What's on your mind?
Saturday October 15, 2005
Novelists and psychologists share an interest in the way we think, argues Charles Fernyhough, but writers must do more to keep up with science
Steadily, in vivid colour, the brain gives up its secrets. Hardly a week goes by without the news that another elusive human quality - the capacity to understand sarcasm, to give one recent example, or to judge another person's trustworthiness - has been traced to a side-alley of neuroanatomy. Away from the fMRI scanner, psychologists and cognitive scientists - those who study the software that runs on the brain's hardware - have made great progress in the modelling of human thought processes. Although the big problems of consciousness and free will show little sign of yielding to scientific analysis just yet, at least some of the mysteries of mind and brain are close to being accounted for by objective, testable theories.
No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers' most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?
In the Theaetetus, Plato famously likened the human mind to an aviary, a holding-pen where the wildlife of human cognition - thoughts and memories - is kept, broadly restrained but locally elusive. This metaphor of the mind as a container has been a staple of western literatures. In the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer", mind is a hord-cofa, a treasure-chamber where one's innermost thoughts can be safely stored. More recently Adam Thorpe's 1998 novel, Pieces of Light, has its child protagonist, Hugh, setting out to remember where a precious fetish is kept: "It was next to a white tree with a wiggly branch and I put that into my head." Part of the charm of this construction lies in Hugh's engagingly literal subscription to the adult metaphor. The thought is placed into the box for safekeeping.
In George Eliot's Middlemarch, the mind-container takes on internal structure when we see Dorothea musing that "the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither ... " One lasting influence of psychoanalysis, particularly Freud's division of the psyche into id, ego and superego, has been to give the container metaphor a geological dimension, inviting us to see our minds as consisting of strata beneath which psychological truths can be buried. Sportsmen talk about "digging deep" into their mental resources in attaining extremes of performance, and many a fictional character has been described as having a thought at the back of her mind, or having to search for a memory through deep recesses, as though mind were a cupboard that had to be rummaged through. In her recent novel A House of Light, Candida Clark depicts her protagonist's thoughts as she tries to come to terms with a catastrophic fire: "But the back of her mind was making notes, running through a catalogue of those nameless people whom she longed to see again and knew she never would. The delicacy of the thread that bound those faces to her had always been uppermost in her mind."
The mind-as-container metaphor would certainly look familiar to many modern psychologists. The computer scientist John Barnden has collected together some common mind-metaphors in his online databank (www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~jab/ATT-Meta/Databank), a glance at which suggests that physical, static conceptions (such as of ideas as possessions, or as graspable external entities) still dominate contemporary talk about the mind. But psychologists now argue that we possess a wealth of knowledge of which we do not have conscious awareness, such as the procedural skills necessary to ride a bike, or the ability to draw on previous experiences without consciously recollecting them. It is not that these chunks of knowledge are temporarily lost in inaccessible spaces - rather, they belong to an entirely different system for storing knowledge to that which underpins our "explicit" memory for facts, names, phone numbers and so on.
In making this distinction between explicit and implicit memory, psychologists have replaced Plato's thought-box with a metaphor from linguistics: the difference between your "known" knowns and your unknown ones is the difference between what you say and what your body language says for you.
An obvious limitation of the container conception of mind is that it is a rigidly static one: content can be added or taken away, but the container essentially stays the same. The metaphor therefore struggles to capture the dynamic, flowing nature of thought, a problem addressed by the psychologist and philosopher William James, who likened mental life to a stream, a sequence of thoughts and impressions that is never the same thing for long. Generally speaking, novelists have been well-attuned to this idea. The rich portrayals of the stream of consciousness delivered by modernist novelists, most famously in Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses, tend to portray mental contents as bits of flotsam swept along by a greater force. When writers take a more objective approach to portraying mental flow, thoughts and memories are seen to have lives of their own. In The Portrait of a Lady, James's brother Henry vividly described the flow of impressions through the mind of his heroine, Isabel Archer: "Disconnected visions passed through it, and sudden dull gleams of memory, of expectation. The past and the future came and went at their will, but she saw them only in fitful images, which rose and fell by a logic of their own. It was extraordinary the things she remembered."
Another problem with the container metaphor is that it assumes a fixed boundary between the internal and external worlds. This idea has recently been criticised by philosophers such as Andy Clark, who have shown how the mind can escape from its box and extend beyond the "container" of the biological organism. Theories of embodied cognition, which see mental processes as shaped by the mutual interactions of mind, body and world, require us to rethink our conceptions of the mind-box as sealed off from the body that sustains it. Writers have arguably been doing this for a long time. The rooting of emotions, for example, in bodily sensations - a thumping heart, a prickling palm - is one area where novelists need no lessons from psychologists.
At its simplest, the mind is a device for doing mental work. This functional conception has led to the idea of mind as a machine, with parts that operate and malfunction relatively independently. Recently the machine-metaphor has found expression in the writing of Haruki Murakami, in Kafka on the Shore: "I crunch along the gravel, the mercury light beating down on me, and try to get my brain in gear. Throw the switch, turn the handle, get the old thought process up and running. But it doesn't work - not enough juice in the battery to get the engine to turn over." Many of cognitive psychology's recent successes can be put down to a particular variant of the machine-metaphor, which compares the components of our cognitive system to the central processor, storage devices and peripherals of a desktop computer.
Although a rarity in literary fiction, the computer metaphor is of course a staple of sci-fi, underpinning the principle of memory-erasure in stories such as Philip K Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (filmed as Total Recall). One irony about the dominance of this metaphor is that the neural-networked AI machines of today look little like the rudimentary computers that inspired the original metaphor. In his visionary masterpiece, Neuromancer, William Gibson described the distributed computational system of the "matrix": "A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ... " The machine-metaphor is still dominant here, but even the prophet of cyberspace cannot resist an architectural comparison in describing a massively distributed artificial "mind".
Other metaphors favoured by cognitive scientists have had less penetration into literature. Many psychologists would argue that mind should be seen as a multi-purpose tool, a Swiss army knife bristling with separate information-processing modules. This many-minds conception seems at odds with the unitary container traditionally favoured by novelists. It may be that the persistence of the container metaphor fits with our cherished beliefs about the primacy of the unitary, indivisible self - beliefs which, for many cognitive scientists, are in need of updating. One idea that is currently proving influential, thanks in part to the writings of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, is of mind as a fiction, the compelling output of a storytelling machine. As David Lodge pointed out in his essay "Consciousness and the Novel", perhaps the very idea of a unitary consciousness is the supreme fiction, the one compelling delusion that distinguishes us from our less gullible non-human cousins.
In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson demonstrated how common metaphors not only colour our thinking and language, but can also fundamentally restructure our understanding. If this is true, our thinking about the mind will be constrained by the metaphors we use for it. Losing the container metaphor, for example, with its rigid demarcation of the inner and outer worlds, may help us better to understand how minds can break out of their Cartesian cages and intermingle across time and space. The idea of mind as a stream-like process, rather than a static entity, seems eminently suited to the satisfying dynamics of the novel, where the action of consciousness unfolds gradually through time, and every thought has a past, a present and a future.
Metaphors follow fashion in both fiction and psychology, and different ways of thinking about the mind fall in and out of favour. Writers such as Hemingway and Carver, with their eschewal of interiority in favour of objective, observable narrative events, seem to have had a lasting influence on novelists' willingness to describe the twists and eddies of thought, a state of affairs reminiscent of the behaviourist movement that banished subjectivity from psychology in the mid-20th century. When interiority has returned, novelists have often appeared more interested in setting thoughts out directly on the page than in attempting any "objective" description of the unobservables of human cognition. Free indirect style, that fusing of third-person narrative with depictions of first-person consciousness, means that writers can state their characters' thoughts explicitly, as though they were utterances of speech, without having to describe their shape or character. Modern novelists' fondness for first-person storytelling, brilliantly exemplified in the embedded narratives of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, has often served as an excuse for writers merely to render thought, rather than getting to grips with its dynamics and complex simultaneities. For all their limitations, metaphors of mind give writers a handle on the ineffable qualities of cognition. When thought becomes no more than unspoken speech, fiction's gleaming reputation as a mirror of human consciousness will inevitably begin to tarnish.
Charles Fernyhough teaches psychology and creative writing at the universities of Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne
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