Kicked-Started by Coincidence
Till just over a fortnight ago I would not have connected George Eliot with neuroplasticity. Why on earth should I have?
Well, I can now think of at least one reason.
During the same period I was spending part of my book token loot on ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (see previous post) I had the chance to spend what was left. Not surprisingly I went to the same shelf (‘Popular Science’) in the same Waterstones. I was on the hunt for two books, one by Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, and one by Jonah Lehrer Imagine: how creativity works. I ended up buying the Doidge but a different one by Lehrer - Proust was a Neuroscientist.
Bear with me a bit longer – this is going to get interesting in a minute. I had no idea that I was setting up a remarkable juxtaposition of events.
It’s my month for such things I suspect. Just recently a couple I had not seen for many many years came to visit us from London. On arrival at our house the wife was in a state of astonishment. ‘You two,’ she said incredulously to her husband, ‘have been exchanging Christmas and Bahá’í New Year cards for decades but I never saw the address you were sending our cards to. This is the very road I used to live in when I was a child. How unlikely is that?’
I had no idea, when I was paying for the two books, that I’d just bought into another improbable coincidence, maybe not so dramatic but a touch more generally significant. Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance was gaining credibility by the second.
Marshalling Middlemarch in his Argument
When I got home I kicked off by starting to read Lehrer’s book. There was a mildly interesting chapter on Walt Whitman – no offence to his memory but I’ve always found Emily Dickinson, though secretive to the point of invisibility, far more impressive. But I would prefer the introverted poet of the two, wouldn’t I?
Then Lehrer moved on to one of my all-time favourite writers discussing her greatest novel: it was a chapter involving George Eliot using Middlemarch as a springing off point. He quoted her as follows (page 38):
Dorothea – a character who, like Eliot herself, never stopped changing – is reassured that the mind “is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.”
I don’t think I’m being pedantic to point out that this is not the exact quote. At the beginning of Chapter 72 Dorothea is talking to Mr Farebrother and the conversation goes like this:
“Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.”
“But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,” said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, “character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”
Lehrer isn’t making the mistake of absolutely identifying Eliot with a statement of one of her characters, albeit a vicar and a man of some integrity. He is looking at how Eliot examines the capacity for change we all have through a variety of lenses. She is part of his body of evidence that science and art are not irrevocably at odds. It is unfortunate that he strengthens his case for her as an early proponent of neuroplasticity by this substitution of ‘mind’ for ‘character.’ It does make the subsequent shift to talking about brains easier though. And she is as ‘anti’ any form of reductionism as Lehrer is.
Science or Scientism?
And when he does start talking about brains the discussion becomes fascinating. One reason for this is that the other book I had bought is entirely focused on aspects of neuroplasticity. The second completely unexpected reason is that both discussions of this issue contain page after page that vindicate Sheldrake’s contention that science in its current form is ‘dogmatic.’ Sheldrake wrote in The Science Delusion (page 4):
I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free enquiry and imprison imaginations.
His main aim is to attack its materialism as a creed not a fact (page 6):
Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
However, dogma also operates within science even where there is no such violation of this creed. The mind/brain problem is a powerful example of where dogma within science has clearly impeded our proper understanding of the brain and the mind/brain relationship for decades to the detriment of huge numbers of people. It illustrates how assumptions can and often do become fossilised, useful only for stoning into oblivion all those that disagree.
A Heretic at Work?
Lehrer, in his book, looks at the career of Elizabeth Gould, for example (page 39). In 1985 Pasko Rakic had proclaimed he possessed conclusive proof from experiments with rhesus monkeys that neurones are only generated ‘during pre-natal and early post-natal life.’ So the adult brain could not grow neurones: end of story. Everyone that mattered seemed to have believed him. No resurrection then for the notion of neurogenesis lying discredited in its mausoleum.
In 1989, during a completely different piece of research, Gould had found the unexpected: ‘the brain also healed itself.’ Gould assumed she must have been mistaken. She went back to the literature expecting to find that this was the case. To her astonishment she found the opposite. She found a wealth of evidence dating back to 1962 that all sorts of fully grown creatures were capable of growing neurones in their adult brains. All the evidence had been arbitrarily dismissed out of hand and entombed out of sight on neglected library shelves.
What happened next will have to wait until the next post.