Minds meet on two-way street

Consciousness and the novel

December 6, 2002

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield dissects a novelist's consciousness

In 2001, the novelist David Lodge published Thinks ..., a novel ostensibly about an affair between a proponent of Art and a proponent of Science, but which was actually an exploration of a subject fascinating to both parties: consciousness. The story is of a relationship between a literary expert (the woman, of course) and a philandering scientist, a brain buff (how much more original and fun had the genders been reversed). Now, in Consciousness and the Novel , Lodge the literary critic revisits the problem head-on, without the literary ploys and concessions needed to tell a good story.

It would be hard to imagine two topics broader or more controversial than consciousness and the novel. The combination of the two strikes one as simultaneously banal and awesome. Banal, in that it seems obvious - at least to a spear-carrier neuroscientist such as myself - that all novels somehow must be about consciousness. Awesome, in that one wonders where one could possibly begin in trying to understand how the first notion might fuel insight into the second.

Lodge's starting point is "consciousness" as popularised by scientists from a wide range of disciplines who are nonetheless pioneers in pondering how the water of objective brain machinations is bafflingly transubstantiated into the wine of subjective experience. But in juxtaposing science and literary fiction, Lodge immediately introduces a "two cultures" tension that might at first seem to doom his project. After all, science is concerned with what is "out there" - physically tangible and, above all, measurable - while fiction is primarily concerned with the exact opposites. Moreover, while the concept of a novel is readily understood, consciousness is a biological phenomenon of some sort that defies clarification either by reference to a more general category or to any operational definition. At any rate, let no one be under any illusion that scientists are anywhere near solving the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness: how thoughts and feelings may arise from spaghetti junctions of neurons and squirts of chemicals. To compare the novel and consciousness is surely analogous to comparing potatoes and love. What conceivable common frame of reference might there be?

History provides a clue. Lodge points out that consciousness has been acknowledged and labelled as a phenomenon only for some 350 years, which is about the same period as the novel has existed as a major form of literary expression. Perhaps, he suggests, consciousness and the novel co-appeared as cultural entities because the time was ripe for an important step in the human psyche: the recognition of a factor that was common to that most elusive property of the brain and the new literary genre - privacy.

The private state is an all-important common feature of consciousness and the novel: the individual's inner world that differs from that of all others. The most urgent question for a scientist is then: "How is it generated?" The novelist, too, can ask the same question.

Yet clearly the tools available for attempting to answer are very different for novelist and scientist. Naturally, Lodge is much more at home with verbal mechanisms than with neuronal ones. As might be expected of one retired from, but still active in, academic literary criticism, he does not dwell too long in the foothills of the technicalities of neuroscience, nor does he attempt to spell out an agenda for scientists to take us back to our benches. But, by etching in his opening chapter some of the key players in the science of consciousness over the past decade, he conveys both the complexity and sophistication of the fundamental issue - as well as incidentally demonstrating that some scientists, at least, do reflect on issues not immediately tractable to workaday scientific method.

This approach leads him to identify three fruitful aspects of the scientific study of consciousness that are shared by the student of the novelistic counterpart. These are: the discrepancy between first and third-person accounts of the world; the notion of life as a narrative; and the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness, the gulf between creating and being conscious of creating.

His tracing of the history of the novel in terms of the development of the first person viewpoint is fascinating. Eighteenth-century novelists struggled to convey both what was "out there" and what their characters were feeling. Jane Austen bridged the gap by writing in an objective authorial voice and in the subjective voice of her characters. With the development of the "modern" novel, the subjective viewpoint began to take precedence over the objective narration of events: this trend led to a greater preoccupation with the idea of an individual spirit, even a soul. In the most extreme example, that of James Joyce, subjectivity eclipsed "reality" with a tsunami of consciousness that masterfully conveyed the feel of a private, inner world. Yet even Joyce had to depend on words, arranged on the page one after the other. The difficulty for novelists aiming to capture consciousness, Lodge maintains, is that the experience does not correspond to such plodding linear sequences. So postmodernists, he says, reverted to what could be described accurately in linear verbal strings - external events, and left their readers (or so the postmodernist hoped) to extrapolate for themselves the "feel" of the consciousness of a novel's characters.

This latest strategy has a clear parallel with a scientific approach to consciousness. Visual illusions are just that - illusions - because spaces are "filled in" by the brain with non-existent lines and shapes. At a still more sophisticated level, we humans are capable of "change blindness", the counterintuitive yet well-documented phenomenon in which we see something as constant and unchanging because we imagine that it should be, even when it has been altered by the fiendish experimenter. Yet this is a cop-out for explaining consciousness. To reach the "scientific" conclusion that we "see with our brains not with our eyes" is not to hack into the individual's private world at all, merely to respect its existence. The successful novelist is better off here than the scientist since he or she manages to convey a sense of an alternative subjectivity, even though its physical basis remains unidentified.

Now for the notion of life as a narrative as a clue to understanding consciousness. We can all appreciate that the description of a series of events is a useful means for a novelist to conjure a shadowy framework for a life, for the gradual growth of an individual mind. Similarly, in the human brain it is not difficult to accept that an individual's life experience must leave its mark, literally, on the brain, in patterns of physical connection between neurons. Both the novelist and scientist can roll out a story here. But brain research indicates that the shifting configurations of neurons are too localised, too slow to form and too long lasting to account convincingly for our experience of flash-flood moments of consciousness. If we accept the proposition that the personalisation of brain circuitry by experience creates the "mind", how do we explain that you can still "let yourself go" - even "lose your mind" - yet remain conscious? The unfolding events of a novel may well convey the evolution of a first-person viewpoint, but "mind" and "consciousness" should not be conflated: they are potentially discernible scientifically. Here, therefore, the brain researcher has an advantage over the novelist.

The third common aspect is the distinction between being the recipient of raw sensory experience and self-consciousness - between, in Lodge's case, the ineffable feel of creation and the awareness that he is being creative. Surely this sense of self is a separate and marginally easier problem. Given that both sides would concede that an individual evolves throughout life shaped by experience, the challenge here is surely not so great as that of accounting for how subjective experience can be conveyed to give a first-hand feeling. Being conscious of yourself doing something might be a problem for the writer, but not for the reader. Yet we are as frustrated by self-consciousness as Lodge is frustrated when he contemplates the very act of novelistic creativity's vanishing before he can savour it. In attempting to describe the novelist's grasping at the immediacy and elusiveness of raw conscious experience, Lodge goes behind the scenes of consciousness and shows not so much how it is generated as how the consciousness of a reader is held and manipulated by a writer.

The later part of the book comprises a series of chapters that are strikingly concise, compared with the massive opening chapter setting out the novelist's stall in the scientist's market. Drawing on examples from Dickens to Martin Amis, Lodge offers sharp case studies that, despite their billing as "connected", betray their previously published origins as discrete essays. From my point of view, bred on reading and writing scientific papers and in no sense a literary expert, an introduction to the point of each essay and a conclusion of sorts would have been helpful. As it stands, the journey is too diffuse to give a clear impression of moving forwards.

Nonetheless, at the end we return to the place we started from, and know it a little better than we did the first time - to Lodge's own point of departure, the common ground of his novel Thinks .... There are no insights here into the physiology of consciousness, but Lodge does unveil his final thought on the subject: that the very act of writing a novel modifies the novelist's own subjective view of the world. It is by highlighting this dialogue between the self and the outer world that Lodge does a real democratic service to neuroscience by emphasising the two-way nature of the street between the outside world and its subjective processing, evaluation and memorisation by the "mind" - the personalised brain - that now provides a basic framework for scientific investigations.

This book is not a light read. Unlike Lodge's novels, it will not make you laugh out loud - nor is it intended to. Rather, it is a visit backstage, where we can peer at the smoke and mirrors of the novelist's art and, if we are scientists, draw what comparisons we may with a hypothetical visit to our laboratories. Of course the tricks of the trades differ, and neither novelists nor scientists will be able to provide pat answers to the "hard problem", or perhaps even manage, in the near future, to define the kind of answer that would satisfy the other. But what a joy, finally, to clamber back and forth across the crumbling old chasm of arts versus sciences to contemplate such a multifaceted and defiant mystery as consciousness.

Baroness Greenfield is director, The Royal Institution.

Consciousness and the novel

Author - David Lodge
ISBN - 0 436 21005 3
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £18.99
Pages - 320

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