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).

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Longlisted: Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Pieces of Light has been longlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. The Guardian has covered the announcement in this blogpost from GrrlScientist.

GrrlScientist writes:
"This may be a golden age of science writing -- we had to choose from well over a hundred wonderful books covering a huge range of topics. Many of them would have deserved a place on the list", said Professor Uta Frith, Chair of the judges.
"We happily and unanimously agreed on the long list, but we each had favourites that we were sad not to be able to include." 
The wide variety of subjects covered by these books is exciting -- there's something here for everyone! 
"We are very pleased that almost all of our selected books are ambitiously grounded in several subjects at once, be it biology, physics, psychology, or technology" continued Professor Frith. "The judges all commented on how much they enjoyed the process. It was an inspiring task." 
The judges on this year's 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. 
Besides providing the reading public with an excellent list of science books to read whilst on holiday at the beach, the longlist announcement coincides with a panel discussion at the World Science Festival held right now my fair city, New York. This festival is hosting a panel discussion entitled "Science and story: cutting-edge discovery for a literary public", with James Gleick, winner of the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and two of the 2012 shortlisted authors Lone Frank and Brian Greene.
I'm delighted to be on such an illustrious list, and am looking forward to catching up with the other longlisted titles. I haven't read nearly enough of them, but I'm pleased to see Caspar Henderson's amazing Book of Barely Imagined Beings on there.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Box of Birds at the Hay Festival

On Monday 27 May I'll be at the Hay Festival talking about A Box of Birds at a special Unbound event.  Several Unbound authors will be pitching new projects or talking about books that have already been funded. Here's the full blurb:

Unbound Live 1
The award-winning crowd-funded publisher offers the Hay audience a chance to choose what gets published. Mixing authors whose books have already been funded with others pitching their ideas for books they want to write, this is a literary Dragons’ Den with a difference. Legendary writer and performer Salena Godden pitches her childhood memoir, Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn presents his science fiction sequel, novelist Charles Fernyhough asks whether neuroscience changes love, Strangler Hugh Cornwell and archaeologist-turned-crimewriter Francis Pryor compete for your support with a little help from publisher and QI Elf-master John Mitchinson. Light poetic relief from performance poet George Chopping.
Hope to see some of you there.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


A Box of Birds is published in its trade paperback edition today, which means it will be available from bookshops and online retailers as well as from the website of the publisher Unbound.

Several hundred people pledged support to help this book see publication, and I'm grateful to every one of them.

Today I am travelling to London to give a talk at the Art and Mind Symposium at GV Art in London, where I'll be discussing how neuroscience figures in literary fiction, and expanding on the themes of my recent Guardian Review piece on the topic.

You can find out more about the book by reading this blog post and this one. It's my first novel since The Auctioneer was published, fourteen years ago. If you've read the book already, you must be a subscriber. Thank you.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Neuroscience in fiction

Publication day for A Box of Birds is just around the corner, so it was good to get a chance to set out some of the motivations behind the novel in last weekend's Guardian Review. As I explained in the piece, fiction gives us an unparalleled opportunity to understand the value of neuroscientific accounts of behaviour and experience. A lively comment thread has been building: you can join in here. The poet Helen Mort has written a thoughtful response on her blog, including a wonderful poem about Phantom Limb Syndrome.

A reminder that you can order the trade paperback edition of the novel here.

I've reproduced the article below with a few additional links:
We are in the middle of a debate about the status of neuroscience. Against the deceptive allure of neuroimaging and reported sightings of ‘brain centres’ for everything from sarcasm to religious experience, there are stern reassurances that, if we were ever to work out the scientific basis of consciousness, it would be too complicated for us to understand. We use lazy neurospeak and stock up on brain porn, but do we draw from it knowledge we can use? Is neuroscience really changing the way we understand ourselves?  
It might sound like an unlikely source of evidence, but we can find out something about the proper treatment of neuroscience by looking at how it functions in fiction. If tracing behaviour and experience to its neural underpinnings really offers a new understanding of humanity, novelists are bound to draw on it in revealing how their characters understand themselves. And writers’ use of neuroscientific ideas will tell us something about how we consume such explanations and what meaning we extract from them.  
In one sense, neuro-explanations seem to challenge the mechanisms by which novels work. Neuroscientists warn us that we may have no freewill, no ‘self’ at the helm of our behaviour; their work shows that our memories are leaky reconstructions and that even our visual perception of the world is a system of illusions. How do these messages change what we do, how we feel, how we decide to live? Fiction is a perfect medium for exploring these questions.  
Which makes it slightly surprising that the neuro doesn’t actually feature all that prominently in literary fiction. A 2009 article by Marco Roth pointed out that bookish neuroscience is often connected with atypical and pathological behaviour. For example, Gary Lambert’s depression in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections gives a central role to his screwy neurotransmitters, but we don’t get neuro-explanations for the (debatably) more sane members of the Lambert family. Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker is more interested in the brain-damaged patient, Mark Schluter, than with the science-inflected self-descriptions of his neuropsychologist, Gerald Weber. 
If neuroscientific ideas are really going to prove their worth to novelists, they need to be able to provide satisfactory accounts of ordinary, non-pathological experience. One novel to attempt that is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which tells the story of the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, and his run-ins with the violent, chromosomally-disordered Baxter. Intimate with the workings of the brain, Perowne sees his own experience in terms of the bioelectrical processes that underlie it. Feeling a ‘sustained, distorting euphoria’, for example, he speculates that ‘there’s been a chemical accident while he slept—something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting […] a kindly cascade of intracellular events’.

Perowne’s professional familiarity with neuroscience certainly colours his reflections on himself, but it’s not clear that it changes his relationships with his own experience and behaviour: it doesn’t make him less trusting of his own memory or visual perception, for example. More importantly, this immersion in neuroscience doesn’t change the story. Setting aside a couple of episodes where Perowne’s medical knowledge is directly exploited, the plot of Saturday would not unfold any differently if he had been ignorant of brain science. Baxter’s wild behaviour ultimately has a genetic rather than a neurological cause (he suffers from Huntington’s disease). When Baxter’s course of action is violently altered, it is poetry—a recital of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’—rather than neuroscience that is effective in changing behaviour. Brain is a correlate of action, not a driver of it.  
Other novelists are less optimistic about neuroscience’s capacity to make a difference. In Sebastian Faulks’ recent A Possible Life, the neuroscientist Elena pins the human capacity for self-awareness to a particular junction between ‘Glockner’s Isthmus’ (a fictional nexus of selfhood) and ‘the site of episodic memory’. While the neuroscience of Faulks’ tale fails to withstand close scrutiny, more interesting is the discovery’s lack of effect on the protagonist. Fêted internationally for her momentous breakthrough, Elena can’t connect her new neuroscientific reality to her own experience—or she won’t let herself. ‘She knew it to be truthful, valid and endlessly provable, but she didn’t allow the implications to affect the way she lived’.  
Faulks’ story seems to be telling us that, even if the scientific message turned out to be manageably simple, being able to reduce quintessentially human mental capacities to neural processes would not add much to our understanding. Perhaps neuroscience will continue to be most useful in accounting for disorder; indeed, perhaps its way of working will be to turn everything into the pathological. Roth’s complaint about the fictional dominance of neuro-dysfunction mirrors a wider trend, evidenced in the recent outcry about the psychiatry manual DSM-V, to see clinical symptoms where once we would have seen ordinary human variation.  
Another reason for not expecting to see too many neuro-explanations in fiction is that they may just be too complex. Novels give us manuals for living, accounts of who we are that we can use as human beings, and neuroscience may be working at the wrong level of explanation. The kind of neuro-explanations that we might one day arrive at might be too complicated for most of us to understand. If that’s the case, we’re unlikely to see novelists trying to weave them into a narrative. Fiction might function as a litmus test: not of what is true, but of what is useful. 
It’s also possible that we won’t always privilege neuro-truth above other kinds. Just as genetic explanations seemed less seductive once the human genome (with its surprisingly small complement of genes) was described, so our enthusiam for the brain might wane as we recognise that much of its work actually translates into the functioning of a disappointingly small number of ‘core’ networks. There is still mind-bogglingly complexity—subsidiary neural centres ‘plug in’ to core networks in all sorts of complicated ways—but it might be of a more boring kind than that promised by a tally of 86 billion neurones.

Fiction exists for its own purposes, and writers and readers will rightly resist attempts to turn it into ‘evidence’ for or against anything. It’s possible that neuroscience is just too new for its ideas to have permeated literary fiction in the way that those other paradigm-changers, Darwinism and psychoanalysis, did. As a novelist, I am interested in exploring characters for whom the networks of the cortex are a real, charged presence. How does this understanding affect what you do when things start happening, when you have to make moral choices? Because of the way it puts subjectivity, character and moral action at its heart, the novel is the ideal crucible for the experiment.  
Charles Fernyhough’s literary thriller A Box of Birds, about brains and those who work with them, is published by Unbound on 7 May.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Pieces of Light has been shortlisted for the 2013 Best Book of Ideas Prize. The prize is sponsored by Foyles and administered by the Bristol Festival of Ideas. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on 20 May.

Here's the full press release:

The shortlist for the 2013 Foyles/ Festival of Ideas Best Book of Ideas was announced today. The prize – worth £5,000 – is awarded to the book first published in the UK by a British author in 2012 which presents new, important and challenging ideas, which is rigorously argued, and which is engaging and accessible.

The six shortlisted books are:

Nick Cohen You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate)
Charles Fernyhough Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory (Profile Books)
Eliane Glaser Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions (Fourth Estate)
Ben Goldacre Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Fourth Estate)
Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton)
Ali Smith Artful (Hamish Hamilton)

The winner will be announced on 20 May 2013 at the awards evening that forms part of the ninth Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Jasper Sutcliffe, Head of Buying for Foyles, sponsor of the award, said today:

‘This list reflects the tremendous quality of contemporary British non-fiction, the type of writing that will keep the gears of your brain working long after you have absorbed the arguments. These writers are not afraid to engage with their subject from a personal level, and to use an imaginative approach to their work that challenges even the best writers of narrative fiction.’

The judges for the award are writer and broadcaster Bidisha, Andrew Kelly, director of Bristol Festival of Ideas, writer and broadcaster Sian Norris, and Professor Peter Rawlings, Head, Department of Arts, University of the West of England.

Andrew Kelly said today:

‘This is an exceptional list which shows that British writers remain at the forefront of debate: from nature writing to bad medicine, the way we live today to death and immortality, from the natural world to the freedom to write and speak, these books fizz with ideas and deserve wide reading and debate.’

The previous winners of the award are:

2009 Nick Davies Flat Earth News
2010 Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better 
2011 Dan Hind The Return of the Public
2012 Michael Symmonds and Paul Farley Edgelands

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pieces of Light in America: the first week

Pieces of Light was published in the US last Tuesday. Here's a roundup of what's happened to the book in its first week of publication.

The book was a PW Pick in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, meaning that it was picked by the editors as one of the ten best new books of the week:
In this refreshingly social take on a personal experience, psychologist Fernyhough aims to debunk the myth that memory is purely retrospective—memories, he argues, are not “heirloom[s] from the past” summoned back for display in the present; they are momentary reconstructions.
The Huffington Post ran a piece on the cover art, which was designed by Profile's art director Peter Dyer. Peter says:
The author talks about memory as a collage, coming from lots of different places in the brain. I liked the idea of using silver foil to illuminate some of the dots on the cover design – it gets across the idea that some memories burn really bright in our heads, while others are more blurred. As the book catches the light, the dots either shine or fall back – just like memories at certain points in our lives.
I did a Q&A with Jeff Glor of CBS News, who asked me about the inspiration behind the book, and to whom I confessed about what I might be doing if I wasn't a writer and academic:
I have a part-time academic post, and I conduct research on topics such as hallucinations and child development as well as memory. If I had to give up all the bookish stuff completely, I'd be trying to make it as a progressive rock guitarist. Yeah, I know.
I was delighted to be chosen as Editors' Choice (best book of the week) on Apple's iBookstore, which gave the book this lovely review:
Durham University professor Charles Fernyhough offers an absorbing guidebook to the mysterious terrain of human memory with his second nonfiction work, Pieces of Light. In the tradition of Oliver Sacks’ casually shrewd scientific writing, the book blends dispatches from the frontiers of science with compassionate human anecdotes. Although this exploration never shies away from formidable science and challenging psychological concepts (like contextual “flashbulb memories,” which can be startlingly vivid and completely false), Fernyhough reinforces his lessons with elegant personal memoirs and pop-culture references. (Harry Potter, Princess Diana, and Andy Warhol all make cameos.) For a topic so elusive—discussed in methods that range from the allegorical “crazy woman” to the brain’s mysterious mechanics—Fernyhough’s enthralling narrative delivers gripping insight on the way memories shape our lives. 
On Sunday I was interviewed by Rachel Martin for NPR's Weekend Edition. We talked about early memories, the faulty memories of couples, and quality vs quantity:
Thinking about this book made me realize that remembering more stuff isn't necessarily better. Being able to recall every card in a pack of playing cards or recall pi to the thousandth decimal place — why? Why would you want to do that? It's no use to me. For some people it might be important, but it's no use at all for me. What I would like to do is remember the stuff that I remember better, in more detail, more vividly.
In this new post for my Psychology Today blog, I argue for a multidisciplinary approach to memory:
In all of these inquiries one thing has been clear to me. To understand autobiographical memory in its full richness, you need to get at it from the inside: as a subjective experience, as well as something that can be studied in the psychology or neuroscience lab. You need to ask what having a memory is like, and not be satisfied with purely objective descriptions of the phenomenon.
Finally, I wrote a piece for TIME Ideas about how the distortions of memory reveal a truth about the self:
Bracing as it might be, this new way of thinking about memory does not have to lead to self-doubt. It simply requires that we take our memories with a pinch of salt, and forge new relationships with them. They may be a kind of fiction, but the manner of their making speaks volumes about those who create them. In the Obama-Ahmadinejad study, the researchers found that events were more likely to be falsely recalled if they fit the individual’s political affiliations (conservatives were more likely than liberals to ‘remember’ the Ahmadinejad handshake, for example). Whether the events happened or not, your biases and beliefs shape the kind of memories you form, and thus reveal the kind of person you are.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Q&A about Pieces of Light

Pieces of Light is published in the US on 19 March. In the run-up to publication, I have been answering some questions about how the book came about and what I hoped to achieve with it. The questions are from the wonderful Heather Drucker at HarperCollins.  

Q.: As you explain in the book, as a psychology undergrad in the late 1980s, memory was too immeasurable and too subjective to interest you. Can you explain how your perspective has changed since then?

I think I’ve come to realize that the mind is too vast and special a thing to be reduced to numbers. Particularly with a phenomenon like memory, you have to try and get at the experience from the inside, and that means exploring what memories mean to the individual. In my view, the science of human experience has to be multidisciplinary; the insights of artists, philosophers and social scientists can add a huge amount to what we can learn from psychology experiments and neuroimaging.

Q.: How has your work as a fiction writer inspired your interest in memory?

Novelists deal in memory; it’s their seed corn. As a writer of fiction, you have to be interested in the experiences of your characters, and one of the ways writers create vivid characters is by giving them memories. You don’t just get to feel a great novelistic character’s thoughts, emotions, desires, and secrets; you also get to share in their re-experiencing of the past. In the book, I explore the idea that a novelist’s creation of a fictional memory has much in common with how autobiographical memory works in all of us: through the pulling together of different sources of information, and the shaping of those constructions by the needs of the present moment.

Q.: In the first chapter of the book, you return to Sydney, to find locations from your first novel The Auctioneer. Can you explain the role that imagination plays in our memory?

The idea that imagination is intimately linked to memory has a very long pedigree, but current research in psychology and neuroscience is putting a new spin on it. We don’t store memories as complete, immutable representations of the past; rather, we construct them from their constituent parts whenever the need arises. That’s how imagination works too: we take things that we know and we put them together in new ways. This turns out to be a very powerful idea for understanding the quirks of autobiographical memory, and it’s supported by some intriguing new research which seems to show that imagination and memory share common pathways in the brain.

Q.: Quoting Marcel Proust and Andy Warhol, you explore the role of senses in our autobiographical memory. Do things such as smells and music have the power to unlock our memories?

Sensory stimuli can be incredibly effective cues to memory. It’s often assumed that smell is a special case, perhaps because of its direct anatomical connections to the memory systems of the brain, but the picture is more complicated than that. Music may share many of smell’s special powers, and I describe how songs can cue memories in ordinary people but also in the case of one remarkable individual with dense amnesia. I also describe how people with amnesia who benefit from using SenseCam (a small camera worn around the neck) find that lost memories are brought back to consciousness by other kinds of sensory cue: in this case, visual ones.

Q.: Freud once called it the “remarkable amnesia of childhood,” but as you show in PIECES OF LIGHT, there may be many reasons why few people remember much before the age of 4. Why is language so important when it comes to retaining childhood memories? And what other factors play a role in childhood amnesia?

At the present time, we don’t understand childhood amnesia very well. It can’t be a simple matter of brain maturation, as the boundary of childhood amnesia seems to shift as we get older. School-age kids remember much further back into their early years than we adults do. Language is important, I think, because it gives us a way of organizing and making sense of our experience, and more organized and elaborated information sticks better in memory. As far as other factors are concerned, one suggestion is that the ability to construct a narrative is the last piece of the puzzle. Once kids can tell a story, they can start to do autobiographical memory.

Q.: You write about your need to seed the memory of your father in your children who have never met him. How can our memory be tricked into retaining first-person memories for events we have never experienced?

There’s good evidence now that many people are susceptible to the creation of false memories. The reason for this stems from memory’s reconstructive nature. In constructing a memory, we pull together lots of different kinds of information, including—occasionally—some information that shouldn’t be in the memory at all. Experiments have shown that simply imagining an event makes it more likely that you will later falsely ‘remember’ it happening. And social factors are very important in this process. I write about some recent findings that siblings often claim each other’s memories as their own, suggesting that our memories are constantly being reshaped by those around us.

Q.: What do you think the future holds for the treatment of eyewitness testimony?

Memory’s reconstructive nature means that it can be unreliable, and the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in particular has been demonstrated again and again. Things are starting to change in the legal system in recognition of this well-documented fallibility, although there is still some debate about just how this kind of evidence should be treated in court. I expect to see jurors and those working in the legal professions getting more training in how and particularly why, memory is unreliable.

Q.: What new research is being explored in terms of memory manipulation for sufferers of PTSD and other trauma victims?

I talked at length with one victim of trauma who had benefited from EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which involves a very simple procedure of watching a light move from side to side as you try to recall the traumatic events. No one really understands how EMDR works, and many are skeptical about its efficacy. Neuroscientists are also working towards targeting specific emotional memories in the brain, through injecting proteins that block memory formation, and they’ve had some success in experiments with mice. The trouble is, human memory is a much more complex process, with many different neural and cognitive systems involved. Despite the recent hype, my own view is that a ‘forgetting pill’ is still a long way off.

Q.: In the book, you write, “memories are constructions, made in the present moment; they are not direct lines to the events themselves.” This idea of reconstructive memory is one that is widely accepted by science, but little understood by the public. What new understanding do you hope readers will gain from PIECES OF LIGHT?

People do understand that memory can be unreliable, but they don’t always understand how and why it’s unreliable. If you ask large samples of people whether, say, memory works like a video camera, you find that most say that it does. I hope that people will enjoy reading about this fascinating area of research, and appreciate why I’ve tried to bring it back to human stories. It’s not just about the brain: it’s about the person, their past, their social and cultural contexts—all the different ways they make meaning of their experiences. Some people have told me that reading this book has given them a different relationship to their own memory. It’s one of the most extraordinary abilities we have, and knowing more about its powers and shortcomings can help us appreciate it even more.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Creative memories in Harold Pinter's Old Times

Image from
Ian Rickson's new production of Harold Pinter's Old Times is currently wowing the critics in London and beyond. Late last year I was invited to visit rehearsals and talk to the cast about the workings of autobiographical memory, which plays such an important role in the piece. Those conversations led to me being invited to write an essay for the programme, which I have reproduced below.

I got to see the production a couple of weeks ago, with Lia Williams in the part of Anna and Kristin Scott Thomas playing Kate (one interesting thing about the production is that the female actors swap roles every few days). Many of the reviews have pointed out how different the two casting configurations are, and I'm hoping to see it again with the female roles reversed. Williams was a revelation as Anna, fanatically pulling on threads to the past and managing to convince the others of memories they hadn't known were there. Scott Thomas was devastatingly restrained and then brutal in the play's climax, as the three characters fought over the details of their past lives together. Rufus Sewell was funny, violent, simmering and obsessive as Deeley, the man whose memories of the play's two key events appear to be shaped by his feelings about the two women involved.

Whichever way you get to see Old Times, it runs until 6 April. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

From the Old Times programme:
Creative Memories 
Forty years after its first performance, Old Times shows a prescient sensitivity to the quirks of autobiographical memory. The efforts of Anna, Kate and Deeley to reconstruct the past—and to some extent themselves—mirror many of the themes that have preoccupied cognitive scientists in the decades since Pinter wrote his play.  
The psychologist and memory expert Martin Conway has proposed that two forces go head-to-head in memory. The force of correspondence acts to make our memories true to the way things were, while the force of coherence acts to tell a story that suits the self. We know that autobiographical memory is a reconstructive process, drawing together different sources of information and putting them together in ways that can differ subtly from telling to telling. These dynamic reshapings often serve to make memories as true to how we want the past to be as to how it actually was.  
Deeley’s memory is slave to the force of coherence. He wants things to be a particular way, so he makes them so. The two key events of the play—the cinema showing and the party—are recalled in ways that selectively construct and filter the key details, even to the extent of screening out people who might actually have been there. In Deeley’s mind, only Kate was present at the showing of the movie Odd Man Out; only Anna was there at that fateful Westbourne Grove party. We don’t know the actual facts of the matter, because the two women’s memories can be as unreliable as Deeley’s, but we get the strong impression that he has reshaped these events to suit himself.

It is Anna, of course, who actually gives voice to this idea: ‘There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.’ The reconstructive nature of memory guarantees it this creative power, and furnishes it with properties that make it something akin to imagination. In fact, neuroscientists now think that imagination and memory draw on common neural resources, in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes of the brain.  
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that imagination can feed into memory, and that things imagined can become things remembered. Psychological studies support the idea that simply imagining that something happened can in some cases lead us to ‘remember’ it. Kate, the dreamer, imagines seeing Anna dead (it’s not hard to see why she might feel this way about her old friend). But in the laboratory of her scenario-juggling mind, that imagining turns into a memory. ‘I remember you. I remember you dead.’ As she imagines it, so it takes place.  
Of course, Old Times resists any such simple explanation, and the complexities of the play run far deeper than this. Like all of us, Kate edits her memories, updating them as new information comes to light. She knows that Anna didn’t really die—she is standing there before her, fully alive—but she still experiences it as a memory. This is not a hallucination or a sign of mental disorder. Psychologists have reported that large numbers of us have what are termed nonbelieved memories: memories for events that we no longer believe actually happened. That would appear to be the fate of some imaginings that are converted into memories and which we later realise could not literally be true. Some people ‘recall’ seeing live dinosaurs, or flying with their arms outstretched; the products of imagination take on the wrappings of memory. These rememberers know, rationally, that the events could not have happened, but they still unfold in their minds just like a memory would.  
Pinter’s play is also alert to the emotional underpinnings of memory. Anna’s rose-tinted, impossibly perfect memories of London betray the fact that she wants things to have been a particular way in those heady days with the younger Kate. Emotional factors cause characters to mix memories that shouldn’t fit together. When Kate ‘remembers’ Anna lying dead, the corpse’s face is covered with dirt. One reading of this is that she has incorporated details from a real memory—the trick she played on Deeley in response to his sexual expectation—into the imagined scenario. At another point, recalling his trip to a café before the notorious party, Deeley clearly mixes up his memories of the two women, because it suits his revisionist self to do so.  
Remembering is not something we do alone. For the characters in Old Times, negotiating an account of the past is a fraught, dangerous process. Memories can be weapons as well as instruments of persuasion. And memory has only a part-time interest in the truth. It deals in scenarios, real ones and imagined ones, making and remaking the self from the partial, damaged information available. As another writer, Mark Twain, observed in his autobiography, ‘When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.’ 
Charles Fernyhough’s book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light, is published by Profile in the UK and HarperCollins in the US.
Programme essay reproduced by permission of John Good Ltd. Publishing.