“The molecular weight of loneliness”: On Writing Fiction Influenced by Neuroscience
Temi Oh on Identity, Consciousness, and Free-Will in Science Fiction
I’d heard that fear of the dark is a protein, Scotophobin A, which can be isolated from the brains of rats. My Chemistry teacher told us that 1-hexanol smelled like cut grass. I watched her draw it once, on the whiteboard. A colorless liquid that, I imagined, smelled like memory, summer term, sports day, an army of ants cresting the summit of a picnic blanket, damp loam after rain.
I’d hoped that studying neuroscience would teach me all about things like that. I imagined watching sunlight refract through a conical flask, some clear liquid roiling inside. “Fear of abandonment is a sequence of seventeen peptides,” our lecturer might say, “isolated from the muscles of the heartbroken.”
“Look here,” he would say, pointing to another vial. “We can synthesize these things in a lab now. This one is awe.”
I was drawn to neuroscience for the same reasons that I was drawn to writing. I wanted to learn about consciousness; I hoped that my studies would lead to a deeper understanding of my own inner life and others’. I hoped that memorizing the molecular weight of loneliness might save me from it.
Unfortunately, I never did get to turn the focus knob on a microscope in time to glimpse “consciousness” darting electric like a ray-finned fish across a bundle of neurons. I didn’t even see a real brain until my second year. Neuroanatomy seminars took place in an old Victorian building where we’d sit around and stare at a rubbery cortex, sliced like a grapefruit, bright starburst of white matter splayed on a board. Someone told me that the smell of formaldehyde would make me hungry, but I could never figure out if that was why I always emerged from those four-hour lessons starving.
I enjoyed learning about the senses. In my novel, More Perfect, the character Moremi articulates my own wonder when she thinks, “Strange to consider how rich her inner life appears to her—including at this moment, the smell of the waiting room, the glitter of dust in the air, the sound and sight of schoolchildren playing on the Astroturf out the window—even though it is simply the result of some chemical code disseminated through grey and white matter.”I hoped that memorizing the molecular weight of loneliness might save me from it.
I wrote the first draft of my debut novel, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? during that first year. In most of my memories, it’s nighttime. I’m in my dormitory room, the curtains are closed. I rearranged the furniture every couple of weeks to try to make myself feel better. If I wasn’t copying out flashcards of chemical reactions or highlighting lecture slides, I was writing about teenage astronauts. Working on my book, then, felt like a perfect escape, the world of novels and fiction seemed completely different from cellular and systems neuroscience, from lab work and pictureless poster presentations.
Studying Philosophy of Mind helped me to reconcile the two. The questions we asked—about identity, consciousness, and free-will—made me realize that I loved science fiction because it could be applied philosophy. That year, I felt the tectonic plates of some core beliefs shift under me. I became convinced that free-will is impossible. I had spent almost a decade wondering about the nature of consciousness only to hear scientists I respected argue that there is no such thing.
In my third and final year at university, I started a neuroscience fiction book-club where we read science fiction books that focused on the brain. Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui is an old favorite of mine that I was thrilled to share during our “Season of Sleep and Dreams,” as well as The Machine by James Smythe and We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale by Phillip K Dick. We’d discuss some of the philosophical questions the book raised as well as the feasibility of the technology that the authors explored.
In Paprika, a scientist infiltrates the dreams of her patients in order to treat mental illness. This reminded some of the book-club members of virtual reality therapies being developed to treat phobias or PTSD. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, a psychiatrist uses an EEG machine to watch and alter his patient’s dream. It reminded me of an article I had read about researchers in Japan who were using FMRI scans to “read” volunteers’ dreams.
The technology in More Perfect relies on memory. Orpheus is a young “Dream-hacker” who believes that he can cure Moremi’s depression by designing new memories and saving them on a device called a “Pulse” which has been implanted into her hippocampus. As well as storing and retrieving her memories, the Pulse connects her brain to the internet and provides access to the minds of others.I had thought that my university study would provide me with definite answers to these questions and the fact that it didn’t granted me a kind of psychological freedom to explore them in my fiction.
This is a sci-fi retelling of the Greek myth. Orpheus and Moremi fall in love, but their happiness is short-lived when Orpheus is arrested for a “future crime,” an act of terrorism that a powerful machine intelligence has predicted he will commit. As the lovers fight to escape their fate, the authorities tell them, “You can’t change the future.”
The book was my way of wrestling with the questions that have preoccupied me for years, about identity, mental illness and free will. I had thought that my university study would provide me with definite answers to these questions and the fact that it didn’t granted me a kind of psychological freedom to explore them in my fiction. At several points, the characters are trapped in the labyrinthine landscapes of their dreams, and sometimes, while writing it, I felt as if I was trapped with them.
Every week, now, I read something in the news that feels like a dispatch from the world of More Perfect, lucid dream therapy, the metaverse, predictive policing—the month after it was published in the U.K., Elon Musk’s brain implants were approved for human trials—and I think, “Maybe, it’s true… maybe you can’t escape the future.”
More Perfect by Temi Oh is available via Gallery Books.