Neuroscience, Memory and Art
Neuroscience frightens me.
Thinking about the processes within the 3.5lb lumps of tofu that allow us to think about ourselves is to question the reality of our flickering self-awareness. It makes me feel vertiginous, like staring into the infinity of images you see when looking into a mirror that’s reflecting another mirror behind it.
We should instead think about neuroscience in terms of computing, and not as any sort of dissection of our souls. We’re understanding the brain’s basic hardware and operating systems, as the first step towards rising up through the various levels of overlayered programming that leads ultimately to our self-awareness .
Thinking about the brain’s higher level functions in basic neuroscience terms is as impossible as trying to understand Twitter by looking at the motherboard of your laptop.
Our brains are also part of the body’s neural network – as it would seem are the brains and bodies of others, in ways we don’t yet understand.
So if we try to think about memory, literature and its effect in terms of neuroscience, we’re considering one of the highest level functions of our supercomputer brains. Music, literature and art are scripts developed instinctively over millenia, that somehow evoke incredibly sophisticated responses in us all. My violinist son Will when aged ten was listening to a discussion with his professor and other musicians, and piped up asking “What is High Art?” HIs professor laughed and ruffled his hair, answering “High Art is vot you do Villiam.” High art isn’t going to be addressed by neuroscience in the near future (although where I work at The Scars of War Foundation, we’re doing some interesting stuff on rhythms and baby cries).
But of course the really exciting neuroscience moments come when we discover mechanisms that might explain things we already now know instinctively – or artistically; especially when they correlate to how artists’ see, hear and write.
Our own work in my Foundation – at The Queens COllege Oxford, encompasses the memories of soldiers who are trying to forget terrible things. Our brains probably remember everything they experience, but our conscious minds cannot function without this huge volume being very heavily filtered, which is then used selectively to help us survive.
I should add that I take an evolutionist perspective; that we’re not much different to our hunter gatherer predecessors. This position does help with understanding the possible reasons for intrusive memories – as replays of dangerous situations to make us learn and avoid in future. Combat veterans are very well conditioned to a far more dangerous environment than the ‘normal world’ to which they returned, and in which we live.
Concerning the levels to which our brains can reach; as we have no idea of the capacity and capability of our brains, I’d hazard a guess that we will evolve cerebrally into something extraordinary – perhaps even to the “singularity” predicted by SF writers; a huge human brain LAN, or union with a divine being….. who knows.
But what I’m certain of instinctively, is that “High Art” is showing us the way. I’m sure it will play a huge part in this evolution.
I’m a writer and author, so words hold a particular fascination for me. Memory and the way writers use their own memories, and then craft words to evoke responses (and memories) in their readers, is a form of life creation in itself. Just as real people remain with us as memories, so too do really well-drawn fictional characters – which are even able to influence events in the real world.
As you can see, I have more questions and no answers. But I do think it’s terribly exciting!