Review: A neuro-noir journey to the centre of the mind

A neuro-noir journey to the centre of the mind
Walter Ellis Published: 28 November 2003
How can a professor of philosophy get a new theory of consciousness across to the public? Daniel Lloyd (right) did it by writing a murder mystery, he tells Walter Ellis.

It wasn’t that hard to be a polymath in ancient Greece. All it meant, when you come down to it, was that you could write a poem, speak classical Greek (not very difficult in the circumstances) and understand the mechanics of the Archimedes’ screw. Today it’s not so easy. Arts and sciences have, for the most part, diverged to an alarming extent, with those on the arts side likely to be as hard-pressed to explain the technologies that increasingly govern our world as a member of a “lost” tribe in the Brazilian rainforest.

Universities are acutely conscious of the great divide. “Hard” sciences get the big research grants. Microsoft and the Wellcome Trust do not tend to endow poetry fellowships.

Daniel Lloyd, an award-winning “neurophilosopher” and professor of philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, is swimming against the current with his book, Radiant Cool. The work – part detective novel, part guide to the neural net – is an audacious attempt to popularise Lloyd’s theory of consciousness, combining intuitive cognition with the results of interpretative brain imaging and the implications of recent advances in computer science.

As the novel opens, Miranda Sharpe, a graduate student at Connecticut’s Whaleard University, finds her professor, Max Grue, slumped over his computer, looking like death. In fact, she decides, he is dead. Carefully extracting her dissertation from the jumble of papers and software on his desk, she steals away, unwilling to get involved. Later, she discovers that the body is missing. Nobody knows what has happened. Has Grue been murdered? If so, why?

Lloyd’s language in introducing the central dilemma is that of the gumshoe detective. Quickly, however, we find that nothing is what it seems. There are events, we are told, “that lie like a blanket across time”.

Grue, we discover, has been obsessed for years with his theory of consciousness, phenomenology and the superposition – the inseparable sensory and nonsensory embeddings that constitute any experienced object.

Like others in the field, it seems, he has been looking for the G-spot of consciousness, joining the quest for what Miranda terms the “phenomenological orgasmatron”. The night before his “death”, Grue had told his friend and sometime colleague, Clare Lucid, that he had “seen the aleph of consciousness” – the point where the entire mind comes together, the intersection of time and space.

Heavy stuff.

From this point on, it is point after point – or is it? Miranda, trying to find out what has happened to the professor, becomes immersed in his world to the exclusion of almost all else. She can trust nothing until she can trust everything.

Myriad other characters soon enter the fray, including the mercurial Lucid, a Russian phenomenologist (and former Moscow detective) with no apparent grasp of the definite article, and, not least, Lloyd himself, who invades the pages of his creation like a suburban deus ex machina, from nearby Trinity College. The narrative becomes increasingly arcane, shifting for several pages into graphic form to try to explain how the present is rooted in an endless labyrinth of possible pasts.

“I understand this now,” Miranda concludes. The rest of us, not being grounded in neurophilosophy, might not share her Eureka moment, but we cannot deny that we have been challenged along the way.

Lloyd, who may just have written a cult novel for the “noughties”, helpfully provides a 100-page appendix to his novel that explains in somewhat more straightforward terms the “science of consciousness”, including the current and likely future direction of brain imaging and a “subjective view of objectivity”.

It is difficult to see Radiant Cool becoming a standard text at the Metropolitan Police College. Yet stranger things have happened – and the book has already won advance praise from no less a figure than leading Darwinist Daniel Dennett.

What is truly original about Lloyd’s work is that it is a sincere and spirited attempt to provide a glimpse of the secret world of the mind. Other writers, including Umberto Eco, have used literature to illuminate science. Lloyd is one of only a small number who have done it the other way round.

He has always, it turns out, wanted to write a novel. “From my work on consciousness, I realised that there was so much to add to simple narrative. Time is the big one – timelines are attached to everything – and temporal perceptions.

“The central theory of consciousness is that consciousness is temporal, and it is important to imbed that idea in consideration of the physical brain. I am attempting to collapse the distinction between the mind and the brain. When I first saw images of the brain, I thought, this is a picture of thought.”

Miranda, he says, “moves from philosopher of the mind to cognitive neuroscientist. She reflects on what it means to be a brain, with all the existential and emotional resonance that brings. She discovers it experientially in the course of her investigation. Hers is not a bloodless or intellectualised journey, it has an emotional element. She is left with two kinds of question at the end of each chapter: plot and philosophy. The plot is a metaphor for shifts in consciousness”.

Yes, but did Grue really die? And if so, whodunnit? The answer is there in the pages; other issues are less easily resolved. “If you’re the sort of person who looks at the snow and says, ‘It’s all a dream’; if the place of the mind in nature has ever fired up your imagination enough to have a coffee-table conversation about it, then the novel could be rewarding,” Lloyd says.

The true beauty of Radiant Cool is that it has, however briefly, set Lloyd free from the constraints of university life – the marking, teaching and “endless” committee meetings – and allowed us, at the same time, a glimpse of his brain at work.

So is Lloyd now a true polymath? Should other science-based academics be rushing to their word processors to begin the novels that will change everything for them and help the rest of us see how profound that change has been?

Only time will tell – and time, for now, isn’t saying. I think.

Radiant Cool will be published by MIT Press on December 5, £16.95