Slipping into other people’s souls

3 February 2016

The second part of States of Mind opens on 4 February, following on from Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation. Our new book supporting the exhibition is published on the same day: a collection of literature, science and art delving into the mysteries of human consciousness. Its editor Anna Faherty discusses the importance of fiction, as well as non-fiction, in exploring our states of mind.

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Our new book is published on 4 February.

I famously (for those who know me) and shockingly (for the book-loving publishing students I teach) don’t read fiction. In reality, that statement is a slight exaggeration: I race through novels when I’m on holiday and I have a long-standing penchant for turn of the century tales of derring-do and early science fiction. It’s probably no surprise, then, that both Conan Doyle and HG Wells made the final cut in my selection of pieces for the States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness collection.

I haven’t, though, read the ‘greats’ of world literature: the authors one is supposed to have digested as part of a well-educated, culturally-rounded upbringing. Before working on States of Mind I hadn’t willingly read Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Zola, Kafka, Dostoyevsky or more contemporary literary names, such as Murakami. All these authors – and more – feature in States of Mind.

Even in a world where acclaimed writers Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy apparently don’t read fiction and musician Noel Gallagher has called the pursuit “a waste of f*cking time”, I remain somewhat of an oddity. To those who love losing themselves in a book, my I-don’t-read-fiction stance is as incomprehensible as a detailed mathematical equation. “Really?” people ask. “Why? What does that mean? How can you be smart, yet so ill-read?”

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For the middle classes in the nineteenth century reading literature aloud was a nightly family routine.

A scientist at heart, if never truly in practice, I’ve spent most of my life viewing the appeal of literary fiction with similar incredulity. Why would I want to read something made up, when I can find out about real people (and what makes them tick), life on Earth and the wider Universe all by reading well-researched, authoritative publications and factual books?

These conflicting positions mirror the polar opposites outlined by scientist and writer CP Snow in his 1959 book The Two Cultures (a publication I willingly read, over two decades ago). Snow’s views have been attacked many times in the intervening years, but my habits perfectly match his observation that those from a ‘scientific culture’ rarely read novels, history, poetry or plays and that this situation draws pitying chuckles from intellectual society. I have a personal bugbear about a world that values being ‘well-read’ more highly than being able to think critically (or even being able to add up, but that’s for another time…).

Working on States of Mind has, in the best scientific tradition, challenged my long-accepted view on the basis of new evidence. That evidence is the works of fiction, drama and poetry that appear in the book. I selected them, along with true-life accounts reported by patients and medical professionals, to present specific experiences of liminal and disrupted states of consciousness.

On one level this was intended to provide an antidote to complex and high level works of philosophy or neuroscience. But I also hoped a collection of stories about life at the edge of consciousness might prompt readers to imagine themselves transported to such otherworldly situations and to consider their own behaviours and emotions within them. After all, literature scholar Lisa Zunshine says reading fiction does just that, allowing us to ‘try on’ mental states that differ from our own. Writer Joyce Carol Oates perhaps puts it more poetically: “reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul”.

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Even made up stories have the power to disturb readers.

While I have included some startling ‘true’ accounts, many of the most thought-provoking pieces in the book are indeed works of fiction, where we are able to access the inner thoughts of characters: the man-made creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reflecting on his own awareness of knowledge and self; Émile Zola’s Madam Raquin, paralysed and unable to speak, who is more content than those observing her can imagine; Haruki Murakami’s sleepless, and terrified, narrator; Ambrose Bierce’s Peyton Farquhar, whose mind races wildly during his execution and so on…

Of course, interpretations of fiction are subjective. I expect many readers will question why I’ve included specific pieces (and omitted others), but that’s all to the good. We hope States of Mind engages your curiosity, sparks what Edgar Allan Poe describes as your “magic pinions and… wizard wheels” and, most of all, makes you question what consciousness even is.

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‘States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness’ opens 4 February – 16 October 2016.

On the surface, States of Mind should appeal to keen readers who might not usually pick up a science or philosophy book, since it employs literature and art as a route into a fascinating, yet complex topic. Now the project is complete, I think the book has another role: introducing fiction-averse geeks like me to literature. I hope CP Snow would approve, since he considered non-readers to be impoverishing themselves.

Today, philosophers, scientists and literary scholars are all debating the impact of reading. Their claims range from making us ‘smarter and nicer’ to simply making us ‘human’. Whichever you might believe, I hope you find at least one piece of fiction in States of Mind that enables you slip into someone else’s soul and, in so doing, makes you stop, think and question, just like Wellcome Collection’s exhibition the publication supports.

Anna is an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers and major museums on exhibition, digital and print projects. As well as editing States of Mind, Anna is also the author of our Reading Room Companion.