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.