Is memory just a leaky reconstruction?
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. Is neuroscience really changing the way we comprehend ourselves?
If tracing behaviour and experience to its neural underpinnings really offers a new understanding of humanity, aren’t novelists bound to draw on it in revealing how their characters understand themselves? 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; 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.
A 2009 article by Marco Roth in n+1 magazine pointed out that neuroscience in fiction 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'sThe 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’sSaturday, 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 familiarity with neuroscience certainly colours his thoughts about 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. And, when his course of action is violently altered, it is poetry – a recital of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” – rather than neuroscience that brings it about.
Other novelists are pessimistic about brain science’s capacity to make a difference. In Sebastian Faulks's A Possible Life, the neuroscientist Elena makes the momentous discovery that the human capacity for self-awareness can be pinned to a particular junction between “Glockner’s Isthmus” (a fictional nexus of selfhood) and “the site of episodic memory”. Yet though feted internationally for her 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’s story seems to be telling us that, even if the scientific message turns out to be 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. Marco 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.
Neuro-explanations might simply be too complex for fiction; alternatively, just as genetic explanations seemed less seductive once the human genome was described, so our enthusiasm 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 complexity, but it might be of a more boring kind than that promised by a tally of 86bn 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.