Big Think Interview With Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, and essayist. She is best known for her novels, in which she creates strong, often enigmatic, women characters and excels in telling open-ended stories, while dissecting contemporary urban life and sexual politics. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. In addition to the Arthur C. Clark Award-winning "The Handmaid’s Tale," her novels include "Cat’s Eye," which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, "Alias Grace," which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and "The Blind Assassin," winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. "Oryx and Crake" was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2008. Her most recent novel is "The Year of the Flood."
Question: Does technology scare you?
Margaret Atwood: First of all, The Year of the Flood is about a future in which, due to a man-made virus, to which nobody has any immunity, the human population has dwindled to almost nothing. And of course, in books like this, it can never be really nothing because we have to have somebody in the story we are following. People ask me: "Is this science fiction or what is it?" And I say, well you can think of all science fiction as a great big banner and then you can think of subsets. And the science fiction proper subset involved things that we can’t do right now, such as be in a galaxy far away.
Speculative Fiction involves things that we can do right now, so I would call my book speculative fiction stretched a bit. It’s made from components that we already have, but those are pushed forward into the future and expanded. A lot of my Twitter followers send me strange science stories that they think fit in with my book, and I have to say, there are more and more of them coming along and we do now have the ability to do a man-made virus. And we certainly have the ability to, to change or morph viruses that we already have, that is scary.
Will anyone deploy this? You can’t actually deploy it unless you’re willing to take out your own side. So people doing biological warfare plans, and of course there are some, have to take that into consideration and probably unless you wanted to self-destruct you wouldn’t do that unless you’ve already developed an antidote for yourself.
So the question is, is there going to be anybody both knowledgeable enough and angry enough at the human race to do that? That’s a big question and I am not the only person who has thought that this might be a possibility. Bottom line is we’ve got the tools. Good part is, we’ve had atomic bombs for many decades now and we have not yet blown up the planet with them.
Question: Why does apocalyptic fiction become popular in waves?
Margaret Atwood: Okay, I think there’s two kinds of novels under discussion. One is the "ustopia," which is a combination of utopia and dystopia. Generally they turn out to be pretty much almost the same thing. And the other one is what you call an apocalypse. So one is about controlled societies, the other is about total breakdown. And you’re talking about the total breakdown thing. It seems to be so that they often come at turns of centuries. But they also often come when people have suddenly realized that things may not necessarily go on along the same set of assumptions that they have been going on for the last little while.
So I think what’s kicked off these ones is the realization that global warming is here and is already having consequences, and we’re going to have to either adapt to those consequences, or they’re going to be some pretty horrific social consequences; social and environmental consequences which turn out to be connected at the hip.
Question: Why write speculative fiction?
Margaret Atwood: I grew up with it, so I’ve read "1984" probably three years after it was first published. I read "Brave New World" around that time in my life. I read a book called "Darkness and Noon," which is actually not speculative fiction or science fiction, it’s life in the purges of the Soviet Union, but it read to me very much like that kind of book. And I just... growing up in the '40s, I was still in the golden age of sci-fi, and I just knew it. So I also did some work on it earlier in my life and I guess I always wanted to write a book like that. And the first one that I wrote was called "The Handmaid’s Tale." And I wanted, among other things, to try to solve the problem that those kinds of book have, which I call the tour of the garbage disposal plant, in which the person says to the visiting character, “Well in your day, you did this terribly inefficient thing, but now we have this wonderful garbage disposal plant.” And there’s a lot of exposition like that and I want to be able to tell the story like that without those big chunks of exposition.
So partly it was a challenge, but partly it was also a number of burning issues that have now become even more burning. And it was the same with "Mad Adam Trilogy," which begins with Oryx and Crake and we save the world of the future from within a privileged environment. Our narrator, Jimmy, is of that environment, though not good at it. And in "Year of the Flood," we move outside the privileged part of that society into a pretty criminal level of it which, nonetheless, contains the very high-minded cult of the God’s Gardeners.
And in this future genetic modification is not only the only problem, we are also in an age of advanced climate change, for instance, which will bring with it a whole bunch of other problems that people are just beginning to think about that figure out.
Question: I understand you brought along an artifact inspired by "The Year of the Flood." What is it?
Margaret Atwood: Yes, my artifact is in fact this wonderful hat, which was made last year for a performance of :The Year of the Flood" when we were launching the book. We did performances and had music and dramatic elements and narration.
The God’s Gardeners recycle everything, so we have the hat that is twisted newspaper, it’s cardboard, this is plastic bags and we have the little plastic bag bow at the back. And the Kingston, Ontario, production of this thing, they made all the costumes. And they’ve all got hats like this. Since we’re traveling in Japan and recreating it all there, I’ve got the hat with me.
Question: Why do the God’s Gardeners shun technology?
Margaret Atwood: Well, in "The Year of the Flood," the Gardeners, a green recycling group, don’t use any technology. That’s their story. And the reason they don’t use it is that if you can see it, it can see you. It’s very leaky in that way. And one thing that people are using this kind of technology for is spying on other people. So security is a big issue. If you don’t want other people to read your emails, don’t send them. Number one.
Question: Why does Twitter appeal to you?
Margaret Atwood: Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon because you get all kinds of things going on and it’s not just one thing. You have people writing Haiku on it. You have people yelling at other people and they probably should realize that Twittering is publishing. And you can end up with a libel suit on their hands. That hasn’t quite sunk in, in some areas, but it’s true; so is blogging.
So people are interacting in these unprecedented sorts of ways that were not possible before the invention of social media like this. And we’re in the early stages of it. The good sides of it are, for instance, if you want the answers to a question and you put it out there, you’ll get the answers. Some of them may be wrong, but you’ll get a whole bunch of answers and then you can then sift through them and see which ones fit your question.
If you want help with something, and people often send out cries for help for their various causes over Twitter, it works with that too. So there are all kinds of good uses for it and everything has a dark side; there are bad uses for it too. It doesn’t depend on the technology, it depends on the users, but the technology does facilitate a kind of instant communication that can just go viral and become a new story.
So Twitter is now part of the news. Twitter is not part of people making news. And all of the news outlets have got their blogs and online versions and Twitter feeds.
Question: What makes for a good tweet?
Margaret Atwood: There’s all kinds of good tweets. Some of them are just people replying to other people’s questions. Sometimes you get a joke going. For instance during the Canadian Olympics, the Canadians were saying, “own the podium,” and I put out something that said, “Oh, it’s a brash to say... it’s a bit un-Canadian, it’s a bit brash to say, 'own the podium,' what do you suggest?” And the Twitter folks piled all these pretty hilarious suggestions that they could follow by a hash tag that said, '@podium.' So they were saying things like, “A podium for me meant the podium, “Maybe squeeze over a bit so I can just snuggle up to the podium.” So they went on like that for a while. And right now, we seem to be proposing a turnip for the Prime Minister due to a remark made in an article saying, “I would vote for a turnip if it were transparent, accountable, listened to people, and wasn’t Parliamentary Democrat.” So the turnip is now under some pressure to become a write-in candidate or possibly form its own party. But being a vegetable, it’s taking a bit of time to think this over.
Meanwhile, we are learning a bit about it, this turnip, its likes and dislikes. And it did go to a publishing lunch today to discuss its book deal.
He’s not usually this spiffy-looking. He put on his special New York outfit to go to the publishing lunch. You can see it looks a bit like a cabbage, but that’s what’s in this season for turnips. And he did have a nice lunch and I think he’s going to my reading and interview tonight at the the 92nd Street Y and I think he’ll be in Portland, Oregon talking to Ursula Le Guin, and I think he’s going to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he hopes to meet with Stephen King. I shouldn’t say "he" because he doesn’t actually have a gender. I should say, "it." He's an all round candidate.
Question: What do you make of the need to perform one’s life on Twitter and Facebook?
Margaret Atwood: Well it is just an extension of the diary. And there is a wonderful book called, "The Assassin’s Cloak," which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year. So you can turn to January the 1st and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno. And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.
People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries, and also through letters to other people. So for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way. So, it’s all human communication. And the form that most closely resembles the “tweet” is the telegram of old, which also was limited because you paid by the letter. And so short communications very rapidly sent.
So all of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they’re all improvements, if you like, or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form. Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances. They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out and communications could just go like wildfire using that medium of communications.
So all of this stuff is what we do now, but it’s not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives. We’ve been doing that for a long time.
Question: But it’s no longer just about sending a message; it’s about being seen sending a message, right?
Margaret Atwood: It’s very interesting. Once upon a time in social lives, say before the 19th century, people coded themselves or were coded by the authorities according to their clothing. Unless they differentiated themselves that way or they were differentiated, people were forbidden to wear this or that or the other things and they had to wear this or that or the other thing. And therefore, it was a visual performance for the benefit of anybody looking at them.
And we have reduced clothing, I think, to a much more horizon... it’s much more horizontal. You can’t tell by looking at somebody what level of society they come from unless it’s really at the bottom or really at the top. The kind of jeans and... the jeans outfit is pretty ubiquitous.
So maybe we feel the need to perform ourselves in some other way. And if you think that what goes up on people’s blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you’re quite wrong. It’s what they’re doing in the spotlight. It’s their turn. And this spotlight they can shine it on themselves and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves. Of course it’s not the whole story.
Question: How do you begin working on a new book?
Margaret Atwood: Okay, where does a book come from? People have been thinking about that for a long time. How do you begin? How do you get into it? I would say that if you’re not finding this happens somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity. I mean, a lot of people say, “I want to be a writer.” And you say, “Well, what do you want to write?” And they say, “I don’t know.”
So for me, I think it’s not a question of sitting around wondering what I’m going to write. It’s a question of sitting around wondering which of the far-fetched and absurd ideas I’m going to try to tackle. Sometimes, I think I should be a lot safer and less risk-taking and stick to somebody, or something, a little bit more manageable.
But those aren’t the things that appeal to me, unfortunately. I wish I had a formula, I wish I had a way of preceding that would be kind of, you know, this is what Chapter One is always like, and this is what Chapter Two is always like. But it isn’t. I just have to plunge into it. And it’s usually the one... that the voice of sanity and reason is telling me not to write. It’s usually that one that I end up writing.
Question: What is your writing process?
Margaret Atwood: My absolute opening entry is always a handheld object with a point on one end. So it’s going to be either a pencil or a pen. And then it is applied to a flat substance of some kind, which is usually a piece of paper, but could be a piece of cardboard if one’s stuck without the paper. Or even my arm when things get really bad.
I think that people should carry notebooks with them at all times just for those moments because there’s nothing worse than having that moment and finding that you’re unable to set it down except with a knife on your leg or something. You actually don’t want to do that. So I recommend the paper and the pencil. Or if you must, some other stylus writing device that provides a permanent record of what you just set down.
When we get a bit further into it, I have to say that I do love the sticky notes. I like them. I like the bedside notebook for those thoughts that are so important at about 12:00 midnight when you wake up in the morning and can’t figure out why you thought that. So all of that goes on.
And then, do you know what a rolling barrage is? A rolling barrage comes from World War I and it’s when you run forward and then crouch down and your side fires over your head. Then you stand up, run forward and your side fires over your head again. If you get the timing wrong, of course, it’s unfortunate.
So, I start typing on a computer now. Computers were very helpful for me because I was always a bad typist and a bad speller. I start typing up my handwritten text while I’m still writing it at the back. So the rolling barrage of typing goes on while the writing creeps forward along the ground, if you will.
Question: How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
Margaret Atwood: First of all, there is no normal time that it takes me to write a novel. It very much depends on the length of the novel and how well or badly it’s going. And some of them have taken quite a long time because I have started off on the wrong foot, I have gotten quite far down the path and realized I have to change everything, go back to the beginning, start again, and that can happens several times. So that, of course, takes up time.
Some of them are quite quick because you’ve started off the right way and you can just roll with it. I don’t know if you’ve every done any white water canoeing, or surfing. But that can be an exhilarating experience, and that’s when the wave is going with you. With white water canoeing, you actually want to go faster than the water and with surfing; you want to go with it. So when that happens, it’s really terrific. But when that doesn’t happen, it could be very frustrating and could take up a lot of time.
Question: Are you a surfer?
Margaret Atwood: Am I a surfer? Not anymore dear. Not anymore. I would break my neck.
Question: What is the hardest part about writing fiction?
Margaret Atwood: The hardest part about writing fiction is the part that you know that you have to put in that is expository. You know, you have to get... it’s like the parts in a stage play where you have to get the characters on and off the stage. So you have to think of some reason why they’re now going to walk off the stage. And then you have to make sure that the timing is right to enable them to get off the stage. So the parts of the novel are the parts when you know there’s stuff the reader has to know, but it’s not very interesting stuff for you to write. Those are the parts that I don’t like and if you’re competent enough, they won’t be able to tell which those parts are, we hope. We’re always hoping. We’re always hoping that the hard parts won’t be found out, if you like.
The other hard part, of course, is when you’ve written a spectacular passage with all kinds of wonderful worlds in it and it’s just great, but it doesn’t fit and you have to take it out. Too bad.
Question: Do you write poetry as well as to prose because one is better suited for exploring certain topics than the other?
Margaret Atwood: I write both because nobody every told me not to do it. Whereas I understand for people who go to creative writing schools and things they’re told they really should specialize in one or the other, but since I never did that, I’m too old to have done that, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be writing whatever I felt like writing.
That said, I think it is partly a matter of wavelengths. That is, in a poem, everything is very condensed so the waves are very short. The things that are being rhythmically connected are quite close together. In a short story, they’re a bit further apart, and in a novel, the waves can be like that, and something that you set up on page 100 and reprise on page 200 may not actually culminate until page 300. So it’s different from line four reprising line one and then connecting with line eight. Poems are very condensed, lyric poems. If you’re writing a long narrative poem, that’s different. It’s more like a novel.
So that’s about all I can tell you about that except that the structure is different because of length. And obviously in a novel you have a lot more time. In fact, novels are about time. Whereas lyric poems are not necessarily about time; novels are always about time. You have a lot more time to develop people’s characters and take them through changes. Novels are about change.
Question: What is Canadian humor like?
Margaret Atwood: Whenever you see something about Canada mentioned in a U.S. show, there’s bound to be a Canadian involved with it who is making some sort of Canadian joke. And there are quite a few Canadian jokes which are instantly understandable to Canadians and sometimes baffling to other people. Running a turnip for Prime Minister would probably be considered unbecoming levity in many countries. They would never do it, whereas Canadians have a reprehensible habit of making fun of just about everything.
Question: What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Canadians?
Margaret Atwood: That it's always cold. Let me see, what else might they have... you tell me. You tell me. I’ll tell you a Canadian joke and see if you get it.
So it’s not my joke, it’s a joke by somebody called Nancy White who said, “What does a Canadian girl say when you ask her if she’d like some sex?” She says, “Only if you’re having some yourself.”
So one of the Canadian jokes is that Canadians have this ultra-politeness, which is not always true.
Question: How are eBooks changing the way we consume books and media?
Margaret Atwood: Well eBooks are another method of text delivery. And I did run a... I ran a blog on this subject sometime ago and it was called "Three Reasons for Keeping Paper Books." And the three reasons were: solar flares which would wipe out communications, towers, and also any electronic media that you might happen to have stored. Grid overload resulting in brown-outs which would have similar effects. And internet overload. Unless people are going to build the grid out more, going to build the net out more, There’s pretty soon not going to have much space on it because of all the spam and porn to the percentage of 95, I’m told. So it’s very crowded out there.
So building out the net, building out the grid and what are you going to do about the solar flares. Well I guess a lead-lined box is about the best you can do. All of these things point out the fact that electronic storage is pretty fragile. If you want to keep something permanently, you should probably keep it in paper form and that is why an e-version of your Will is not acceptable. Another reason is it’s very hackable and forgeable. As I said, the net is leaky. And a number of other legal documents, which of course drives people crazy because those paper things take up so much room. So it’s a problem facing businesses, what to do with the paper? What is the alternative to paper? When can you use e-storage, etc.? It’s also a problem for people, for instance, with small apartments who like to read, where are they going to put all the books?
The e-reader gives you portability, it gives you instant accessibility and it gives you the possibility of having whole bunch of books with you at once on this little device. So for that, it’s very, very handy. Those are the pluses.
I personally think it’s going to increase reading because you can acquire a book very quickly. You don’t have to wait, you can just push the button and it’s there. If you really like it and want to keep it, you may then go get a paper version. It does remove the element of serendipity, by which I mean, you walk into a bookstore with the idea of getting this book and you see three or four other books that you really feel you must have, but you wouldn’t have known about them unless you run into the store. So how to create in an e-version that experience of serendipity. It’s really hard.
So people are thinking about this a lot the other virtue of the e-reader may be that it’s helpful for kids who are having reading problems because they an isolate blocks of text and make the letters bigger. So it makes it more visible. They can see it better, maybe. I don’t think they’ve done the studies on that yet, but it’s being talked about.
Question: What is happening in the brain when we read?
Margaret Atwood: The neurology of reading is another thing that people are writing about and investigating a lot. That is, what is happening in your brain when you read? It turns out because I know a friend who had this kind of stroke that you can have a kind of stroke that makes it possible for you to write, you can still write, but you can’t read what you’ve just written. So reading and writing you would think would be in the same little box in the brain, but they’re not.
Anything that we do is built on a pre-existing brain platform or program which is then adapted for other uses. So language is pretty old and it’s also built-in. So children arrive in the world and then they pick up language just by being around other people who are talking. Nobody sits down and teaches them.
Reading, on the other hand, you will not pick up unless somebody spend some time with you, and writing is even... writing by hand is apparently even harder. So what are the platforms that these things are built on, and it has been proposed that reading is built on very ancient program that had to do with reading animal tracks. So what you’re doing is you’re looking for visual signs made by somebody else and you are interpreting those back into a story that originally, of course, allowed you to track the animal or to figure out if the animal was tracking you. Equally important. You were able to tell what was around in your vicinity by reading those tracks.
So what are those marks we make? What are those marks on a sheet of paper, piece of stone, clay tablet? They’re like animal tracks in that we look at them; we translate them back into something which is language. And that language can be put together in our brains to tell a story, create a poem, whatever the writing may have been.
As for the writing, those are the tracks we make. So that’s probably based on some sort of display or marking program. And that too is pretty old. And if you go back to cave paintings, those – the hand prints on the cave, drawings on the cave, the markings, the pieces of stone or bone that they’ve now found with rhythmic scratches on them. They’re all forms of signaling, so it took awhile for that to become what we now know as alphabets or language systems, but it probably all had its origins in that form of marking. And somebody has a theory that all of the alphabets are taken from natural... that they had their origins in natural signs, pictographs depicting natural things.
Question: Why do we need to tell stories?
Margaret Atwood: Language is one of the most primary facts of our existence. It’s something that you say, what is human? Well many animals have methods of communicating with one another but none of them have our kind of extremely elaborate grammar. So it is... it’s right dead, smack in the center of what it is to be human, the ability to tell a story.
There is another theory that has it that the narrative art is an evolved adaptation on which we got in the Pliestocine because those who had it had a much greater edge. They had a much greater survival edge on those that did not have it. If I can tell you that right over there in that river was where the crocodile ate Uncle George, you do not have to test that in your own life by going over there and getting eaten by the crocodile. And I can tell you all sorts of other things that are very useful to you for survival in your world if I can tell you a story. And we know that people learn and assimilate information much more through stories than they do through charts and graphs and statistics. You might want to back up those things with the math. But what really hits people is the story because it’s not an intellectual thing and it’s not just a scream. It’s not pure emotion; it’s a melding of those two things, which is where we exist as human beings.
We’re not thought machines, we’re not screaming machines, we are thought/feeling machines, if we’re machines at all, let's pretend we’re not. We are thought/feeling entities. In fact, some people who have done studies on it say that if you remove the emotion from the person through some accident, they have a lot of trouble making decisions because they try to reason everything out and you actually can’t. It’s endless.
Question: Do new publishing tools like Twitter mean that anyone can be a writer?
Margaret Atwood: A lot of people sing in the bathtub. It sounds really good. There's good acoustics in there. But they’re not singers. By that, I don’t mean they can’t or don’t sing. I mean that it’s not their profession to sing. People do not pay them to stand on a stage and make noises come out of their mouth. So, it’s partly... it’s partly a difference of job. We love those moments in amateur night shows, which have now become so big, like “American Idol” and “Does Britain Have Talent,” et cetera. We just love that moment when the person steps forward who has been a garage mechanic, or something, and bursts into prize-winning opera. We just love it. It sort of chokes you up. Because I think it appeals to our human-ness. This is something we all might possibly do, even if we do have some other job that we don’t like very much. And people say that ordinary people aren’t interested in the arts are just dead wrong. Everybody kind of is and they all do something in their life. It’s like that, even if it’s woodworking in the cellar and knitting their own special knit patterns. They’re doing something creative because we are a very creative species.
The difference between everybody doing it, no matter what their day job may be and the people who are professionals is that the people who are professionals have somehow been able to cross that threshold to the place where they have an informed audience and where they can scratch a living out of it in some way.
So I think that’s partly it, and in order to do that, you have to be probably pretty dedicated. That is, you have to put the work in it... you have to put the practice in. So as I say to people, you can’t just sit down at the piano and be a concert pianist. There’s the part where you have to practice. And there’s the drudgery, there’s the work, there’s the hours.
I think it’s Malcolm Gladwell that has a theory about how may hours you have to put in to get really good at something. And that is why I will never, ever be a star ballet dancer. However much I may like to leap about, I am not that person because I did not start when I was 12, or whatever it was, and put in the practice.
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the author.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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