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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the brain and I

Earlier this month something prompted me to an ad in Scientific American (one of the magazines I read fairly regularly) and order a lecture series on DVD called Understanding the Brain. Published by an organization called The Teaching Company, it's a set of 36 half-hour lectures delivered by Dr. Jeanette Norden, a scientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, accompanied by some simple computer animation instead of the usual lecture-hall overhead-projector transparencies (at least, that's what they used to use back in the days of my, uh, formal education). So now I've added a half hour of brain lecture to my daily diet of study.

What's with me? I felt a bit conflicted about ordering this series, since it cost money: even as a special promotion, the total package, with bound transcripts of the lectures included, came to something like $165. And when the package arrived at my door, I was also stung with GST and PST, plus a $10 service charge from Fedex for paying those taxes on my behalf at the border. (Not quite as offensive as the fee charged by our own federal government for levying GST on packages coming from the U.S.--that's right, they charge a fee for collecting tax.) It costs money to get smart--and in my current incarnation as an artist, money is in relatively short supply.

Still, once I make my decision I feel happy about it. I seldom suffer from buyer's remorse for buying books or other educational materials (except for fiction--there I find that buyer's remorse is my usual response, such that I rarely buy fiction nowadays).

I remember years ago--it would have been 1977--standing in Duthie Books on Robson Street, down in the subterranean section of the store called the Paperback Cellar, accessed by a spiral staircase of wrought iron. Having been hugely impressed by reading Joyce's A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was keen to read more Joyce. I stood there, staring at the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses--an oversize trade paperback priced at $5.95, then a much higher price than the average paperback. I felt conflicted about spending so much on a book. But then I thought: What the hell, I'm employed, and this is one of the world's greatest works of literature. It's cheap!

I bought it. No regrets. (In fact, I eventually bought another copy, for complicated reasons, and now have two copies of this same edition in my shelf--one weathered and beaten, the other pristine.)

So yes: the brain. I've long been interested in it. Back when I was a student I was interested in computer science and especially in artificial intelligence--the effort to get computers to simulate (or actually achieve) conscious life. (In the end I realized I was more excited about writing fiction about such things, and abandoned my school career to work on a novel--later aborted--centered on an artificial-intelligence project gone awry.) At one level it makes sense: if our experience of consciousness depends on a physical thing, the brain, and its mechanical processes, then why should such mechanical processes not be reproducible in another form?

Back then I was quite afraid of the idea that my mind, my actions, were perhaps determined by fixed laws, physical mechanisms. Reading about the brain could make me anxious. But the interest was there; it remained strong, and is still strong.

So this course on the brain is one of my forays into "general knowledge"--it is not directly related to research on my project The Mission. It will no doubt have a bearing on future projects of mine, though. And meanwhile the organ that I think with seems to want to know more about itself. Why not indulge it a bit?

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