No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?
He writes about the comparisons authors have made between the computer and the mind, but I’m disappointed that he missed out on the obvious metaphor: the human mind as a miniaturised version of the world wide web, where we replace network connections with memories and emotional responses to other people. A mind that couldn’t remember its own emotional responses or remember other people any more would be the ultimate disconnected terminal. And a sluggish, fitfully working brain, with only random access to its usual mental networks and emotional content would be exactly what the Babu’s computer has been like in the age after my broadband connection died. Sigh.