Brain stories and neuronovels

Photo by Flickr user William Forrester. Click for sourcen+1 has an excellent article on how neuroscience is making an increasing appearance in novels, not only as a subject, but also as a literary device to explore characters and explain their motivations.

It marks the start of the trend from Ian McEwan‚Äôs Enduring Love and notes that in more recent years books such as Richard Powers‚Äôs The Echomaker, Mark Haddon‚Äôs Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances have all drawn heavily from the medical and brain science literature for their main hooks.

What makes so many writers try their hands and brains at the neuronovel? At the most obvious level, the trend follows a cultural (and, in psychology proper, a disciplinary) shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality back to the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are. This cultural sea change probably began with the exhaustion of “the linguistic turn” in the humanities, in the 1980s, and with the discredit psychoanalysis suffered, around the same time, from revelations that Freud had discounted some credible claims of sexual abuse among his patients. Those philosophers of mind who had always been opposed to trendy French poststructuralism or old-fashioned Freudianism, and the mutability of personality these implied, put forth strong claims for the persistence of innate ideas and unalterable structures.

And in neuroscience such changes as the mind did endure were analyzed in terms of chemistry. By the early ’90s, psychoanalysis—whether of a Lacanian and therefore linguistic variety, or a Freudian and drive-oriented kind—was generally considered bankrupt, not to mention far less effective and more expensive than the psychiatric drugs (like Prozac) that began to flow through the general population’s bloodstream. The new reductionism of mind to brain, eagerly taken up by the press—especially the New York Times in its science pages—had two main properties: it explained proximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity.

It’s really well researched piece and neatly outlines the play between literature, science writing, culture and neuroscience through the development of numerous popular novels in the area.

Link to n+1 article ‘The Rise of the Neuronovel’.

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