Sunday, October 27, 2013

Who's Got Hold of Children's Imaginations?

To the Sage Gateshead yesterday for BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival, and an event with acclaimed novelist Patrick Ness on the topic of 'Who's got hold of children's imaginations?' The discussion was chaired by Radio 3 Night Waves presenter Matthew Sweet (to the left of the picture).

Matthew started the show by asking us about the nature of imagination. I noted that the ability to inhabit alternative realities used to strike psychologists as an odd thing from an evolutionary point of view: why should an organism whose existence depended on representing reality accurately be so good at inventing alternative worlds?

An answer (again from a scientific point of view) is that there is a big selective advantage in being able to represent how the world might be, as well as how it is. If you can create a storyworld, you can make sense of people telling you about things that are not immediately present, and you can use information about what has happened in order to plan what will come next. Here's how I put it in The Baby in the Mirror (with reference to the world of Harvard psychologist Paul Harris):
The storyworlds that children create in making sense of the discourse of others are the same as they use in talking about the past and future, and in creating the imaginary worlds of pretence, role play and narrative. The little scientist is usurped by the little novelist. Or perhaps, in the end, fiction-making has more than a little of science about it. To get on in the world, the child, like the novelist and the engineer, has to build her models and see how they run. 

Patrick then read from his new novel More Than This, which begins with the protagonist Seth's attempts to reconstruct his past life in the moments following his own death by drowning. One interesting thing about this powerful sequence is that Seth is doing his remembering entirely on his own, without the cues that are usually provided by other people. I noted that in many other cases memory is a social process. We talked about how we are constantly negotiating our accounts of the past in collaboration with other people, and how talking about the past with parents might be one of the ways in which children get a foothold into doing autobiographical memory.

The creative, reconstructive nature of memory came up many times in the conversation, as did the clear links between imagination and memory. We talked about the role of children's imaginary companions in helping them to work out how the world might be as well as how it is. We also talked about why children's imaginations can seem so dangerous to us adults, and about whether we should impose any limits on children's freedom to imagine. I mentioned the growing body of scientific research that lends support to what we probably already knew at an intuitive level: that reading fiction enhances empathy (see here for a methodological critique). I think there can be a rather reductionist agenda at work here, the idea that a truth is somehow ‘more true’ if it can be demonstrated neuroscientifically. Books are understood by people; they’re not understood by neurones. As Neil Gaiman recently reminded us in his eloquent lecture for the Reading Agency, imagination, particularly in childhood, should be valued for its own sake.

I was asked to address the question of who controls imagination and memory with a reading from A Box of Birds, my novel addressing the implications of neuroscience for our understanding of ourselves. At the heart of the novel there’s a conflict between the idea that we are autonomous selves, narrating and giving shape to our own stories, and the idea that we are biochemical machines, bundles of chemical reactions and neural firings. I wondered what would happen if you took a character who really believed that her experience could be understood in terms of neuroscientific processes, and saw what happened to that view when things started to happen. I read a short section from towards the end, where Yvonne has been given a device that allows her to manipulate her own memory—leaving her to face some complex moral choices.

I've done a lot of promotion of my non-fiction book this year, and so it was great to read from the novel and hear people's positive reactions. Matthew did a fabulous job of steering the conversation, and Patrick was on excellent form despite a heavy cold. The whole thing was huge fun and generated some very perceptive audience questions. As you'll see from the audio paraphernalia in the above picture, the event was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves programme. It will be going out at 10pm on Friday 8 November.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shortlisted: Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013

Pieces of Light has made the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013.

Here is today's press release:

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist in running for bigger reward

Winner to be announced: 25 November 2013

The six books on the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books are competing for a much larger cash prize this year.  The eclectic and fascinating shortlist books are vying for the world’s most prestigious award for popular science writing.

The prize money for the winner has increased from £10,000 to £25,000 while the authors of each of the shortlisted books will receive £2,500 instead of the previous £1,000 award.  The shortlist, announced today (25 September 2013), is composed of:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, published by Bloomsbury
What it’s like to be a bird
The judges said: “Bird Sense opens new worlds to the imagination through a wealth of passionately observed science. It succeeds in conveying a feeling of what it is like to be a bird.”

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, published by OneWorld Publications
The hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a new world
The judges said: “This book invites you to imagine the unimaginable. It tells an extraordinary tale of scientific discovery and stands out by its ability to speak to people who are not scientists.”

Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen, published by Princeton University Press
The principles of change that shape life
The judges said: “Cells to Civilizations presents an exciting challenge to our thinking on how evolution works. It is unbelievably alive and we could feel our brains growing as we read.”

Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, published by Profile Books
The new science of memory
The judges said: “Our memories of reading this book are exceptionally good ones! It challenges much of what we think we know about memory. It’s a bit like reading a novel, personal and compulsive!”

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, published by Granta
A 21st century bestiary
The judges said: “Henderson taps into forgotten wonder we first felt as children discovering the creatures of our world. It borrows its format from ancient bestiaries and its title from Borges’ extraordinary tales. The book itself is a beautiful object and brings barely imagined beings to life.”

Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)
How our seas are changing
The judges said: “Roberts sets modern conservation in context. For instance he has taken fisheries science and channelled it into the mainstream debate. This book is thrilling: a delightful mix of anecdote, research and polemic.”

Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FMedSci FRS, Chair of the judges, said: “What stood out for us most was the sheer originality and the ambition of the books we selected for the short list. Here are books that have not only new things to say but also novel ways to say them in. We were delighted to be able to select from a wide range of superbly written science books, authoritative, approachable, and moreover, thrilling to read.”

The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on 25th November 2013.

William Hill’s odds for the shortlisted books are as follows:

3/1    Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead
7/2    The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
4/1    Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts
5/1    Cells to Civilization by Enrico Coen
5/1    Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough
5/1    The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

Graham Sharpe, Media Relations Director at William Hill, said: “This year has been one of the toughest to select a favourite – the books are all so evenly matched! One thing is definite, they all make very interesting and fun reads. I think this year’s judges have quite a task ahead of them deciding their winner!”

The first chapter of each book is available to download for free at:

The judges on this year’s judging panel are Jon Culshaw, impressionist and comedian; Dr Emily Flashman, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at University of Oxford; Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FRS (Chair), Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London; Joanne Harris, novelist and author of Chocolat; and Lucy Siegle, journalist and writer on environmental issues.

Commencing in 2011, the global investment management company Winton Capital Management agreed a five year sponsorship deal of the prize. 

The book has also made the shortlist for the Society of Biology Book Awards in the General Biology book section. The prize will be awarded at a ceremony in London on 17 October.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Writers' Alphabet

One fun thing that happened to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was that I was grabbed by the nice people at Guardian Books and asked if I'd contribute to a writers' alphabet they were putting together. All I had to do was come up with a favourite word. Most of the letters were already gone, but they did have a succulent-looking V remaining. I walked around Charlotte Square a couple of times and worked out what I wanted to say. Here's the result. 

You can see the entire alphabet, from Ruby Wax on a-whoring to Shadow Titan on Zulu, by going here.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Three days in Edinburgh

I just got back from my visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival—tired, footsore and with fresh and vivid memories of some lovely new friendships.

On Thursday evening I chaired an event with Neil Gaiman, 'A Treasure House of Story'. This was the first of several events for Neil at the Festival, and he'd arrived in Edinburgh after a gruelling 9-week tour (and the signing of an estimated 75,000 books). The event was part of a theme, 'Reshaping Modern Fantasy', which Neil had curated for the Festival as Guest Selector.

I'd never interviewed a literary megastar before, and I'd worked hard on refamiliarising myself with his work and trying to find a plan for the event that would make sense to Neil and what I knew would be a big crowd. I needn't have worried—Neil proved to be the perfect interviewee. He was funny, warm, articulate and deeply interesting about his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of the powerlessness of childhood, the restless reconstructions of memory, and the pressures that other people put on our representations of the past. Neil said afterwards that he'd enjoyed the opportunity to do something a bit more themed and structured than the usual 'So how much of you is there in this book?'. I loved every moment and was sorry to say goodbye to him as he settled down after the event in front of a long and visibly excited signing queue.

I wasn't quite out of the limelight yet, though, as the guys from Respect Films, who are on the road with Neil making a documentary, caught me to talk a bit about the event while Neil signed away in the background.

You can read a review of the event with Neil here.

On Friday afternoon I was due to chair an event with Susannah Cahalan, a New York journalist whose book Brain on Fire is a funny, moving and pretty terrifying account of a (thankfully temporary) descent into psychosis, amnesia and loss of identity. It was another great event, thanks to Susannah's lively readings and eloquent account of how she put the pieces of her 'lost month' back together. It was particularly interesting to hear her talk about the family context of her story and how she is still negotiating, with her parents and others, their inevitably divergent narratives of what happened. Her story is about the resilience of the human mind and spirit, and it was a privilege to meet her. Here she is pictured in a photograph taken that same afternoon by Festival photographer Chris Close.

My last event was on Saturday morning, and it was a pairing between me and another novelist, the Canadian writer Colin McAdam. Colin has written a deeply interesting book called A Beautiful Truth, which tells of relationships between chimpanzees and humans and performs the (you might think) impossible trick of giving voice to chimpanzees' thoughts. I was very struck by Colin's comment that, in search of self-forgiveness, he found that the only way forward was to think of himself as a primate—at which point the world of chimpanzees began to open up for him.

I read from and talked about A Box of Birds and, although the styles and ambitions are different, it was clear that the books have many themes in common—themes that were expertly traced by our chair, Helen Sedgwick. I talked about how I had wanted to explore how a character would make sense of the world, and herself, if she saw herself solely in terms of neurones and chemical reactions. What would happen to that materialist philosophy when things started to happen; when that character had to make moral choices? Without wanting to give the plot away, I pointed out that I had tried to dramatise that question by giving my protagonist, Yvonne, a challenge of freewill—a dilemma in which you would act differently depending on whether you really believed you were only neurones and molecules, or whether you thought that there was something more to your 'self'.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the very best festivals around: beautifully organised, gorgeously located and with staff who attend to every detail and make writers and audiences feel very welcome. As I expected, there was much laughter and intellectual surprise to be had in conversations in the Authors' Yurt and beyond. I also got a chance to be photographed by Chris Close for one of the author portraits that are put up around the site. I'm not sure if it's gone up yet. It looks like I'm trying to screw my head back on. Did it come detached in the fun? I like to think that books, and conversations about them, could have that power.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Inner Speech: an episode of The Forum

Last week I was at Broadcasting House in London to record an episode of The Forum, the ideas and discussion show that goes out on BBC World Service. The show is chaired by Bridget Kendall, and the other studio guests were the broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski and novelist and short-story writer Aamer Hussein. The programme is broadcast this weekend, first at 23:06 GMT on Saturday, and then again at 10:06 on Sunday and 02:06 on Monday.

The theme of the programme is inner speech: the internal dialogue that makes up much of many people's conscious experience. The conversation began with me setting out some ideas about why we should be interested in inner speech as a phenomenon, and how this kind of mental experience can work both to our benefit and detriment psychologically. As readers of this blog will know, this has been a focus of research for me for a long time: it was the topic of my recent cover feature for New Scientist, and it will form the basis of my next non-fiction book for Profile.

Aleks then talked about her research (documented in her excellent new book, Untangling the Web) into how the internet is allowing us to experiment with new social identities, and what effect that might have on the inner voice. We talked about how social media such as Twitter can function as a kind of online private speech, a means for self-regulation and emotional expression, which is a topic I have written about previously in relation to Vygotsky's theory.

Aamer Hussein's fictions are often preoccupied with the tension between internal and external speech. He writes in both Urdu and English, and has some fascinating things to say about how these different languages afford different kinds of inner and outer speech. His haunting short novel Another Gulmohar Tree tells of an Urdu speaker who struggles to translate his innermost thoughts into a form that his English wife can understand.

Finally, we had a lot of fun with Aleks' suggestion for a Sixty Second Idea to Change the World—a regular feature on the show. While recognising that it lay in the realms of science fiction, Aleks suggested inventing a device that would monitor a speaker's inner dialogue and tell you—by the emission of a certain scent or odour—whether they were telling the truth. We were far too polite to mention it on air, but I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway's famous line:
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
It would be nice to be able to detect other people's bullshit, but it's handy (especially for a writer) to be able to detect one's own as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Next week I'll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a series of events on familiar (for me) themes of memory, identity and narrative.

On Thursday 22 August I'll be in conversation with bestselling author Neil Gaiman about his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of childhood memory, the line between fantasy and reality, and a child's discovery of the secrets of the adult world. The event, which is a sell-out, forms part of the series 'Reshaping modern fantasy', for which Neil has acted as Guest Selector. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a deceptively simple and endlessly surprising novel full of mythic echoes, deep psychological resonances and some pretty scary monsters, and I'm hugely excited about discussing it with him.

On Friday 23 August I'll be speaking to the journalist Susannah Cahalan about My Brain on Fireher extraordinary memoir about her brush with the brain disease, encephalitis. One of the things I love about this book is the author's painstaking efforts to reconstruct this lost period of her life by pulling together a whole range of documents and sources of information, and I'm looking forward to asking her quite how she did it.

And on Saturday 24 August I'll be reading from and talking about my novel A Box of Birds with the Canadian author Colin McAdam, who will be talking about his new book A Beautiful Truth. You can book for the event here.

Hope to see some of you there. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Corkin

I reviewed Suzanne Corkin's book on the famous amnesiac HM for the Literary Review's May 2013 edition:

Total Lack of Recall 
Permanent Present Tense: The Man with No Memory, and What He Taught the World
By Suzanne Corkin
(Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 384pp £20)

In February 2009, a pair of neuroscientists carried an icebox through gate security at Logan Airport in Boston, under the gaze of a PBS film crew sent to document the event. Bypassing the security scanner so as not to expose the contents of the cooler to radiation, one of the researchers carried the box onto a waiting plane while the other, the neuropsychologist Suzanne Corkin, waved goodbye to her life’s work. Packed in ice inside the cooler was a human brain – possibly the most famous brain in history. It belonged to the amnesiac Henry Molaison, whose recent death had allowed his identity (for so long shrouded behind the initials ‘HM’) to be released to the world.

Corkin, who probably knew Henry better than anyone else, worked with him from 1962, when she was a graduate student, to his death in 2008. Over the decades, neuropsychologists, psychologists and neuroscientists probed his short- and long-term memory, his language abilities and reasoning skills, with Corkin as the gatekeeper to this precious scientific resource. Although he found her face familiar, he never really understood who she was, and tended to assume that she was an old classmate from his high school in Hartford, Connecticut.

Henry’s amnesia stemmed from a psychosurgical procedure intended to alleviate severe epilepsy. In the psychology textbooks, there is sometimes a suggestion that this was a cruel and unnecessary procedure, akin to the abhorrent lobotomies that were current at the time. Corkin is at pains to show that this was not a random act of cruelty or medical neglect, and that Henry’s debilitating fits provided good reason for conducting the surgery. William Beecher Scoville’s ‘frankly experimental’ procedure involved the removal of structures in the medial temporal lobes (deep in the brain above each ear), with devastating and unforeseen effects on Henry’s memory.

Henry’s amnesia was so profound, and so neatly sparing of his other cognitive abilities, that he quickly became the most famous amnesia case study of them all. There will hardly be a psychology graduate alive who doesn’t know the details: HM’s inability to form new memories was coupled with a preserved capacity to acquire new skills, such as learning to use a walking frame. After the operation, Henry’s grip on the past amounted to a total of two genuine autobiographical memories: an aeroplane flight taken when he was 13 and the taste of his first cigarette when he was 10. For the 55 years until his death, he created no new memories.

Most importantly of all, HM taught scientists about the importance of medial temporal lobe structures (predominantly the hippocampus) in converting short-term memories into long-term ones. Scientifically this is a hugely important story, and many will be excited that here, at last, is a chance to see the man behind the initials. In the right hands, this could have been a story of where the brain ends and the person begins, of the ethics of the close study of one individual. But readers who hope to understand Henry as a person will be disappointed. We rarely get to witness any of the human details that might bring him alive as a character. In one sense this is easily understandable: the observations of Henry were made for scientific, not biographical, purposes, and so the human element is largely unrecorded. But it is a scientifically informed biography that we are promised, and this worthy, detailed and ultimately rather lifeless book fails to meet that expectation in a number of ways.

Part of the problem is a predictable neuro-reductionist arrogance. Because Henry had a damaged brain, his brain becomes the cause of everything. We are told that Henry could not have had normal dreams, for example, because the necessary regions of his brain had been replaced by fluid-filled spaces. Anything that might have shaped his character beyond the effects of drugs or psychosurgery is left unexplored. No one would attempt to write a biography of an intact or more ordinarily damaged person by relating everything to brain structure. If they did, the results would be as dull as this.

There is nothing to suggest that Suzanne Corkin was anything other than a kind, attentive carer who wanted the best for her patient, as well as being an extremely thorough scientist (though her excitement at finally getting a chance to ‘harvest’ Henry’s brain will prove chilling for many readers). This is a human tragedy, and it deserves an approach that goes beyond the mere enumeration of clinical findings. Although we get plenty of ethics-committee discussion of the rights and wrongs of Henry’s story, along with tantalising flashes of the man’s personality (he had a quirky tendency to refer to Corkin as ‘Doctress’, for example), we get little insight into what Henry might have gone through or what emotions he would have grappled with. Corkin’s account has none of the richness of, say, Joshua Foer’s brief encounter with an amnesiac in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein, or (switching to a case of excessive rather than defective memory) of A R Luria’s classic portrait of S V Shereshevsky in The Mind of a Mnemonist. A more skilful writer might have saved us from learning what a human being becomes when he is boiled down to clinical data. HM’s personal tragedy had immensely valuable consequences; the disappointment of this book is that an individual has been reduced to an interesting brain.

Published in the Literary Review, May 2013 (reproduced with permission).