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.