When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
In the final chapter of his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman muses on the ultimate dethronement of humankind, the “fall from the center of ourselves.” Just as Galileo plucked the Earth from the center of the solar system, and Darwin relegated us to one twig among many on the evolutionary tree, a century of modern neuroscience has confirmed Freud’s intuition that the vast majority of brain activity occurs at levels of which the conscious “I” is scarcely even aware—much less in control of. What we call the conscious mind, Eagleman argues, is far from center stage, and the more we try to find out who—or what—is actually in control of our brain, the more we find out there is, as Gertrude Stein said, “no there there.”
Before he considers the broader implications of our fall from grace, Eagleman spends the first half of the book revealing—through experiments, anecdotes, puzzles, optical illusions, and current events—the extent of the neural wizardry operating behind the conscious curtain of the “I.” It is this wizardry, he suggests, that constructs the cognitive illusion we confidently declare reality. Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, is an agile guide; he is someone who cares about the craft of writing. His bestselling work of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a series of imaginative (if somewhat gimmicky) thought experiments about the possible nature(s) of God, was widely praised when it appeared in 2009. In his latest book, he proves himself, once again. Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible.
Eagleman uses everyday experiences, familiar to each of us, which reveal the hidden machinations of the brain working in unexpected ways. Even an intuitively effortless act such as seeing, he shows us, is not a passive process of observation, but rather the product of a vast subsurface machinery (by some measures, nearly one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision) that uses an arsenal of assumptions to interpret the ambiguous barrage of shapes and colors that constitute any visual scene. Most readers will fail to appreciate any of these processes until we are shown how often—and how profoundly—we get it totally wrong. For example, the resolution of our peripheral vision is so shockingly poor that if you ask a friend to hold a handful of colored highlighters out to his side while you stare at his nose, you may have the vague sensation of a rainbow in the distance, but might be surprised to discover that you’re unable to name or order any of the colors. Since the brain constantly darts our eyes around so that the high-resolution central vision focuses on whatever it is we are interested in—and therefore anything we are paying attention to appears in sharp focus—the brain assumes the entire visual world is in focus. We think we see what we do not.
What optical illusions really point out is that all of vision is, in a sense, an illusion.
One striking optical illusion, in which a dot on the page disappears as you slowly move the book away from your face, demonstrates that a huge region of vision is in fact missing—due to a quirk of anatomy, we have a sizable blind spot. And yet, no one noticed this blind spot until its chance discovery in the 17th century because the brain fills in the missing information. It is constantly inventing a patch of reality. The lesson of examples such as these, Eagleman points out, is that “you’re not perceiving what’s out there. You are perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” Whether you are in control of your eyes or your eyes are in control of you is the central, unsettling question posed by these chapters.
The extent to which forces that elude introspection influence not only your perceptions but also your behavior is detailed with increasingly bizarre examples. We find out that a stripper earns higher tips when she is at the most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. People are more likely to marry other people whose names begin with the same letter as their own. Those who are born on February 2nd (2/2) are statistically more likely to live in places like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin; those born on March 3rd in Three Forks, Montana; and those born on June 6th in Six Mile, South Carolina. What these interesting but difficult-to-interpret quirks of human nature reveal is that choices which you happily assign to volition—to free will—may in fact be determined by the alien logic of brain processes inaccessible to the conscious “I.”
But does any of this this matter? Is anything in your life going to change if modern neuroscience strips you of the illusion of free will? Isn’t it just fine to go through the course of the day believing what you see, or ignoring the possibility that arbitrary numbers might influence where you choose to live? Unless you are a philosopher, these issues might seem irrelevant, but Eagleman’s book serves as a clarion call to institutions of law and policy, arguing that they need to be based upon a deeper understanding of ourselves.
As director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, Eagleman has a thoughtful and considered take on issues of cultural and political power, and his chapter on neuroscience and the law proves to be the strongest in the book. While today’s courts rarely allow such technologies as brain scans into the courtroom, judges may soon deem such scans relevant to arguments about a defendant’s mental state. Many detractors worry moving blame to biology will result in dangerous criminals being exculpated—the “It wasn’t me, it was my brain” defense. Yet the shift is already in motion outside of the courtroom. Most of us believe that diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have a neurological basis, and that factors such as genes make some of us more susceptible to risky behavioral patterns, such as drug addiction. Similarly, most of us intuitively feel that an Alzheimer’s patient that shoplifts is somehow less guilty of the crime, or that a mentally disabled person who murders should not be sent to prison. How is a legal system that rests on volition and culpability going to address this shifting locus of responsibility?
Eagleman attacks the question head-on:
The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.
He seeks not to revise the definition of blameworthiness but to remove the concept from jurisprudence altogether. It is true that the more we understand about brain circuitry, the more concepts like indulgence, discipline, and motivation can be explained by biology. It’s also true that if there is a measurable brain problem—such as the case in which a man committed murders due to neurological changes brought on by a brain tumor—the defendant is viewed as less blameworthy. However, a system of jurisprudence in which blame is based upon the state of current technology is not on stable footing; rather than adjusting the definition of blame to suit shifting technology, perhaps we should eschew blame altogether. “Blameworthiness,” Eagleman writes, “is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.” Instead, he hopes that we can leverage findings in neuroscience to better structure the way we punish, ultimately replacing the notion of retribution with either rehabilitation when possible or humane incapacitation when not.
Almost all of the ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer. However, it’s important to note that, like a lecture, Eagleman’s book does not constitute—nor claim to constitute—original thinking. He has curated examples from the world of modern neuroscience in support of ideas already explored by writers such as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hoftstadter, or biologists such as Gerald Edelman, packaging them into a highly accessible and energetic work of popular science. Eagleman’s book is rooted firmly in the tradition of scientist-as-explainer, along the lines of Brian Greene’s efforts to bring string theory to a lay audience in The Elegant Universe, or Daniel Levitin’s elucidation of the neuroscience of music in This Is Your Brain On Music.
While we are left, at the end of the book, with the disturbing sensation of wondering who, exactly, it is we are looking at when we look in the mirror, Eagleman assures us that this latest act of dethronement does not leave us disconsolately adrift. Just as astronomy’s revolution invited us to contemplate the gorgeous, vast expanses of the universe, a better understanding of the human brain “tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined.” Neuroscience can’t weigh in yet on whether or not we house an extrabiological soul, but even if how mind emerges from brain is one day completely described by the laws of classical physics, the threads of causality will be so tangled as to only offer partial insight. So while it is disquieting to ponder the fact that the conscious mind, unaware of the incomprehensible dynamics of multiple neural subsystems blithely chugging away, may be left merely to superimpose meaning on our actions and choices, there is indeed beauty and comfort in knowing that we contain the unknowable.
Four years ago I wrote an essay here about a smallish southern city where I used to write for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction at night. It was, and is, a pleasant place for a writer to live and work, a city with a rich literary tradition but none of the self-importance of Iowa City or Brooklyn, a place content to operate under the radar and leave its writers in peace. Randall Jarrell, who taught at the state university’s local campus for many years, referred to the place as “Sleeping Beauty.” In a letter to his friend Robert Lowell, Jarrell wrote, “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.”
I mentioned many local writers in that essay about Greensboro, NC, from native son O. Henry right up to the biggest contemporary brand name, Orson Scott Card. Among those many writers was Lee Zacharias, who has just come out with a collection of essays, her first, called The Only Sounds We Make.
Zacharias, who had previously published a collection of short stories and two novels, brings a pair of vital skills to the enterprise of essay writing: she notices, and she remembers. These skills are invaluable to any writer, but especially so to the creator of the kind of deeply personal essays Zacharias has produced in this collection. When noticing and remembering are fused, as they are here, they can breathe life into anything, from the most intimate moments to the most cosmic subjects – the nature of light, writers’ workplaces, a father’s suicide, the visible and invisible lessons of the Grand Canyon, even the surprising allure of buzzards.
One of the most poignant passages in the book comes midway through an essay called “Morning Light,” which is ostensibly about photography. Making photographs, as Zacharias discovers, requires more than an understanding of f-stops and depth of field. “To make a photograph,” she writes, “you must learn how to read light. You must develop a feel for its chemistry, its texture and color; its purity must become palpable to you. But to read light is to experience ephemerality, to know your own mortality, the fleeting nature of all things.” This effortless veering from the practical to the philosophical continues with this explanation of Zacharias’s motives for taking up photography:
I learned to read light because there was a time when I needed to be without language, when I needed to travel back to that place where nothing is named and we dream in pure light and color. When I failed to publish my second novel, I believed that words had failed me, and I didn’t want to write another just because I was expected to. If I was to write again, it would be because I needed words, not because I was a writer.
She stopped writing for two years, then wrote another novel, which also failed to sell. “How, without whining, is one to describe the way her world dims?” she asks. “It’s as if she’s been a member of a club; then one day she tries the clubhouse door to find the lock has been changed.” She continues:
And so I taught myself to speak another tongue. For a decade marked by the faltering of my career, my father’s suicide, my son’s troubled adolescence, the decline of our remaining parents, and the sudden irreversibility of aging, I made photographs.
Zacharias, who taught in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro for many years and edited The Greensboro Review literary journal, eventually came back to writing. But 32 years would pass between the publication of her second book and her third, a novel called At Random. Now, a mere year later, comes The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias tells me she has finished another novel and is at work on a new one set in western Michigan during the Depression. It appears she has relocated the key to the clubhouse door.
Zacharias’s writing about her childhood and her difficult parents is some of her best. In the essay “Mud Pies” she tells about her early years on the South Side of Chicago and her family’s eventual flight to a raw new suburban development in Hammond, Indiana. Zacharias’s writing is supple but never flashy, and she is typically clear-eyed about how this massive social convulsion touched her life: “I would not pretend that I actively miss Chicago lest I be accused of sentimentality – I was not yet five years old when I left – yet I do feel nostalgia, the kind Pete Hamill speaks of in his book about Lower Manhattan, Downtown. Sentimentality is about lies, he says, nostalgia about ‘real things gone,’ not so much about what we remember, but itself ‘an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.’ The body cannot remember a lie.” The essay ends on this grace note:
I used to believe that my nostalgia was so intense because I felt I had lost something I never possessed. But the truth is that we do not possess our lives. As true exiles know, we stand too easily to lose them, and in the end we are all just passing through. It is what we remember of the journey that we possess. I own a little girl sitting on a curb in Chicago in the barefoot sandals her mother always made her wear with socks, and in the curious stillness of that moment when she looks up from her mud pie and cocks her head in wait, I know that what she is waiting for is something to remember.
Zacharias’s parents, who eventually divorced, were a couple of tough customers. Her mother was “manipulative,” “overbearing,” and “exhausting,” and yet “no mother’s love could have been more unconditional.” Her father was a misogynist, a tightwad with no close friends who, to top it off, was ashamed of his daughter’s vocation. “He was ashamed not just of the writing itself but of the fact that I wrote,” Zacharias says. “He didn’t see the point. He kept a log of his gas mileage, but he never kept a journal…He had beautiful handwriting, but no use for words.” Hard to believe that such a couple’s daughter would become an accomplished writer, but Zacharias’s life is a reminder that there is no template, no blueprint for making writers. They come from anywhere and nowhere and everywhere in between. After her father fired a .357-caliber bullet from a Bulldog revolver into his own head, Zacharias was able to write words that seem nearly heroic, yet she makes them sound simple, even humble, possibly inevitable: “My father was who he was. He died how he died. But because he was my father I loved him.”
There is levity in these pages, too, most notably on the day of Zacharias’s second wedding, when she and the groom stood in their living room with a minister who was an old friend. The only witnesses were their dogs, one of whom spent the ceremony vigorously humping the minister’s leg. The minister kept shaking his leg, trying to soldier on. “His voice quavered with the effort,” the bride reports, “and every word he read sounded like a sob.”
The dozen essays in this collection appeared in a variety of journals, including Antaeus, Southern Quarterly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Humanities Review. My favorite, “Buzzards,” was reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. It is an astonishment, with glints of etymology, zoology, mythology, photography, family dynamics, and the various roles buzzards have played in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Federico Garcia Lorca, Darwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Bible. Despite her wide reading on these mysterious unloved birds, Zacharias fails to mention the timeless opening of Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge, so I’ll quote it here:
You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.
Zacharias’s sin of omission is forgiven because she knows all about the ancient patterns. And because she can write lines like these: “What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine.” And these: “I do not dream of vultures. I have never dreamed of flying, though as a child, lying in the dark, awake, voiceless, listening to my parents fight, I used to dream of escape. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to be a writer.”
Perhaps. Probably. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lee Zacharias is back inside the clubhouse. She has published a splendid book of essays and she has more books in her. And that’s very good news for us all.