Feeling a bit end-of-winter fuzzy? Awash with Wednesday ennui? Fed up with days filled with frustration, procrastination and possibilities that never quite manifest? Then read this.
Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. Each cell contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the sum total would be blinding.
The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new kinds of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about 10,000 connections to neighboring neurons, which means that there are more connections in a few cubic centimeters of brain tissue than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The three pound organ in your skull—with its pink consistency of jello—is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.
Now tell me you don't feel a little more, well, special? It is from Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, the new book by neuroscientist David Eagleman, who delivered a fantastic lecture at the Southbank Centre this week and who is indisputably the Brian Cox of the brain (with added humour and a better haircut). Here he is talking about possibilianism at PopTech last year (possibly).
I - like anyone who has suffered from mental health issues, delusions and addictions (which is pretty much all of us, to differing degrees) - have had to engage at close quarters with the alien machinery inside my skull. The past decade has been a battle, sometimes a distinctly bloody one, to mediate the fractious rivals inside this soggy pink parliament and channel its hungry, impulsive power into moderate and productive pathways. With each small, slow success I have moved a little further from fear to fascination, until now, with the help of people like Eagleman, I am in an almost obsessive state of grateful, curious wonder about how I act out 'I' every day.
If I were to tell you that my novel draws on quantum physics, neuroscience, comic books, eastern medicine, the psychology of the city, mental illness and climate change, you would probably (understandably) punch me and reach for a John Grisham instead. I have a writerly squeamishness about admitting 'themes' in books, because a fantastic story should assimilate such didacticism, leaving the subtlest of intriguing aftertastes behind. And so, I hope, mine will. But is my fiction stewed in science? Does it delight in fantasy? Yes, and I need to squash my learnt literary snobbery and summon the courage to admit it.
A few years ago, just as I was starting to write for the first time since childhood with real intent, I read Paul Broks's 'Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology' (and shortly after saw a patchy but gutsy play adaptation created by Broks and Mick Gordon). The book relays stories of how damaged brains create extraordinary human lives, and its themes of identity, impulse, illusion and choice have become central to my fiction. And, as I reach the half-way mark on my first full-length book, Eagleman has appeared at just the right time to re-inspire and invigorate. His debut, the deservedly ecstatically-reviewed collection of short stories Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, has the ability to blow your mind in the space of a single afternoon.
So if you know any disdainful naysayers of science fiction, make them first read Sum, and then listen to this interview with the incredible Ursula LeGuin. Because all novels are really neuroscience; a place where we anatomise and experiment on the parts of being human that we know, and attempt to explore the great, unknown cosmos of electrical storms beneath.
Eagleman dubs the recent advances in neuroscience the second dethroning of man. Where Galileo displaced the earth from the centre of the universe, what we now know of the brain displaces us from the centre of our selves. This can either be terrifying or deliciously exciting, and it is clear where Eagleman stands; as he put it in the lecture, we are basically run on magic.
If that can't motivate you mid-week, I don't know what will.