Does neuroscience change our understanding of ourselves?
John Mitchinson of Unbound:
When The Auctioneer was published in 1999, the reviews hailed the arrival of a major new talent. I read it and loved it and, like many others, waited and waited for the next book. Thirteen years later, I am thrilled to offer Unbound readers the chance to make it happen. Over to Charles:
What is it?
A Box of Birds is the story of a young neuroscientist, Yvonne Churcher, who has problems in the world beyond her lab. One of her students, James, is a dangerously attractive anti-science protestor who has set out to challenge her entire philosophy about how the brain works. His friend, Gareth, is a brilliant, unstable computer whiz who’s obsessed with the biochemical basis of memory. He tries to persuade Yvonne to get involved with a plan to stimulate memory artificially, which sets off a chain of events involving unscrupulous biotechs, stolen brain-mapping data and a strange brand of eco-terrorism.
What drives it?
I’m hoping it works on several levels: as a pacy thriller set in a near-future world of experimental brain research; as a love story between a neuroscientist and an animal rights campaigner; and as a clash between two of the predominant philosophical positions of our age. One is the materialist view that science has (or will have) all the answers and that 'we' are nothing more than bundles of nerves and chemical reactions. The other is the Freud-inspired position that underpins the culture of therapy: that the stories we tell about ourselves and our pasts have the capacity to change our future.
There have been some good modern novelists who have used neuroscientific ideas in their work: Ian McEwan, Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen spring to mind as three of the most successful. But I want to take it a little further.
For example, can you bring the neural level of explanation into the story and still create something that works as a fiction - or are you always drawn back to old-fashioned ideas of self, subjectivity, love and so on? Does neuroscience really change our understanding of who we are? For me, the only way to answer these questions was to write a novel that dramatised them. You’ll have to read the book to find out if I succeed…
How can you help?
Read the excerpt below, and if you like it, pledge. New chapters will appear in my Unbound Shed and, if I get the support I need, the book will be released in late August. In the course of finishing it, I’ll be hosting discussions with neuroscientists and fellow writers about some of the themes that emerge from the story. I very much hope that you’ll all join in.
They turn up in fancy dress, expecting a party. They can arrive at my lab done up like naughty French maids, jolly pirates still drunk from the sea, or maybe a pair of gorillas with realistic flaring nostrils. Once they broke into someone’s amateur dramatics costume cupboard and came straight here with the spoils, and I spent an hour teaching the essentials of synaptic signalling to both ends of a moth-eaten pantomime horse. I tell them that neuroscience is a serious business, but it’s hard to be serious about anything when you’ve chosen your third-year options and there’s no coursework due this side of Easter. Gareth shows up first, glancing around at the framed photographs of professors on the corridor walls, wondering which door is my lab and what he would have to do to get in there. James swaggers on behind, carrying his public-school confidence like a bulky parcel on a busy street, expecting people to get out of his way. They’re not meant to be up here on the research floors at all, given the security situation, but this is the only part of the Institute where I can hide their threadbare costume dramas from fellow scientists’ eyes. Besides, I have to get some facts down them if they’re going to have a chance of passing anything this year. At least if they come up here to my office, they can’t attract any attention. Persuade them to keep the noise down, and no one will have to know they’re here.
‘I’m going to need a volunteer,’ I tell them.
Gareth dumps his file onto one of the comfy chairs and offers himself nervously. Today he’s turned up as a Franciscan nun, complete with black veil, polyester tunic and clunky plastic neck-cross. His eyes are anxious and shadowy, and can’t stand anything for long. He gives the constant impression that someone is shooting at him.
‘I’m going to need you to sign a consent form. What we’re doing involves pretty harmless magnetic fields, but we need to get the paperwork right.’
James finally gives up on trying to read the secrets of my desktop and settles down in the other chair. ‘She’s going to experiment on your brain, Gaz. She’s going to wire you up to her machines and find out what makes you tick.’
‘Am I wearing that?’ Gareth says.
I grapple with the box. I come up holding an aluminium-cased helmet padded thickly with foam. A spacesuit visor slots over integrated goggles. A spinal column of processors and cables hangs down from the back.
‘For a little while,’ I say. ‘Just long enough for us to find out what you’re thinking.’
‘Better take your wimple off, Sister,’ James says.
Extraordinary 75% giveaway!
Sunday, 10 June 2012
To celebrate getting to 75% (which I hope will happen in the next few days) I'm offering a lucky new subscriber a chance to win a signed copy of any of my books. All the details are here. Please tell your friends and get them to pledge away!
Friday, 1 June 2012
This is the blog post I wrote for the Independent, on combining writing fiction with doing science.
New puffs from Andrew Crumey, Sara Maitland
Saturday, 31 March 2012
"It’s rare these days to read a writer who cares about ideas in the way that the great nineteenth-century novelists did. With A Box of Birds, Charles Fernyhough creates a thrilling plot and wonderfully constructed characters who are never overwhelmed by the twists of the story. The clash of philosophies at the heart of the novel—in which the certainties of neuroscience are unpicked by the mind’s need…
Saturday, 3 March 2012
Forest Glade 7
He's on the stairs ahead of me. Gareth left ten minutes ago, saying he needed to slip away early so that he could get his speech ready for the debate. There's no one else on the stairwell. I see James on the third-floor landing, peering at the iris scanner that controls access to the maximum-security areas. He flips out his phone and films the scanner for a few seconds, then glances…
These people are helping to fund A Box Of Birds.