The Novelist as a Scientist of the Mind

In his novel Thinks…, David Lodge uses the technique of having more than one first-person narrators.  However, I’m more interested in the first-person narration technique itself and what it tells us about our inner lives.  Thus, his protagonists are a novelist, whose work involves imagining the private thoughts and feelings of her characters (as opposed to describing her own) and a cognitive psychologist, whose work involves describing and explaining private thoughts and feelings in an objective, scientific way.

We’re all familiar with the novelist’s work.  The cognitive psychologist’s is generally not well known or understood.  Indeed, many thoughtful people find the goal quite implausible.  Their reasoning goes as follows:  Only I know my thoughts and feelings, and science is based on the principle that more than one scientist must be able to make the same observations.  An observation becomes a scientific fact when it can be repeated by others under the same conditions.

Now, of course, we can ask people to report their thoughts and feelings.  In principle, a science can be built on reported thoughts and feelings.  But this approach isn’t the answer because people can and do lie.  For whatever reasons, the real subject of study, the inaccessible thoughts and feelings of an individual, might not correspond to the reports on which it is based.  This difficulty may appear to be unique to psychology but that is illusory.

Similar arguments can be constructed to pose parallel logical difficulties for other sciences.  The oldest science, astronomy, is based on observations of light and other forms of energy reaching the earth from specific positions in the sky.  From these we infer the existence and nature of distant objects, and the logic of these inferences is exactly the same as inferences about thoughts and feelings made from reports.  The difference, and it is a yawning chasm, lies in the theoretical infrastructure underlying the inferences in the two sciences.  There is no science relating brain states to thoughts and feelings, as there is a physics that relates observed radiation to its sources.

Novelists’ have different goals than scientists. They ask readers to imagine with them the private thoughts of other people in the context of a set of events, real or, more often, fictional.  The best novelists help us to understand people very different from ourselves and to appreciate why they act as they do, even though their reasons and motivations are different from ours, even completely alien.  Alternatively, the best novelists help us appreciate that under circumstances other than ours, we too might think and act quite differently.

Nothing I’ve said here rules out the possibility that a writer may sometimes hit upon an idea that can be incorporated into a science of the mind.  Marcel Proust, for example, made explicit in excruciating detail the proposition that memory is a creative process in which one imagines what happened in the past on the basis of the clues found in one’s remembered thoughts and feelings.  This observation led Jonah Leher to proclaim with some justification that Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Proust wrote his landmark novel of over three thousand pages , In Search of Lost Time, between 1909 and his death in 1922. Leher interprets Proust’s work as an attempt to analyze and understand his subjective impressions of his sensory experiences and the circumstances and conditions leading to his memories. In other words, Proust described his inner life. Leher argues that Proust’s novel anticipated discoveries about the nature of perception and memory made in contemporary neuroscience by more than half a century.

Lodge’s Thinks… represents a different methodology. His characters are fictional; the author describes their inner lives as well as their diaries and free associations when these materials serve his artistic purposes. One possible way to understand the novel is to see it as a scientific hypothesis. He is proposing a very specific relationship between a person’s reports, i.e., diaries and free associations, and his thoughts and feelings. The statement of the hypothesis is necessarily messy. Lodge wants to tell his readers a compelling story, expand their understanding of other people’s lives, and enjoy the experience of reading his book. Proust’s discoveries were messy in the same way and for the same reasons.

I believe there is another literary approach to understanding how thoughts and fellings are related to the body of scientific knowledge. It is speculative fiction about how a brilliant and creative scientist might discover a way to integrate the active mind and the activities in the brain into a precise and comprehensive theory. As if that were not ambitious enough for a single novel, the scientist might also discover a method to test her theory empirically.

Vanessa CoverWithout planning to realize such an arrogant undertaking, following my retirement I began a novel about a scientist who succeeds in fulfilling these lofty goals. I have finally published it with the title, Vanessa’s Curve of Mind.

Early in her graduate career, Vanessa tells one of her professors, “It’s all well and good to map the active brain. Why isn’t anyone worrying about precisely mapping active thinking and feeling?” She explains to another professor, “It’s no more possible to draw a meaningful map of the active brain in three dimensions than it is to draw a map of the earth on a flat surface. I’m trying to work out the geometry of the brain and the mind—what I call the mind-brain continuum—so we’ll have an accurate picture of both.”

Whether she (and I ) have succeeded is a very open question. I invite your comments, both about this post and the novel. For details on ordering copies of the print and eBook editions of the novel, please visit my author website.

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