Neuron Culture

Are we living in a neuroculture?

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Andrew Carnie, Magic Forest, 2002, via Neuroculture.org

 

Do we live in a neuroculture? Of course we do!

Coming from a blog named Neuron Culture, this is obviously a set-up question — my excuse to call attention to a post by Daniel Buchman that offers a brief review article on the question.

It seems that everywhere I look nowadays, I’m seeing images of, or reading descriptions of, the brain in some shape or form.

Buchman links (at the post’s bottom, as is now the practice at NCore) to several good reads and sites, including Neuroculture.org, which has some lovely stuff, and — curse those paywalls — a Nature Neuroscience essay on the subject (subscription required) from last year and a more recent paper with the lovely title “The Birth of the Neuromolecular Gaze” (subscription required).

Free and fun, however, is Marco Roth’s Rise of the Neuronovel, at  n+1. it’s a fun read, even if you don’t completely agree, as is the case with me. (I see now that Jonah Lehrer didn’t go for it either; worth checking, as is Roth’s response there.) But I call it out here not to differ, but to a) bring it forward and b) add something to Roth’s several sharp-eyed observations about Ian McEwan’s Saturday. (I think Roth is a bit too hard on McEwan, but that’s not what I’m after here; and I suspect Roth sensed what I’m calling out here but left it unremarked because he had other dishes he wanted to cook. )

 

Roth focuses special attention, appropriately, on McEwan. He credits McEwan with both the neuronovel’s emergence, in Enduring Love, in 1997,  and it corruption a decade later in Saturday. Roth makes several sharp-eyed observations about how   Saturday expresses a neuro-based sensibility. But he leaves unremarked something that seemed to me central to the novel and what McEwan meant it to express. Saturday is clearly partly a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, taking place in a single day as its central character moves slowly and self-consciously through time, and vividly through London, toward an evening gathering.

As soon as you announce that — and I think the parallels announce it quite emphatically, if quietly — you beg examination of how the narrative language expresses the main character’s sensibility. As in Dalloway, we’re in the main character’s head not via the first person but via the omniscient narrator’s close attention to the character’s perspective. And just as Woolf uses Dalloway to declare a subjective, highly sensitive stream-of-consciousness the dominant and nearly inevitable sensibility of that age, so McEwan uses Perowne’s neuronal informed language and perspective to declare this age the age of the brain. Yes, the man’s a neurosurgeon, so of course he thinks that way. But that’s the point of making him a neurosurgeon: It lets McEwan frame reality through a neuro-cultural point of view.

This isn’t a hugely penetrating insight, and I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been called out before. But as I’ve read several pieces about Saturday without encountering it, I thought it worth noting.

As personal genomic information become more common, will we see the rise of the geno-novel as well? I’d bet a few bucks on it.