NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Daryl Gregory! – Sarah Chorn
Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford Award and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. His other novels include The Devil’s Alphabet (a Philip K. Dick award finalist), Raising Stony Mayhall (a Library Journal best SF book of the year), and the upcoming Afterparty. Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories, which was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. He lives in State College, PA. You can learn more about him and his books by visiting his website.
Let’s start on a down note, shall we?
My junior year of college, early in the spring semester, I walked into what I would later call the Black Tunnel. Suddenly I was exhausted all the time. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and sometimes stayed in the dorm room all day. When I did go to class, I couldn’t concentrate.
My memories of those days have the quality of tunnel vision. The edges of the world seemed to have closed in. When people spoke to me, they seemed to be talking from the far end of a rifle barrel.
What was happening to me felt physical, and externally imposed. I knew that my problems were only going to get worse the longer I slept, but I could no more “snap out of it” than I could decide to stop having the flu.
Then the tunnel opened. I don’t know why. One day I woke up with a little more energy, and started repairing the damage I’d done to my grade point average. I felt like I’d survived an attack from my own body.
Maybe that’s where my fascination with the mind/body problem began. I kept wondering why, even though I knew the depression wasn’t rational, that I couldn’t just pull my self out of it.
I started reading non-fiction books for the layman about consciousness and some of the hard questions in neuroscience. What is thought? How does the brain generates consciousness? And what is the “self” anyway?
I became particularly interested in what happens when things go wrong. The books all had the theme of The Brain vs. one of the three Three D’s: Drugs, Disease and Disaster. There were so many fascinating studies about people whose minds were affected by strokes, tumors, viruses, bacterial infections, pharmaceuticals, and head trauma. Often, these malfunctioning brains told us more about how consciousness worked than the healthy ones.
And the more I read, the more I understood that the body in the mind/body problem included more than the brain. That chunk of gray matter requires an entire ecology—the nervous system, the endocrine system, even the digestive system—to function, and changes or errors in any one of them can affect the mind.
For example: The enteric nervous system in your gut has a hundred million neurons. It can operate pretty much independently of the brain — and most of the neural pathways from gut to gray matter are delivering outbound messages. So your stomach’s not taking orders from the brain; if anything, it’s giving them. This isn’t news to anyone who’s noticed that their moods are affected by what they’ve eaten (or what they’ve not eaten). “Gut instinct” is not just a metaphor.
So given all the ways the body can screw with the mind, is there any such thing as the “true self”?
Well, no. Sorry.
We all suffer under the illusion—and it’s a pretty convincing one—that we’re a mind that has a body. That there’s a little person sitting behind our eyes, steering this body around. But it’s clear that the reverse is true: we’re a body that has a mind.
Science has so far been unable to find any aspect of the mind that is unaffected by genetics, chemistry, or physiology—up to and including that ultimate personality change when metabolism fails. (Dead people, it turns out, are almost all boring conversationalists.)
Most people are pretty comfortable with the idea that our memory, thinking skills, and mood can be affected by the Three D’s. After all, we’ve been listening to Prozac for years. But in Afterparty I wanted to talk about the aspects of the mind that we usually think of as being in the province of philosophy or religion, not biology. Do we really have free will? Is our moral reasoning affected by the way we’ve evolved? And when we experience the numinous—that moment when we know there’s a higher power in the world larger than ourselves—is that just an illusion too?
The main character of Afterparty is an ex-neuroscientist and current addict named Lyda Rose. She’s also technically, if artificially, insane—an overdose of a smart drug called Numinous (see what I did there?) left her with a permanent hallucination of a personal deity, the white-coated angel Dr. Gloria. As a scientist, Lyda “knows” that Dr. Gloria doesn’t exist, but she also can’t refrain from talking to her.
Some of the other victims of Numinous never doubt that their deities are real—they feel that the drug has opened up a portal to God. And many of these people do seem to be better off with their god than without. Certainly Lyda is a kinder, more rational person when she’s listening to the advice of Dr. Gloria.
So, does it matter if these chemicals are injected into you, or if they’re manufactured naturally by your own body?
This is why I love science fiction. We can invent some technology, or some disease, to ask interesting questions. We can have characters with problems that let us look at the world differently.
I’m not saying that characters with disabilities are there to provide “magical insight” for able-bodied people, the way nineteenth-century writers used to glorify consumptives, saying that they were somehow more spiritual and sensitive than the poor saps who had the bad luck to not get tuberculosis.
But I am saying that by showing characters that are neuro-atypical, or who are dealing with some unusual aspect of the body, we can all think a little harder about why our bodies and minds work like they do.
Let’s end on a down note, shall we?
My wife, a psychologist and chair of a university department that has three programs that focus on disabilities, likes to remind able-bodied students that their condition is temporary.
I’ll add one more reminder: Even if you manage to miraculously avoid the three D’s, that fourth D is coming for all of us.