Siri Hustvedt on Living, Thinking and Looking

It’s difficult to categorize Siri Hustvedt. She is, first and foremost, a writer and a thinker. Her well-known novels include What I Loved and The Sorrows Of An American. They explore, among various other topics, the nature of perception and identity. But her prose goes beyond the typical themes that novelists and essayists riff on. Hustvedt draws from cognitive science to reflect on – just to name a few – the neuroscience of morality, the psychology of memory and the relationship between embodied cognition and art. These topics and more fill the pages of her latest book, Living, Thinking, Looking, a collection of essays written over the past several years.

The 32 non-fiction essays that make up Living, Thinking, Looking are a charming yet challenging reflection of Hustvedt’s mental investigations. Although her collection might not be cited in the next Nature paper, she successfully navigates uncharted territories of human nature and the brain by blending science with her background as a writer, essayist and poet. Her outsider status relative to the brain sciences is a welcome and refreshing perspective as well. As cognitive science becomes more and more cerebral, Hustvedt’s angle reminds us that understanding the brain requires an understanding of how it relates to the body and the environment – we aren’t, after all, walking computers.

Siri was kind enough to field some of my questions.

Sam: Could you describe, in a few sentences, your creative process?

Siri: A banal description of my creative process goes like this: I begin writing early in the morning, before seven if possible, but I should have at least seven hours of sleep behind me. My morning mind is most nimble. Tension is an enemy. Relaxation and openness a friend. I continue into the early afternoon when my sentences begin to droop and my prose slows. After I finish writing, I try to read for three to four hours in the afternoon. Steady reading seems to feed steady writing. The more mysterious aspects of writing are more difficult to describe. For example, why do sentences sometimes appear to arrive from nowhere fully formed and perfect, as if they have been dictated by another person and were merely inscribed by me? Why do I have an awareness that a character or event in a novel is somehow unrealized and must be changed? The question is: what is it that allows a writer to write almost unconsciously and to "know" when something in a work of fiction is "wrong" (when theoretically everything is possible)? In order to explain this, it is necessary to think hard about the mental-bodily processes at work in creative work of all kinds.

Sam: How does cognitive science inform your writing exactly?

Siri: I understand that you are using the term cognitive science in a broad sense, but I would say that my interests are most accurately described as clustered--in cognitive psychology and neurobiology, psychiatry, neurology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. There are cognitive scientists who have no knowledge of neuroscience. They design research to answer questions about human cognition and compile data, but don't worry about synapses and neurochemicals. And there are neurobiologists who work exclusively on one kind of neuron with little regard for wider systems. Science is a world of specialties. My strong feeling is that so-called cognitive functions cannot be so neatly separated from affective and motor-sensory functions. This is not to say that calculating a math question partakes of the same processes as watching a sentimental movie, but rather that all activities have an emotional tone, which has often been eliminated in the studies of cognition. It seems to me the isolation of "cognition" from other processes in human beings has resulted in a distortion of the brain-mind because it lopsidedly favors the computational.

Anyway, while I write fiction I am not thinking about my cognitive-motor-sensory-affective abilities. They are there in me, and I use them. What am I drawing on? Without question, I am using subliminal material that has been accumulated over many, many years--the thousands of books, conversations, and experiences which are part of me but are no longer conscious. The well learned becomes unconscious. The undigested and novel remains conscious. Nevertheless, when I write, some of this underground can be accessed; it comes up. For me, theories of self in neuroscience and phenomenology are part of that underground, and I tap into them when I am writing fiction or non-fiction. 

Sam: What can science learn from a novelist? 

Siri: The novelist's domain is particular experience, the drama of the subjective. It is this aspect of life which is often missing from scientific research which deals with nameless "subjects" and normalized results. The new interest in the neurosciences in the "self" and "subjective" experience must take into account the phenomenology of inner experience, qualia. In this the novel can be useful. Furthermore, the more experience a scientist has with other modes of thought, with art as well as science, the more he or she is able to expand, criticize, and re-think what may be stale models of understanding his or her own work.  

Thanks Siri!

Living, Thinking, Looking

Also check out Siri's previous interview with Big Think here

Arman Zhenikeyev/Shuttershock

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study:
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.