Flowers for Algernon: Powers of our Brain
Flowers for Algernon is science fiction with one central concern – human behaviour and development of the brain.
Daniel Keyes describes an experiment designed by psychologists at a fictional college, Beekman College that aims to artificially increase intelligence. Emboldened by the success of their experiment in a mouse (Algernon) they want to test it on humans. Charlie Gordon, an adult with an IQ of 68, is their human subject for the experiment. The book is laid out entirely in the form of Progress Reports Charlie maintains in a journal, and the reader joins Charlie’s journey from slow and retarded to a genius with an IQ of 185 and back to his former intelligence when it regresses (and the experiment fails). Although fictional, the book has a lot to teach with regards to human behaviour and development of the brain.
As it is presented in journal format, the book lets a reader follow through every step of Charlie’s development. The stages of development that Charlie goes through are very similar to that of human beings moving from young children to teenagers and then adults. At first his brain is immature but after the surgery his progress begins. In this book, intelligence is equated with overall maturation of the brain. In life, we tend to do that too, where overall intelligence is used to judge even emotional and social maturity. Yet, there exist savants and other gifted people who demonstrate high intelligence levels but may be socially and emotionally equivalent to others far below their age.
One realises at the beginning with the complete lack of spelling and punctuation rules that Charlie is retarded. His speech is like that of a small child. He admits it is hard for him to learn and it is hard to retain information. He takes most things entirely literally and is incapable of imagination. Soon after he undergoes the surgery that is designed to increase his intelligence (that he says was done while he was asleep), the changes in him become apparent through his progress reports. The first sign of a development is his asking questions. He stops to accept everything just the way it is, and questions authority, expressing a more invested interest in what’s going on around him. Instead of just doing what Professor Nemur, the head of the experiment, asks of him, he wants to know why he should do it. He then begins to form an opinion.
Soon after, he begins to use a dictionary to look up meanings of words he doesn’t understand. He also uses a dictionary to spell words right. In an effort to improve his language further, he learns the use of punctuation, and even though the first time he just uses all of the punctuation marks that exist anywhere and everywhere, he corrects that in his next progress report and is able to use punctuation correctly.
He then begins to develop certain more complex human emotions. We realise that embarrassment, anger and suspicion are emotions that take a while to develop. He expresses a need for privacy when his intelligence begins to rise further. He is not comfortable with the idea that all his inner thoughts are available for scrutiny in the journal. He is demystified with the image he had created of Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss. He begins to see them as normal human beings who are just trying to get what they want, as opposed to geniuses with superhuman powers.
Soon after he starts to think of religion, and what God means. God is no longer the ultimate unquestionable good force of the world. He wonders what it all really stands for. As his development brings him at par with a mature adult of his age, he begins to develop romantic feelings for Alice Kinnian, his special education teacher at the Beekman School for Retarded Adults. As his intelligence increases, he begins to develop arrogance and impatience towards mediocrity.
The experiment is conducted first on Algernon, and Keyes shows us that both the human and the mouse test subjects demonstrated the same results. Both Algernon and Charlie become significantly more intelligent, and both regress at a fast pace. The similarity in their mammalian nervous systems probably ensured this. Yet, the list of changes for Charlie was much longer and more complex, as just discussed.
Keyes asserts and demonstrates the vital and separate existences of the subconscious and the conscious mind. He acknowledges that they are like two different minds and one doesn’t acknowledge to the other what it is doing. Through dreams and recollections he has in the course of the book, Charlie Gordon’s repressed subconscious speaks out and he discovers a lot about his childhood and his family. Sometimes he has a dream that is a sort of replay of an event, while at other times he ‘remembers’ some disjointed events and images to employ a method of free association to make sense of it. The largely traumatic nature of these dreams and memories are evident, and one can tell why they have been repressed. The subconscious is always working, and by the use of certain tapes and devices, Nemur makes sure that Charlie’s keeps delivering answers. Keyes makes use of a lot of Freudian ideas here, with the return of the repressed. He also deals with issues of sex and sexuality through these repressed memories. It turns out that they are therapeutic after all.
The book seems to critic common personality tests such as the Rorschach inkblot test and the Thematic Apperception Test. These tests draw on responses given by the patient, which could be randomly or deliberately chosen, to arrive at character assessment. With an IQ of 68, all Charlie can see in the Rorschach test is that someone spilled ink on paper. That really is what it is, yet we look for answers and clues hidden in them. When his IQ reaches above 100, Charlie is able to see bats and old ladies in the cards. Our brains are constantly trying to fill gaps, to form a whole story, to develop a missing link. Given that these tests mainly rely on a fundamental characteristic of the human brain, they cannot be completely written off, but the way they are presented in the book, some of the criticism that has been present for them revisits us. They are arbitrary set of pictures and patterns. The pictures used in TAT are old and haven’t seen much change since the test was developed in the 1930s by () at Harvard.
The book makes us think of the great stress and importance that we as a society and its people give to intelligence. All Charlie really wants is that he can be friends with Gimpy, Frank, Joe Carp and the others at the bakery he works in. He knows that he can only be friends with them when he can read, write and join in their conversations that discuss politics and religion. The paradox of that stress is also presented – Charlie is ridiculed when he is retarded, but he is alienated and ignored when he turns into a genius. Perhaps a more accurate statement then would be that our society plays lays great stress on normalcy or behaviour that falls within a set average. Keyes shows us how mediocrity is celebrated in the bakery.
The need for Joe Carp et al to humiliate Charlie at several instances makes me wonder about the human tendency of meanness and a hierarchical structure that is established in most social interactions and settings where the weaker are picked upon. While it is natural for the weaker to lose out in a situation involving limited resources, a lot of bullying is done mainly for the satisfaction (if there is any) that the bully gains from it. Meanness is inherent in our nervous system. In a student paper on serendip, the neurobiological basis for meanness is described as -. Meanness is a part of a nueral network that also includes empathy, kindness and other useful virtues. Hence, it is not possible to completely get rid of it. Is there a positive outcome of meanness? Does it make the bullied strive to be better? Is that chain of thought completely inhumane?
Other parts of Charlie’s character that develop as his intelligence peaks are selfishness, arrogance and a big ego. Miss Kinnian comments on how the earlier Charlie was much more likable. Charlie seems to lose his old ‘heart’ as his brain acquires more. Towards the end of the book, the Charlie from before the surgery gets into a struggle for control over (their) life. Is it a trade-off - talent or ingenuity for modesty? Why does that trend hold true for a significantly large proportion of the human population?
Flowers for Algernon is thought-provoking, and touching at multiple levels. Keyes’ work is commendable, for the insight he provides into human behaviour.
Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Mariner Books, 2005.