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.