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Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, and it did not disappoint. Romie Futch is a middle-aged taxidermist in South Carolina, obsessed with his ex-wife, deep in debt. He is surfing the internet in a drunken haze one night when he sees an ad seeking participants for an “intelligence enhancement study” in Atlanta that promises $6,000. All he has to do is “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie signs up.

At the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he’s a little creeped out by the downloads, and a little concerned that he’s signed away permission to access his brain. But he goes through with the experiments, and soon, his head is full of humanities and a “sense of postmodern self-reflexivity.” Flush with cash and full of dreams, he refurbishes his shop, pays off bills, gets (mostly) sober, and starts planning a return to his first love — art. Rumor has it that there are mutant squirrels in the woods near his home, which is also near “GenExcel, a subsidiary of Monsanto and BioFutures Incorporated.”

Romie hunts some squirrels and creates taxidermy dioramas enhanced with animatronics, which he eventually shows at a gallery under the title “When Pigs Fly: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Postnatural Wildlife Simulacra.” But he also realizes that his brain is still vulnerable to the Center’s interference as he experiences migraines and blackouts and strange dreams in which he is being made to perform tasks. And BioFutures not only owns the company responsible for the mutant wildlife nearby, but also funded the Center’s work.

Soon after getting out into the woods and swamps, Romie gets caught up in the search for Hogzilla, an allegedly winged wild boar, reputed to weigh around a thousand pounds. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot, but suffice to say it’s a rocky road for our hero as he veers between success and self-destruction. Will he get a show? Will he bag Hogzilla? Will he spiral into a haze of drugs and alcohol? Or become the remote-control agent of a powerful biotech conglomerate?

Hilarious and wicked smart, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a delightful read. Like many of my favorite authors, Elliott mixes a good story with social commentary and plenty of humor. It was bittersweet to get to last page, because Romie’s adventures are clearly not over. I sincerely hope he’ll be back for a sequel.

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I’d been wanting to read Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for months, but there has been a long waiting list at the library. I finally checked it out a little over a week ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly (for me anyway). It’s that kind of read.

It’s also one of those books that’s potentially life-changing. I had repeated “Ah ha!” moments as I read, mostly from recognizing the things Cain addresses in the people around me (including myself). A friend noted that “everything made so much more sense” after reading Quiet.

Cain has a very clear way of writing about the complicated human biology and psychology that makes people introverted, extroverted, or ambiverted. She explains how and why we communicate differently, work differently, and socialize differently, and how we can navigate these differences in order to get along better.  And how each of us can learn to recognize and honor these differences in each other.

She also introduces successful, sometimes famous introverts and provides plenty of reassurance for those trying to get along in an extroverted world.  Cain’s persuasive arguments are backed by evidence — concrete examples (anecdotal and scientific) of the many ways introvertedness can be a gift. One that, when appreciated and nurtured, can really benefit society. If society would shut-up and sit down and pay attention long enough to notice.

Ok, Cain didn’t say that, but I am. Because one thing Cain didn’t mention in this lovely, erudite, gentle book is that our culture today is dominated by mindless noise. Sometimes shouting seems like the main mode of communication. And what’s being communicated so loudly is often not contributing much value to the world. Those of us in the book world have repeatedly seen thoughtful, interesting books deserving of wide cultural acclaim and conversation under-appreciated while inexplicably popular titles (often unoriginal, poorly written, and/or trivial) dwarf them. I’m sure the same can be said of most everything, from cultural phenomena to political discourse.

Noise seems to dominate, even when we know it’s illogical or pointless to listen to it. I am hopeful that more introverts will get the appreciation they deserve as a result of this wonderful book. I’m grateful that Cain offers advice for how people can be themselves and also be confident, living harmonious, happy, balanced, successful lives. But in a world where noise rules even when we try not to hear it, and where ordinary shyness or anxiety is often medicated or counseled, I wonder whether the message of Quiet will prevail.

Let’s hope.

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