An Empirical Temperament

When I read Saturday by Ian McEwan a few years ago, I was not only impressed with the power of the novel, but also by the extent to which McEwan introduced neurophysiological and psychological analysis in his tale. There is this foolish tradition that fiction and science simply don’t mix. To my mind, McEwan’s talent in disabusing the reader of this myth in Saturday and elsewhere is among his greatest strengths.

In the February 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker Daniel Zalewski has written a wide-ranging, highly informative profile of Ian McEwan. Because I have such great admiration for his literary fiction, I would like to convey some of what I learned about McEwan by discussing Zalewski’s profile during the next day or so.

Zalewski begins by pointing out that: “All novelists are scholars of human behavior but Ian McEwan pursues the matter with more scientific rigor than the job strictly requires.” Elsewhere he notes that McEwan regularly introduces his observations with reference to peer-reviewed studies. Doing this is very unusual but never once in reading Saturday did I feel it intruded on his fictional narrative.

In Saturday as Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, approaches the owner of the car he had just scraped in heavy traffic, he makes a mental note to himself that “…even as he sees, or senses, what’s coming towards him at such speed, there remains a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician who notes poor self control, emotional lability, explosive temper, suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on striatal neurons.”

And a few pages later “Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter?”

According to Zalewski “McEwan’s presiding interest has always been psychology.” In discussing his novel Atonement McEwan “pointed to a study in cognitive psychology suggesting that the best way to deceive someone is to first deceive yourself…(She [referring to Briony Tallis, the precious teenager who makes a false accusation of rape that led to the ruin of two lives] trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction.”

The study McEwan mentioned is one of the most widely cited in experimental social psychology. It laid the foundation for most of the work in cognitive dissonance theory whose central tenant is that holding two inconsistent ideas is a highly discomforting experience that individuals strive to reduce in a variety of non-obvious ways.

Oddly I was actually a subject in that experiment when I was an undergraduate student in psychology and I remember it vividly. After it was over, I was quite agitated for quite some time for the deception I was induced to make as a result of the experimental manipulation.

Zalewski notes that “Like many scientists of his generation, McEwan has shifted his intellectual allegiances. At first, he studied perversity; now he studies normality. His first god was Freud. Now it is Darwin.”

It is also clear McEwan is extremely well informed about current research in neuroscience. In Saturday, he writes about Perowne’s visit with his dementia stricken mother: “The disease proceeds by tiny unnoticed strokes in small blood vessels in the brain. Cumulatively, the infarcts cause cognitive decline by disrupting the neural nets.”

And further on in over six densely written pages he describes in exquisite technical detail one of the two surgeries that Perowne performs in the novel: “Perowne asks for the first of the big-self-retraining retractors…Although Rodney leans in with a Dakin’s syringe…Perowne takes a scalpel and makes a small incision in the dura…”

In a word Saturday was, as Zalewski points out “…a direct assault on the modern novel’s skepticism toward science.” No wonder I enjoyed reading it so much as it naturally blended the two cultures that have been so much a part of my life yet, at the same time are widely held to be incompatible with each other.