Wednesday, October 21, 2009

a sense of self

Current work: Modern Heat
Listening to: Debussy
Reading: next on TBR

Watched a really interesting documentary yesterday about the sense of self by a mathematician/philosopher, Professor Marcus du Sautoy. (More about it here on the BBC news site, with link to iPlayer.) How do you know what is ‘I’ and what is consciousness? I’m fairly sure I’ve already read something about the experiment in Sweden to make you feel as if you’re sitting behind yourself, thereby separating body and consciousness – and it goes further by tricking the mind into thinking that you’re the other person – but it was still fascinating.

It’s stunning how far science has come already. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a case in point – not just showing the brain, but also the regions of activity. The thing that I really hope develops from of this? A way to help degenerative brain conditions (I’m thinking specifically Parkinson’s and the various forms of dementia – and yes, of course it’s personal, for the same reason I’d love to see a cure for cancer). I guess the first step is identifying areas of the brain and how they respond, and then scientists might be ale to find out how to stimulate that same response if those areas of the brain are no longer able to work effectively.

I think for writers, a sense of ‘I’ is an even greyer area than it is for most people. Given the nature of our job (and I’d say it’s a vocation, too), we voluntarily put ourselves inside the heads of other people. Otherwise how would we be able to write realistic emotions and dialogue? How would we get rounded characterisation? And then there’s the question of which ‘I’ are we talking about: public or private face? And is Kate the romantic novelist the same as Pamela the historian? Same corporal body – but same person? How much blurring is there between the two?

And that leads me on to asking whether there’s a difference between the way someone is at work and the way they are at home. Is it a physical change (measurable by neuron activity) or a social change – and, if the latter, how can we measure it and how far is it affected by the expectations of other people? ‘Freedom is a cage, the bars of which are other people’s freedoms’ (that’s a verrrrrry loose translation from Rousseau’s Social Contract – anyway, it’s France leading up to the Revolution) – wonder if that’s also true of the self? Does our behaviour shift, say, when we’re with our parents and siblings, so we take on our accepted ‘position’ in the family, even after we’ve grown up and that’s no longer who we are?

Sadly, deadline beckons, so no time to go into this in proper depth. But I wonder. Question for writers out there: when you’re working on a book (and assuming you’re not the omniscient narrator), do you have a sense of yourself still, or do you slip so far into the heads of your characters that you’re somebody else (even if only temporarily)? Do you have any views on the questions I’ve raised above? I’d love to hear them.


Sally Clements said...

Hi Kate
I watched this last night too, and was totally glued to it. There's also an article expanding on some of the ideas and referencing the documentary in this weeks (or last weeks) New Scientist, which talks about the removal of self in those experiments and also talks about the 'floating above oneself' element of out of body experiments, stating that they have managed to replicate those using the camera methods. Great, fascinating ideas. I loved it! Well done on being so on the ball as to get your blog referencing it so quickly!
I'm a writer too, although my romances (except for a short story, due in Love Stories Mag in New York, 2010) aren't published yet, and I love your writing. Now sounding rather 'overcome fan' so off to get some coffee!
My blog is at

Shirley Wells said...

I missed that. I'll have to get on the iPlayer. (Bad Kate, I'm supposed to be working... ;o))

I think writers do slip so far into their characters' minds that, for a time at least, they become someone else. And when the interruptions come - phone, doorbell, dogs, husbands - do we return to our usual self immediately or does the other person, the character, linger a while?

Fascinating stuff. Must go and find out about the documentary...

Donna Alward said...

The dregs of character stay with me, particularly as I get near the end of a book when the emotions are sky high. It is harder and harder to pull me out of that world and back into my own.

I do become a slightly different person depending on who I am with. Donna the author is slightly different than Donna the mum for example. But I think it is all facets of one person and in different situations one simply becomes dominant.

Now if you could map that in the brain, that'd be very, very cool. And maybe a little scary.

Carol Townend said...

Hi Kate,
Wow, how interesting. I am an up and down person - you never would have guessed, would you?! - so I never really know who I am going to be in the morning! Writing is what keeps me grounded.
But I do know that when I am working at my best, I have no sense of self at all. There is just the story, and that is it.
Having a weak sense of self can be a good thing when it comes to letting characters go their own way.
And I've noticed that on the days when I actually know who I am, then it is very hard to get down to writing. It is hard to let go, as it were.
Better stop now, am beginning to sound like a candidate for a straight-jacket!

Caroline Storer said...

Hi Kate. Very interesting blog today. Didn't see the programme so will try to catch it on the iPlayer. My writing style is to try and get into my characters head - I don't always succeed unfortunately!

BTW I didn't get a chance to respond to your blog yesterday - loved your piccis. As a bit of the nerdy type myself I took some photo's of a lovely sunrise this morning and some low lying mist. They were taken from the front of my house and sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have such a view! (The photo's are on my website). Take care. Caroline x

Joanie said...

Very interesting, Kate. I personally think we do kind of compartmentalize or separate. I think it's kind of a survival thing. While it would be fun to let loose and be creative and kooky all the time, depending on our lives, we can't, so we compartmentalize and become our business personna. And I don't believe that is all a bad thing, as I think it's a left/right brain option that allows stimulus to our creativity. I know if I'm in a heavy left-brain necessary personna for a good deal of time, my creativity skyrockets when I'm able to get back to my writing. There are just too many ways our bodies and brains do things that are situation specific. For example, I heard about a study just completed where tears were analyzed, and the researchers found that the chemical composition of angry tears were vastly different from those of sad tears. Surprised me! Guess what I'm saying is that there are a lot of incredible ways we are different in everyday situations.

Kate Hardy said...

Hi Sally - nice to see you here! Must try and get hold of that issue because it sounds right up my street.

Thanks so much for the compliment (it's always a thrill to hear that someone enjoys my work) - and hey, short stories count too! Well done on that first sale.

Kate Hardy said...

Shirley - it's definitely worth watching.

And that's a good question about interruptions. Must ask my lot how long it takes me to sound like me...

Kate Hardy said...

Donna - wouldn't that be interesting? I think one day they will be able to map that. One of the experiments had Marcus choosing which button to press, left or right - and the researchers watching areas light up in his brain could predict his decision SIX SECONDS BEFORE he was conscious of making that decision. Amazing.

Kate Hardy said...

Carol - LOL on the straightjacket. You sound like a normal writer to me. (And you've always been normal whenever I've been drinking coffee with you...)

Not sure if that's so much a weak sense of self as a greater openness/empathy with others... interesting question, though.

Kate Hardy said...

Caroline - it's definitely worth a watch. And getting into your characters' heads really does help to bring across their personality to the readers. (Michelle always recommends enneagrams - they're worth a look, too.)

Kate Hardy said...

PS, Caroline - meant to say, those pics on your blog are gorgeous!

Kate Hardy said...

Joanie - hi, nice to see you here.

I like your ideas about compartmentalising - and how it stimulates creativity. I know if I don't get enough writing time, I'm a bit difficult to live with...

That study sounds fascinating - that had never occurred to me before, but now I think about it I can see the logic.

Thanks for such an interesting comment!

Lacey Devlin said...

Fascinating concepts Kate! I immediately thought of actor Heath Ledger and the struggle he was having separating from his disturbing characters outside of work.

Kate Hardy said...

Lacey - bless him, yes. I concentrated on writers, as it's what I have most experience of, but I guess it would be true of all the arts, whether it's performing arts or visual (I'd probably class music as performing, whether you're playing for yourself or for other people). Poor man. Hope he's at peace now.