Consciousness is a crazy mess, so why don’t novels portray it that way?

The portrayal of conscious thought in novels has about as much resemblance to the reality of our mental lives as stick men have to true anatomy. That’s according to celebrated novelist and essayist Will Self who gave the opening lecture at this year’s BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival (Link is to free video; UK access only).

If you haven’t encountered Will Self before, you should prepare to be dazzled by his mastery over the English language. Each of his words feels as though it’s been selected with all the patience and delectation of an expert sommelier choosing a fine wine.

This is an intense, must-see lecture for anyone who is interested in the nature of thought (made all the more atmospheric by the filming that renders Self as though disembodied). Self attacks the novelistic conventions that mean many of our most cherished authors present a kind of cartoon version of what it is like to be a conscious being.

Challenging his audience to consider what they’re thinking “RIGHT NOW” – it becomes clear how inadequately language is able to capture the “clotted and crazy” reality of our mental lives. Indeed, it’s only by attempting to report what we were thinking that we shoe-horn our thoughts into the unrealistic, list-like structure so frequently found in novels.

Self goes further and argues that readers enjoy lapping up this unreal version of conscious thought because we find it reassuring in the face of the more chaotic reality. Psychotic thought is comfortingly presented as something experienced by unwell people, safely sectioned away from the rest of us.

What’s more, Self says this diet of unnatural “naturalistic fiction” has affected our ability to think freely. Those who present thought as “scumbled, psychotic and deeply irrational” as it really is are condemned as “elitist, wilful obscurantists with inclement mental hygiene”. By contrast, those who present an exaggerated fantasy of “sagacity, lucidity and perspicacity are lauded as the greatest humanitarians of all.”

I wonder if popular cognitive neuroscience, the “blobs on the brain” approach that makes the front pages of the newspapers, might well be guilty of a similar charge to that which Self levels at novels – what do you think?

If you enjoy this lecture you might also enjoy audio files available from the same festival, including Susan Blackmore on free will and Ben Fletcher on turning thoughts into action.

Link to Will Self Lecture “Naturalism and Sanity: Is the Mind Really as it’s portrayed?” (Link is to free video; unfortunately UK access only)

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “Consciousness is a crazy mess, so why don’t novels portray it that way?”

  1. Nasty foreigners (even us Antipodean colonials) should note that these vids are only available in the UK. Aunty doesn’t understand the Internet, it seems.

  2. What a coincidence, I was thinking about this recently. I’m starting to have difficulty losing myself in fiction because of how forced the characters usually are. It’s not only the thoughts they have, but their conversations too. Neither of them really match their real-life counterparts. I doubt I’ll stop reading fiction anytime soon, though!

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