Sunday, 29 August 2010

Picking the pieces out of my brain

If I didn't know better, I'd think some bizarre being has visited me in the dead of night and performed a quick and nasty frontal lobotomy with a rusty ice pick. I know I've been doing research and reading for the past 2 weeks but when I try to summarise it, all the bits of information scuttle off and hide somewhere in the recesses of my sulci (or is that gyri?). But anyway, here goes.

In the last couple of weeks I've been ripping through some great YA fiction. First up was Cory Doctorow's latest For the Win. I really enjoyed it but it was an odd book, combining the gaming world with unionism, violence, communism, a touch of neuroscience and lectures on the basics of economics as it plays out in both the real and virtual worlds. It had a wide cast of characters placed across the globe, from hard core gangster bosses to rich nerds to a pirate radio host inciting factory girls to unite for the common cause of the worker. Not what you'd usually expect from YA fiction but, apart from the occasional lapse into didactism, this was a great story. Fast-paced, well plotted, lots of action, it's a story that keeps humming along. I haven't read many reviews of it so I'm not sure how it's faring yet with the target audience. It'll be interesting to see, as in some respects Doctorow has achieved something similar to what I'd like to do, in combining topics you wouldn't necessarily consider 'young adult' into a fast-paced narrative.

Suzanne Collin's Catching Fire, the second in her Hunger Games trilogy, is one that has no shortage of glowing reviews from fans. I haven't read book one yet but found no problem getting right into this second installment. Although the basic plot was one that's been done before in the sci-fi genre over the years, Collins' characters make the narrative vivid and exciting. The created world is believable, the plot reasonably simple while maintaining strong interest with some great twists and turns (I loved the big 'wedding dress' reveal) but it is the characters that really pull you in. The fear, dread and confusion the narrator, Katniss, feels is palpable all the way through. She is stuck in a no-win situation but pushes through each and every thing that is thrown at her. A real gutsy heroine (unlike some other wussy female protagonists around at the moment), and a character to inspire.

I've got through most of the first volume of Neuroconstructivism and think I have it pretty much under control. I've also skimmed through a few articles reveiwing Maraschel et al's work, most seem to be overall positive (though I did have a giggle at one that said he was annoyed that the authors hadn't cited other researchers in the field and then said he was one). So, it's accepted as a valid (if not perfect) framework and it'll do just fine by me. Next I'm tackling Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. It covers everything I could ever possibly want or need to know on the subject, but, seeing as I'm a fiction writer and not a neuropsychologist, just a skim over the good bits will do. But I have enjoyed the first chapter which covers a bit of the history of the brain and how it's been perceived and studied over the centuries. One thing stood out - people have made huge mistakes and crazy assumptions about the workings of the human brain. And although technology such as fMRIs are making the study of the brain much easier in some ways, it seems the more that science uncovers, the more problems about the brain there are to solve.
No wonder so many find it so fascinating.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Violence in YA fiction: to hold back or not?

I'm currently reading Robert Cormier's classic The Chocolate War. It's a YA book that's stood the test of time. In a poll of most loved YA books held in March 2010, it came in at number 61 - not bad for a book first published in 1974. And according to Wikipedia, it also came 3rd on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.

The edition I'm reading includes an introduction by Cormier, where he talks about the reasons why it was rejected by 7 major publishers before being finally accepted in 1973: "Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers of the 1970s would find difficult to accept. Too violent." Considering its top 3 appearance on the ALA's recent banned/challenged list, clearly many adults are still challenged by the story: violence, sex and drug use are most cited as reasons why it should be banned or restricted. But its ongoing popularity proves that teens connect with the book. 

In her recent essay Narrative as Nourishment, literary theorist Ellen Spolsky discusses Paul Hernadi's argument that "...the creation and consumption of fictional narratives provide evolutionary advantages to a group, preparing them to anticipate challenges they may some day face by familiarizing their young with a range of hypothetical scenarios." Spolsky goes onto discuss how common themes in narratives can point to problems that artists and society are struggling with, however, while the narratives can't always provide answers or solutions they can nonetheless help us deal with them.

Cormier doesn't hold back on the violence in his book, which is one of the reasons it is challenged. But the honesty in Cormier's writing, which he held onto despite the many rejections received from publishers, is probably what appeals to his teen audience. By writing honestly about issues bullying and violence, Cormier both validates the experiences of teens and refuses to patronise them by taking the story through to its inevitable and confronting (unhappy) ending. And taking into account Hernadi's theory, Cormier's narrative may help teen readers work out how to deal with similar situations in their own lives; while Spolsky's views suggest that even if the narrative doesn't point to a solution it may help readers cope with experiences of bullying or violence.

I had a discussion with my supervisor earlier in the week about the depiction of violence in my own writing. She asked if I felt I was holding back, and I admitted that yes, probably I was. But now I know I have no excuse. As a writer one of my main responsibilities is to be true to the story and treat my future readers with respect by writing honestly. And if one day I can get my book simultaneously in the most popular and most banned lists, I'll know I've done really well.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Neuroconstructivism in 25 words or less

A friend on facebook asked me to explain neuroconstructivism in 25 words or less. Unfortunately I've never been good at the 25 words or less thing - if I was I'd have used my spare time more wisely and entered a heap of competitions and won awesome prizes like plasma TVs and overseas holidays. Instead, I'm doing a PhD.

But I will try explaining the neuroconstructivist framework in 100 or so words.

From a scientific perspective neuroconstructivism takes a multi-disciplinary approach - using neuroimaging techniques, computational modellng and cognitive studies - to understand how a human develops from conception through to adulthood. It uses the terms 'embrainment' and 'embodiment' to describe the idea that no part of us, not even a single brain cell, develops in isolation. Brain cells develop within a brain that develops within a body that develops within an environment. And at each point of development, the thing that is developing is affected by something else.

Or, as Maraschal et al* put it, "Units [brain cell, brain region or human individual] do not develop in isolation. They develop within a context of other developing units." In other words, they tell us, the underlying principle of neuroconsctructivism is "context dependence".

I see neuroconstructivism as a holistic way of looking at what makes us who we are as individuals - our talents and strengths, our weaknesses and foibles - and that's why, as a framework for my thesis, it appeals to me. As a fiction writer it's vital for me to understand what makes my characters who they are. And if I wanted to go crazily overboard I could use a neuroconstructivist approach to studying every single detail of their development to explain their behaviour, actions, choices and quirks (a warning to friends and family: if I casually suggest you might like to have a brain scan, back away slowly..then run away very fast).

Even further than that, I could use it to deconstruct the choices I make as a fiction writer. What was it about my development that attracted me to writing, and to choosing these specific characters to write this particular story (note to self: order fMRI next time I visit doctor).

Many writers will explain that their characters appear in their heads, out of thin air, and give them a story to write. My characters rarely come to me like that. I build them up bit by bit, adding pieces of information about their lives and experiences that guide the fictional choices they make. I may not go as far as ordering brain scans** to make my characters authentic, but I will use be looking to the neuroconstructivist framework, in part, to help me create authentic characters in my fiction.

*Neuroconstructivism volume 1: how the brain constructs cognition (Mareshcal et al)
** this is not a binding statement. I probably won't order brain scans, but then again I might.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Madness within the architecture

This week my supervisor asked me a question that got my brain churning so much I had a massive head spin. I was telling her about my fascination with abandoned lunatic asylums and she said, do you think the madness stays within the walls of the building, and that it affects the brains and behaviours of those who later inhabit the buildings. In other words, does madness linger within the architecture?

I think most buildings have a certain feel to them. The last time I went house hunting I looked at a place that I quite liked and so went back for another look. But on my second visit the downstairs section of the house gave me the absolute creeps. Perhaps it was because I was there with just my kids and the agent (the first visit had been during a crowded open house); perhaps it was because the downstairs area was partly excavated into the earth so that only the very top of the window was above the ground. Or perhaps it was the presence of the owners and their mean-looking dog in the back yard. But whatever it was, the house got crossed off my list of potential future homes. In contrast, the house I ended up buying had a really nice feel to it, despite the revolting, vivid green feature wall in the main bedroom and the smallest bedroom being roped off to house the owner's extensive Barbie and Ken collection (complete with Babie and Ken having a swim in the pool).

So I think that, over time, a building aborbs the energy of the humans living and working in it, both good and bad, and that this energy can remain present long after the occupants have gone. So abandonded lunatic asylums, with the madness of their inmates and the horrors they often endured within its walls, are perfect settings for bizarre events to unfold within fiction. What type of people would choose to make their home within an abandoned asylum? Are they there because they have nowhere else to go or because flaws in their psychological make-up mean that the place has a particular appeal to them? Does the madness embedded within the walls give them freedom to express their own brand of insanity, or even normalise it?

These are a few of the questions I'll be exploring during the process of writing my manuscript. 

Also this week I began reading volume 1 of Neuronstructivism by Mareschal et al. I've only read the introduction and chapter 1 but here are a couple of the ideas that appeal to me so far:

"The implication is that with regard to psychological traits, each individual defines their own unique environment, despite any attempt by the environment to treat individuals in the same way."

"...even very early development is not merely due to the unfolding of a genetically defined programme, but instead, involves complex interactive processes."

What I take from that (in my fiction-writer's mind) is that each individual reacts and responds to an environment in their own way, and that their reaction/response is a complex interplay of actions and reactions.

And in terms of an environment, the abandoned asylum offers a lot of scope for complexity.