A Box of Birds: The Pleasures of Literature, The Passions of Neuroscience

Charles Fernyhough – psychologist, writer, CMH affiliate and director of Hearing the Voice – is about to publish his second novel A Box Of Birds. A pacy thriller that also goes to the heart of scientific and philosophical debates about the nature of identity, memory and the self, A Box Of Birds is being published through an innovative crowd-funded initiative called Unbound. If neuroscience has ever even remotely intrigued you, and you’re also partial to a cracking good read, A Box Of Birds promises to delight, provoke and linger long in the mind. It’s also precisely the kind of novel you will have been proud to have supported from its earliest moments.

In an online interview with Jonah Lehrer, Charles reflects on the new ‘neuro-novel’:

“The question I would ask is: are writers just introducing neuro details as local colour, or do new understandings of the brain really change the kinds of fiction that are possible? You could define two tasks for the neuro-novel: firstly to explain human experience and behaviour in terms of neural processes, and secondly to show how that view of mind changes our relationship with those experiences and behaviour; how it affects the choices we make. When I look around at what has been published in the last few years, I see a bit of the first and not much of the second. What I do see lots of is the pathologising that Marco Roth points to in his essay. I don’t see this as specific to the neuro-novel, though. There are broader currents at work. Look at the arguments around DSM-V, and those very reasonable complaints about how ordinary aspects of human experience are being turned into syndromes. It’s not just novelists who are seeing the pathological in everything.

Whatever we make of the ‘neuro-novel’, it has to be judged as fiction, not as science. The novel, any novel, has to be moral: it has to concern itself with human judgements about good and bad, right and wrong. For obvious reasons, these categories have usually been interpreted at the personal level of explanation. The neuro-novel may not be able to change that, perhaps because the neural level of explanation is the wrong one. But our fiction will surely become richer if we try, and so might our science. The challenge for writers, as I see it, is to try to find the moral centre within the neuroscience, rather than just assuming it. I want to see this kind of science in novels, because I want to know what the science means to us as people, and exploring that in fiction is a good way of finding out.

One thing I’m sure about is that the novel is resilient enough to soak up any of these challenges. The novel gobbled up Darwin and Freud; I don’t see why it should choke on David Eagleman.”

Charles Fernyhough will continue his discussion with science writer Jonah Lehrer on Radio 4’s All in the Mind on Tues 22 May at 9pm. I strongly encourage you to buy an advance copy of his novel here (and anticipate the thrill of being named as a supporter in every published edition).

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