Virginia Woolf - Proust Was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer

Proust Was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer (2007)

Chapter 8. Virginia Woolf

The Emergent Self

Psychology which explains everything explains nothing.

—Marianne Moore

IN 1920, AFTER WRITING two novels with a conventional Victorian narrator (the kind that, like an omniscient God, views everything from above), Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: "I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel." Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the "flight of the mind" as it unfolded in time. "Only thoughts and feelings," Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, "no cups and tables."

This modernist style was a radical shift in perspective. The eminent novelists of her time—"Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy"—ignored the mind's interiors. "They have looked," Woolf wrote, "at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature? Woolf wanted to invert this hierarchy. "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day," she wrote in her essay "Modern Fiction." "Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?"

But the mind is not an easy thing to express. When Woolf looked inside herself, what she found was a consciousness that never stood still. Her thoughts flowed in a turbulent current, and every moment ushered in a new wave of sensation. Unlike the "old-fashioned novelists," who treated the mind as a static thing, Woolf described the mind as neither solid nor certain. Instead, it "was very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun." At any given moment, she seemed to be scattered in a million little pieces. Her brain was barely bound together.

And yet, it was bound together. Her mind was made of fragments, but it never came undone. She knew that something kept us from disintegrating, at least most of the time. "I press to my centre," Woolf wrote in her diary, "and there is something there."

Woolf's art searched for whatever held us together. What she found was the self, "the essential thing." Although the brain is just a loom of electric neurons, Woolf realized that the self makes us whole. It is the fragile source of our identity, the author of our consciousness. If the self didn't exist, then we wouldn't exist. "One must have a whole in one's mind," Woolf said, "fragments are unendurable."

But if the mind is so evanescent, then how does the self arise? Why do we feel like more than just a collection of disconnected thoughts? Woolf's revelation was that we emerge from our own fleeting interpretations of the world. Whenever we sense something, we naturally invent a subject for our sensation, a perceiver for our perception. The self is simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experiences. As Woolf wrote in her unfinished memoir, "We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

At the time, this was a surreal idea. Scientists were busy embracing the power of materialism. Anatomy promised to explain everything. (As James Joyce noted, "The modern spirit is vivisective.") The self was just another trick of matter, which time and experiments would discover. But Woolf knew that the self was too profound to be found. In her modernist novels, she wanted to expose our ineffability, to show us that we are "like a butterfly's wing ... clamped together with bolts of iron." If the mind is a machine, then the self is its ghost. It is what cannot be seen.


Portrait photograph of Virginia Woolf, by George Charles Beresford, 1902

Almost a century later, the self remains elusive. Neuroscience has ransacked the brain and dissected the cortex, but it has not found our source. Although experiments have confirmed many of Woolf's startling insights—the mind is made of fragments, and yet these fragments are bound into being—our mystery persists. If we want to understand ourselves, Woolf's art is our most revealing answer.

The Split Minds of Modernism

Woolf's writing style was deeply rooted in her own experience of the brain: She was mentally ill. All her life, she suffered from periodic nervous breakdowns, those horrible moments when her depression became suffocating. As a result, Woolf lived in fear of her own mind, exquisitely sensitive to its fevered "vibrations." Introspection was her only medicine. "My own psychology interests me," she confessed to her journal. "I intend to keep full notes of my ups and downs for my private information. And thus objectified, the pain and shame become at once much less." When all else failed, she used her sardonic humor to blunt the pain: "I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it's ripe; it will be exquisite by September." And while she complained to E. M. Forster and others about her doctors and their syrups, about the pain and torpor of being forced to lie in bed, she also acknowledged the strange utility of her illness. Her incurable madness—this "whirring of wings in the brain"—was, in some ways, strangely transcendental: "Not that I haven't picked up something from insanities and all the rest. Indeed, I suspect they've done instead of religion."*

Woolf never recovered. Her constant state of reflection, her wariness of hints of the return of her devastating depression, scarred her writing. Nerves was one of her favorite words. Its medical variations—neurosis, neurasthenia, nervous breakdown, neurasthenic—continually entered her prose, their sharp, scientific pang contradicting the suppleness of her characters' internal soliloquies. In Woolf's diary, notes on form were always interwoven with comments on headaches.

But her illness also gave her experimental fictions a purpose, a way "of depositing experience in a shape that fitted it." After each depressive episode, she typically experienced a burst of creativity as she filled her journal with fresh insights into the workings of her own "difficult nervous system." Forced by her doctors to lie in bed, she passed the time by staring at the ceiling and contemplating her own brain. She decided that she had "no single state." "It's odd how being ill," she observed, "splits one up into several different people." At any given moment, she was both mad and lucid, ingenious and insane.

What Woolf learned about the mind from her illness—its quick-silverness, its plurality, its "queer conglomeration of incongruous things"—she transformed into a literary technique. Her novels are about the difficulty of knowing people, of saying that "they were this or were that." "It is no use trying to sum people up," she writes in Jacob's Room. Although the self seems certain, Woolf's writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity. Like Septimus, the prophetic madman whose suicide is the climax of Mrs. Dalloway, we live in danger of coming apart. The mystery of why we do notalways come apart is the animating tension in her art.

"At [the age of] forty," Woolf wrote in her journal in 1922, "I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain." That same year, Woolf began writing Mrs. Dalloway, her literary response to Ulysses. Like Joyce, she set her novel on a weekday in a bustling city. Her main character, Clarissa Dalloway, is neither heroic nor tragic, but simply one of "those infinitely obscure lives that must be recorded." As Woolf liked to remind herself, "Let us not take it for granted that life exists more in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small."

The novel famously begins with Mrs. Dalloway going to buy the flowers herself. The June day will consist mostly of this sort of errand, but Woolf, as always, manages to expose the profound in the quotidian. This is life as it's lived, she says: our epiphanies inseparable from our chores, our poetry intermingled with the prose of ordinary existence. A single day, rendered intensely, can become a vivid window into our psychology.

Woolf uses Mrs. Dalloway to demonstrate the mind's fragility. She interweaves Clarissa's party with the suicide of Septimus Smith, a veteran of the Great War who has become a shell-shocked poet.* Dr. Bradshaw, Septimus's "obscurely evil" doctor, tries to cure his madness by imposing a regimen of "proportion," but the medicine just makes everything worse. Bradshaw's insistence that Septimus's illness was "physical, purely physical" causes the poet to kill himself. His self has fallen apart, and it cannot be put back together.

At her party, Clarissa hears of Septimus's suicide, and she is devastated. Although she had never met Septimus, Clarissa "felt very much like him." Like Septimus, she knows that her own self is frighteningly precarious, lacking "something central which permeated." When Dr. Bradshaw shows up at her party, she suspects him of committing "some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it."

But that is where the parallels end. Unlike Septimus, Clarissa compensates for her fragmentary being. Although she doesn't believe in an immortal soul—Clarissa is a skeptical atheist—she has developed a "transcendental theory" about "the unseen part of us." Doctors like Bradshaw deny the self, but Clarissa doesn't; she knows that her mind contains an "invisible center." As the novel unfolds, this center begins to emerge: "That was her self," thinks Clarissa, as she stares into the mirror. "Pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing room..." The point is that Mrs. Dalloway does draw herself together. She makes herself real, creating a "world of her own wherever she happens to be." This is what we all do every day. We take our scattered thoughts and inconstant sensations and we bind them into something solid. The self invents itself. The last line of the novel affirms Mrs. Dalloway's tenuous presence: "For there she was."


Virginia Woolf's notebook for Mrs. Dalloway, 1925

To the Lighthouse, Woolf's next novel, ventured even deeper into the turbulent mind. Writing the book, Woolf said, was the closest she ever came to undergoing psychoanalysis. After a long summer of illness, the prose just poured out of her, like a confession. The novel itself has little plot. There is almost a trip to the lighthouse, and then it's dinnertime, and then time passes, and then there is atrip to the lighthouse, and then Lily, a painter, finishes her painting. But despite the paucity of events, the novel feels frantic, dense with the process of minds flowing through time. The narrative is constantly being interrupted by thought, by thought about thought, by thought about reality. A fact is stated by someone (in thought or aloud), and then it is contradicted. Often, the same brain contradicts itself.

According to Woolf, this mental disorder is an accurate description of our mental reality. The self emerges from the chaos of consciousness, a "kind of whole made of shivering fragments." In her essay "Modern Fiction"—one of her most potent descriptions of modernist aspirations—Woolf defined her new literary style in psychological terms. "The mind receives a myriad of impressions," Woolf wrote. "From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday ... Letus[the modern novelist] record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness."

To the Lighthouse is full of such falling thoughts. The characters overflow with impermanent impressions and inchoate feelings. This is perhaps most true of Mrs. Ramsay, the mother at the center of the novel. As she thinks of her husband, a philosopher writing an encyclopedia of philosophy that is stuck on the letter Q, her mind is torn in different directions. Mr. Ramsay has just denied their son James a trip to the lighthouse due "to the barometer falling and the wind due west." Mrs. Ramsay thinks her husband is being unfair: "To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people's feelings, to rend this thin veil of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency." But then, one sentence later, Mrs. Ramsay experiences a total reversal in her thoughts: "There was nobody she reverenced as she reverenced him ... She was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions. She was not good enough to be his shoe strings."

For Woolf, Mrs. Ramsay's incoherent feelings are examples of reality honestly transcribed. By taking us inside the frayed minds of her characters, she reveals our own fragility. The self is no single thing and the stream of our consciousness just flows. At any given moment, we are at the whim of feelings we don't understand and sensations we can't control. While Mr. Ramsay believes that "thought is like the keyboard of a piano ... all in order,"Mrs. Ramsay knows that the mind is always "merging and flowing and creating." Like the Hebrides weather, change is its only constant.

Woolf's writing never lets us forget the precariousness of our being. "What does one mean by 'the unity of the mind,'" Woolf wondered in A Room of One's Own, "it [the mind] seems to have no single state of being." She wanted her readers to become aware of "the severances and oppositions in the mind," the way consciousness can "suddenly split off." At the very least, Woolf writes, one must always recognize "the infinite oddity of the human position." Although the self seems everlasting—"as solid as forever"—it lasts only for a moment. We pass "like a cloud on the waves."

This vision of a mercurial mind, a self divided against itself, was one of the central tenets of modernism. Nietzsche said it first: "My hypothesis is the subject as multiplicity," he wrote in a terse summary of his philosophy. "I is another," Rimbaud wrote soon after. William James devoted a large portion of his chapter on the self in The Principles to "mutations of the self," those moments when we become aware of our "other simultaneously existing consciousnesses." Freud agreed, and he shattered the mind into a network of conflicting drives. T. S. Eliot converted this idea into a theory of literature, disowning "the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul." He believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the "unified soul" simply because we didn't have one. "The poet has, not a 'personality' to express," Eliot wrote, "but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality." Like so many modernists, Eliot wanted to pierce our illusions, revealing us not as we want to be, but as we are: just the rubble of being, some random scraps of sensation. Woolf echoed Eliot, writing in her diary that we are "splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes."

Surreal as it seems, the modernists got the brain right. Experiment after experiment has shown that any given experience can endure for about ten seconds in short-term memory. After that, the brain exhausts its capacity for the present tense, and its consciousness must begin anew, with a new stream. As the modernists anticipated, the permanent-seeming self is actually an endless procession of disjointed moments.

Even more disconcerting is the absence of any single location in the brain—a Cartesian theater, so to speak—where these severed moments get reconciled. (What Gertrude Stein said about Oakland is also true of the cortex: "There is no there there.") Instead, the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious. These neurons are distributed all across the brain, and their firing unfolds over time. This means that the mind is not a place: it is a process. As the influential philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, our mind is made up "of multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go." What we call reality is merely the final draft. (Of course, the very next moment requires a whole new manuscript.)

The most direct evidence of our diffuseness comes from the shape of the brain itself. Though the brain is enclosed by a single skull, it is actually made of two separate lumps (the left and right hemispheres), which are designed to disagree with each other. Lily, the heroic painter of To the Lighthouse, got her anatomy exactly right: "Such was the complexity of things ... to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that's what you feel, was one; that's what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now." As Lily notes, every brain is crowded with at least two different minds.

When the neuroscientists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga first stated this idea in 1962, it was greeted with derision and skepticism.* Studies of patients with brain injuries had concluded that the left side of the brain was the conscious side. It was the seat of our soul, the place where everything came together. The other half of the brain—the right hemisphere—was thought to be a mere accessory. Sperry, in his 1981 Nobel lecture, summarized the prevailing view of the right hemisphere when he began studying it: The right hemisphere "was not only mute and agraphic but also dyslexic, word-deaf and apraxic, and lacking generally in higher cognitive function."

Sperry and Gazzaniga disproved this doctrine by investigating human split-brain patients with severed corpora callosa (the corpus callosum is the thin bridge of nervous tissue that connects the brain's left and right hemispheres). Neurologists had studied these patients before and found them essentially normal. (As a result of that finding, surgically dividing the brain became a common treatment for severe epilepsy.) This confirmed the neurologists' suspicion that consciousness only required the left hemisphere.

But Sperry and Gazzaniga decided to look a little closer. The first thing they did when studying split-brain patients was test the abilities of the right hemisphere when it was isolated. To their surprise, the right hemisphere wasn't silent or stupid; instead, it seemed to play an essential role in "abstraction, generalization, and mental association." Contrary to the dogma of the time, one of the brain's halves did not dominate and intimidate the other. In fact, these patients proved that the opposite was true: each lobe had a unique self, a distinct being with its own desires, talents, and sensations. As Sperry wrote, "Everything that we have seen so far indicates that the surgery has left these people with two separate minds, i.e., with two separate spheres of consciousness."

And while the corpus callosum lets each of us believe in his or her singularity, every I is really plural. Split-brain patients are living proof of our many different minds. When the corpus callosum is cut, the multiple selves are suddenly free to be themselves. The brain stops suppressing its internal inconsistencies. One patient reading a book with his left hemisphere found that his right hemisphere, being illiterate, was extremely bored by the letters on the page. The right hemisphere commanded the left hand to throw the book away. Another patient put on his clothes with his left hand while his right hand busily took them off. A different patient had a left hand that was rude to his wife. Only his right hand (and left brain) was in love.

But why are we normally unaware of this cortical conflict? Why does the self feel whole when it is really broken? To answer this question, Sperry and Gazzaniga mischievously flashed different sets of pictures to the right and left eyes of their split-brain patients. For example, they would flash a picture of a chicken claw to a patient's right eye and a picture of a snowy driveway to the left eye. The patient was then shown a variety of images and asked to pick out the image that was most closely associated with what he had seen. In a tragicomic display of indecisiveness, the split-brain patient's two hands pointed to two different objects. The right hand pointed to a chicken (this matched the chicken claw that the left hemisphere had witnessed), while the left hand pointed to a shovel (the right hemisphere wanted to shovel the snow). When the scientists asked the patient to explain his contradictory responses, he immediately generated a plausible story. "Oh, that's easy," he said. "The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Instead of admitting that his brain was hopelessly confused, he wove his confusion into a neat narrative.

Sperry and Gazzaniga's discovery of the divided mind, and the way we instinctively explain away our divisions, had a profound impact on neuroscience. For the first time, science had to confront the idea that consciousness emerged from the murmurings of the whole brain and not from just one of its innumerable parts. According to Sperry, our feeling of unity was a "mental confabulation"; we invented the self in order to ignore our innate contradictions. As Woolf wondered in her essay "Street Haunting," "Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?"


The poignant irony underlying Woolf's fiction is that although she set out to deconstruct the self, to prove that we were nothing but a fleeting "wedge of darkness," she actually discovered the self's stubborn reality. In fact, the more she investigated experience, the more necessary the self became to her. If we know nothing else, it is that we are here, experiencing this. Time passes and sensations come and go. But we remain.

Woolf's characters reflect her fragile faith in the self. In her novels, everything is seen through the subjective prism of an individual. Mr. Ramsay is different than Mrs. Ramsay. While he looks out at the clouded sky and thinks of rain, she wonders if the wind might change. Mrs. Dalloway, for all of her strange congruencies with Septimus, is not Septimus. She doesn't leap out of a window. She throws a party. No matter how modernist Woolf's prose became, the illusory self—that inexplicable essence that makes us ourselves, and not someone else—refused to disappear. "Did I not banish the soul when I began?" Woolf asked herself in her diary. "What happens is, as usual, life breaks in."

In her art, Woolf let life break in. She shows us our fleeting parts, but she also shows us how our parts come together. The secret, Woolf realized, was that the self emerges from its source. Emerge is the crucial word here. While her characters begin as a bundle of random sensations, echoing about the brain's electrical membranes, they instantly swell into something else. This is why, as Erich Auerbach pointed out in Mimesis, Woolf's modernist prose is neither a continuous transcription of the character's self-consciousness (as in Joyce's Ulysses) nor an objective description of events and perceptions (as in a typical nineteenth-century novel). Woolf's revelation was to merge these two polarities. This technique allows her to document consciousness as a process, showing us the full arc of our thought. The impersonal sensation is always ripening into a subjective experience, and that experience is always flowing into the next one. And yet, from this incessant change, the character emerges. Woolf wanted us to see both sides of our being, how we are "a thing that you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses." In her fiction, the self is neither imposed nor disowned. Rather, it simply arises, a vision stolen from the flux.

But how does the self arise? How do we continually emerge from our sensations, from the "scraps, orts and fragments" of which the mind is made?

Woolf realized that the self emerges via the act of attention. We bind together our sensory parts by experiencing them from a particular point of view. During this process, some sensations are ignored, while others are highlighted. The outside world gets thoroughly interpreted. "With what magnificent vitality the atoms of my attention disperse," Woolf observed, "and create a richer, a stronger, a more complicated world in which I am called upon to act my part."

Woolf's finest description of the process of attention comes in the dinner scene of To the Lighthouse, after the boeuf en daube is served. Mrs. Ramsay, the content matriarch, drifts into a reverie, her mind settling in that "still space that lies at the center of things." She has stopped listening to the dinner conversation (they were only talking about "cubes and square roots") and has begun contemplating the bowl of fruit at the center of the table. With a "sudden exhilaration," her mind becomes "like a light stealing under water," piercing through the "the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral." Mrs. Ramsay is now paying attention: the tributaries of her sensation have flowed into the serial stream of consciousness.

Woolf's prose stretches this brief second of brain activity into an extended soliloquy, as her words intimately observe the flow of Mrs. Ramsay's mind. We watch her eyes drift over to the dish of fruit, and follow her gaze as it settles on the purple grapes and then the ripe yellow pear. What began as an unconscious urge—Mrs. Ramsay stares at the fruit "without knowing why"—is now a conscious thought. "No," Mrs. Ramsay thinks to herself, "she did not want a pear."

In this moment of attention, Mrs. Ramsay's mind has remade the world. Her self has imposed itself onto reality and created a conscious experience. "Beneath it is all dark," Mrs. Ramsay thinks. "But now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see..." Now and again, attention binds together our parts, and the self transforms ephemeral sensations into a "moment of being." This is the process unfolding inside Mrs. Ramsay's mind. Everything is evanescent, and yet, for the reader, Mrs. Ramsay always seems real. She never wavers. We never doubt her existence, even when we see the impermanence of her source. "Of such moments," Mrs. Ramsay thinks, "the thing is made that endures."

But how do we endure? How does the self transcend the separateness of its attentive moments? How does a process become us? For Woolf, the answer was simple: the self is an illusion. This was her final view of the self. Although she began by trying to dismantle the stodgy nineteenth-century notion of consciousness, in which the self was treated like a "piece of furniture," she ended up realizing that the self actually existed, if only as a sleight of mind. Just as a novelist creates a narrative, a person creates a sense of being. The self is simply our work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity. In a world made of fragments, the self is our sole "theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen." If it didn't exist, then nothing would exist. We would be a brain full of characters, hopelessly searching for an author.

Modern neuroscience is now confirming the self Woolf believed in. We invent ourselves out of our own sensations. As Woolf anticipated, this process is controlled by the act of attention, which turns our sensory parts into a focused moment of consciousness. The fictional self—a nebulous entity nobody can find—is what binds these separate moments together.

Take the act of looking at a bowl of fruit. Whenever we pay attention to a specific stimulus—like a pear on a dinner table—we increase the sensitivity of our own neurons. These cells can now see what they would otherwise ignore. Sensations that were invisible suddenly become visible, as the lighthouse of attention selectively increases the firing rate of the neurons it illuminates. Once these neurons become excited, they bind themselves together into a temporary "coalition," which enters the stream of consciousness. What's important to note about this data is that attention seems to be operating in a top-down manner (what neuroscience calls "executive control"). The illusory self is causing very real changes in neuronal firing. It's as if the ghost is controlling the machine.

However, if the self does not pay attention, then the perception never becomes conscious. These neurons stop firing, and the sliver of reality they represent ceases to exist. When Mrs. Ramsay tunes out the dinner-table conversation and focuses instead on the fruit, she is literally altering her own cells. In fact, our consciousness seems to require such a discerning self: we only become aware of the sensation after it has been selected. As Woolf put it, the self is "our central oyster of perceptiveness."

The most startling evidence of the power of the conscious self comes from patients who are unable to pay attention. This insight came from an unlikely place: the blind. Before Lawrence Weiskrantz began his investigations in the early 1970s, science had assumed that lesions in the primary visual areas (the V1) caused irreparable blindness. They were wrong.

Lesions in the V1 only cause conscious blindness, a phenomenon Weiskrantz named "blindsight." Although these patients think they are blind, they can actually see, at least unconsciously. What they are missing is awareness. While their eyes continue to transmit visual information, and undamaged parts of their brains continue to process this information, blindsight patients are unable to consciously access what their brains know. As a result, all they see is darkness.

So how can you tell blindsight and blindness apart? Blindsight patients exhibit an astonishing talent. On various visual tasks they perform with an aptitude impossible for the totally blind. For example, a blindsight patient can "guess" with uncanny accuracy whether a square or a circle had just been shown, or whether a light had been flashed. While they have no explicit awareness of the light, they can still respond to it, albeit without knowing what they are responding to. Brain scans confirm their absurd claims, as the areas associated with self-awareness show little or no activity, while the areas associated with vision show relatively normal activity.

This is what makes blindsight patients so poignantly fascinating: their consciousness has been divorced from their sensations. Although the brain continues to "see," the mind can't pay attention to these visual inputs. They are unable to subjectively interpret the information entering the cortex. Blindsight patients are sad evidence that we have to transform our sensation—by way of the moment of attention, which is modulated by the self—before we can sense it.* A sensation separated from the self isn't a sensation at all.

Of course, the one thing neuroscience cannot find is the loom of cells that creates the self. If neuroscience knows anything, it is that there is no ghost in the machine: there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains a hundred billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don't even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.

This is all undoubtedly true. And yet, if the mechanical mind is denied the illusion of a self, if the machine lacks a ghost, then everything falls apart. Sensations fail to cohere. Reality disappears. As Woolf wondered in The Waves: "How to describe the world seen without a self?" "There are no words," she answered, and she was right. Deprived of the fictional self, all is dark. We think we are blind.


The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes. The self is no single thing, and yet it controls the singularity of our attention. Our identity is the most intimate thing we experience, and yet it emerges from a shudder of cellular electricity. Furthermore, Woolf's original question—why the self feels real when it is not—remains completely unanswered. Our reality seems to depend upon a miracle.

In typically stubborn fashion, however, neuroscience has stampeded straight into the mystery, attempting to redefine the incomprehensible in terms of the testable. After all, the promise of mental reductionism is that no reference to higher-order functions (like ghosts or souls or selves) is required. Neurons, like atoms, explain everything, and awareness must percolate from the bottom up.

The most tractable scientific approach to the problem of consciousness is, not surprisingly, the search for its physical substrate. Neuroscience believes that if it looks hard enough it will be able to find the self's secret source, the fold of flesh that decides what to pay attention to. The technical term for this place is the "neural correlate of consciousness" (NCC).

Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at Caltech, is leading the search party. Koch defines the NCC as "the minimal set of neuronal events that gives rise to a specific aspect of a conscious percept." For example, when Mrs. Ramsay contemplates the bowl of fruit at the center of the table, her NCC (at least as Koch defines it) is the network of cells that create her consciousness of the pear. He believes that if science found the NCC, it could see exactly how the self emerges from its sensation. Our fountainhead would be revealed.

That sounds easy enough (science excels at uncovering material causality). But in actuality, the NCC is fiendishly elusive. Koch's first problem was finding an experimental moment where the unity of our consciousness is temporarily shattered, and thus vulnerable to reductionist inquiry. He settled on an optical illusion known as binocular rivalry to use as his main experimental paradigm. In theory, binocular rivalry is a simple phenomenon. We each have two eyeballs; as a result, we are constantly being confronted with two slightly separate views of the world. The brain, using a little unconscious trigonometry, slyly erases this discrepancy, fusing our multiple visions into a single image. (As split-brain patients demonstrate, we are built to ignore our own inconsistencies.)

But Koch decided to throw a wrench into this visual process. "What happens," he wondered, "if corresponding parts of your left and right eyes see two quite distinct images, something that can easily be arranged using mirrors and a partition in front of your nose?" Under ordinary circumstances, the brain superimposes the two separate images from our two separate eyes on top of each other. For example, if the left eye is shown horizontal stripes and the right eye is shown vertical stripes, a person will consciously perceive a plaid pattern. Sometimes, however, the self gets confused and decides to pay attention to the input of only one eye. After a few seconds, the self realizes the mistake, and it begins to pay attention to the other eye. As Koch notes, "The two percepts can alternate in this manner indefinitely."

The end result of all this experimentally induced confusion is that the subject becomes aware—if only for a moment—of the artifice underlying perception. He realizes that he has the input of two separate eyes, which see two separate things. Koch wants to know where in the brain the struggle for ocular dominance occurs. What neurons decide which eye to pay attention to? What cells impose a unity onto the sensory disarray? Koch believes that if he finds this place he will find one of our neural correlates of consciousness. He will discover where the self hides.

Despite its conceptual elegance, there are several serious problems with this experimental approach. The first problem is methodological. The brain is the universe's largest knot. Each of the brain's neurons is connected with up to a thousand other neurons. Consciousness derives its power from this recursive connectivity. After all, the self emerges not from some discrete Cartesian stage, but from the interactions of the brain as a whole. As Woolf wrote, "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo ... surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." Any reduction of consciousness to a single neural correlate—a "gig lamp"—is by definition an abstraction. While the NCC might describe where certain perceptual experiences take place, it will not reveal the origin of attention, or somehow solve the self, for those are emergent properties with no single source. The imponderable mystery Woolf wrote about will remain. Neuroscience must be realistic about what its experiments can explain.

The other big flaw in the NCC approach to consciousness is childishly simple and applies to all reductionist approaches to the mind. Self-consciousness, at least when felt from the inside, feels like more than the sum of its cells. Any explanation of our experience solely in terms of our neurons will never explain our experience, because we don't experience our neurons. This is what Woolf knew. She always believed that descriptions of the mind in purely physical terms—and the history of science is littered with such failed theories—were defined by their incompleteness. Such reductionist psychologies, Woolf wrote, "simplify rather than complicate, detract rather than enrich." They deny us our essential individuality, and turn "all our characters into cases." The mind, Woolf reminds us, cannot be solved by making every mind the same. To define consciousness solely in terms of oscillations in the prefrontal cortex is to miss out on our subjective reality. The self feels whole, but all science can see is its parts.

This is where art comes in. As Noam Chomsky said, "It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology." If science breaks us apart, art puts us back together. In To the Lighthouse, Lily describes her artistic ambition: "For it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge." Like Woolf, Lily wants to express our experience. She knows that this is all we can express. We are only intimate with ourselves.

The artist describes what the scientist can't. Though we are nothing but flickering chemicals and ephemeral voltages, the self seems real. In the face of this impossible paradox, Woolf believed that science must surrender its claims of absolute knowledge. Experience trumps the experiment. Since Woolf wrote her modernist novels, nothing has fundamentally changed. New psychologies have come and gone, but our self-awareness continues to haunt our science, a reality too real to be measured. As Woolf understood, the self is a fiction that cannot be treated like a fact. Besides, to understand ourselves as works of fiction is to understand ourselves as fully as we can. "The final belief," Wallace Stevens once wrote, "is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else."

Although neuroscience is still impossibly far from a grand unified theory of consciousness, it has nevertheless confirmed the ideas in Woolf's art. Consciousness is a process, not a place. We emerge, somehow, from the moment of attention. Without the illusory self, we are completely blind.

But just because our essence is intangible doesn't mean that we should abandon all attempts to understand it. To the Lighthouse, a novel about the difficulty of knowing, ends with a discovery. In the momentous final scene, Woolf uses the character of Lily to show us how, despite our paradoxical source, we can nevertheless learn truths about ourselves.

When Lily begins her painting, at the start of the novel, she is trying to describe the objective facts of her sensation. "What she [Lily] wished to get hold of," Woolf writes, "was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly against her easel." But that reality—the world seen without a self—is exactly what we can never see. Through the struggle of the artistic process, Lily learns this. "She smiled ironically. For had she not thought, when she began, that she had solved her problem?"

By the end of the novel, Lily knows that her problem has no solution. The self cannot be escaped; reality cannot be unraveled. "Instead," Lily thinks, "there are only little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark." Her painting, full as it is of discordant brushstrokes, makes no grand claims. She knows it is only a painting, destined for attics. It will solve nothing, but then, nothing is ever really solved. The real mysteries persist, and "the great revelation never comes." All Lily wants is her painting "to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."

And then, with that brave brushstroke down the middle, Lily sees what she wanted to express, even if only for a moment. She does this not by forcing us into some form, but by accepting the fragile reality of our experience. Her art describes us as we are, as a "queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow." Our secret, Lily knows, is that we have no answer. What she does is ask the question. The novel ends on this tonic note of creation:

With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.