Thursday, 28 July 2011

The road to PhD confirmation

My PhD confirmation is not due for another 12 months (because I'm part time). But for a range of reasons I want to get it done a few months earlier than that. So I let my supervisor know my plan at our last meeting.

She tells me, if I'm to present for confirmation in March, she wants to see an outline of my thesis for our next meeting in 3 weeks. That's right, an outline of my entire thesis.

Bloody hell, I thought, the woman is serious. So, being someone who doesn't like to let her supervisor down (she is a great supervisor, after all) I thought I'd better start at least collecting my ideas about what my thesis outline might look like.

In some ways I'm lucky. I'm doing a creative practice PhD so 60,000 words of my thesis is taken up by my young adult fiction manuscript (and I've already finished the first draft of that). So that's no drama, but it's the other bit - the literature review, the case studies, the literature review, the reflection... did I mention the literature review?

I came across this fabulous presentation on the PhD presentation by the fantastic 'thesis whisperer' Inger Mewburn, titled (appropriately) Help I am experiencing fear - Confirmation! This has a lot of helpful information and if you're ever going to come up against the dreaded confirmation make sure you have a look at it.

But back to my immediate problem - an outline for my thesis. I've got a few ideas from some great articles I've stumbled upon recently. First up is a great paper, which comes from a great website called Critical Neuroscience. There's a great paper by Jan Slaby on the site that gives an introduction to what critical neuroscience is all about, and it makes a great overarching framework for my thesis.

Related to critical neuroscience, in terms of the work I'm doing, is the reading I've been doing on cultural neuroscience. I'm still trying to get my head around it properly, but from what I've read, it's about how cultural practices impact on brain development. In this way it dovetails in quite neatly with neuroconstructivism in that it looks as culture as experiences and also, partially, a product of environment.

So, these elements are starting to shape the beginnings of my outline:
  • critical neuroscience as an overarching framework, leading into
  • cultural neuroscience, which with its focus on how cultural experiences impact on brain development, leading into
  • neuroconstructivism, with its focus on context dependence (nothing develops in isolation)
And somehow, I have to tie all this in with my work on young adult fiction.

But at least it's a start.

Monday, 18 July 2011

How much neuroscience is too much?

Last week I followed up reading Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil with Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. The books are interesting bedfellows. Reading them one after the other twisted my brain into some quite painful, yet interesting, contortions.

Ronson is a fantastic writer. I picked up his latest book in a local bookstore, read the opening paragraphs and was hooked (yes I bought a real book from a real indie bookstore even though I could have got it cheaper online because I had to read it straight away). I love the way Ronson puts himself into the story – all his self doubts, ruminations and recriminations about letting a journo like him loose in the world with a psychopath test and a list of possible psychopaths to interview and ‘assess’.

To be honest I admired Ronson’s restraint. Checklists have a special allure. Last week, armed with the checklists that appear in the appendices of The Science of Evil, I’d been casting my eye over colleagues and secretly assessing them against the traits for narcissism, borderline personality and psychopaths. 

It’s a habit of writers to look for the craziness in others. As Ronson points out, it’s the crazy ones who are interesting: not too crazy as to be pitied but just crazy enough to make us want to prod and poke them just a little, to see what happens. And there is probably just a little bit of the psychopath in us all sometimes.

But who should judge of how much psychopathy is too much? Or, in Baren-Cohen’s terms, how little empathy is too little? Why do these brain anomalies happen in the first place? If it is possible to ‘fix’ a psychopathic brain, is it ethical to do so? Some of the possible psychopaths identified in Ronson’s book didn’t seem particularly unhappy. They were perfectly fine with making other peoples’ lives a misery because, well, armed with a complete lack of empathy, they didn’t care.

And if zero empathy is not an anomaly so much as an evolutionary by-product, (i.e. someone has to make the hard decisions like who to fire and who to feed) should anyone be messing with it at all?

I have no answers to any of these questions. As a writer I’m more in the business of investigating ‘what ifs’ in fictional terms than making judgement calls on the merits of overhauling the justice system based on evidence provided by brain scans. But one thing is becoming clear to me. As technology in neuroscience advances, the nature of what it is to be human is becoming more and more subject to the scrutiny of the interaction and interconnectivity of our neurons. On the surface, it sounds quite reasonable. After all, neuroscience is science, right? And science is about proven facts, isn’t it?

But I’m starting to wonder if scrutinising everything from education to culture to the justice system under the ever expanding neuroscientific gaze is a bit like quietly assessing people for psychopathy with nothing more than a checklist and a head full of subjectivity.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Neuroscience and teen fiction: a winning combination?

It's been a big couple of weeks for me. I had my first ever academic journal article published in M/C Journal. Then, a few days ago, I presented a paper at the International Research Society for Children's Literature conference. All this academic type activity is starting to make me feel like a real PhD student. Plus, people at the conference seemed genuinely interested in my conference paper, so I figured maybe I should kick this blog back into gear.

So apart from practising my presentation and attending the conference, this week I've also been reading The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen (and yes, he is Sacha's cousin - it's mentioned in the book). In a nutshell, Baron-Cohen discusses the nature of empathy, where empathy can be said to be 'situated' within the human brain, and what it can mean to have 'zero empathy'.

In the acknowledgements Baron-Cohen opens with "This isn't a book for people with a sensitive disposition." Human beings are capable of appalling cruelty, and in case you have any doubt about this he provides some harrowing examples. However, Baron-Cohen believes that it is in the best interests of humans to take a dispassionate, scientific look at what makes people capable of treating others as objects. He argues that the notion of evil, with all the emotions it evokes, does nothing to help us deal with cruel acts whereas "empathy has explanatory power".

As a layperson, reading books based on neuroscience can be confusing at times. For example, in one section Baron-Cohen talks about the role of the gene MAOA (monoamine oxidase-A), which he says has been "controversially" called the "warrior gene". But when I was researching my Masters a couple of years ago, I came across some articles that wrote about the "resilience gene" - MAOA. So, which is it? Well, it's MAOA and it low levels of it are associated with aggression whereas people with high levels of it are less aggressive.

Like most people scientists like to come up with memorable names, which are especially good for science journos to use when they're writing articles to catch the eye of a reader (like me) who has an interest in science subjects but no formal training. But the difference in this type of 'naming' highlights an important issue - there are as many grey areas in science as there are in politics and culture.

Science is highly political (climate change, anyone?) and Baron-'Cohen's Science of Evil is politically charged. There is much in there to cause fiery debate, particularly when he suggests that knowledge of a scientific basis for acts of cruelty poses important questions for us around how the perpetrators of cruel and 'evil' acts should be viewed and treated. In light of the overwhelming evidence, provided in this book and others, that 'cruel' people are made not born then should we not focus on the good qualities they do have with a view to rehabilitation?

Although the neuroanotomical explanations can be a little dry at times, this is a fascinating and thought provoking book. For fiction writers interested in matters of the brain and human behaviour (especially of psychopaths), it's a great resource.