Q&A with Richard Powers, 2006 Winner of the National Book of the Year Award

Richard Powers weaves neuroscience and nature in his new book, The Echo Maker, to explore the stories of what makes us who we are.

Richard Powers is one of America's most acclaimed novelists and a faculty member in the Beckman Institute's Cognitive Neuroscience group. Powers, a professor in the Department of English, has earned numerous literary and academic awards and honors, including Time magazine Book of the Year Award, four National Book Critic Award finalist nominations, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. On November 15 his latest novel, The Echo Maker, won what many consider the highest honor for works of fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction.

Powers had been at Beckman in the 1990s, then returned to the Institute last year to continue researching and writing The Echo Maker, a book that weaves family tragedy and the annual migration of the Sandhill cranes to Nebraska's Platte River into a story that probes basic questions about the self.

The Echo Maker

Powers read the neuroscience literature, attended seminars, and talked with neuroscientists at Beckman and elsewhere in researching the book. The Echo Maker tells the story of Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old Nebraska slaughterhouse worker whose truck accident leaves him with a rare case of Capgras syndrome. Unable to recognize his sister or even his dog, Schluter is trapped inside a mind that is connected to his old self in many ways but strangely disconnected to those people and things that were most familiar to him before the accident. A famous neurologist, Dr. Gerald Weber, is brought in and a story unfolds that reveals how fragile our connections to the world can be and how amazing the workings of the mind really are. The Echo Maker is Powers' ninth novel and was composed with a tablet PC using speech recognition software.

Steve McGaughey: You've been at Beckman since March of 2005. How did you end up here?

Richard Powers: This is my second time through. When I first came back to the States after living in the Netherlands for many years and was invited by Illinois to stay as an artist-in-residence, Dick Wheeler and Ted Brown - who was head of the Beckman then - came up with this plan to give me an office and an affiliation here; this was in 1992. And by spending that year here, I came up with the idea for Galatea 2.2. There's a fictionalized Center in that book that's sort of a thinly disguised Beckman. So after finishing that book I gave up the office and went back south of Green to the English Department and stayed there, wrote some more books and taught some classes and helped start the graduate program, the Masters in Fine Arts degree that the English Department now issues. I'd been teaching with them for some years when I started working on this book with neuroscientific themes.

I realized that I needed to come back and test my story against the stories that were unfolding here and the research that was being done. I came back a year ago last spring and have been enjoying being a fly on the wall once again.

SM: What do your interactions with neuroscientists at Beckman consist of and did they influence The Echo Maker?

RP: Very much so. I was working on the book and had done a lot of research in print and also in interviews prior to coming here. But once I was here I had several new avenues of connection and new resources available. One was access to informal conversations with scientists here, and that's been invaluable. The number of times that somebody has pointed me to other bibliographies, to an error in my preconceptions, or just to new and exciting research, I can't count. Just in casual conversations. Beyond that, I've had several chances to sit down with some incredibly exciting researchers like William Greenough and Neal Cohen, people who were working in areas that were important to my own narrative. The ability to sit and be in seminars with them and pick their brains one on one was really invaluable to me. Then I also started to attend the regular research seminars here, for instance the Advances in Sensory and Developmental Neuroscience events. That's where folks are bringing stuff fresh out of the lab and putting it up for public discussion, even stuff that is still in formulation. The benefits of that were really two-fold: learning about research before it actually hit publication, just as a sense of where things are going right now. But also a chance to see as an observer - but someone sitting in the same room - the whole culture of science. The way that scientists interact with each other as people was very interesting and eye-opening and part of the story that I ended up creating.

SM: There are numerous references to real world neuroscience cases in the book, such as HM, the man Neal Cohen discussed in his Director's Seminar talk Oct. 20 of 2006. How much research did you do before sitting down to write and why was Capgras syndrome the choice for Mark, the character the story revolves around?

RP: I did hear the Director's Seminar and Dr. Cohen's work is just stunning. I was knocked out by that. But I have had a couple of chances to talk to Neal privately and I also heard a similar talk that he had given in the past. I was participating in a memory seminar that he also participated in and, of course, I read him. So being at the Beckman was an exciting way to connect the formal presentation of these insights and discoveries as you come across them in published form with the actual guy doing the work. To see what he's like and what his fears and his hopes and his dreams are. That was very thrilling to me. I had read him on HM and read a lot about other people's research with HM, but to actually hear him stand up and talk personally about the narrative of his experience with this guy, the kind of stuff that you can't put into scholarly publications, was really useful to me.

SM: In The Echo Maker, the neurologist Weber, when assessing his career, wonders about consciousness - what are its neurological correlates, do we have free will, etc. After researching and writing this book, what are your thoughts on what neuroscience tells us about the "basic riddle of conscious existence"?

RP: What's really interesting about writing this book and publishing it in the year 2006 is I think we're right in the middle of a complete transformation of attitude, even toward asking that question. In other words, when I started writing 20 years ago or more, scientists would not touch that question. To do so would be an embarrassment, overreaching, philosophy. Now everybody's asking that question. It's tremendously exciting, but we're still in our infancy in our ability to formulate an answer. So in a way the question is still philosophy but it's undergirded now by these new kinds of data, imaging data for example, ways into the locked room that didn't exist before. So we're right in between having the question being respectable and having the question being answerable.

SM: You write that "imaging and drugs are opening the locked-room mystery of the mind." But there are issues with all advances, including as Weber worries about, the deterministic view that technology will eventually provide a neurological basis for consciousness. He wants to find more explanation, higher processes, than just interdependent modules making up consciousness. What does his search tell us about the field and about him?

RP: I think it tells us that the field is exploding and it also tells us that the field is incredibly optimistic in a way that it wasn't until recently but, finally, that the field is incredibly messy and a work in progress. Anyone who enters this investigation thinking that we will finally have a complete, simple, reduced, elegant sense of who's driving who around inside the human skull is going to be disappointed. The field continues to point to models that are interdirectional, complicated, richer than we thought. So as always the most interesting research shows us that we have to up the ante with the questions, make the questions more sophisticated, make the questions more open to complexity.

SM: An idea that comes out of the book is that one theory for explaining the basic riddle of conscious existence used to dominate in neuroscience, then another opposing theory took hold, but it seems to say that currently no one theory is dominant.

RP: That would be my guess. As a lay bystander in this, watching the field as someone in the grandstands trying to figure out the rules of the game, I would say the fact that you can have hugely accomplished and masterful scientists at war with each other about their prevailing model leads me to believe that the issues are going to remain complicated for awhile to come and the grand unified sense of consciousness will incorporate all these views in the final model somewhere. The mental network, when we learn how to think and talk clearly about it, is not going to be dominated by any simple mechanism. It's going to be a hybridized and aggregate view that partakes of many positions that the field has embraced. These countervaling ways of looking at what's going on inside the brain are going to have to be integrated in some way.

In some ways the book is about empathy. It's about whether it's possible for any of us to know what it would feel like to be someone else, or something else. In what way does the self blind us to the realities of other people and our dependence on them?

SM: In The Echo Maker the connections that tie us most intimately to our worlds are called into question. Every character in the book has some broken link: Mark, whose closest ties in the world - his sister, his dog, even his house - have no emotional connection for him because of Capgras syndrome; his friend Bonnie questions religion because neuroscientists showed that stimulating a certain region of the brain can produce religious-type effects like out-of-body experiences; Weber has doubts about his past neuroscience work that make him feel disconnected. Man as a species seems to require those family and social connections, but neuroscience tells us it's all a construct. So how would you reconcile the "illusion of solidity" that Weber talks about with living a whole, integrated life?

RP: In some ways the book is about empathy. It's about whether it's possible for any of us to know what it would feel like to be someone else, or something else. In what way does the self blind us to the realities of other people and our dependence on them? Part of what neuroscience has been saying in recent years is that the self is messy and aggregate and improvised and made up of all these multiple parts. The feeling of continuity and recognizability and consistency may be a story, it may be something of a narrative. On the one hand that's a terrifying thing. The more that we look under the hood and see that we aren't what we feel that we are, the more destabilizing and de-centering it is to continue to be alive. And science has always done that to us, right? It's always taking a hard look at the story that we're telling about who we are and saying, let's think about this again. So, yes, neuroscience is just the latest blow to our narrative of self. On the other hand, there are things that are coming out of neuroscience now that give us our first glimpse of how the brain itself makes empathy and how our individual selves are actually quite dependent on our connections to other people. How memory is a collaborative phenomenon and how mirror neurons inside our brain are actually simulating and recreating other people. When I see someone smile it causes a kind of sympathetic circuit, a recapitulation of that smile inside me and a simulation of the mind of that other person. So there are possibilities coming out of the new neuroscience that suggest maybe this destabilization of the old monolithic ego-centered self isn't such a bad thing and may be making us more aware of the ways in which we are collaborations or nodes in a network and that our selves don't end so violently with the limits of our skin, but that they are actually produced in concert with other people. Maybe that's quite a wonderful and liberating and an encouraging position for us as social beings.

SM: Would someone like the character Bonnie be comforted by that?

RP: No, but it's absolutely true that science can't proceed according to whether or not the data is comforting. It's up to us to revise our story in a way that still makes it palatable to ourselves and yet accepts the repeatable and demonstrable phenomenon.

SM: You write in The Echo Maker that because of knowledge advancements in neuroscience, cognition is heading toward grasping itself and wonder what that would mean for us as a species. If that ever did become reality, what do you think that would mean for people? Would that be a tipping point?

RP: Yeah, I think it is. I think that process is very slow and fitful and gradual and qualified. In fact, when you describe that process, it's the same process that we've been undertaking since the beginning of the scientific revolution. This slow and steady revising of our official narrative answer to who are we and what are we doing resembles in a macrocosm the constant checks to an individual's self-narration: who are you and what are you trying to do. Every day presents us with challenges to our official self-narrative. We revise and we improvise and we carry on. The sense of human culture and human society has changed so profoundly since Copernicus said we're not at the center of the universe. We've been constantly demoted from our human-centric vision. In a sense these new views of the mind and the self can be seen as the latest challenges. But I think it's wrong to think of science as diminution of the story of what it means to be human. In fact, looked at in the way most scientists look at it and the way that the educated lay person looks at it, the challenges that science has presented to our official self-images, have actually been incredibly enriching. The smallest things in us that we take for granted are miracles. Science has intensified our awe and wonder at who we are and how we got here. I think, for instance, to bring it right into the central arena that America is fighting over right now, evolution as a story is far more staggering and full of amazement and much grander than creationism. Looked at carefully and soberly, evolution hugely increases our astonishment at the mere existence of humans. However much of a shock it is to put aside old stories, the new stories can be full of greater possibility. I tend to be a guarded optimist in general and my books tend to try to find some way of affirming the human story. There's no question that this upheaval of science is extremely painful and volatile. We're witnessing now in the last six years a retrenchment on the part of society toward funding science, toward supporting science, toward teaching science, toward believing in science. Preserving scientific advance is not going to be easy. In fact, today we're in great danger of going backward. It's going to take a lot of people, scientists and humanists alike, to say we don't want to go backwards, we don't want darkness, we want more light on things. We want to convey the astonishment and awe and new sources of meaning that these new discoveries are creating. When the right attacks science as somehow a threat to family values or the sanctity of life, it's out of ignorance. When the left attacks science as some corporate-driven hegemonic threat to equality, it's doing so out of ignorance. Scientists need to realize that part of the job of science is bringing that data back into a palpable new vision of social humanity. Our future is also going to depend on the humanists, who right now are often suspicious and terrified of science, to embrace and to understand and to narrate and to celebrate, and also to interrogate and to question and understand in every possible way, the things that are coming out of the lab. I can see us living in a very fitful relationship to science and technology indefinitely. But I can also see us gradually coming to terms with and accepting and moving forward these really magnificent new stories of who we are and what we might still do.

SM: You started out at the University of Illinois as a physics major and science infuses most if not all of your writing, so obviously it's an important topic to you. Sometimes people feel threatened by science or believe that they can't understand it, but you share it with them through your novels. Could you make a case for why science is important and should be embraced by all of us?

It's going to take a lot of people, scientists and humanists alike, to say we don't want to go backwards, we don't want darkness, we want more light on things. We want to convey the astonishment and awe and new sources of meaning that these new discoveries are creating.

RP: The case can be made in so many ways. Every aspect of our existence right now, the terms on which we lead our daily lives, result from the changes in the world brought about by science and technology. Our whole contract with time and space is different now and continues to change every year because of scientific and technological developments. So like it or not, who we are reflects and incorporates what we've done in the scientific disciplines. Even the most terrified anti-scientific Luddite in this country is assuming certain things about health and happiness and welfare that have been allowed by these scientific developments. So if the humanist mission is to say who we are and how we got here and where we think we're going, you can't ask those questions without really confronting the single largest consolidated enterprise that we have going on right now, which is collective science. Part of the problem is that in American universities, there is a huge fight for resources. Often there is the perception in the humanities that all the money is being sucked out of the old-style humanistic disciplines. That's going to cause rivalry and turf wars. But I think there are larger issues at stake. If we really want to be true to our disciplines, we have to see how everything connects to everything else. That's where fiction comes in. Science, and to a large extent the humanities, have succeeded by incorporating this model of reductionism where we can understand the whole in terms of the parts. Everybody has their specialization and moves ahead controlling the variables, and simplifying and talking about individual things in isolation. The arts are one of the few places where you can still think holistically and ask: how does everything connect to everything else, and what happens when complicated people, each of whom is living these separate existences, have to get together in the same room and talk to each other. That's what I would like to do inside novels. Literature is a way of voicing different worldviews and making them bump up against each other, seeing what kinds of new perspectives arise when we're not allowed to dictate the world entirely through our unique views. It's a place for showing multiplicity and diversity of viewpoints and connectivity. Inside a rich story the smallest ripple in one person's world is going to have consequences in another - which is also true in life, but often we're not allowed to talk about that inside our specialties.

SM: The characters of Mark and Weber are captured very well even though they come from very different social strata and, except for Weber in some ways, different backgrounds than your own. How do their social differences fit into the themes of the book?

RP: The book shows how each of us is this complex multiple performance. We act as different people with different people. We're constantly improvising new selves in the presence of others. But that's only appropriate, given the things that neuroscience is telling us. If the self is this kind of core-making storyteller for these hundreds of distributed systems inside the brain, is it any surprise that each of us socially is also this kind of core-making storyteller for all the different ways we have to be in the world?

The Echo Maker is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available at their Web site (http://www.fsgbooks.com/) as well as bookstores.

This article is part of the Fall 2006 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.