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Andrea Jones: Brainwave on Brainwaves

May 9, 2012

When writer Rivka Galchen and neuroscientist David Linden get together, the boundaries of science, emotion, and memory blur.

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Image from Flickr via Ben Beiske

By Andrea Jones

The phrase “dopplerganger effect,” according to novelist Rivka Galchen, describes the desolate feeling produced by the gradual expansion of the universe and the replacement of a loved one with a perfect but inadequate replica. This is the situation in which Dr. Leo Liebenstein finds himself in Galchen’s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (excerpted by Guernica in November 2007), when a “simulacrum” returns home one evening instead of his beloved wife, Rema. His quest to retrieve her takes him through meteorological theory, to the southernmost tip of Argentina, and into his own memory.

Memory was this year’s theme of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, which explored the enduring mysteries of our minds through dialogue between some of the brightest—neuroscientists, philosophers, educators, and artists whose work informs from diverse perspectives. When neuroscience professor David Linden joined Galchen in conversation, he began with an aspect of Atmospheric Disturbances that he found particularly resonant: the poetry she summoned from scientific language. In a field (like his) concerned with objective answers, expressions such as “Doppler effect,” “completion error,” and “initial value problem” carry precise meaning; in Galchen’s novel, they are evocative, open to interpretation, perhaps even profound.

Growing up, Galchen was familiar with the appeal of deferring to the authority of technical terminology—her father was a meteorology professor and her mother a programmer at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. But your guard drops, she explained, when you believe you’re considering something objective and true: the light you cast on a question can be colored by fears or desires, and when it reflects back poetically, you’re obliged to catch sight of yourself. When Galchen’s protagonist, Leo, turns to meteorological phenomena to explain his wife’s disappearance, his misinterpretation of terms and theories reveals something about what he seeks.

For Galchen, the project of memory excavation began with her father, who died abruptly when she was eighteen.

Taking up the topic of memory, Linden asked whether the act of recollection is intrinsically emotional. He explores this question in his book, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, beginning with the false distinction between perception and emotion. Linden views the pervasive belief in our senses as “trustworthy and independent reporters” providing us with a “direct, unadorned view of the external world” as misguided. To illustrate this, he describes Capgras syndrome, a rare disorder in which the afflicted are convinced that their loved ones are doubles, impersonators. The ability of Capgras patients to independently identify faces and respond emotionally to other sensory stimuli suggests that a defect in the information transfer between visual perception and emotional processing provokes the delusion. In Atmospheric Disturbances, Galchen alludes to that familiar sense you get when the one you love walks into a room. For Capgras sufferers, partners and family members fail to evoke that distinctive emotional response, thus despite appearances, they are regarded as strangers.

Emotion affects how we perceive, and also how we remember. According to Linden, feelings of elation, despair, hope, and rage function as important instruments in cataloguing our memories, marking those meaningful enough to guide future behavior. Nostalgia is a cross-cultural phenomenon, he told the audience, because “emotion is the currency for salience.” If emotion “highlights” memory, Galchen suggested, then writers do the reverse: trace backwards those memories that seem emotionally significant because “it’s like an archeological dig, and you can pull up this pottery shard.”

For Galchen, the project of memory excavation began with her father, who died abruptly when she was eighteen. His meteorological research informs her novel, and his name is given to the character, Tzvi Gal-Chen, who Leo believes holds the clues he needs to locate his wife. Tsvi Gal-Chen’s work involves completing single-Doppler radar images, a process susceptible to “completion error.” Leo interprets this term as applicable to how we handle incomplete perception, tending to fill in gaps based on fears and desires. “We focus fuzzy images by transforming them into what we expect to see, or what we wish we could see, or what we most dread to see.” Following her father’s death, Galchen explained, she would see him in distant figures or anticipate his voice on the phone. Leo does the same, recognizing his wife in strange women like the “Rema-waisted waitress.”

[R]ecollecting past experiences—reliving them again and again or retelling them to others—subtly modifies the memories we keep.

Leo’s pursuit of Rema takes him to Argentina, where memories of the past—of those “disappeared” during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 1980s—live on in the present. He expresses discomfort at the photo memorials published in local papers, commenting that “mysteries that can’t be solved should be passed over in silence,” while justifying his determined search for his own lost love by the presence of hope. Leo doesn’t seem to grasp the distinctive character of the human rights abuses in Argentina, how disappearance instead of confirmed death can painfully preserve the flame of hope. How the absence of a body inhibits the grieving process, erasing a person from both life and death. Following Rema to her country of origin, Leo finds himself in a landscape of dynamic, ever-changing memory.

As Linden explains in his book, “memory retrieval is an active and dynamic process.” Thus recollecting past experiences—reliving them again and again or retelling them to others—subtly modifies the memories we keep. This allows for coherent narrative and the relevance of the past in the present, but can lead to error. Leo reminisces about a fixed and “fiercely loveable” Rema, with her “dyed cornsilk blonde hair,” her “cut grass” smell, and the telltale “halos around the vowels” of her Argentine accent. Wading through these memories, however, he grows agitated, using the term “initial value problem” to express the concern that perhaps he never really knew her at all.

Or perhaps he’s simply searching for something that no longer exists: the original Rema as he first met her and how he felt when he did. When her unremarkable act of returning home after work fails to stir him, he arms himself with the tools of science in search of an objective truth, deluded in an effort to distract. Perhaps Rema is swept up in a meteorological maelstrom, perhaps Leo suffers some variation of Capgras syndrome, or perhaps, after many years of marriage, something is lost in the passing of time. As Galchen told the audience, “there’s all sorts of evidence that it must be her and … there’s a very simple, boring explanation, that he’s fallen out of love with her. But that’s a boring explanation, it’s humiliating, it’s something that happens to ordinary people.”

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