Science, Theory, & Literature

Cup of Chicha, whose new site is here, recently pointed at an interesting set of articles regarding science.
Steven Johnson's new book, Mind Wide Open, (excerpted at Salon) was dissected in The New Stateman. Johnson, with some success, rebutted it in his journal, but was better rebutted by Paul Z. Myers. What I actually liked about the review was that reviewer Bryan Appleyard pointed out that science is not automatically or easily translatable or applicable into human terms. Ironically, however, his tag line read: "Bryan Appleyard is the author of Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience." In other words, we all do it. We have to. We seek to understand our existence as explicitly as possible. This is what science seeks to tell us. We can debate whether or not it does so, but one position is likely to be as insupportable as its opposite.

Another irony is that theorists will pull one scientific theory, i.e. the Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which refers to electrons, and apply it to all of science, saying that science really knows nothing. But the paradox is that if science knows nothing, how can you use that as evidence? Or they may take Einstein's theory of relativity and say that everything is relative, which is to say they mean to infer that all experience is subjective. But in practice, relativity allows us a means of relating different experiences to one another.

Scientists try to make careful observations of the world and provide some framework of understanding them. A conscientious scientist won't be adamant about his theory but will say that it makes the best sense out of current knowledge of our present human condition.


That preamble made, I'm about speculate or extrapolate a few recent scientific articles from recent issues of Science magazine. The first is from March 12, 2004: "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision." Exciting title, eh? Science's reporter also translates the article into more earthly terms: "Seeing the World in the Same Way." Using MRIs, scientists found that after its subjects viewed the movie The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, there was a large degree of correlation between MRI signals. In other words, the subjects' experience of the movie was remarkably similar in so far as our technology enables us to examine experience. In other other words, subjectivity may not be as subjective as we thought. While we may experience experience differently, we may still be able to relate to one another; hence, humans are capable of exchanging goods with, communicating to, and (we hope) loving one another.


The second article "Contextually Evoked Object-Specific Responses in Human Visual Cortex" from April 2, 2004 is a little more difficult to nail into theory, but the connection is nearly here. The authors write, "Human visual recognition processes are remarkably robust and can function effectively even under highly degraded viewing conditions." I translate, "We can still 'see' even if we cannot fully see the object under question. Our brains fill in the remaining information to form a whole picture." The scientists presented pictures of people whose faces were distorted in various manners to subjects who were able to recognize the faces from the context of bodies and other visual cues.

What this means to writing, in my interpretation, is that we don't need a lot of cues or description in order to "see" our subjects or characters. We don't even need to describe the faces to see them. We need only describe other aspects (clothing? posture? behavior? and/or setting even?) to get at what a person "looks" like. This can probably be interpreted as broadly as possible so that, a character's name (which can help define a character albeit in real life not chosen by the character but perhaps somehow influencing the development of that person/character) may not be necessary--still, my hat's off to Alan Lattimore for making a good but not necessarily essential point in characterization. I link to it because it's worth keeping in mind.

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