Saturday, December 01, 2007

Byatt, A. S. "Novel Thoughts." TIMES November 28, 2007.

. . . During my lifetime we have used various metaphors for the activity of the mind – when I was a girl it was seen as a telephone exchange. Later it became fashionable to describe the brain as a computer – though a computer was constructed by a brain. In the past few years the work of Jean-Pierre Changeux has furnished us with descriptions, both purely physical and philosophically theoretical, of the way the brain puts the mind together. When he describes the relations between axons, dendrites, perception, memory, concepts and the world outside a brain, I feel I am reading a description of what I always sensed was happening, but could not describe. He is interested both in a biological and chemical 'grammar' or algebra, and in the way in which things we perceive are retained – by the neurones – and combined to make “images” and “concepts” which are made by strengthened and stabilized collections of neurones, related both by the “pruning” of the sensory input and the combinations resulting from the way the mental objects are linked. This may seem a little abstract in the context of a paper on the novel. A novel is made of language, and arouses both feelings and thoughts in its readers, as it should depict both feelings and thoughts in its people and its microcosm. Changeux’s descriptions of the cells of the brain and the way they combine and recombine give me a sense of understanding the excitement, the drive, the pleasure, I get out of making worlds with words. We have had a lot of the body as desire, and listened to many professors of desire. There is something else – the human capacity to think, and to make feelings into thoughts. It is a way out of narcissism. The full article is here:

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