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«This article explores three interlocking ideas: first, that neuroscience has a basis in detective fiction; second, that this consists of a common ...»

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The Ritual of Reason:

Neuroscience as Detective


Romén Reyes-Peschl

This article explores three interlocking ideas: first, that

neuroscience has a basis in detective fiction; second, that this

consists of a common ritualistic association; and third, that

neuroscience now purports to improve on and replace society’s

epistemologically and morally outmoded or failed rituals –

including that of detective fiction. However, neuroscientific

reason’s identification of societal faults is itself based on techniques borrowed from the literature upon which it claims to improve. Thus neuroscience convolves: in a necessarily literary way, it creates and sets itself the task that it innocently claims to have discovered, and that needs to be solved.

Preliminary evidence of detective fiction’s influence on science is provided by eminent neuroscientist V.S.

Ramachandran’s book The Tell-Tale Brain, whose title puns on detective fiction pioneer Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. Within, Ramachandran clearly suggests where his scientific, methodological predisposition originates: ‘“You know my methods, Watson,” says Sherlock Holmes before explaining how he has found the vital clue. And so before we journey any further into the mysteries of the human brain, I feel that I should outline the methods behind my approach.’ 1 If said predetermined methods are good enough for literature’s most celebrated, most perceptive detective, they also must surely suit 9 the brain’s “mysteries”. Also writing of Holmes, James and John Kissane claim that in probably his most famous tale, [t]he detective-hero has a genuine adversary, but it is another intellect as human, and almost as scientific, as his own. The effect which The Hound of the Baskervilles so solidly achieves – an effect perhaps fundamental to the detective story genre – is therefore a ritualistic one. It possesses the characteristic quality of the predictable result whose achieving brings a special satisfaction […]. 2 Kissane and Kissane directly equate Holmes and the entire detective genre with both ritual and science, normalising the spuriously supernatural canine of that particular novel’s title to the domain of the familiarly, knowably “human”. The ‘predictable result’ mentioned is redolent of scientific experiment and its tenets of logical hypothesis and demonstrability, but it goes further here, producing a ‘special satisfaction’ – fact-hunting is actually pleasurable, and furthermore, ‘fundamental’, an exercise in obviousness, reason and repetition which is invaluably necessary to human life.

However, Kissane and Kissane also point out that ‘if the effect of ritual is reassuring, there must of course be some need for reassurance. […] Certain details of the novel give a suggestion that civilization itself has at best a precarious hold upon its hardwon position.’ 3 Holmes may be reasonable, but the rest of the world is decidedly less so. Although Kissane and Kissane make the case that medical man Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used this tension ‘to dramatize a struggle of scientific reason against superstition and irrationality,’ 4 there is a sense this dramatisation sates the need for reassurance rather than doing away with it. In Doyle’s oeuvre, reason becomes the ritual, not its opposite, and the scientific mind uses detective fiction’s neatly self-enclosed

10format to show rationality’s superiority had always already beenthe case.

Indeed, it is all a question of “case”. The OED, in the 6th sense listed for the noun ‘case’, defines it as ‘the actual state of affairs; the way things stand’, before the 7th sense ties it to all things legal and mentions ‘an incident or set of circumstances under investigation by the police or a detective.’ 5 While detective work, whether fictional or in “real life”, presents itself as a mystery, the unquestioned assumption is that there is a clear, undisputable truth behind this which structures the “case” itself and allows it to even exist at all. It is interesting, then, that the OED’s 8th sense for the noun ‘case’ relates it to the realm of medicine, as in ‘the condition or state of a person receiving or requiring medical treatment; clinical condition. Also: the account of the symptoms and other details of an illness given by a person.’ 6 In this latter, the conflation of the ‘account’ of symptoms and details with the actual ‘condition/state/illness’ itself once again illustrates how a ‘case’ both hides and reveals.

There is a ready parallel between the ‘incident or set of circumstances’ in the legal sense and the ‘symptoms and other details’ in the medical; both require investigation, both have a truth at their core which is equivalent to the story of this investigation, both have a “case” history and yet still have a “case” to answer.

The narrativised nexus of the medical and legal “case” has also been recently remarked by neuroscientists Peter Kempster and Andrew Lees, who write: ‘Neurologists publish case histories that generally take the form of solved mysteries.

Like conventional detective stories, they are reassuring, affirming the belief that even obscure neurological maladies can be diagnosed.’ 7 Again, the ‘reassuring’ aspect of ritual is highlighted, with ‘conventional’ procedure leading to preestablished outcome. ‘Mysteries’ paradoxically ‘solved’ in advance, the potentially identity-skewing, function-threatening bizarreness of neurological conditions are reduced to 11 commonplace biological truths. Like Kissane and Kissane, Kempster and Lees also ‘investigate the power of the neurologist’s alter ego, Sherlock Holmes […],’ identifying him directly with best-selling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. 8 The investigation of ‘cases’ is thus evidently assigned as much to neurologists as detectives. The detective yarn and neuroscience, both taking recognisable shape in the mid-to-late 19th century and swiftly expanding throughout the 20th, are now ubiquitous;

but where the former is designated a fanciful conceit of the culture industry, the latter now promises to ‘reassuringly’ reveal as already ‘solved’ even the greatest ‘mysteries’ of the brain, this part of the human anatomy which is rapidly coming to define selfhood itself. 9 This tipping of the scales in neuroscience’s favour can be observed in recent US television series Perception (2012–2015).

Protagonist Dr Daniel Pierce is an eccentric but virtuosic American professor who lends his neuropsychiatric skills to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help solve various complex crimes. Pierce is therefore simultaneously a neuroscientist and a detective, conveniently combining a mercurial, brilliant Sherlock Holmes character with the specialized medical expertise of a Dr Watson. The show’s premise is complicated further by the fact that Pierce, as if his plate were not full enough already, is also a regularly hallucinating schizophrenic – but rather than hampering his abilities as a teacher, researcher or investigator, actually these ‘revealing visions help him uncover what lies beneath conscious emotion.’ 10 The idea driving the narrative is that Pierce’s delusions somehow allow as much, if not even more access to what is “real” as anyone else’s orthodox, nonhallucinatory experiences. At once neuroscientific diagnostician and patient, Pierce dissolves the boundaries between the subject and object of investigation. Thus the ideal detective, Pierce has multiple levels of insight into the human mind – the uncannily astute, the academically trained and the inherently empathetic – even when the mind in question apparently goes wrong.

12 Which, as the series progresses, comes to happen quite often. Each episode showcases some interesting neurological condition: prosopagnosia (or “face blindness”), autism, Capgras delusion (where sufferers claim close friends or relatives have been replaced by impostors), epilepsy, and so on. The show’s dramatic success turns on how conditions like these demand a reassessment of objective reality, and by extension the legal system stemming therefrom. Legal authority, it is implied, is nothing without neuroscientific discourse to back it up, neuroscience being the highest form of knowledge around. This series-defining idea, that what is “real” is up for debate and currently neuroscience is winning this debate, is foregrounded in the opening moments of Perception’s first episode. Dr Pierce is

leading a discussion in a lecture hall full of students, and asks:

“What is reality?” [show of hands – Pierce points one out] “Hippy guy.” “The observable universe?” “Suppose that answer might fly in the Physics department but this is neuroscience. Who’s got the brains to give me an answer relating to the brain?” [Pierce points to another raised hand] “Ironic t-shirt.” [laughter] “Reality is exactly what we see and hear instead of what we fantasize about or dream, or, you know, maybe hallucinate.” “Ah, hallucination. There’s an answer I would have expected from hippy guy.” [laughter] “Sex, drugs and rock and roll, right?” [laughter] “OK, now here’s something that’s really going to alter your consciousness: reality is a figment of your imagination. Who here hasn’t woken up breathless from a nightmare and thought ‘Oh thank god it’s just a dream’? That’s because the neurochemical impulses fired when we’re 13 dreaming, or fantasising, or hallucinating are indistinguishable from the ones banging around inside our skulls when we actually experience those events. So. If what we perceive is often wrong, how can we ever know what’s real – and what isn’t?” 11 With this final note on the unreliability of human perception, the lecture hall appropriately fades into the series title, focusing on the ‘c’ of ‘perception’ in a play on ‘to see’. In this opening, Pierce establishes the contemporary authority of neuroscience – the ‘Physics department’ might have been fashionable and influential in the previous century, but in the 21st, ‘reality’ is decidedly the brain expert’s domain, the one who truly has ‘brains’. Pierce’s humorous but knowing assertion that ‘reality is a figment of your imagination’ is a cryptic forewarning, as soon after he is revealed to suffer the hallucinations he seemingly equates with ‘reality’ in his neuroscientifically-inflected critique of perception. Like all good detective fiction, it is a clue allowing the viewer to participate in the ritual of investigation, but across as well as within episodes – to uncover the broader neuropsychiatric mystery of the schizophrenic neuroscientistcum-detective at its centre, and broader still, the ultimate vaunting of neuroscience as detective work itself.

Despite Perception’s convoluted premise, Dr Pierce maintains some semblance of an ordinary life by sticking to a strict routine, implemented by his confidant assistant Max Lewicki. This is supposed to balance his work, diet, home-life and so on, and thus minimizes the occurrence of his intrusive hallucinations. However, fate takes another neurological twist when Pierce’s estranged father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the two are forced to live together, threatening to upset Pierce’s precious work/life balance and his sanity.

Desperate to get away, he jumps at any chance to help close friend and FBI agent Kate Moretti; though the increased stress presumably puts him at risk of decompensating, for Pierce 14 working with the FBI serves as a more potent form of Lewicki’s stabilising routine. It functions as a therapeutic ritual of reason where Pierce symbolically restores internal order by solving external puzzles, while also apparently deploying his schizophrenia in a focused and useful manner – in a type of doubled mimesis where delusion aids reason aids delusion, Pierce’s hallucinations adapt themselves to the details of each neurologically-themed case, actually helping him investigate before benignly dissipating. The therapeutic capacity of this ritual to Pierce’s triple role as detective, neuroscientist and patient is made evident in Season 3, Episode 5. Moretti has approached Pierce with an apt case, the bizarre death of neuroscientist Landon Jennings, just as Pierce is anxious to leave his house and his increasingly challenging father. When Moretti notices his home-life seems amiss, Pierce steers the conversation

away from her inquiries:

“Anything you want to talk about?” “Yes, I want to talk about the case! You brought it to me because the victim’s a neuroscientist?” “I brought it to you for the same reason the […] police brought it to the FBI – it doesn’t seem possible. Whoever killed Jennings got in and out of a secure safe room and then vanished into thin air.” “A locked door mystery. Thank you. I feel better already.” 12 Enthusiasm for the case eases Pierce’s mind regarding his own problems. The greater the case’s difficulty, the greater this enthusiasm, and the more his own “case” has been treated.

Therefore the ostensibly impossible scenario Moretti presents him is of utmost satisfaction and therapeutic value. Pierce represents neuroscience’s value to detective work; but he also implies detective work’s value to neuroscience – and even to 15 clinical neurology, making a patient actually “feel better” – by tipping his hat to the history of detective fiction, and explicitly acknowledging this ‘locked door mystery’.

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