Illusion Chasers

Illusion Chasers

Illusions, Delusions, and Everyday Deceptions

Neuroscience in Fiction: Anathem , by Neal Stephenson


“Avout: (1) A person who has sworn a vow to submit himself or herself to the Cartasian Discipline for one or more years; a fraa or suur. (2) A plurality of such persons. (3) A formally constituted community of such persons, e.g., a chapter or a math. —THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000”

Stephenson, Neal (2008-08-26). Anathem (p. 85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Last weekend I had the chance to meet Neal Stephenson, my favorite writer. I was thrilled, and if you missed the interview you can check it out on Monday’s Illusion Chasers blog post. I’ve read each and every one of Stephenson’s books. All of them are consistently and completely novel in their focus and scope, supremely well written, and as Stephenson himself might put it, great yarns.

I’ve gone back and forth about reviewing Anathem or Cryptonomicon (my two personal favorites), and finally chose Anathem because of its relevance to a discussion of the neural underpinnings of consciousness.

On the planet Orth, science and the acquisition of knowledge is the responsibility of the Avout, a monk-like intelligentsia recruited at a young age to live a cloistered existence in walled concents (not misspelled), immersed in the joys of science and philosophy. Outside these walls, cities and governments rise and fall, but two-way communication between the inside and outside of the concents occurs only at specified times every few decades, in a celebration called the Apert.

This time, however, the Apert is different. Fraa Erasmus is thrust into an adventure beyond anybody’s wildest dreams when his mentor and father figure, Fraa Orolo, an astronomer, makes an astonishing discovery and is suddenly ejected from the order. Orolo has discovered a ship approaching the planet. A ship that means they are not alone in the multiverse. A ship that changes everything.

By dleithinger ; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 06:50, 11 February 2010

I love the fact that Stephenson unapologetically forces the reader to learn a new language that is close to, but not quite the same as, English. This in and of itself is an important clue to what is going on throughout the story.

In the end, the central thrust of the opus rests on the concept that consciousness is a function of quantum processing in neurons. An idea originated by Roger Penrose to link the fact that quantum theory was weird and mysterious, and so was consciousness. Since Penrose’s proposal, neurophysiologists like me have looked at the problem and generally agreed that the quantum mechanics is not necessary to explain consciousness, beyond known physiological processes. Another problem, as Stephenson pointed out in our interview, is that the brain is too wet and too warm for stable quantum processing (it could only work in temperatures near absolute zero). But it is fun to consider what it would mean for the multiverse if evolution had somehow found a way to make it work in spite of these obstacles.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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