The Novelist and the Neurobiologist:
A Conversation About Story Telling

Michelle Herman and Paul Grobstein

No one talks about this stuff--no one I know, anyway. And I would be honored to welcome you into the world of story tellers and to be welcomed into the world of scientists ... Michelle Herman (MH), 9 October 2005

I too have the feeling that there aren't very many people talking "about this stuff", and maybe there should be? And maybe we'd even find that there are other people interested? So, we could easily create for Serendip something along the lines of "The Novelist and the Neurobiologist: A Dialogue" that would make some of what we exchange available to others (perhaps with an on-line forum so interested people could add their own two cents) ... Paul Grobstein (PG), 10 October 2005

I quite like the idea of "talking" to you on line, and inviting people to put their own two cents in, even as I work my way through this material on my end. The form it'll take here will be quite different, obviously. But I feel like this is a bridge that makes a great deal of sense ... Michelle Herman, 10 October 2005

Follow the continuing dialogue excerpted from an ongoing email exchange

Join the conversation yourself in the On-line forum or email us.
MH to PG, 10 September 2005

I've just read your article, "Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Versa," on the Internet (I found it by typing into Google, in frustration, the words "unconscious" and "neuroscience"--I'll tell you why in just a minute) and I've come to the conclusion that you are the perfect person for me to ask what I fear will be a very naive question. But I have been banging my head against the wall (bad for both the unconscious and the conscious mind, let me tell you) for days as I work on an essay that has grown out of my control, and I realized yesterday exactly WHY it had swelled out of my control....

I am talking in it about "reading" life the way we read dreams (or novels, or poems). This is a vast oversimplification, but it's the gist of what I'm writing about, anyway. And it's not an odd idea at all, of course, to a psychoanalyst, so I suppose there might be people who would think, "Why would you even need to write about such a thing?" If you'll bear with me for a minute--a lot to ask of a complete stranger, I realize!--I'll tell you why. But first I want to jump to my question, which I'll put in the simplest possible terms, though it seems to me a hugely complex question:

Do we (by "we" I mean "scientists"--a term I'm using ridiculously broadly, too) know how the unconscious "makes" things happen? In other words (most simply put), when we--for example--leave a jacket behind by accident because we want to make sure we have a chance to return to the place we've been, without being aware at all that we've done so, how does that unconscious impulse create the metaphor of the left-behind jacket? What's the link between the impulse and the behavior? To tell you truth, as someone who has spent her life writing fiction--and more recently, narrative nonfiction ("personal" essays, memoirs)--I can't believe I've never wondered before! And now I am deeply shocked that I've never wondered, and wondering whether, as seems likely, there are theories about this process that I just don't know about.

Is this too big a question? Too small a question? A smart one or an incredibly dumb one? And why can't I tell?

So you won't think I'm a crazy person, coming from out the blue to bother you, I direct you to my credentials, both as an author and academically: they can be found at my website, www.michelleherman.com (as you see, I teach at Ohio State, in the graduate program in creative writing). And so you'll understand something of what I'm up against here, I'm pasting below excerpts of the current draft of the essay I'm trying to write. It's called "Seeing Things" and I hasten to say that I do talk, later, about macropesia and micropesia, that I have done my research--I have even talked to a neuro-ophthalmologist (who insists on calling what I describe "idiopathic")--but there is clearly a piece missing from my understanding, and before I proceed, I thought I'd better try to find out if it's something I am missing or something none of us know. I can write about it either way--but I don't want to proceed out of ignorance.

If you have any interest in corresponding with a novelist who became very excited reading your article on line, and my question isn't a ridiculous one that made you want to throw something at your computer screen, I'm hoping you'll read this, and talk to me a little about what I'm thinking here. Or, at least, direct me to other things I could read. Here are the excerpts:

We were in the kitchen, cooking together ... right in the middle of everything - in mitn derinnen, as my grandmother would have said - Grace stopped what she was doing and said, "Mama?" She said it quietly, but even with all the kitchen clatter and background music I still heard her. Then she said, "Don't freak out." She was looking around the room. "Something weird is happening."

She didn't sound frightened, only puzzled, so I tried - I always try, with variable success - to do as she asked. Instead of freaking out, I kept on doing what I was doing, with knife and chopping board or wooden spoon and mixing bowl or pot or pan. I looked away, too - looked at the table, at the mess we'd made in the center of the kitchen - because I knew she'd be more likely to keep talking if I did. But even as I kept in motion, kept my eyes off her, I could feel my own alarm like a pinprick's worth of blood spreading, staining the fabric covering a wound.

"What is?" I asked her. I sounded very calm. I had learned over the past year not to let her in on my alarm, or fear. You'd think I wouldn't have had to learn this. You'd think I would have known from the beginning that picking up on my distress would increase hers, or would make her distressed when she hadn't been. But there are lots of things that it seems to me I should have known and didn't, things I had to teach myself about being a good mother. It's possible this is true for all parents; I honestly have no idea. To me, not knowing--having to work at it, and making mistakes--felt like failure. "You're very, very small and far away," Grace said. We were standing catercorner from each other around the tile-topped table we use as a kitchen counter. No more than two feet apart. Now I looked up at her. Her eyes were wide and she looked pale, but she still didn't sound frightened. "You're tiny, Mama. You're way at the other end of the room and the room is very long--like a long hallway. You're so small it's like you're a mile way."

"I'm right here," I said. I lifted my hand and held it up the way you do when you're swearing to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God. "Does my hand look far away? See? It's right here by you." I lowered it to touch her hand, gently. Grace looked down at our two hands.

"It's small and far away. My hand is far away and small, too."

We stood there looking at our hands. Then she looked up. "Oh!" she said. "You're very near now. Very near. And big." Her voice was full of wonder.

Grace began to laugh--quietly , in wonder--and it occurred to me that I ought to try to make myself laugh, too, to keep this light. But I couldn't. What I felt was that my heart, always overfull when it comes to Grace, had been pierced.

"You're huge. Your face is huge."

It was strange--stranger, I mean, even than it sounds, because right then I felt huge; I felt swollen. I held on to the table and felt my heart swelling into every part of me. I could even feel it beating in my fingers where they met the table's edge. And my fear, like blood, filling me everywhere.

For a moment we just stood there--Grace staring at me in amazement because I was so big; I, listening to my heart thump in my fingers, my legs, my feet, and feeling as if I were about to burst.

And then: "Oh--everything's normal again." She let out a long breath. "Wow. Wow. That was weird." She picked up her spoon and got back to work.

In the little slip of silence that followed, I studied her. Then, quietly, "casually," I asked her if she hadn't been scared. I was still scared. Even now, going on five years later, thinking back, I'm still scared.

She hadn't been scared, it turned out, because this wasn't the first time it had happened. It had been happening, on and off, for a week or so. And this was the third time today. She told me this, and then without waiting for my question, she said, "I didn't tell you because I was afraid it would scare you."

"Right," I said. "Sure."

...

When, within a week or so, it was determined that there was not any physical cause (her brain was fine; her eyes were fine), I had to face up--and she had to face up--to this, what we would come to call the Getting-Smaller-and-Getting-Bigger, which she would continue to experience on and off for years, as a symptom, a sign, of her emotional state. A metaphor, in other words. All that remained, I told myself, was to figure out what it was a metaphor for.

...

The idea I had about Grace seeing things - seeing me, in particular - as very small and far away, then very big and way too close, was pretty literal-minded. And why not? We'd had some trouble (serious trouble, although it had been nearly a year by then since the worst of it) with separation and what the shrinks call "individuation" (when a child recognizes herself as a being distinct from her mother) and I suspected right away that this bit of hallucination was a sort of rogue symptom, the latest incarnation (an awfully heavy-handed one, if you asked me, and as such, one I'd be reluctant to use in a novel--but I've learned that psychological symptoms in real life aren't necessarily subtle, that our minds aren't necessarily very subtle) of that trouble. She was ready for me to be smaller and less significant, and she needed to put some distance between us. But I loomed large, too, still. And my guess was that she still wanted that, too--that just as much as she'd had it with my being such a big presence in her life, she still longed for our continuing closeness. And we were still close - not pathologically, not anymore - but our closeness (or so I feared) would always be complicated by our having been too close, "unindividuated" for too long. So there it was, made plain: that push and pull. A classic conflict made - literally - visible.

Here's where I'll stop, because at this point I realize that what interests me is HOW this "feeling," this unconscious "problem," becomes concrete: the passage from meaning to symbol. I know perfectly well that such a feeling, or conflict or feelings, wouldn't necessarily manifest itself in this way. I know there are plenty of different ways it might. What I don't know - at all! - is HOW it can happen that her conflict would show up by borrowing from "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome." The brain works with the mind, yes. But how?

PG to MH, 3 October 2005

I'm pleased/flattered that you found "Making the Unconscious ..." helpful, and even more so that it elicited from you a question/concern that helps to crystallize for me some of the next questions that follow from it. No, yours/they are not either small or dumb questions. Are they "too big"? I don't think so, but .... let's play with them a bit and see.

Let's start with "scientists", both so you're duly warned about how I understand the term and because its relevant. Science, for me, IS "fiction writing" in several very important senses (see Science as Story-Telling in Action and Revisiting Science in Culture and Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way). The best science always proceeds "out of ignorance", precisely out of a realization that one doesn't "understand" something, ie that there is some set of observations that one doesn't have a "story" to account for. Which in turn becomes the incentive to tell a new story, not in general to "answer" the question but rather to see where things would go if .... . So happy to welcome you into the realm of scientists if you'll have me in the world of story tellers.

"How does ... unconscious impulse create ... metaphor" is, in these terms, a REALLY interesting question. Its not that there aren't a variety of relevant stories with possible answers to this question but rather that, to my mind at least, none of them have proven to be sufficiently generative to be satisfying in the long run. Yes, of course, your daughter might have been exhibiting signs of one or another "organic syndrome", but even if so the question of how "the passage from meaning to symbol" is, along the lines of this story, being bypassed rather than answered. In fact, the potential significance of metaphor is at risk of being ignored entirely. And yes, of course, you daughter's behavior could have reflected (instead or also) " a sign, of her emotional state. A metaphor, in other words." Using this story, one looks, as you do, to "parse the metaphor". But here too there is something missing, from the opposite direction. The transition from .... something .... to something else is still being bypassed rather than made sense of, and that has potentially significant practical implications.. Why THIS metaphor instead of some other one? How sure can I be that the metaphor has actually been parsed correctly? That there actually is a metaphor involved?

What is needed (I think) is a story that gives equal standing to both aspects of the phenomenon and, in so doing, focuses attention where it would be generative to have it, on the transition from the one to the other (and back) and how that occurs. That's the story that "Making the Unconscious ..." was a step on the path toward, and that your email took me further along. So let me try and expand a bit on that story (without at all being sure its finished, indeed because I suspect it isn't and I'm curious about where it goes next and telling it may help me to see). This may require a little patience while I sketch in some background first.

"Making the Unconscious ... " rests on the notion that the human brain is "bipartite", ie that there is a meaningful distinction between "conscious" and "unconscious" aspects of its structure/function (see The Bipartite Brain for more of the background for this aspect of the story). It also rests strongly, perhaps even more so, on a notion that yes, indeed, "the brain works with the mind". Actually, its stronger than that. In my terms there isn't a "mind" that works with a "brain". There is only a brain (see Who's Afraid of Emily Dickinson? Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain") that has within it a particular set of functions that constitute what is often called "mind" . See Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute ... for a graphic illustration of this, copied to the right. The yellow box is "conscious experience", what we sometimes call "mind", other times "self", etc. An important point here is that since consciousness is a part of the brain which is in turn a part of the body, consciousness has no direct information about either the world or the body. Whatever information it has about these things is acquired indirectly from the rest of the nervous system (the unconscious part).

Some important additional features of this architecture are illustrated in a figure from The Emerging Scientific Brain/Mind, copied to the left. The unconscious consists of a large number of different semi-isolated modules, each interacting with the body and through it the outside world in its own distinctive ways. It is the reports of these modules (and only the reports of these modules) that reach "consciousness" and it is the distinct task of "consciousness" to make sense of these reports, ie to come up with a story that accounts for them. This is what consciousness does; indeed this is what "consciousness" IS in the most fundamental way. It is a story teller that tries to make sense of the cacaphony of signals it receives from the unconscious. And everything that we actually experience (perceptions, thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc etc; in contrast to the many things that happen to us or we do without being aware of it) are the product of this story telling process. In short, consciousness is "story" (just as science is): a way of making sense of things (that might always be made sense of in other ways) which in turn generates new questions/observations/stories (for some of the virtues of such an architecture see The Brain: Insights into Individuals and Complex Organization; it also has shortcomings as I'll describe a bit more below).

So much for background (yes, this IS a "scientific" story, in the sense that there are observations that are being summarized by it; at the same time, it is ONE way of making sense of those observations, and not necessarily the way all other scientists would do so). It is this bipartite architecture that I think provides a route into the questions you pose that most intrigue both of us. One's interactions with the world and one's own body are not represented "metaphorically" in the unconscious but instead in a way that is perhaps better described as metonymically, ie associationally rather than categorically/logically/conceptually (cf Theorizing Interdisciplinarity: Metaphor and Metonomy and Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions). Metaphor is one of the tricks that is used (along with "meaning" and "time" and "causation", among other things) to bring order to the cacaphony of signals from the unconscious, to give it singleness, order, coherence. The upshot is that one actually has, at all times, two influences on one's behavior: the multiplex state of the unconscious and the currrent more or less coherent "story" that reflects an attempt to give coherence to that.

One may, at any give time, behave in terms of the unconscious or in terms of the story or in terms of some combination of the two. There is, I think, not great mystery about this, though many people are still not entirely comfortable with the degree to which behavior reflects the unconscious. Lots of different stories (biological, psychological, theological) acknowledge that people sometimes behave without knowing why they do so and encourage (or discourage) greater understanding of those parts of oneself that one is less aware of/familiar with. So there is in general no particular problem in making sense of someone else (or oneself) exhibiting behaviors that have an origin with which the person themself is not familiar (eg a man who was abused by a red haired woman as a child and who has trouble being comfortable with his otherwise wonderful red-haired wife).

There is, though, a subtlety here that is important, and recognized within the psychoanalytic story telling tradition (among other places?): why is it that the earlier experience is not consciously accessible, ie part of the story? The psychoanalytic tradition would typically attribute that to "repression" or, perhaps more meaningfully, to "conflict", ie to something that actively prevents that aspect of the experience from becoming part of the story because it ... is unacceptable by some criterion (the abusive woman was the man's mother, and so the man would have to acknowledge his own involvement in violating a social proscription against incest?). I think there are some useful insights that feed into in this sort of story telling, but that it misses some obvious things and in so doing overlooks some critical issues. In the bipartite brain story, things that happen to one are FIRST in the unconscious and only become conscious if/when they become part of the story telling process itself. Hence, a simpler interpretation of the behavior of the man in relation to red hair is that the things that happened to him altered one or another part of his unconscious without ever being fully reported to the story teller, ie there is no "repression", the things that happened resulted in a part of the unconscious signalling dread in the presence of red without the story teller having had or having any information about the events themselves (its worth noting that the red signalling dread phenomenon could also have an explanation in genetic information, ie with no actual events involved at all). My point here is that the psychoanalytic story telling tradition PRESUMES everything is story before it becomes unconscious, and that too begs the question that we're interested in: what is the nature of the transition between ... the darkness, without stories/metaphors (the unconscious), and the story teller? Why/how do we get particular stories out of that darkness (rather than others) and how is that transition influencing a person's behavior?

Its right at this point that not only your questions but your motivating cases seemed to me particularly apt/generative. Let's start with the "left behind jacket". It is, of course, possible that it wasn't, ie that the meaning/metaphor of "left behind" didn't exist until after the fact, that it was only after returning and finding something one needed but had also forgotten, that the "left behind" came into existence, as a way of making sense of realizing one was cold, returning for a jacket puzzled over why one didn't expect it to be cold, finding the envelope that one had also (meaninglessly) not brought but needed later. See the trick that the story teller is doing? Taking a lot of disconnected things and creating a unitary story about them. One that may or may not actually be "true". There are "things" (in the darkness, not actually verbalizable) before there is "story".

Could it also happen differently, in ways closer to what your story of the "left behind jacket" is intended to convey? Of course. And these are the interesting cases for me, because they seems to involve/point to an interesting and subtle intersection of the unconscious and the story telling processes. Let's say that one part of the unconscious didn't want to bring the envelope (because the recipient has red hair?), and another part did (for whatever reason; here's one example of "conflict", between two parts of the unconscious). The story teller now has to mediate the conflict and, being a little distracted, neglects to update the current story using the weather forecast so doesn't activate the "get jacket" part of the unconscious while opting to accept the "don't bring the envelope" part of the unconscious cacaphony. There actually is in this case something appropriately described as a "left behind" jacket that resulted from the involvement of the story teller . It wasn't though actually a part of the story until after one went returned home, saw the envelope, acted differently about it, and had to make sense of all THAT.

Closer still to your intention (I think) with the "left behind jacket" story would be the following. The story teller has from the unconscious several feelings/intuitions/emotions that include "bring envelope", "don't bring envelope" AND bring jacket. Now the story teller has its own problem, a coherence problem: a story can't accommodate frank contradictions so ... it opts tentatively to leave out "bring envelope" while accepting "bring jacket". It ships this tentative story back down to the unconscious which does a quick set of calculations on the consequences of the actions associated with this story and gets back an even stronger "bring envelope" message. Now there is a serious conflict developing between the unconscious and the story teller, so the story teller starts fiddling the story to try and reduce THAT conflict. The story teller still can't deal with both bring and don't bring envelope so it starts playing with the bring jacket part of the story and eventually discovers that the unconscious reports greater satisfaction if it drops the "take jacket" part. Bingo .... the "left jacket" because of the need for story coherence and the conflict negotiating exchanges between the unconscious and the story teller (none of which are included in the final conscious "story").

I'm actually not entirely happy with this (I think there are some problems with what the particulars of what the unconscious can and cannot reasonably be expected to do in the way of consequence calculations) but do you see where I'm going? There is no "repression", there is only the issue of what does and doesn't become part of the story, and a reciprocal exchange between the unconscious and the story telling process that allows the constraints of story telling to become significant not only in the final story but also in how one acts unconsciously. Could something like this have been going on with your daughter, more or less as you suggest in your piece in progress? Of course. Her unconscious was reporting both worry about your closeness and and worry about your increasing distance. The two reports couldn't be accommodated in a single story so they came to be expressed one a time in two sequential experiences/stories with each report being reduced in its salience in the cacaphony by their successive expression. After which the story teller, for a time, didn't have to deal further with the conflict or its own inability to resolve it. And, with longer time, as the unconscious reshaped itself with age/experiences, the need to create stories along these lines waned.

Is that what ACTUALLY happened? I don't and can't know. And, of course, neither can a doctor or a therapist. Or, for that matter, you either. There IS a downside to the bipartite brain story at least for some people: you can't know ANYTHING with certainty (see Writing Descartes). On the flip side, though, the bipartite brain architecture gives us the capability to conceive and try out a very large range of stories to see which ones work best in particular cases. "One achieves along this path the freedom to become, and, in becoming, to be oneself the agent of new territory to explore and inquire into." It sounds to me like you (and your daughter) have done pretty well along these lines.

MH to PG, 9 October 2005

Everything you say makes sense to me, and much of what you suggest--about "the multiplex state of the unconscious and the current more or less coherent "story" that reflects an attempt to give coherence to that"--is eerily like what I tell my graduate students, again and again, when we talk about the writing of fiction (the creating of a coherent narrative that reflects a character's experience of the world). Because in writing fiction, we are actually inventing a model for what we imagine goes on in "real" people, these kinds of questions--for the thoughtful, searching novelist, anyway--are more relevant than ANYTHING. So what you talk about in this message not only begins to help me think in more interesting ways about the questions I raised in my message to you--and what I'm struggling with in this essay--but dovetails with what I think about the making of fiction--the making of literature--and how I approach teaching (talk about serendipitous!). "What's the story your character is telling himself?" I am always asking in class. "What's the story he imagines he's telling himself, what's the story he "really" is telling himself, and what's the difference between those two stories and the narrative of what's happening?" They claim I give them a headache, weekly.

I need some time to absorb all of this--a lot of it is going to require me to think harder, and in somewhat different ways, than I'm used to--part of this is simply a question of vocabulary. But to get at the heart of it: I very much respond to the notion that repression is a far too simplistic way of looking at the way the unconscious and behavior work together. My own daughter, who is too young to know otherwise--but bright enough, and wise enough, to be interested in trying to figure out the way her "mind" is working to produce experience--likes to bear down these days, when something unusual happens (the micropsia, for example, or a little oddity of obsessive/compulsive behavior--repeating a single action over and over, say), and stop and think out loud about what's happening and why. She hasn't the vocabulary to express the questions, but what she asks is a version of: What is and what isn't part of the story? That pause and conscious (hard to get away from that word!) self-questioning--what am I actually experiencing right now? What am I NOT experiencing? How are those two things clashing to make this [whatever thing] happen?--may be possible only in someone who is too young to have been taught to experience the world otherwise (and who has been taught by her mother to put everything into words!). Repression is an unknown concept to her. But 'the story I'm telling myself' is not. No sir.

Since "taking a lot of disconnected things and creating a unitary story about them"--true or not true--is what I do in my work every day, your e-mail resonates with me in a way that is pretty staggering. No one talks about this stuff--no one I know, anyway. And I would be honored to welcome you into the world story tellers and to be welcomed into the world of scientists. I think I have wandered in, blindly, in trying to write this essay (which my literary agent affectionately refers to--she hasn't seen it yet, only knows I've been pecking away at it--as "the meaning of everything essay").

So the short answer to your question--whether something along the lines of what you've written to me today is at all responsive to my questions--is most certainly yes. The longer answer, I'm going to hold off on for a few days while I keep thinking. I have concentrated, in the interim, on a question that's tucked within the larger question (at least that's how I'm seeing it): how so many different people could have constructed the same metaphor to (for lack of a better word) demonstrate to them what must be happening in a hidden place inside them (for my own very unscientific "survey"--just people I know, who happen to be in my e-mail address book--gave me a remarkable piece of information: 25 out of 200 people I asked have had that micropsia/macropsia experience that I was assured is very rare indeed. And of course there are plenty of other examples of "symptoms" that we manufacture unknowingly that spring from a variety of sources). So I have been playing with--and banging my head on--both the original questions, including the big one (the how of transition from meaning to symbol), and this related question. I can't say I'm really getting anywhere yet, in terms of bringing this all together, but that's the way I always work--fumbling around until I find my way.

PG to MH, 10 October 2005

Very pleased what I had to say made sense/was useful, even more pleased to have/feel the extensions not only re your daughter but also re writing and education in it. Lots to talk about in those realms. But while waiting for those to achieve some coherence, some quick responses along other lines.

The question inside the question has to a neurobiologist (at least this one) an easy answer, but that in turn leads to some intriguing additional questions. The easy answer is that, at the level of the brain, everyone is "sort of the same but also sort of different" (a phrase I use in teaching). Because of the "sort of the same" part, it is not at all surprising that 25 out of 200 people would report, when prompted, that they have in fact had the micropsia/macropsia experience (just as its not particularly surprising that most people breath or that many people are afraid of snakes, others of spiders, etc etc ... most of Jung's collective unconscious can be made sense of in these terms). What is, though, really interesting is the next question: why have you been "assured that it is very rare indeed'? My guess is that there are two things going on here. One is the medical/professional thing, ie that micropsia/macropsia AS A CLINICAL PROBLEM is rare, an assertion which is quite different from "people only rarely have the internal experience". The other, perhaps even more interesting, is the idea that people actually tend to be more similar in the material out of which they make stories than they are in the stories they tell. Everyone, I'm pretty sure, has "autistic", "manic-depressive", "schizophrenic", "attention deficit disorder" experiences but neither they nor others make stories out of them unless .... its useful? And people actually prefer to think of themselves as different from other people, so .... Not exactly coherent, but think there are some things in there to talk more about.

To be continued ...

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