A recent toast to James Watson highlights a tolerance for bigotry many want excised from the scientific community.
Wired for Story, Dreamland, Homo Mysterious, and Vagina
September 1, 2012|
Lately it seems every dimension of human experience can—and must—be viewed through the lens of pop neuroscience. Now it’s fiction writing’s turn. Quoting Pinker, Gazzaniga, Damasio, and (oops) Jonah Lehrer, UCLA writing teacher Lisa Cron claims we’re “wired for story” because it helped us survive by letting us imaginatively rehearse potential challenges. Stories that don’t tap “the brain’s primal urge for survival” won’t elicit the “delicious dopamine rush” that keeps ’em reading. This might make for a reductive, but at least streamlined and consistent, guide to crafting gripping tales.
But Cron quickly has to acknowledge how much about story can’t be reduced to survival strategies. What about our mysterious tendency to sabotage our own survival—what Cron calls (in the language of writing workshops, not neuroscience) the conflict between the protagonist’s “issue” and “goal”? Electrodes can’t reach that kink in the human brain, but art can. And art’s best stratagems haven’t changed just because we now know that feeling a fictional character’s pain is actually a twinge in the mirror neurons. Cron’s promised “secret blueprint” doesn’t materialize—just good, classic writing advice repackaged in a trendy wrapper.
Dreamland is information as entertainment and nostrum, with laugh lines, cliffhanger chapter endings, true crime (a sleepwalker slaughters his in-laws: is he guilty?), and practical tips that will help you improve your life by improving your sleep—and your children’s. While this is Reuters reporter David Randall’s first book, he already has the tropes of popular science writing à la Malcolm Gladwell down pat.
Randall turned to science after sleepwalking into a wall. Finding little help, he set out to learn what sleep science knows and doesn’t. Known: for mammals and birds, sleep and dreaming are essential. Unknown: why. There are clues: the circadian cycle regulates 15 percent of genes, and disrupted sleep raises the risk of ills from breast cancer to friendly fire in war. And few of us get enough: insomnia is a global pandemic whose Typhoid Mary was Thomas Edison, forcing fake sunlight into hours when ancient biology demands shut-eye. High schools and hospitals, corporations and the courts, marriage counselors and the military are beginning to recognize that ample sleep isn’t lazy, as Edison thought (psst—he napped), but crucial to performance, productivity, safety, and health. Randall shares hints on how to get it—drug free. Oddly, though, he’s so keen on demystifying dreams he all but dismisses them.
Playing on the Socratic “Know Thyself” and Kant’s Enlightenment motto, “Dare to Know,” evolutionary psychologist David Barash challenges us to “Dare to Know How Much We Don’t Know,” particularly about ourselves. Barash accepts the premise that every persistent human trait must either have had a fitness payoff or be a spin-off of genes that did. Then he sits down to a hugely entertaining game of mental chess with natural selection, trying to suss out the strategic advantage of such apparently useless, even costly, endowments as concealed ovulation, menstruation, billowy bosoms, and female orgasm; postmenopausal longevity and men’s shorter lives; homosexuality; and, last but not least, art, religion, and consciousness itself. The fun is that there are many possible explanations for why each of these might have been adaptive—and many of them flatly contradict each other.
Ironically, the sexy bits of Homo Mysterious are the most cut-and-dried. Religion gets its turn, though Barash does not conceal his distaste for it. It’s on the arts, which he knows and loves, and on the enigma of consciousness, that his thoughts really blossom. Starting with scientific bravado—in principle, it’s all knowable—this book ends with delight that, unlike Sisyphus, we’ll always have more hills to climb.
Nondoctrinaire feminist Naomi Wolf does not find it an evolutionary mystery that human females have orgasms (quoting scientists, she disputes Barash’s contention that other female mammals don’t climax); rather, she finds it a cultural tragedy that we’ve opted to know and care so little about women’s intricate wiring and its potential for promoting states of bonding, confidence, creativity, and transcendence. Wolf was launched on a quest to explore the “brain-vagina connection” when an unnerving loss of pelvic sensation due to compression of her pelvic nerve gutted not only her love life but her mental life. When both revived after spinal surgery decompressed the nerve, she embraced science as a partner in mapping this missing link. Wolf posits a complex brain/autonomic system/pelvic nerve feedback loop that is a font of opioids, oxytocin, and dopamine when approached with loving patience, but is turned off by threat, stress, or disrespect. So to keep women down, “target the vagina.” On what might be called the trauma-to-tantra continuum, Wolf concludes, we still have a long way to go—and indeed, her book’s X-rated reverence could elicit a wince or snicker from readers unfazed by porn’s prurience.