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Siri Hustvedt

Photograph of a dissected brain in a container
  • Interview by Casey Schwartz
  • Issue 6
  • Free Radical

Siri Hustvedt, the author of ten books including the international best seller What I Loved, grew up in Minnesota, where her father was a professor of Norwegian studies. Blonde and willowy, she looks like an Ibsen heroine.

Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year. In her work, she is a dogged investigator of insular worlds. Contemporary art and neuroscience recur throughout her novels and non-fiction. Her memoir The Shaking Woman: or A History of My Nerves (2009) is self-diagnostic, a study of the illness that began with the mysterious, seizure-like symptoms she first experienced on stage at St. Olaf College, delivering a memorial speech in her father’s honor. Hustvedt applied neurological, psychoanalytic, and historical insight to an ambiguous condition that had, in the past, been labeled everything from epilepsy to hysteria to conversion disorder.

I visited her at home, a brownstone in Park Slope, on a languid August evening and we faced each other on a pair of crushed-velvet armchairs, a perfectly psychoanalytic set-up for a free-ranging conversation.

Casey Schwartz

How do you parse recent studies of the brain?

Siri Hustvedt

One study found more interhemispheric connections in women than in men. The conclusion is that women are more nurturing and men are more geared for action. A total reinforcement of the stereotype. I just thought: This is terrible. It’s absurd! I know the guy who edited it. He’s at Princeton. I was having dinner with him and I told him it was one of the worst papers I ever read. It’s stunningly simple-minded. The more you know, the more critical you get. So as with any other discipline, there’s really fine work being done, and there’s really bozo stuff too. Everything in the world is now an excuse to have an fMRI study.

The best people working in neuroscience have some handle on the paradigms—the philosophical positions that they’re taking and why they’re taking them. Thomas Kuhn wrote an essay in the 1960s called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he argues that science is not completely neutral. There is no perfect neutrality. People get a little nervous when I mention Kuhn. Most of the time, science moves along according to a somewhat hidden paradigm. In other words, there are assumptions that are guiding all the work in science and then you inch along on top of that grounding paradigm. Scientific revolutions come about when the paradigms cease to function—for example, when it became clear that Newtonian physics could no longer explain very, very small worlds. Quantum physics is extremely difficult to get your head around, how there are particles and waves at the same time, but it nevertheless became a theoretical model that works. People working in science often lose sight of the fact that what they have is a theoretical model. They don’t have the there there.

I think that it makes more sense to admit that we don’t know how it works. Nobody knows how consciousness comes into being — whether it’s an emergent phenomenon, whether it’s just a reductive physicalism that nobody can figure out. Daniel Dennett and other very computationally oriented people — nobody knows! You apply a theoretical model to a problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve solved the whole problem. Sometimes models fail. The computational theory of mind has run into some serious problems.

Like what?

ike the fact that the brain is probably not like a computer. Even a very highly refined computer that doesn’t exist yet.

There’s the problem of emotions.

There’s a big problem with emotions. Because again, if you want to fit it into a computational model, then emotions have to be purely about appraisals of the environment, and we know for a fact that that’s not the case. People have all kinds of irrational emotions. People who have agoraphobia who know that it’s irrational to want not to leave the house, but the fear is so overwhelming. Behaviorists will take it too far. John Watson, the great behaviorist of the twentieth century, argued that people don’t even have mental images. The idea of mental images didn’t fit into the schema, so he just threw them out. Deforming the facts to fit your model is not a search for truth. Apparently, there are a few people in the world who do not have mental images. It is possible that Watson was one of those people.

You can’t have a full picture of human existence if you don’t take into account subjective personal reality. Stories, feelings, love, all of that. How does one explain the placebo effect? We know that when people get a sugar pill but they think they’re going to get better, that there are endogenous opioids released in the brain. How does the thought alter the physiology?

The Shaking Woman suggests your interest in the brain began very early in your life, but you had no scientific training. What is your approach to mastering all this material?

I had always been interested in psychiatry and in what we still call “mental life.” I’d been reading about it for years, and then I met the neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms, who invited me to a discussion group. Every month there was a meeting at the hospital on 68th Street, what used to be New York Hospital, and the conversation was extremely interesting. I knew a lot about psychoanalysis and something about the brain, but we had to prepare by reading a number of papers each week. For the first year I just listened and said very little. I had to just learn it. Everyone uses short forms, and I remember walking out the door puzzling over “CNS” until it hit me—central nervous system! I still have to look things up.

Especially as different brain regions become fashionable—it seems the spotlight shifts every year.

Absolutely. Not to mention the neurochemical findings, and hormones too. Remember the serotonin craze? People become attached to the parts of the brain that they happen to be studying. That’s the nature of specialization.

What do you hope that a reader of yours might come to understand about the current state of brain research?

I’m profoundly interested in the fact that probably no single model of any kind in any discipline is complex enough to enfold the complexity of human reality. I have this idea that in a way, if we use multiple models what we’ll come up with is not a single answer, but what we’ll come up with is what I think of as “focused zones of ambiguity.”

Do you find that being a step removed from the research lets you look at it differently? And do you ever feel intimidated by the material?

Not intimidated, no. I’m not knee-deep in research and I don’t need funding. I’m not afraid of power relations and how that’s established in working science. That’s big a thing, in every world but in science particularly. We have to recognize that for better and sometimes for worse, scientists feel that they are the bearers of the truth of the culture. This makes them, I think, more rather than less generous. If some novelist comes along and actually knows about neuroscience, it’s kind of exciting. And it’s relatively unthreatening, because I’m not competing with them for money, for grants. Whereas psychoanalysts feel pushed to the side and marginalized and that creates a defensive response, because they no longer own the world. The whole point of my giving talks is that I bring another perspective, so that there’s a kind of synthetic way of thinking about these things. No one’s telling me what to read, I’ll just read whatever I want. I’ll follow my nose—that is intellectual luxury.

Harriet, from The Blazing World, has so much at her fingertips, a command of so many different disciplines. Was it a challenge to capture and orient this intellectual flexibility?

I decided that I was going to give this woman just a lot of thoughts. She’s a real firebrand. What we divorce through specialization is of course not really divorced. Neurology and psychiatry—what a false border that is. Neurologists are quite defensive about it. Even if there are any number of neurological illnesses where you cannot always see that there’s anything wrong—epilepsy for example—if it’s conversion, send it down the hall to the psychiatrist, they don’t want to touch it. And of course most conversion patients, or hysterics, first show up in neurology offices.

You write about this in The Shaking Woman. Have you had those seizures since?

I have propranolol which kind of tamps it down. So whenever I do public speaking I always take it. Once, I felt that if I hadn’t taken the propranolol, I would have broken out, so to speak. I have no doubt there are emotional triggers, but of course there are emotional triggers for epileptic seizures too. It’s mixed up and murky.

In Sorrows of an American, you write that you might have been a psychoanalyst.

Yes. I thought briefly about this after I got my Ph.D. At that time, of course the only place that I was really interested in was the New York Psychoanalytic. And I think that at that time, they took maybe two non-M.D.’s a year. And, it may still be true, they want those two non-M.D.s to have a Ph.D. in psychology. I tend to think people in literature have better psychoanalytic backgrounds usually than people in psychology. The training is very long and I didn’t have the money to do it at the time. Later, a lot of people said to me that I should still do it. I toyed with the idea. Then I realized I didn’t want to be a psychoanalyst—I wanted psychoanalysis!

Did you get it?

Yeah! It’s been five years.

Has it had an effect on your creativity?

I think that neurosis—I’m not sicker than that, I’m just neurotic—gets in the way of creativity. Psychoanalysis is a form of liberation in that it opens people up. There’s always this concern that if people go into analysis, they will lose their creativity, that their madness is a part of creativity. It’s an old romantic idea. I think this is simply not true. . . it’s an absolute liberation.

What about the process has surprised you the most?

That it works.

Casey Schwartz is the author of a book, forthcoming from Knopf, about the efforts to bring Freudian thinking into the modern age of brain research. Formerly, she was a staff writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast.