Brain science is everywhere. The ‘neuro-’ prefix has been used to jazz up approaches to self-help, ethics, aesthetics, marketing, economics, even parenting. These days, you don’t only have to look after your offspring as a developing person; you have to look after your baby’s grey matter. As the cognitive neuropsychologist Keith Laws quipped recently on Twitter: ‘Unable to persuade others about your viewpoint? Take a Neuro-Prefix—influence grows or money back.’
The sociologist Nik Rose has written brilliantly on the seductive appeal of this kind of reductionism. It’s partly down to the success of the science that neuroscientific truth is now routinely privileged above other kinds of truth. (Genetics used to have the same grip on our imaginations, but that’s a topic for another day.) If you can provide a psychological explanation of behaviour (that is, at the level of thoughts, perceptions, beliefs and so on), you might get some attention. But if you can show that certain bits of the brain activate in regular patterns while people are doing such tasks in the scanner, that explanation seems to carry greater weight. In fact, explanations at the psychological level are frequently subsumed under the neuro umbrella. A few of us curmudgeons on Twitter are often pointing out that people increasingly use the word ‘neuroscience’ when they actually mean ‘psychology’.
As a psychologist interested in mind and behaviour, I am excited by the power of novel neuroscientific techniques. The friends and colleagues who grapple with these complexities are among the smartest people I know. And yet, as with any scientific endeavour, we have to be cautious about the limits of new methods. There are some deep conceptual and technical problems about how to interpret the findings produced by, say, fMRI studies. These problems are not unique to cognitive neuroscience, and most practitioners that I know are acutely aware of them. We also have to be wary about how we communicate those findings beyond academe, when there is such a general (and perhaps sometimes indiscriminate) appetite for neuro-explanations.
As a novelist, I am interested in these appetites. I want to know whether the rise of neuroscience really changes the way we understand ourselves. I am not being critical of cognitive neuroscience research, much of which is ingenious, elegant and deeply valuable. Rather, I am questioning how we consume and respond to this new kind of knowledge.
For me, the best way of exploring these reactions is through a medium that might seem to have little to do with the realities of neuroimaging head coils and 3-Tesla magnets. Writers of fiction have always been barometers of change in how humanity has understood itself. Ideas from Darwinism and Freudianism, to take two examples, quickly permeated literary fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. George Eliot’s plots are ever-conscious of Darwinian scepticism about the possibility of freewill, while Freud’s theory of the unconscious had a deliciously fertile influence on modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf. Will neuroscience permeate fiction as rapidly and pervasively? Are the barometers already twitching?
Let’s take one example of an idea that neuroscience has brought into close focus. Writers such as Daniel Kahnemann and David Eagleman have lucidly described a new consensus about how our brains underpin our experience. Rather than being single, indivisible centres of experience, we are made up of fractionated processing systems, each evolved for different purposes. We have multiple visual systems working in parallel, different pathways for understanding others’ behaviour, even distinct simultaneously-functioning reasoning systems.
But what does that brain information mean for the owners of those brains? This week I am launching a novel which explores the implications of some of these ideas. What if you had a character who really felt differently about herself as a result of what she had learned about her nervous system? How would her emotional life change? How would she act? How would she make moral choices? If freewill is an illusion, how would she decide what to do? How would her neuroscientific understanding alter her character and personhood? The novel is the perfect forum for asking these questions because of the way it places subjectivity, character and moral action at its heart. Neuroscience makes the novel more relevant, not less relevant. You can see me talking some more about how A Box of Birds has come together, and what I hope to achieve with it, by following this link.
I am not the first writer to put neuroscience into a novel. Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Powers have all given their characters interests in the workings of the brain, and of course plenty of sci-fi plots have been driven by (admittedly rather far-fetched) ideas of memory erasure and mind uploading. But in my opinion novelists haven’t yet gone as far as they can in exploring how real-world neuroscientific knowledge changes our understanding of ourselves. Fiction hasn’t really grappled with the big questions that neuroscience raises (and which earlier generations of writers tackled in relation to evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis). Is it simply a matter of the fiction catching up with the science, or are there some profound limitations on how satisfying neuro-explanations can ever be? Does this new view of humanity threaten the integrities of personhood and self? Or will we always be drawn back to old-fashioned ideas about unitary selves facing moral imperatives? These are challenges for all of us, not just those of us who write fiction: to decide whether knowing more about the workings of the brain really changes how we feel about who we are.