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.