“Don’t scorn the word:
Poets, the world is noisy
and silent, only God speaks.”
Pornography, Shamanic Healing, & Language-Based Reality
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
In 1992, or so the story goes, Giacomo Rizzolatti and a team of neuroscientists accidentally discovered mirror neurons while experimenting on monkeys. The monkeys had their brains wired up in order to observe how motor neurons related to hand movements, and when a monkey picked up a peanut, the neuron fired. But to the team’s surprise, the same motor neuron also fired when the monkey was watching a lab assistant pick up a peanut. Apparently, to the monkey’s brain, seeing someone grabbing a peanut was a similar experience to grabbing the peanut itself: action and perception were “tightly linked.”1
I don’t know how true this story is—it’s probably an apocryphal way to catch the average person’s attention because the real story of how mirror neurons were discovered (or posited) is, like Stephin Merritt’s book of love, long and boring. I also don’t know how reliable—or desirable—knowledge gained by torturing monkeys is. But the idea of mirror neurons is now firmly established in scientific culture, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to use it.
The following is from “Porn and Mirror Neurons”:2
But how does porn work? Why do humans (especially men) get so excited by seeing someone else have sex? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching porn triggers an idea (we start thinking about sex), which then triggers a change in our behavior (we become sexually aroused). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Porn is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work. But this straightforward answer is probably wrong. Porn does not cause us to think about sex. Rather, porn causes to think we are having sex. From the perspective of the brain, the act of arousal is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via the television or computer screen. The act itself is the idea. In other words, porn works by convincing us that we are not watching porn. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.
So how about we reframe this argument and apply it to, say, a shamanic healing ritual?
How does shamanic ritual work? Why do humans get healed by seeing someone else perform a ritual? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching a ritual triggers an idea (we start thinking about healing), which then triggers a change (we are healed). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Shamanic ritual is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work.
But this straightforward answer is probably wrong. Shamanic ritual does not cause us to think about being healed. Rather, shamanic ritual causes us to think we are doing the healing. From the perspective of the brain, the act of healing is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via watching the shaman. The act itself is the healing. In other words, shamanic ritual works by convincing us that we are not watching a shamanic ritual. We think we are the shaman, doing the ritual.
I juxtaposed pornographic sex with shamanic healing to show how this interpretative model can be applied to absolutely anything in human experience. What I am really interested in applying it to, since I’m a writer, is writing. Specifically, I want to look at journal writing, which is something anyone can do and which involves the observation of behavioral patterns. The reason I want to focus on journal writing is simple: it’s how I first became fully immersed in writing, and even now, with my journal days far behind me, the element of self-observation and self-examination remains central to everything I write. (I would even argue, if I had time or space—which I don’t—that it is central to all serious writing.) Like shamanic ritual (and non-pornographic sex), writing has the potential to be cathartic and hence self-healing, not only for the writer but also, potentially, for the reader.
Writing is a lot more than just marks on a page or pixels on a computer screen. Computer programming and html code have provided a kind of practical confirmation for the anthropological and philosophic idea that reality—or rather our subjective experience of it—is a language-based construct. While this is an idea made familiar by authors like Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, and Carlos Castaneda and movies like The Matrix and They Live, it’s not one that’s easy to take fully onboard. It’s also seemingly impossible to test. We can say a tree is still the same tree without the word “tree,” but how can we be sure? Short of suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other degenerative disorder that completely wipes clean our linguistic program (at which point we wouldn’t be able to report our findings)? What would we even be without language? Think about it: imagine your whole itinerary of words was wiped away and you had no way to label anything in your experience, no way to speak or think in words at all. What would happen to the identity which you’re used to calling “you”? Would it still exist? How would you even recognize it?
These are the sorts of thoughts I have late at night, while trying to get to asleep. They are also the sorts of thoughts I wouldn’t be able to have if I lost the use of language.
Yet the idea of existence being language-based isn’t all that controversial. The discovery of DNA and genetic code have already established it, but few of us have direct knowledge of our DNA so it’s an abstract hypothesis and doesn’t interfere with our sleep too much. With computer programming, however, the idea of a series of letters giving rise to material reality—image—is something we get to experience every time we boot up our PC. Everybody knows now that code creates images, and images reflect (and can pass for) reality.
Once upon a time this idea—and most of all the possibility of applying it—was restricted to the few. Once upon a time only initiates were privy to the occult knowledge required to activate “junk DNA,” raise the “Kundalini,” and recalibrate consciousness from human to divine frequencies. In Gnostic tradition, this self-activation process was symbolically described as moving up the chain of planetary “Archons,” using certain key words of power to get past each Gatekeeper, until freedom was attained. These days, kids who don’t know an archon from their elbow are playing video games which require clues and passwords to get past a series of obstacles, or “gatekeepers” and make it to “the next level.” Without digressing any further into the quasi-science of occultism, you might say there’s been a progression from the magical tradition of spellcraft once reserved for the priestly caste, to government-sponsored biologists and neuroscientists tinkering with DNA and monkey brains, until today, when the oldest and most arcane art is being taught to pre-schoolers and anyone with the time and patience to master computer-programming can summon occult forces and shape reality—via the power of words.
All of these various disciplines and media have one thing in common: language. Language is a series of symbols which only become meaningful once their meaning is agreed on and they can be used to communicate. DNA, html code, god-names and video games are all metaphors, because in a reality that’s interpreted (and hence shaped) via language, everything is metaphor. So what are they all metaphors for? In simplest terms, they are metaphors for the human psyche, and the process being described is that of individuation, or, to use another metaphor, the alchemical transmutation of consciousness. This is the “real life and purpose” which (writer) Philip K. Dick intuited as being “conducted below our threshold of consciousness.” It is happening right here, right now, beneath the surface and between the lines of our everyday narratives.
The Listener: Developing a Dialogue with Self
“To start a dialogue,
then . . . listen.”
When a baby learns to speak, it doesn’t build a vocabulary word by word (a process which begins later), it starts by making unintelligible sounds in imitation of what it hears. Gradually, these sounds begin to resemble recognizable language and verbal communication begins. Soon after this, the child learns to read and write and language becomes fixed, not only as sound but as image. It becomes script, code. Writing then introduces a new possibility, that of words separate from direct communication, and the corresponding possibility of communication occurring, not only across space, but across time.
There is another purpose for writing which has nothing to do with communication in the ordinary sense, and that is the possibility of writing without any intention of ever sharing it with another human being—such as for example when writing a journal. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people do this every day (admittedly less so now that blogs and Facebook have opened up the possibility of communicating with strangers); the assumed wisdom is that keeping a journal is a therapeutic process. If this is really the case, how does it work? The obvious answer is that writing a journal is a way to communicate with oneself.
Short of talking to oneself (which creates a very different effect), self-communication is only possible via writing. Writing down an account of my activities or thoughts creates a distance between myself and the raw material of my existence, and potentially between my everyday “motor” self and my consciousness. As in good therapy, I am talking to an impartial, disinterested, but wholly attentive other, the difference being that, in this case, the “Listener” is myself. This Listener is something we can all develop within ourselves and without it no real communication is possible—because before we can begin to listen to others, we have to learn to listen to ourselves. Real speech can only come about as a response to listening, whether internally or externally.
Therapy allows me to re-experience my problems from the perspective of an impartial but curious observer who is devoid of any strong emotional reaction. This presence is the Listener, who is both interested and disinterested, sympathetic but impartial, uninvolved. When I communicate with myself in this way, via writing, creative expression, deep thought or meditation, I bring forth The Listener—the part of me that’s equivalent to a sympathetic but disinterested friend or a therapist. I can then reconceive the problem from this new, “outside” perspective. The benefits of this are two-fold: not only do I experience my problem in a less stressful light, I also gain access to a part of myself that’s able to rise above any problem because it is entirely uninvolved, while at the same time, privy to inside information about me. The Listener is my own inner therapist.
Writing a journal, like talking to a therapist, is a way of testing the contents of my mind, both conscious and unconscious (writing will bring unconscious matter to the surface just as much as therapy), making sure I have got to grips with it before letting others see it. It’s a psychological rehearsal space in which I can see exactly what I am capable of and what not—“where I’m at”—before going on stage and performing in front of a live audience (so to speak).
This sort of dialoguing with the self can have an accumulative effect: it creates a recursive feedback loop in which, the more I reveal the contents of my mind to myself and integrate them, the more I can accept myself as I am, the more I can open up to others, and so on. Alchemically speaking, I am drawing the lead into the laboratory of my mind and transmuting it, via awareness, over a long, painful process, into gold. By establishing a different way of relating to myself through on-going dialogue, I am establishing a kind of private social identity which, little by little, I can take into the world. By strengthening my individual sense of truth, meaning, and value, I am slowly “finding my feet” in reality.
Between the Lines: Trance States Via Reading, Writing, & Dreaming
“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen
Keeping a journal is analogous to therapy in this way: in both cases, a ritual space is created within which the normal social rules are suspended. This ritual space—be it the journal, the therapy room, the shaman’s hut or the magician’s circle—allows “the inexpressible to be expressed.” Communicating with ourselves in this way develops our ability to communicate with the world. Then, as we begin to bring this new awareness and maturity into our interactions with others, so communicating with the world deepens our relationship to ourselves.
On the individuation journey to self-knowledge, there are inevitably aspects of my consciousness which I am either unable to see or unwilling to look at in isolation. Just as there are spirits which the shaman is careful not to invoke, there are subjects which I choose not to write about in my journal, often because I am not ready to even think about them. Once I enter into interaction with other people, however, these are the very aspects that get stirred up. They are the rough (and blind) spots which sooner or later are going to trip me as I begin to engage with my environment in new ways. It is this pressure of interacting with other people that brings home the discord in my psyche and allows me to work it out. This tension provided by “the other” is essential to individuation.
The following is from Stephen King’s On Writing:
My name is Stephen King. I’m writing the first draft of this part at my desk (the one under the eave) on a snowy morning in December of 1997. There are things on my mind. Some are worries (bad eyes, Christmas shopping not even started, wife under the weather with a virus), some are good things (our younger son made a surprise visit home from college, I got to play Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” with The Wallflowers at a concert), but right now all that stuff is up top. I’m in another place, a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images. This is a place I’ve built for myself over the years. It’s a far-seeing place. . . . you are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me . . . but you’re likely in your own far-seeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages. . . . And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours. Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room. . . except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.
Stephen King makes no mention of mirror neurons or brain states; back in 1997 no one was talking about such things. Yet he’s essentially describing the same phenomenon: transference of thought via writing. It’s interesting that King takes the time to describe his brain state (his mood), even though it has no apparent bearing on the scene which he goes on to transmit (the rabbit in the cage), telepathically, in order to literally illustrate his point. The reason it’s interesting is that the science of mirror neurons argues that it is just such “between the lines” information that is transmitted via language—the writer’s mood and current circumstances—even when they are in no way inferred by the written or spoken material itself.
What King is describing is more than simply a shared visualization, because the act of visualizing—being obviously linked to dreaming—is one that entails at least a minor trance state. We all know what it’s like to get sucked into a good book. We get lost in the writer’s (and/or the characters’) thoughts and feelings, immersed in another world being created by a combination of words on the page and our own ability to weave a surrogate dream reality inside our skulls (or bodies, if you want to be holistic about it). One thing is certain: when we are carried away by a good book, fiction or non-fiction, we are only secondarily aware of reading words on a page; our primary awareness goes where the words themselves take us. And where they take us, as King points out, is not only into our own minds, but into the mind of the author. It is a matching of brains states, a shared trance. And (though this is trickier to prove) I’d wager that the closer the author was to deep dreaming when she or he wrote the book we are immersed in, the closer we can approach to such a state while reading it. This is what distinguishes great writing from not-so-great: the degree of immersion it induces in us is determined, at least in part, by the degree of immersion which the writer experienced while writing it. This is what communicates—“between the lines.”
Reading James Joyce is a very different experience to reading Elmore Leonard, and Jean Baudrillard requires an alternate sort of attention to Stephen King. Some prose is harder to get “our heads around,” and while this may have to do with obvious factors such as dense vocabulary or labyrinthine phrases, it may also be dependent on how foreign or alien the brain state of the author is compared to our own. People who work hard to match Joyce’s brain state “get” what he is doing and consider him a genius. For the rest of us, he is incomprehensible and overrated. (Ditto Baudrillard.) The same is true of our dreams: the ones that more closely match our waking brain state are easier to remember, understand, and describe. Others are so “out there” that just thinking about them causes us a mild form of distress due to the cognitive dissonance. (The Surrealists were all about creating cognitive dissonance, and their aim was to try and match dream states through the use of word and image.)
If you read the following sentence, allowing that forensic science has a relative ownership of the sort of cheese waffles which your mother baked, for the sake of literary analysis you will take the next number 5 bus and wind up looking for missing punctuation marks. On the other hand if I say simply that this sort of playful writing has a pleasingly disorientating effect on the mind, you will be then relieved to be back on safe ground, and understand that matching the author’s brain state does not entail coming too seriously unhinged from your own familiar worldview. Coherence is something we let go of only with a struggle. The point is, while you are reading this, you are going along with my own thoughts and as long as these seem to follow a linear sort of sequence common to waking logic, and to keep to ideas that are reasonably familiar to you, you can keep up with them and won’t have too hard a time. The moment the sentence echoes a far-off reverberation of your own fetal spasms while salivating leprous homunculi sniff your mother’s panties and lugubriously reveal the secrets of your wasted sex life on CNN, oh boy, you will either laugh, become incensed, or try and figure out where exactly you lost the thread of my argument.
See what I mean?
Matching the author’s brain state is something that happens automatically with “easy” prose, but which we become increasingly aware of having to do when the prose is more innovative and challenging, or conversely, sloppier and less cunningly structured. Yet the awareness of the reader is finally the determining factor in how efficiently the information gets conveyed. If a tree falls and no one hears it, there’s no sound. A book that’s never read does not exist as a form of literature, only an object on a shelf. Telepathy has not occurred: minds have not met. Compare this to our dream lives. How much of the material of our dreams ever makes it to our conscious minds? Yet it’s there: book after book, story after story, just waiting to be tapped into and enjoyed.
In the common view, dreams are a way for our brains to “work off” excess stress or work out unresolved issues. In the jargon of our day, the dream state is a place where the unconscious “uploads” data—in symbolic language—about the condition of the “network,” our total psyches. This can be transpersonal as well as personal because the unconscious, according to C.G. Jung at least, is collective as well as individual. While sleeping, we are in a relatively egoless state, and because of this, information that would otherwise be threatening to, and hence repressed by, our waking consciousness can be addressed and integrated. When I say “relatively egoless,” I mean that our everyday concerns no longer hold sway over our choices. Barring specific anxiety dreams, we aren’t worried about the rent or what the neighbors think of us, but instead tend to get caught up in symbolic enactments that make little or no sense in the context of our waking lives.
If we think of ego in its pure sense, however—that of an individual perspective with its own focus and drive—it could be argued that, potentially at least, we are more in our ego while dreaming, because when we sleep our ego and id (conscious and unconscious minds) are functioning more as a unit. This becomes especially apparent in lucid dreaming, and once again the parallel with writing is clear: lucid dreaming is a way of taking control of the components of our unconscious and writing the dream. Like a scenarist, a novelist, or a scriptwriter, our intent is to arrange specific elements of our unconscious in a conscious or semi-conscious fashion and discover how best they fit together to create a meaningful narrative. This is the similarity; the difference, of course, is in the medium employed. When we sit at a desk and write, we are using words to describe internal states and are willingly entering into mild trance in order to midwife that psychic material into the new form, that of literature. When we dream, something else happens, and words are only incidental to that mysterious process.
When I write I am creating an external vehicle for myself as consciousness: a book, a poem, a short story, an essay. This is called self-expression, and it’s a process which most writers would say they have control over, if not total control then near enough. (Writers often say that, when it’s working, the story or piece takes over; but never, I assume, to the point they would forget to eat and starve to death.) When we dream, such control is drastically reduced, to the point that most of the time we forget we are dreaming. The world we create becomes all-embracing. When we dream, we are “projecting” consciousness outside of the “self” and creating an image, then stepping into the image and interacting with it. Anyone who has ever fallen asleep and entered into dreaming consciously (the hypnopompic state) will have observed that critical moment when ordinary thoughts begin to transform into, and appear before us as,images.
This is the act of creation stripped down to its essence, and the essence of the creative act is that (unlike writing) we have only a rudimentary kind of control over it. Falling asleep in this way can be extremely jarring (the trick is not waking ourselves up by reacting to the images we see); it is like tapping into a well of psychic energy that for the rest of our lives is turned off and unavailable to us. Writers—and all artists—attempt to tap into this wellspring consciously, while awake, and to direct it into a finished work which they can present to the world as “the product of their imagination.” Yet it may be that the product itself is almost incidental to the real mystery, that of the creative process itself. How does it happen and why does it take the form it does? What are these seemingly bipolar kinds of consciousness called waking and dreaming, and why is it so difficult (and so fascinating) a task to create—or locate—a working bridge between the two?
Mirror Neurons, Brain States, & Unmediated Communication
“Neuroscientists have discovered specialized cells in the brain, called mirror neurons, that spontaneously create brain-to-brain links between people. This means that our brain waves, chemistry and feelings can literally mirror the brain waves, chemistry and feelings of those who we are communicating with, reading stories about, watching on television, or people who we simply have in our thoughts. This is perfectly natural and has been happening all along. It allows us to instantly empathize with others and to know what they are feeling and experiencing.
—Teka Luttrel, “Mirror Neurons: We Are Wired to Connect.”
For neuroscientists (and maybe writers?), the discovery of mirror neurons marks an Archimedean point (a God’s eye view) from which all human knowledge can now be rethought and all our models of reality can be reformulated. In simple language, mirror neurons present a solid scientific basis for telepathy, and the existence of telepathy, by making porous and even removing the barriers between the inner world and the outer, changes everything. The twist is that mirror neurons indicate telepathic communication isn’t something that can happen but that it’s something that is happening all the time. We have already been told that “body language”—which includes not only tone of voice and gesture but scents and pheromones—means the greater percentage of human communication is nonverbal. Now it would seem that body language needs to take a back seat to direct, brain-to-brain interface. Whatever words and gestures may be happening on the surface, the primary transmission of meaning appears to be the result of the matching of brain patterns.
Outside of the laboratory, what are the ways in which we experience this? How many times do we say something “innocuous” which causes an inexplicable emotional reaction in someone? Is this an example of the telepathy of mirror neurons in action? Are all our attempts to be “innocuous,” humorous, or ingratiating superfluous if our brains are transmitting a different signal? A large part of passive-aggressive behavior is unconscious: if I say one thing but mean another, it’s as often as not without realizing it myself—until it’s pointed out to me (often rudely). The fact this happens over the Internet also is proof it’s not merely body language that’s conveying hidden meanings. In fact, this sort of weird “misunderstanding” often happens even more dramatically via email and forum exchanges, and the reason may be that physical cues mediate between language and brain-state, making it that much easier for misunderstanding to occur when they are absent. (This is why the emoticon had to be invented.) However, there’s an inherent contradiction here, because what we think of as misunderstanding, much of the time, is in fact clear understanding, since people use physical cues, facial expressions, and tone of voice (and emoticons) to conceal as much as to clarify.
Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. In our present case, the tool that underlies all human communication—the brain—is indeed the message as well as the medium. After all, what we all really want to communicate with any given message, writers or not, is who we are and where we are “at.” And this is precisely what we do communicate, without even trying and often even against our will. When two computers are networked together, they are making their entire databases available to each other; likewise when two atoms meet and exchange information it is total entanglement that occurs. Two dogs sniffing each other’s backsides are going about the same business. It would seem that only human beings try to do things by halves, and that this half-measure is a luxury of illusion. As Philip K. Dick once inferred, privacy may be a valid concept only to “idiots” who have learned to shut down their communication centers, to the extent that all “telepathic” interface occurs only at an unconscious level. In other words, even while we are constantly swapping all our vital data, we don’t actually know it. We stay focused on the ostensible message being conveyed, and upon all the “cues” and emoticons that are telling us how to read it, unaware that the media being engaged is also the lion’s share of the message: our total brain states.
To understand this requires a whole new way of thinking about communication and empathy. When two people are talking to each other (or communicating by written media), their brains light up in matching patterns and meaning is transmitted. This is analogous to computer file-sharing: you “connect” and download a file that is the exact same pattern as the original, even while it’s being sent from another location. As pointed out, this is actually easier to see without the mediation of other signals (physical cues mediate the message of the brain-state), which may be why “flame wars” are so common in forums, when what we transmit (literally our state of mind) gets reflected back unmediated. Passive-aggressive behavior—even or especially when unconscious—is met with an outwardly aggressive response, and our experience is akin to getting slapped in the face every time we try to be nice. The problem is that we are trying, and as often as not expressly to cover up all the ways in which we don’t feel nice towards the other person. With the new media these old, outmoded social niceties—hypocritical at the best of times—are no longer cutting it. You can’t fake empathy with language or tone of voice because it’s physiological: a whole body-brain experience.
The irony of this is that the new media of the Internet, while seemingly a more remote form of human interaction, may actually be bringing about an increased level of intimacy between people, thereby giving rise to the corresponding need for empathy. This is because it’s bringing to the surface the actual nature of communication: direct “telepathic” (brain-to-brain) interface, or “file-sharing.”
Dostoyevsky Neurons: What Makes Great Writing
“[M]irror neurons are multimodal—they are activated not just by watching actions, but also by hearing and reading about them. An effort led by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, found that the brain’s premotor cortex shows the same activity when subjects observe an action as when they read words describing it. . . This indicates that in addition to execution, action observation, and the sounds of actions, these neurons may also be activated by abstract representations of actions, namely language. . . . ‘Research in the last few years seems to suggest that perception and action are tightly linked rather than separated,’ [Aziz-Zadeh] said.”
—“Mirror Neurons Also Respond to Language and Sound,” SEED magazine Sept 21, 2006
In one study, cited in Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, a group of people imagining physical exercises increased their strength by twenty-two percent, as compared to a group performing actual exercises whose strength increased by thirty percent. No wonder Jane Fonda’s workout video was such a success! The implications of this are startling, but also somewhat disturbing. If our muscles can improve simply by watching a fitness video, or even by reading about somebody working out, what about the countless acts of violence which we vicariously experience day after day in movies, novels, TV shows, comic books and rap songs? It’s no wonder the military is among the leading researchers in video game technology: if mirror neurons exist, then a soldier in training doesn’t know the difference—at a physiological level—between simulated acts of war and the real thing. It’s an irony typical of our age that mirror neurons—nicknamed “Gandhi neurons” by Ramachandran because they are supposedly responsible for empathy—are currently being used to desensitize us to violence against our fellow men and women. But that’s a subject for a whole other discussion, and for now I want to focus on the efficiency of language to communicate (via mirror neurons), not only images (as in King’s example) but moods and even altered states of consciousness, and on how this occurs in tandem with physiological changes.
When I read Crime and Punishment (it’s been four times now), I find myself inside the mind—under the skin—of Raskolnikov: I identify with him so much that, for the duration of the book, his thoughts become my thoughts and, to a lesser extent, his actions my own (not literally—I didn’t ever go out and murder my landlady; but for my brain, there may not be a difference). Since Raskolnikov is the creation of Dostoyevsky’s mind—the child of his psyche—I am not so much being taken over by Raskolnikov but by Dostoyevsky, his creator. A combination of good writing with good (attentive) reading creates a trance state in me which involves my matching the brain state of the author at the time of writing. Besides the telepathic connection across space and time which Stephen King describes, this implies that, contained in the words themselves, there’s a hidden information load, one that survives any number of translations or reprints yet remains invisible and undetectable in the text itself. What makes Dostoyevsky a great writer and a thousand others not so is that Dostoyevsky immersed himself so thoroughly in the writing process, was so consumed by it, that his brain state effectively fused with that of the characters he was imagining until there was very little distance between the creator and his creation. All good fiction achieves this to some extent: it creates in the reader a sense of authenticity, of immediacy, as if the events described were happening spontaneously, as we are reading them, rather than being worked out over time (years, even centuries, ago) by someone sitting at a desk chewing his or her pencil. A writer who creates convincing characters and scenes does so by entering all the way into them: the written text then becomes a kind of brain-scan taken from that time, capturing the innermost thoughts and feelings of the writer every bit as much as a recording of a singer or a photograph of someone’s face captures what was going on inside them at that moment. It is then up to us, the reader, to be sensitive enough to tune into that information and “decode” it.
While Sherlock Holmes might be able to deduce a large part of such information by studying the text, recording, or photograph, for most of us this transference occurs unconsciously, with neither our understanding nor our awareness. Yet happen it does. We can no more avoid picking up this hidden information load (that snapshot of the author’s brain) than the writer can avoid putting it into the writing. The opposite example to that of a consummate artist like Dostoyevsky would be a writer who’s unable or unwilling to close the gap between his conscious intent (in writing) and whatever is going on in his or her unconscious. He or she might be writing about a murderer while thinking about what they want for lunch, whether they paid the water bill, or how this book is finally going to make them rich. The result will be a diluted, watered down portrait of a murderer, anemic and uninvolving because the author hasn’t allowed him or herself to be fully possessed by the act of creation.
The result is contrived. We can see the strings, we feel the discrepancy between the words on the page and the author’s brain state. The words are unconvincing because while we are trying to believe them or immerse ourselves in them, we are unconsciously matching the author’s brain state—and thinking about the peanut.
1 The neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran believes that the discovery of mirror neurons for neuroscience is equivalent to the discovery of DNA for biology, and that the “fifth revolution” is the neuroscience revolution (following Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA).
2 Jonah Lehrer, http://web.archive.org/web/20120519175801/http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/08/porn_and_mirror_neurons.php