In Proust Was A Neuroscientist, I argued that, even in this age of glittering science, we still have a deep need for the musings and mysteries of art:
We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us to how live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse “negative capability.” He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had “the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.
I went on to (grandiosely) propose the formation of a fourth culture, which would “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.” There are many wonderful examples of such works, from the novels of Richard Powers to the mathematical essays of David Foster Wallace.
And this brings me to Charles Fernyhough, a science writer, novelist and academic psychologist. His most recent project is A Box of Birds, a novel that explicitly attempts to explore the impact of neuroscience on our self-conception. Here’s how Charles summarizes his goals for the fictional work:
I’m hoping it works on several levels: as a pacy thriller set in a near-future world of experimental brain research; as a love story between a neuroscientist and an animal rights campaigner; and as a clash between two of the predominant philosophical positions of our age. One is the materialist view that science has (or will have) all the answers and that ‘we’ are nothing more than bundles of nerves and chemical reactions. The other is the Freud-inspired position that underpins the culture of therapy: that the stories we tell about ourselves and our pasts have the capacity to change our future.
There have been some good modern novelists who have used neuroscientific ideas in their work: Ian McEwan, Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen spring to mind as three of the most successful. But I want to take it a little further.
For example, can you bring the neural level of explanation into the story and still create something that works as a fiction – or are you always drawn back to old-fashioned ideas of self, subjectivity, love and so on? Does neuroscience really change our understanding of who we are? For me, the only way to answer these questions was to write a novel that dramatised them.
If that sounds intriguing, you can support the book over at Unbound. As a fan of his writing, I was eager to ask Charles a few questions about the relationship between science and art and why a scientist might feel compelled to explore the world of fact in fiction.
LEHRER: You’re a scientist and a writer. My first question, then, is practical: Where do you find the time?
FERNYHOUGH: My academic post is part-time. Writing fiction bites huge chunks out of your life and you have to keep at it every day if you can. I have a supportive employer and an unbelievably giving family.
LEHRER: You argue that “by putting neuroscience into fiction we can find out what kinds of explanations will ultimately be satisfying to us.” Could you explain further? How did writing this book change your view of various scientific explanations? Which ones proved satisfying and which ones proved unsatisfying? I’m thinking here of George Eliot’s great quip that her novels were “simply a set of experiments in life.” Would you agree?
FERNYHOUGH: I’m trying to say something about how we as a species consume the science, rather than about the science itself. Neuroscientific research will stand or fall on the age-old criteria of testability, replicability, methodological rigour, conceptual coherence, and so on. 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. Modern ideas about diffuse neural systems, parallel streams of processing and all the rest have made her doubt the integrity of her own self. Her understanding of the fractionated, nonCartesian mind has existential effects, and (to the extent that such a thing can ever be determined in the brain) causal influences on her decision-making.
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?
When I asked around about this, I realised that people do indeed make sense of their experience and behaviour in terms of brain processes. But I also started to suspect that neuro-level explanations are particularly relevant at the fringes of our experience. They are good at putting us in touch with what, to steal from Freud, you might call the psychopathology of everyday life: those deviations from normal experience that we get with anxiety, depression, déjà vu and so on. The more interesting challenge, for me, is to show whether it’s plausible for a fictional character to make sense of everyday experience in these terms. Does knowing more about the brain help me to understand being in love, or appreciating a work of art, or feeling apprehensive about an important meeting? More, does it affect the choices I make? That’s where the really exciting questions lie.
And, without giving the plot away, that’s also where I think fiction can bump up against the limits of those neuro-explanations. Yvonne discovers a coherence to her existence—something like an old-fashioned self—in the midst of all the neural diffusion. This is a novel, and it has to work on the novel’s terms. But those terms are also those of the ordinary human being. They’re the criteria by which we understand people’s actions in the real world as well as in fictional ones, and that commonality is one reason why novels can be manuals for living. The novelist has got to be asking both the Socratic question (‘How should I live?’) and the Bob Dylan question (‘How does it feel?’). If you cram neuroscience into fiction without taking care of the narrative—without taking care of your characters and their thoughts and feelings—you’ll end up with a mess, and you probably won’t be getting a very good take on the neuroscience either.