First Impressions

First Impressions: Freedom by Jonathan Frazen

The characters in Freedom are educated and aware, introspective and thoughtful. The pleasure of reading about them is similar to that of hanging out with people who you have a lot in common with but who are just a bit older. You see in their struggles and their wanderings some of what your own future might hold in store. But you have the advantage of these forebears making mistakes you can be sure to avoid. Walter Berglund devotes his time and his thinking to conservation and getting out the message that overpopulation endangers everything we hold dear. Meanwhile, Richard Katz can’t manage any such lofty ideals and so goes about his life playing rock shows—at least until he and his band actually become successful, at which point music loses its luster—and fucking women young and old alike, as much out of contempt as lust. Then there’s Patty Berglund, who was prescient enough to marry Walter, but human enough to pine for a good fucking by Richard. At the beginning, Richard seems to possess a distanced wisdom, Walter seems absentminded and sexually clueless, and Patty comes across as a basket case. But Richard comes to seem more and more pathetic compared to Walter, who I for one found myself rooting for even though what I was rooting for most was for him to drop his feminist compunctions and throw some woman down to have his way with her. The dilemma at the heart of this triangle is that freedom—the freedom to choose a life, a mate, a purpose—is not the unqualified boon that Americans tend to make it out to be. An abundance of freedom can be its own form of oppression.

Each of characters is eminently sympathetic, even the rock star who gets laid all the time but feels he can’t compete with his passive-aggressively nice environmental lawyer friend. Most charming of all is the way their bemoaning of young people’s self-absorption betrays their own. All Patty can think of is her own unmet womanly needs. Richard’s cynicism serves as a warrant for his parasitism. And even Walter, so obsessed with the world’s population, wrestles with his intense desire to have a third child. They’re the type of intensely wrought characters in a dense novel that you find yourself inadvertently analyzing in the wakeful hours of the late night and early morning. It is the tendency of fiction to exaggerate the individual differences between people. And if I have one criticism of Franzen’s work it’s that his characters are too perfectly defined by their individual tragic flaw and too perfectly complementary in how their personalities conflict with one another. People surely do contrast themselves with siblings and college roommates, embrace and heighten the differences for a pleasing sense of individuality, and seek to prove the superiority of their chosen ways. But it is not only possible, I’d wager, but completely natural for those niches and those rivalries to dissolve over time and with distance. Identity is more a matter of narratives told by others about us, or by us about ourselves, than it is of fixed boundaries between personalities.

Franzen does give a nod to this wrinkle in conventional notions authenticity, most intriguingly when he has Richard witness a younger musician “performing authenticity.” If we can perform ourselves, if it’s an act of will and one designed to entertain, seduce, or market, what does that mean about identity—especially when the performance really is genuinely our own? So far, Freedom hasn’t done much more than bring up the question even as the characters overwhelm the disturbing ramifications by being so consistently and frustratingly themselves.

Upon finishing: By page 561, I found myself bracing for a slog every time I picked up the book. Not everyone can be Saul Bellow, but Franzen's prose is excessively weighted with an unshakeable tone of resignation--this is how it happened, this is how things are, and so this is how the story must be told. The characters, for the most part, develop in gratifying ways. But there is a sameness that takes hold about half way through the novel that becomes as oppressive as the character's freedom to embrace their tragic flaws.

Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 2

Part 1 of this essay.
Johansson and Hall, in their studies of choice blindness, are building on a tradition harking to the lab of a neurophysiologist working in the 1970’s in San Francisco. Benjamin Libet, in an era before fMRIs, used the brain scanning devices available to him, EEG and EGM (or electromyograph, which measures electrical activity in muscles), to pinpoint when his subjects were physically set in motion by a decision. Macknik and Martinez-Conde explain “Libet found that participants had the conscious sense of willing the movement about 300 milliseconds after the onset of the muscle activity. Moreover, the EEG showed that neurons in the part of their motor cortex where movements are planned became active a full second before any movement could be measured” (180). We all go about our business blithely assured that we decide to do something and then, subsequently, we act on our decision. But in reality our choices tend to be made outside of our conscious awareness, based on mechanisms our minds have no conscious access to, and it’s our justifications for those choices that really come second in the sequence of events. We don’t even know that we’re confabulating, just making stuff up on the fly to explain ourselves, that we’re not being honest. Our confabulations fool us as much as they fool everyone else.

In the decades following Libet’s work, more sophisticated scanners have put the time lapse between when our brains make decisions and when we feel as though our conscious minds have made them as high as seven seconds. That means people who are good at reading facial expressions and body language can often tell what choices we’ll make before we make them. Magicians and mentalists delight in exploiting this quirk of human cognition. Then their marks weave the clever tricksters into their confabulations—attributing to them supernatural powers. Reading this section of Sleights of Mind sent me to my bookshelf for Sack’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat because I recalled the story of a patient with Korsakov’s Syndrome who had a gift for rapid confabulation. In a chapter titled “A Matter of Identity,” Sacks narrates his meeting with a man he calls Mr. Thompson, who first treats him as if he’s a customer at the delicatessen where he worked, then shifts to believing the doctor is the butcher next door, then it’s a mechanic, then it’s a doctor—another doctor. In fact, due to neurological damage caused by a fever, Mr. Thompson can’t know who Sacks is; he can’t form moment-to-moment memories or any sense of where he is in time or space. He’s literally disconnected from the world. But his mind has gone into overdrive trying to fill in the missing information. Sacks writes,

“Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world” (109).

But it’s not Mr. Thompson’s bizarre experience that’s noteworthy; it’s how that experience illuminates our own mundane existence that’s unsettling. And Sacks goes on to explain that it’s not just the setting and the people he encounters that Mr. Thompson had to come up with stories for. He’d also lost the sense of himself.

“Such a frenzy may call forth quite brilliant powers of invention and fancy—a veritable confabulatory genius—for such a patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment. We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs, and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities” (110).

Mr. Thompson’s confabulatory muscles may be more taxed than most of ours, but we all have them; we all rely on them to make sense of the world and to place ourselves within it. When people with severe epilepsy have the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated to limit the damage of their seizures, and subsequently have a message delivered to their right hemisphere, they cannot tell you what that message was because language resides in the left hemisphere. But they can and do respond to those messages. When Michael Gazzaniga presented split-brain patients’ right hemispheres with commands to walk or to laugh, they either got up and started walking or began to laugh. When asked why, even though they couldn’t know the true reason, they came up with explanations. “I’m getting a coke,” or “It’s funny how you scientists come up with new tests every week” (Pinker How the Mind Works, pg. 422). G.H. Estabrooks reports that people acting on posthypnotic suggestions, who are likewise unaware they’ve been told by someone else to do something, show the same remarkable capacity for confabulation. He describes an elaborate series of ridiculous behaviors, like putting a lampshade on someone’s head and kneeling before them, that the hypnotized subjects have no problem explaining. “It sounds queer but it’s just a little experiment in psychology,” one man said, oblivious of the irony (Tim Wilson Strangers to Ourselves pg. 95).

Reading Sleights of Mind and recalling these other books on neuroscience, I have this sense that I, along with everyone else, am walking around in a black fog into which my mind projects a three-dimensional film. We never know whether we’re seeing through the fog or whether we’re simply watching the movie projected by our mind. It should pose little difficulty coming up with a story plot, in the conventional sense, that simultaneously surprises and fulfills expectations—we’re doing it constantly. The challenge must be to do it in a way creative enough to stand out amid the welter of competition posed by run-of-the-mill confabulations. Could a story turn on the exposure of the mechanism behind the illusion of free will? Isn’t there a plot somewhere in the discrepancy between our sense that we’re in the driver’s seat, as it were, and the reality that we’re really surfing a wave, propelled along with a tiny bit of discretion regarding what direction we take, every big move potentially spectacular and at the same time potentially catastrophic?

Until I work that out, I’ll turn briefly to another mystery—because I can’t help making a political point and then a humanistic one. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is, pardon the pun, old hat to neuroscientists. And presumably magicians know something about the trick behind our conviction that we have free will. Pen and Teller in particular, because they draw inspiration from The Amaz!ng Randi, a celebrity in the world of skeptics, ought to be well aware of the fact that free will is an illusion. (All three magicians feature prominently in Sleights of Mind.) So how the hell can these guys serve as fellows in the Cato Institute, a front for fossil fuel industry propaganda pretending to be a conservative policy research? (For that matter, how can research have a political leaning?) Self-determination and personal responsibility, the last time I checked, were the foundations of conservative economics. How can Pen and Teller support politics based on what they know is an illusion?

Macknik and Martinez-Conde cite research in an endnote to Sleights of Mind that may amount to an explanation. When Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler prompted participants in what they said was a test of mental arithmetic with a passage from Francis Crick about how free will and identity arise from the mechanistic interworkings of chemicals and biomatter, they were much more likely to cheat than participants prompted with more neutral passages. Macknik and Martinez-Conde write, “One of the more interesting findings in the free will literature is that when people believe, or are led to believe, that free will is an illusion, they may become more antisocial” (272). Though in Pen and Teller’s case a better word than antisocial is probably contemptuous. How could you not think less and less of your fellow man when you make your living every day making fools of him? And if the divine light of every soul is really nothing more than a material spark why should we as a society go out of our way to medicate and educate those whose powers of perception and self-determination don’t even make for a good illusion?

For humanists, the question becomes, how can avoid this tendency toward antisocial attitudes and contempt while still embracing the science that has lifted our species out of darkness? For one thing, we must acknowledge to ourselves that if we see farther, it’s not because we’re inherently better but because of the shoulders on which we’re standing. While it is true that self-determination becomes a silly notion in light of the porousness of what we call the self, it is undeniable that some of us have more options and better influences than others. Sacks is more eloquent than anyone in expressing how the only thing separating neurologist from patient is misfortune. We can think the same way about what separates magicians from audience, or the rich from the poor. When we encounter an individual we’re capable of tricking, we can consider all the mishaps that might have befallen us and left us at the mercy of that individual. It is our capacity for such considerations that lies at the heart of our humanity. It is also what lies at the heart of our passion for the surprising and inevitable stories that only humans tell, even or especially the ones about ourselves we tell to ourselves.
(Pass the blunt.)

Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 1 of 2

E.M. Forster famously wrote in his book Aspects of the Novel that what marks a plot resolution as gratifying is that it is both surprising and seemingly inevitable. Many have noted the similarity of this element of storytelling to riddles and magic tricks. “It’s no accident,” William Flesch writes in Comeuppance, “that so many stories revolve around riddles and their solutions” (133). Alfred Hitchcock put it this way: “Tell the audience what you’re going to do and make them wonder how.” In an ever-more competitive fiction market, all the lyrical prose and sympathy-inspiring characterization a brilliant mind can muster will be for naught if the author can’t pose a good riddle or perform some eye-popping magic.


Neuroscientist Stephen L. Macnick and his wife Susana Martinez-Conde turned to magicians as an experiment in thinking outside the box, hoping to glean insights into how the mind works from those following a tradition which takes advantage of its shortcuts and blind spots. The book that came of this collaboration, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions, is itself both surprising and seemingly inevitable (the website for the book). What a perfect blend of methods and traditions in the service of illuminating the mysteries of human perception and cognition. The book begins somewhat mundanely, with descriptions of magic tricks and how they’re done interspersed with sections on basic neuroscience. Readers of Skeptic Magazine or any of the works in the skeptical tradition will likely find the opening chapters hum-drum. But the sections have a cumulative effect.


The hook point for me was the fifth chapter, “The Gorilla in Your Midst,” which takes its title from the famous experiment conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which participants are asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball around and count the number of passes. A large portion of the participants are so engrossed in the task of counting that they miss a person walking onto the scene in a gorilla costume, who moves to the center of the screen, pounds on his chest, and then walks off camera. A subsequent study by Daniel Memmert tracked people’s eyes while they were watching the video and found that their failure to notice the gorilla wasn’t attributable to the focus of their gaze. Their eyes were directly on it. The failure to notice was a matter of higher-order brain processes: they weren’t looking for a gorilla, so they didn’t see it, even though their eyes were on it. Macnick and Martinez-Conde like to show the video to their students and ask the ones who do manage to notice the gorilla how many times the ball was passed. They never get the right answer. Of course, magicians exploit this limitation in our attention all the time. But we don’t have to go to a magic show to be exploited—we have marketers, PR specialists, the entertainment industry.


At the very least, I hoped Sleights of Mind would be a useful compendium of neuroscience concepts—a refresher course—along with some basic magic tricks that might help make the abstract theories more intuitive. At best, I hoped to glean some insight into how to arrange a sequence of events to achieve that surprising and inevitable effect in the plots of my stories. Some of the tricks might even inspire a plot twist or two. The lesser hope has been gratified spectacularly. It’s too soon to assess whether the greater one will be satisfied. But the book has impressed me on another front I hadn’t anticipated. Having just finished the ninth of twelve chapters, I’m left both disturbed and exhilarated in a way similar to how you feel reading the best of Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker. There’s some weird shit going on in your brain behind the scenes of the normal stuff you experience in your mind. It’s nothing new for people with a modicum of familiarity with psychology that there’s an illusory aspect to all our perceptions, but in reality it would be more accurate to say there’s a slight perceptual aspect to all our illusions. And one of those illusions is our sense of ourselves.


I found myself wanting to scan the entire seventh chapter, “The Indian Rope Trick,” so I could send a pdf file to everyone I know. It might be the best summation I’ve read of all the ways we overestimate the power of our memories. So many people you talk to express an unwillingness to accept well established findings in psychology and other fields of science because the data don’t mesh with their experiences. Of course, we only have access to our experiences through memory. What those who put experience before science don’t realize is that memories aren’t anything like direct recordings of events; they’re bricolages of impressions laid down prior to the experience, a scant few actual details, and several impressions received well afterward. Your knowledge doesn’t arise from your experiences; your experiences arise from your knowledge. The authors write:


“As the memory plays out in your mind, you may have the strong impression that it’s a high-fidelity record, but only a few of its contents are truly accurate. The rest of it is a bunch of props, backdrops, casting extras, and stock footage your mind furnishes on the fly in an unconscious process known as confabulation” (119).


The authors go on to explore how confabulation creates the illusion of free will in the ninth chapter, “May the Force be with You.” Petter Johansson and Lars Hall discovered a phenomenon they call “choice blindness” by presenting participants in an experiment with photographs of two women of about equal attractiveness and asking them to choose which one they preferred. In a brilliant mesh of magic with science, the researchers then passed the picture over to the participant and asked him or her to explain their choice—only they used sleight of hand to switch the pictures. Most of them didn’t notice, and they went on to explain why they chose the woman in the picture that they had in fact rejected. The explanations got pretty elaborate too.
Part 2 of this essay.

First Impressions: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell


[This truly is a first impression as I've only started reading the book.]

Stylistically, the story progresses unencumbered by flourishes. This is not to say the prose is sparse or that the narrative isn’t devoid of abundance. For one, it is chock full of phrases and vocabulary dating to the period—1799 on a Dutch trading post on the shore of Japan—which would take a great deal of time and effort to track down but which the wise reader trusts the author to have researched and accepts as good texture for a historical work. For another, the novel is expansive in a way few seem to be, interested in several characters, not rushing to put any single one through a moment of reckoning. The complexity of the setting and the breadth of the narrative allow for a wonderful immersion reminiscent of “Anna Karenina” or other classic historical novels. And there are startlingly good descriptions subtly woven into the narrative, as when “cicadas shriek in ratcheted rounds” (29) or when one of the characters, Ouwehand, says to another in morning passing, “Another furnace of a day ahead” (30). A clock even becomes something of a character in its own right. “The Almelo clock divides the time with bejeweled tweezers” (36) is just one of several lines devoted to it.

Jacob is a clerk working for the Dutch East India Company on an artificial island on the shore of Nagasaki, hoping to earn enough to convince the father of his amour he would make a worthy husband. As a clerk and an amateur artist he is detail-oriented, opening the door for plenty of that good narrative texture and even a few illustrations. As of yet (I’ve just finished chapter 7—the first 90 pages) there is too much incident and description to allow for much psychological depth. Jacob is lonely, misses his fiancée Anna, is unaccountably taken with a disfigured Japanese midwife, and prevented from making friends by his official task of searching out irregularities in previous years’ accounting so those responsible can be duly punished and corruption weeded out.

There is also much discussion, most interestingly with the Japanese interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, about romantic love and marriage, a topic which seems to render most westerners wistful. Ogawa believes “A man should love his concubine, so when love dies he say, ‘Goodbye,’ easy and no injury. Marriage is different: marriage is matter of head…rank…business…bloodline” (86).Tellingly, Ogawa follows this with a question: “Holland families are not same?” Jacob responds, “We are exactly the same, alas.”

Will Jacob make it through his service unmolested (or without further molestation after a certain Dr. Marinus’s ill use of his body in a scene painful to read)? Will he come away with a sufficient fortune to satisfy his would-be father-in-law's ambition? Or will he fall in love with Miss Aibagawa, the midwife, and forget Anna? How will his sensitive and romantic and conscientious mind see him through these travails? The reading is brisk and delightful so I’ll have answers soon enough.

First Impressions: Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior


I remember a period around the time I graduated from college when I was going back and forth between the works of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to locate their most fundamental differences and deciding who had the better empirical and logical support. I often had the feeling that Gould got the better of the argument, but only because Dawkins was making larger claims. At the same time, Gould’s vision never struck me as thoroughly developed, while Dawkins’s was almost hermetically tight.

In 1998, unbeknownst to me, Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson came along with a meta-perspective on both evolutionary paradigms, which they spelled out in Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. The book is a painstaking unpacking of assumptions underlying common arguments regarding the processes of evolution and the nature of human motivation. Though tedious at points, it’s ultimately well worth while because it turns out that many of those assumptions, while not exactly wrong, obscure important details.

Case in point, Dawkins relies on a definition of evolution—change in gene frequencies—that is blind to the processes that account for those changes. Specifically, by only attending to the outcomes of genetic competition, researchers inevitably miss the fact that group selection has occurred (yes, group selection!) To illustrate, Sober and Wilson offer an analogy with a case brought against the University of California at Berkley in the 1970’s. The percentage of women applicants who were accepted there was less than that of men. But when the University did a department-by-department inquiry they found that there was no discrimination. How is this possible? It turned out that women were disproportionately applying to more selective departments. The outcome is an example of what’s called Simpson’s paradox:

"To see how this can happen, imagine that 90 women and 10 men apply to a department with a 30 percent acceptance rate. This department does not discriminate and therefore accepts 27 women and 3 men. Another department, with a 60 percent acceptance rate, receives applications from 10 women and 90 men. This department doesn’t discriminate either and therefore accepts 6 women and 54 men. Considering both departments together, 100 men and 100 women applied, but only 33 women were accepted compared with 57 men" (25).

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a trait that was maladaptive in an individual group (like a department) could emerge in a larger population by this same process. (Well, maybe not so easy to imagine, but possible.)

Those insisting on individuals or genes as the only units of selection can still say that once the context is taken into account one or another trait is more adaptive than another and that is the one which will evolve, an argument Sober and Wilson refer to as the averaging fallacy. But this argument does nothing to illuminate the process scientists are trying to understand—it rather obscures an important element of it. Sober and Wilson convincingly argue that instead of choosing sides over which unit ought to garner the most attention, we should be able to adjust our focus depending on the question we’re trying to answer. They go on to make a case for the evolution of altruism resulting from group selection.

It seems more arguments are poked with holes in Unto Others than are presented as well sealed. The effect is an opening up of the playing field, an epistemic position the authors call pluralism, not to be confused with the other type of pluralism they argue for in the realm of evolutionary processes. On the whole, this leveling is immensely important—and must’ve been even more so in 98. But since so much of the book is given over to a dismantling of undeservedly prominent arguments and assumptions, I was a little frustrated coming away. I wish there had been more examples of what theories derived from a multi-level selection paradigm would look like. Maybe I’ll find them in some of Wilson’s later books.

First Impression of Ian McEwan's Solar

Ian McEwan may have been living out a fantasy in Solar, one that had him playing the part of a very different type of man, a natural. Michael Beard, though intelligent, is not at all self-conscious, and nothing resembling guilt exists in his mind. The glaring detail is not that Beard, as the novel opens, has cheated on his fifth wife eleven times, but that such an overweight, slovenly, and inconsiderate man could find eleven women to cheat with in the span of just a few years. McEwan, I imagine, is more like Saturday's Henry Perowne, so monogamously tied to his wife that he worries about the implications for his manhood.

Ah, but Beard isn’t the typical simple-minded lout. He’s a Nobel Laureate. To me this was difficult to square—wouldn’t such a smart man have better impulse control, not eat to excess, drink to excess, fornicate to excess. But of course intelligence isn’t such a straight-forward issue, and we’re to take Beard as more than a little narcissistic, i.e. entitled. Plus, he usually manages to evade the severest of the consequences he has rightly coming to him. It’s the consequences he doesn’t deserve that plague him the most.

There’s a touch of Coetzee’s Disgrace to Solar: the academic who does and says the wrong things but continues to say, "What of it? Take me as I am." He’s put upon in all the ways well-to-do white men from privileged countries tend to be. I can’t help but sympathize. And since the narration is so close to him, and his own malfeasances and deceptions have such little importance to his mind, I’m never sure how much weight I should be giving them. I see trouble brewing for him but I take no joy in anticipating it. I even wonder if maybe he’ll weasel out of it all somehow—wouldn’t that be something?

On the surface this is a story about comeuppance—which never fully occurs—but really it’s about the tricky nature of sympathy. Beard is all too human, prideful, vengeful, at times almost loving, but not quite. You want to hate him. But you recognize at least of little of him in you.