I'm interested in what neuroscience can tell us about reading. Here's a stimulating blog post by Jonah Lehrer on how "the brain is constantly trying to weave a narrative out of the cacophony of reality - it's desperate to make sense of the world. Interestingly, much of this narrative is written in reverse, as we brazenly re-write what just happened."
The post refers to experiments involving split-brain patients, patients whose hemispheres are disconnected. The results of these experiments strongly suggest to me that, in ordinary life, we unconsciously fabricate plausible-sounding explanations for our own past actions.
Lehrer gives this example of an experiment conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga on split-brain patients. "The scientists mischievously flashed different sets of pictures to each eye, which meant each hemisphere was getting a different set of inputs. For example, they would flash a picture of a chicken claw to the right eye and a picture of a snowy driveway to the left eye. The patient was then shown a variety of images and asked to pick out the image that was most closely associated with what they had seen. In a tragicomic display of indecisiveness, the split-brain patient's two different hands pointed to two different objects. The right hand pointed to a chicken (this matched the chicken claw that the left hemisphere witnessed), while the left hand pointed to a shovel (the right hemisphere wanted to shovel the snow.) When the scientists asked the patient to explain his contradictory responses, he immediately generated a plausible story. 'Oh, that's easy,' he said. 'The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Instead of admitting that his brain was hopelessly confused, he wove his confusion into a neat explanation."
Since I first learned about such experiments, it's seemed probable to me that similarily fabricated-yet-plausible-sounding explanations constitute a large part of our own daily mental experience.
Jonah Lehrer blogs, "I like to think of these confabulations as necessary half-truths to preserve the unity of the self. At any given moment, our mind is overstuffed with disparate sensations and fleeting thoughts; our different hemispheres want different things and distinct blobs of brain pump out distinct emotions. Why, then, do we feel like a unified person? Why do I feel like 'Jonah' and not like a collection of random and stray neural emanations? Because we tell ourselves a story. Just as a novelist creates a narrative, we create a sense of being. The self, in this sense, is our work of art, a fiction created by the mind in order to make sense of its own fragments."
This makes me think of a film review Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the movie "Citizen Kane" back in 1941:
"Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a place that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity; the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances... In a story by Chesterton -- 'The Head of Caesar,' I think - the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth."
Here's another translation of this review, with comments: Glenn Anders is not slow to assert that the review has the same qualities it attributes to the movie. While attempting to assemble Kane from the fragments on offer, Borges seems also to be at work assembling his own authorial persona -- perhaps using the same same part of the brain that we use every day to build a coherent picture of the people around us.