Sunday, 26 September 2010

Consciousness and Kevin Brooks' 'Being'

 The tv series Being Human looks at the struggles of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost to create meaningful human lives in spite of their non-humaness.
Being, a young adult novel by Kevin Brooks, tackles a similar theme.The teenaged male protagonist, Robert, enters hospital for a routine endoscopy. He wakes, his body paralysed by anaesthesia, to find doctors cutting him open. The endoscopy has revealed that in place of human organs, beneath Robert's skin and bones is concealed a hard plastic shell containing materials that are definitely non-human. A man dressed in a dark suit and armed with a gun is barking instructions at the surgeon, another armed man guards the door.

The anaesthetic wears off and Robert escapes the hospital with some surgical supplies, a weapon and the tape from his endoscopy. He takes refuge in a motel, cuts himself open again and looks at what is inside him. Repulsed and shocked by what he sees, he neither understands nor recognises the alien parts inside his body. Viewing the tape of his endoscopy over and over again doesn't give him any more information.

This is an action-suspense novel with a twist. While Robert faces off against armed secret service agents, joins forces with a counterfeiter and escapes to Spain, he tries to understand what he is. He was fostered from birth, has few memories of his childhood and knows only that he has always healed faster than most people. He eats, drinks and shits. He thinks and feels guilt, love, embarrassment, fear, shame and sadness (although he can't cry). Isn't that enough to make him human, he asks?

What was I?
What could I be?
Where did I come from?
Was I born? Was I created?
Was I flesh and blood?
Or not?
And, if not, so what?
If I couldn't tell the difference, what difference did it make? What's the difference between complicated meat and complicated metal? What is a life? What makes a life?
History? Time? Memories? Senses? How do you see things? What do you see? How do you hear things? How do you feel? How do you do anything? How do you breathe? How do you grow? How do you think?
I wondered if I was going mad.

These questions about what it is to be human are threaded throughout the narrative. Robert struggles with what he is and what he might be. He does not know why secret service agents want him; he has no clue whether they know what he is either. In exile with the counterfeiter who becomes his girlfriend, he struggles with the truth and honesty of their relationship as they build a life together in a small village in Spain. How can he honestly explain to her what he is when he doesn't understand it himself? Isn't his lived life proof enough that he is human, or do the mysteries of the technology concealed inside his body condemn him to always being 'other'.

It would be interesting if Brooks had approached this topic from another angle, and had the protagonist Robert undergo a brain scan rather than an endoscopy. But although Brooks doesn't directly tackle the brain and its role in making us human, he does raise interesting questions about the brain/mind/body split, and what it is that makes us who we are, through Robert's internal and external struggles.

Being is a great example of a young adult novel that threads some big questions through a well-plotted, action-packed narrative. It can be read on the surface level as an action/suspense novel or the reader can choose to reflect on the nature of consciousness and humanity, trying to work out some of the 'big questions' along with the protagonist. Although the ending is not as satisfying as the rest of the novel, it leaves the way open for more questions about the mysterious Robert (and, possibly, a sequel).

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What is a neuronovel anyway?

In late 2009, in a response to Jonah Lehrer's blogpost on the neuronovel, Marco Roth wrote:

"...contemporary novelists unnecessarily restrict themselves when they focus on questions of genetic or neurological causes for human behavior....I do think neuronovels and their authors have forsaken the world, too quickly, and the existing state of neuroscience does not help them to regain it." 

Roth and Lehrer were discussing the neuronovel in terms of adult fiction (including Saturday, Ian McEwans retelling of Mrs Dalloway). Lehrer had criticised Roth's view of the neuronovel, writing that the dialogue between contemporary science and contemporary art is part of an attempt to grapple with the implications of scientific theory. Roth, in response to Lehrer's criticism, wrote that he didn't have a problem with writers learning and borrowing from science to describe effects and generate metaphors, but he saw a problem "...when these borrowings are intended as both realism and metaphor at the same time."

Gary Johnson, in his article Consciousness as Content: Neuronarratives and the Redemption of Fiction defines the neuronarrative as "works of fiction that incorporate advances in cognitive studies as a prominent theme, that compel novelists to struggle with consciousness as “content” and to reassess the value of narrative fiction." The key point in Johnson's definition, for me, is the writer's struggle with "consciousness as 'content'". And in this he gives a definition that I think encompasses both Roth's and Lehrer's views: that the neuronovel draws on scientific theories but is not confined by the science, rather, it has the potential to amplify it.

For me, there is no doubt that a focus on the science at the expense of creativity is likely to make any piece of fiction bland reading. And although I've told my supervisor on several occasions that I won't be looking at consciousness in my thesis, it's a topic that seems to come up again and again in my research. I could be researching the wrong things, of course. But as much as I'm interested in the science of how the brain works - for a person who failed year 10 science I've developed an unlikely hankering for reading about the intricacies of neurons - I see the science as a starting point.

The things that science discovers about the brain fascinate me, but what fascinates me more is what my mind can do with these pieces of information. How can I twist them and turn them inside out? Stretch them and loop them and curve the facts inside and around themselves to become something other, something my own? The way my brain/mind/consciousness does this - the process it uses - are of little consequence to me right now. But in terms of neuroconstructivism - in which the person I have developed into is the result of context dependence; of my brain cells existing inside my brain, inside my body, in my particular environment and with my specific experiences - the choices I make as a writer are necessarily limited by who I have become, aren't they?

Why, for example, would I rather run naked through the middle of the city in peak hour than try to write (or read) romantic fiction or historical fiction or any of a dozen other genres that millions of others love but do absolutely nothing for me? Why are there other genres I enjoy reading but could never see myself writing? Can my preferences as a reader and writer be fully explained by one or more branches of neuroscience? Maybe. But would this knowledge improve my writing? Possibly, or possibly not.

I don't know what drives me to research neuroscience and neuropsychology. I just know that I want to. Having an understanding of the science won't make me a better writer. But it might open up new ideas that wouldn't be available to me without that knowledge. The struggle to incorporate those ideas into a successful young adult novel is sure to stretch my brain/mind in a myriad of different ways. But how those ideas develop from my own consciousness, and how I explore my characters' neural development and have them express that through their consciousness ...well that's a whole other story.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The upside of post-viral fatigue

The last few weeks I've been plagued with post-viral fatigue. It's frustrating and boring and it sucks. But if there's any advantage to being forced to do nothing it's that it gives you time to think. Lying in bed, not being able to read or use your laptop or watch tv gives your mind free time to enter a world of your own making. Before you know it, the ideas start forming. New ideas and old ones you've rejected that come back in new clothes with new solutions. A quiet time, a quiet space where nothing else is going on is exactly what my mind needs to not only allow ideas to come to the surface but to take notice of them, absorb them, let them sink in and swim around a little.

Not having enough time to just sit and think is a major problem when you're working full-time and studying part-time. It's an even bigger problem when you're meant to be writing a manuscript. And it's the major conflict of my life, one I run into over and over again. Some may describe it as my 'life lesson'. I'm not going to dwell here on the psychological implications of having to be sick so I can get some time to pay attention to my creative side - no therapist's couch is needed to work out something that bleedingly obvious. But it's a continual source of frustration for me, nonetheless.

In the absence of a rich and generous benefactor, the solution is to stop time wasting activities. But we seem so geared towards always having to be doing something. And even when we know it's madness, we continue to do it. Scanning facebook and twitter for the latest interesting link because we can't bear to miss out on something (btw, people who follow thousands of people - why?). Always being plugged into something. British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield says our obsession with being online 24/7 is rewiring our brains, not necessarily in a good way. I'm not a huge Greenfield fan but for me there's no doubt that being obsessed with always wanting to know the latest and the newest and the most interesting is distracting and can be death to ideas and creativity. Of course there are the times when something I find online inspires a new idea (like the meat house) or generates a new line of thought or enquiry. But it takes vigilance and discipline to find that balance between exploring and discovering and just wasting time.

Maybe this time I've learnt my lesson. Maybe this time I will stick to my schedule and not try to squeeze in extra things here and there that not only exhaust me physically but take time away from thinking. After all, what is Phd study for, if not to allow myself the time to think.