Part of the reason for taking the crowd-funding route with A Box of Birds was the opportunity it promised for getting some conversations going around the themes of the book. One of the ways in which I think this novel is distinctive is in its portrayal of a philosophy of neuroscientific materialism. If you are steeped in a particular scientific view of how the brain works, how does that change your understanding of your own thoughts, feelings and actions? I have explored this fictionally through the story of a neuroscientist, Yvonne Churcher, and her reactions to some major challenges to her materialist views.
In search of just such a conversation, I got in touch with the acclaimed science writer Jonah Lehrer, who has written previously about the relationship between fiction and cognitive science (most notably in his immensely erudite Proust was a Neuroscientist). Jonah very generously offered to set up a Q&A in which we could discuss some of these themes of mutual interest. It was huge fun to do, and you can read the results (and a very interesting comment thread) here.
As the best discussions always do, the Q&A with Jonah also stimulated a lot of new thinking on my part. I had asked whether neuroscientific explanations of mind and behaviour will go on to influence the novel in the way that evolutionary and psychoanalytic theory did. What I didn’t explore was the idea that the latter have a particular power in accounting for motivations: helping the writer and reader to make sense of why people do what they do.
Explaining motives is of course a key task for the fiction writer. An author who presents actions without giving reasons for those actions is not going to keep the reader’s interest. It seems to be a basic fact of our psychology that we look for the causes behind behaviour, which we usually interpret in terms of the mental states that underlie action: those beliefs, desires, secrets and attitudes that drive a plot along.
We know plenty about the neuroscience of motivation. A neuromaterialist character might conceivably make sense of an urge or a desire in terms of activation in the dopamine reward system. A central plot-thread in A Box of Birds is the idea of intracranial self-stimulation, which refers to stimulation of one’s own nervous system for various putative rewards. In a sexual encounter, Yvonne feels desire in her brain as well as in her body. I don’t believe that everyone thinks like this about lust, but I think it’s plausible that some people do, and it’s that space of understanding that I want to explore in this story.
Often, though, as I complained to Jonah, neuroscientific detail in fiction is an accompaniment of behaviour rather than a driver of it. Compare that to the situation with Darwinian and Freudian views of mind. Fiction writers have always dealt with people acting without knowing why, and they have often framed these unconscious motivations in evolutionary or psychodynamic terms. In Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, for example, the protagonist Joe Rose reaches for an evo-psych interpretation of his feeling of fear at catching sight of his tormentor, Jed, in the reading room of the London Library. Joe is afraid because he has a mammalian nervous system, evolved to respond to threats, and here is another mammal promising to do him harm. At a different level of explanation, psychodynamic motives are everywhere in fiction: think, for example, of Paul’s Oedipal attraction to his mother in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, or the depth psychology routinely dished out by TV medic Gregory House.
I’m not sure that neuroscience can—yet—match the power of these explanations for characters’ motives. It is of course a mistake to separate the neuroscientific entirely from the evolutionary, given that our nervous systems evolved under specific selective pressures. What I’m interested in is the kind of fiction where characters make sense of what they are doing in terms of what their brains are up to. The protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, for example, has Tourette’s syndrome. He blurts out obscenities because his brain makes him do it. But this is pathology, not ordinary experience. I want to know whether it’s possible to have a fiction of everyday life where brain is the driver of behaviour. In A Box of Birds, Yvonne understands herself differently because of what she knows about her own nervous system. And that, at several key points in the plot, affects how she goes on to act.
Like any fiction-makers, writers who want to take neuroscience seriously need to be aware of why their characters are acting like they are. It may be that we need to make more progress in understanding the brain science of motivation before we see neuro-explanations really getting established in fiction. But even then, those kinds of explanations may not satisfy us as readers. Yvonne’s perspective on her own experience changes as events unfold, drifting away from neuromaterialism towards something more like an old-fashioned notion of self. We need to know why characters do what they do, and those explanations need to be pitched at a level of explanation that makes sense to us. Neuroscientific knowledge may provide us with mechanisms, but to work in fiction it also needs to be an engine of behaviour.
- Charles Fernyhough