these means, the Fates have neatly created mirror-image brain lesions. As a neuropsychologist, my role is to examine the consequences. Staurt now has trouble getting started. Helen encourages him out of bed in the morning, points him towards the bathroom, has his clothes ready, and gets him breakfast before she goes to work. She leaves him lists of things to do around the house and puzzle books to fill the hours. But when she returns, she often finds him where she left him, sitting in silence.

She'll go over and hug him and he'll return the embrace, but it's perfunctory. He doesn't love her any more. It's the plain truth. She accepts it. Stuart is not to blame. What he feels towards Helen is what he feels towards all other people, including himself: indifference. The absence of emotion frees him to declare the truth. He can reas people's moods and motivations, but lacks the emotional charge of empathy.

I ask what he feels about the little girl who was abducted and murdered last year. He knows it was a dreadful thing. They should hang the murderer or chop his balls off. But no, it doesn't make him "feel" anything very much.

Michael however, has trouble sleeping. Amy has to rein him in. He'll talk to strangers in the street: he'll tell them they're beuatiful or that their children are; or their pets. He wants to touch. He wants to celebrate. Beggars bring a tear to his eye. He once gave a man his coat and a £10 note. Empathy is hair-triggered - but more complex social calculations befuddle him.

When he first came home from the rehab centre, his tastes were palin. Amy said he lived on fish fingers and Led Zeppelin. He said it was like going back in time. He'd always liked these things, and now he didn't feel he should pretend otherwise. Fine, Amy said. But she wouldn't tolerate the porn videos. Like Stuart., Michael no longer feels the need to dissimulate.

"How do you feel in yourself, Stuart?" I ask. "All right." "Are you miserable?" "No." "Are you happy/" "I don't think so." He turns to Helen. "Am I happy?" Helen looks at me: I look at Stuart: the question goes round in a circle.

Michael saw me off at the front door. Amy gave me a wave from down the hall. Michael was close to tears. He pulled me to him and kissed me on the cheek. For an instant, I thought he wa going to say he loved me.

extract from The Sunday Telegraph 6 January 2002.

The article first appeared in Prospect Magazine.

Photograph by Larry Towell.

Into the Silent Land by Paul Broks longer extract

Paul Broks

Interview Paul Brok - American scientist Online

Daniel Dennett interviewed - American Scientist Online - books he recommends

N.B. Dennett suggests David Lodge's
Thinks... and Dan Lloyd's book, Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness, which is both a novel and, as he says, a novel theory of consciousness.


Who's Telling This Story Anyhow? via wood's lot


dialogue for one
Two, coffee to hand, sitting by broadband internet vying for the search engine, discussing the novel

colour = additions

Everything about the novel says control. Discuss.

In life we can't control most events.

A writer might discover a talent for words - artful linguistic expression.

Is this way with words merely a vehicle for a controlling voice? He can't control himself or the world around him but he can make a world in which both can be molded in any way possible to the extent of imagination.

The words come out on by one as if by magic and are formed into a whole...

Sometimes the author's voic is the thing that is offputting.

For so many novelists and writer in general it is the process of writing more than the final result?

Novels as an extension of our fantasies. Could be considered immature as an intellectual activity compared with say the rigors of science design or innovation.

Nothing to do with novels..This article about the young British Islamic fundamentalists comes to mind:

There is a hint at what it might be about....

This way of thinking is fictional?

The immaturity is alwys unreal and otherworldly....

We would hope the novelist is mostly not deluded.

Many are quite so in life but manage to write coherent stories.

What the vicariousness of fiction reading - the need in people to live more fully through it.

They can't through life itself?

Fiction is incorporated into life like a seamless coat - like films have come with all their reference points.

As are all the other arts. We constantly use them as markers as we do life events.

You mean we treat them as as being as real as life?

And as important, since they have come from real people's minds. When you visit an art gallery and are impressed by a painting, talking about it for weeks, maybe many years later, it not just a painting is it? I return again and again to The Magic Mountain, as an image rather than words, in a certain.... I suppose it might be called a contented limbo.

When we read Salman Rushdie's,
Midnight's Children, are we also considering the author himself and his life both as a fact and as a conjecture and how he has put the two - the work and the life - side by side for comparison?

When we rad one we think of the author's previous one.

An archipeligo of novels....

Have you seen this essay,
Who's Telling This Story Anyhow? by Margaret Greer, where she talks about frames..

What do you need a frame for when you have book covers?


It is possible to make lists of everything that could possibly go into novels: cause and effect, consequences intended and unintended, the unexpected, dreams, death, life's stages, thought ("it's arising, its remembering, its diseases." : Kenneth Burke), emotions, lack of emotion, existential angst, God, psychology, pseudo-psychology, folk psychology, values, education, sociology, class, humour, lack of humour, nemesis, nadir, crimes, morality, ethics, ethos, bathos...

Order, disorder, character, personality, guilt, embarassment, mystery...

Art is life...

An excuse to tell stories!

Even films use this. A meeting - possibly slightly unlikely in real life - a Chaucerian meeting, shall we say? - is the excuse to to settle down for a story within a story. The characters who listen to the story might not be, or seem, or have been designed by the writer, to appear as real as the characters in the story.

Could we find a handful of characteristics which we could say makes a novel not life?

Ending up? Final words?


We tend to think of the novel at its best in the same way we think of the best art or music, as a working though what we cannot do in life - such as carrying on where life left off (extension) or bringing someone or an idea back to life (resurrection) - and is therefore fantasy in its truest sense.

There might not be a circumstance in life in which to bring the idea up...

What would it be like without novels or written stories of any kind?

We would be forced to write our own if they were forbidden.

We could say fiction - the novel - is a way of working through scenarios we can't act out in life - if we took away the art and the craft of it.

[taking on stentorian tones of of a Naptha/Settembrini argument]

But of course we can't do that can we? We don't want to. They are bound in like everything in life is interconnected, an ecology. Our own personal lives are affected by a long distance event such as war or natural disaster, even if read in Tolstoy. Some things become life-changing though we don't experience them at first hand.

Novels are often used in a quite artifical way to link the characters to similar life events.

The novel as dream...

The wierdness of life might be associated in a fictional narrative with the wierdness of quantum mechanics. Interraction at a distance in sub-atomic particles might be used to hint at the effect
of political ideas.

But sometimes we get a simile or metaphor too far in novels or poems!

We have to - this is the only place we can do this.

Margaret Greer talks about the 'physical separation from the world in which storytelling can take place'.

The story has to end but life is continuous. One life transposes into another across death. Family histories are bound in with personal histories.

Memoires as lazy fictions.. or fictions as lazy memoires?


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