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Adventures in cognitive science

Radiant Cool by Dan Lloyd

Kirk Smith 4 February 2017

Brain noir: details from a hardcover edition

What sounds like an incomprehensible hodge-podge of text is crafted into eminently readable story

When you read the subtitle of Dan Lloyd’s Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness, you know it’s very likely going to be an unusual and challenging read.

And after scanning the table of contents and reading the prologue, you realize that the first 222 pages is the novel part of the subtitle. The novel has a separate name and fictitious author, “The Thrill of Phenomenology” by Miranda Sharpe. It’s then you know this isn’t going to be a thriller nor make it onto the bestseller list! Especially if you know that phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of consciousness and our perception of the world.

The remaining 133 pages of the book is a scholarly essay on “…a science of consciousness” titled “The Real Firefly.” Because I have at least some background in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, it’s not easy for me to judge how readers with limited experience in these fields will react to this part of the book. And yet… Lloyd’s novel may be a model for working scientists to consider for writing fiction about science.

There’s a tendency for scientists, especially those in academia, to approach writing from a didactic point of view. (For example, Carl Djerassi, who wrote extensively about the value of fiction and theater as vehicles for science instruction; see Jenny Rohn’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow.) They tend to include too much information in too much detail, slowing the pace and getting in the way of the narrative.

One remedy is a tutorial for lay readers at the end of a novel that fills in the missing information and detail; their work could attract the attention of fiction readers who have an appetite for accurate knowledge of science as well as readers who generally read nonfiction to learn about developments in science but are attracted by entertaining stories about scientists at work.

That said, I think Lloyd’s purpose in writing the book was not to entertain and educate nonscientists. Rather he intended the book to be a serious contribution to cognitive science, the study of the mind.

Miranda Sharpe, the novel’s protagonist, is a graduate student in philosophy. She tells her story in a stream of consciousness narration that includes her perception of events and her struggle to make sense out of a peculiar chain of events in her life. But being her stream of consciousness, she smoothly incorporates her introspections about the implications of her thoughts and perceptions for a theory of consciousness. Woven into her flow of thought are sentences that express her unreflective emotional responses. What sounds like an incomprehensible hodge-podge of text is crafted into eminently readable story.

About the only times I bogged down in the novel were when Miranda’s graduate student self took over and launched into carefully constructed texts, especially when she gets embroiled in explaining how recurrent networks learn or when she begins explaining her theory of consciousness in an email exchange with another professor she encounters. (More on that below.) This includes her excursion into Dan Lloyd’s “Labyrinth of Consciousness, a virtual world defined by 34 PET experiments.” This is a real website simulated by 13 pages of very dense graphics. Exactly what is going on here isn’t clear. It seems to be a stream of consciousness in a two-dimensional projection of an event manifold of more than three dimensions. In other words, it’s complicated and confusing and gets in the way of the narrative.

The story is a species of mystery novel. Miranda sneaks into the office of her advisor, Max Grue, at dawn to steal a folder that contains the background materials for her dissertation, a red folder labeled “consciousness.” Instead of an empty office, she finds Max slumped over his keyboard apparently dead. After some hesitation, she extracts the red folder from the chaos on his desk and returns home. Returning later in the morning, she learns that she has to take over Max’s class. She finds this disconcerting because Max loves to teach and never misses a class. Afterwards, another faculty member, knowing Miranda has a key to Max’s office, asks her to let him in to retrieve a copy of a book Max borrowed from him. When they enter, there’s no Max, dead or alive. (Alert readers will find many more or less disguised references to ideas and events in the history of science and philosophy.)

As Miranda’s day progresses, more characters show up. There’s the Chaos Bug that’s infected university computer systems all over the country. All members of the university community have been advised to refrain from using their computers. There’s Gordon, a computer science student programming a network as a project for Max, and Clare Lucid, Miranda’s shrink, who turns out to have some kind of relationship to Max. For real comic relief, we also get Porfiry Petrovich Marlov, a former Russian police inspector, now an exchange professor of “forensic data science,” who recently became friends with Max, has discovered he’s missing, and is trying to locate him. Then Gabriel Zamm and his graduate student show up to give Miranda an unwelcome taste of what happens to phenomenology when various regions of the brain are rendered inoperable.

At length, a character named Dan Lloyd shows up, playing himself. Miranda strikes up a deep philosophical discussion with him by email. “Deep” here means sentences similar to what might be found in scholarly philosophical journals. A number of coincidences conspire to bring Miranda to Lloyd’s house where a power outage ensues and they are joined, first by Clare, the shrink, and then Porfiry. The next few pages fly by when the uninvited guests turn out to be completely different people than either Miranda or Lloyd thought they were.

Another philosophical interlude in an all-night diner follows the excitement, and Lloyd and Miranda work some more on a novel theory of consciousness. What follows is so exquisitely convoluted that saying anything would rob readers of the thrill of phenomenology.

Miranda’s novel as a work of fiction has a number of flaws, but as such it is by turns gripping and hilarious. It is less successful as a vehicle for approaching the study of a knotty problem for cognitive neuroscience – the nature and role of consciousness. Too much remains of the ancient philosophers’ perplexity over the relationship between the body and soul, or in modern terminology, the brain and the mind. So the next question is, does the remaining 133-page essay help, or any rate explain and evaluate, Miranda’s theory?

A caveat: For all its familiarity, much of the technical terrain here is not my specialty, nor am I current in the relevant fields. Keep in mind that Radiant Cool was published in 2004, so his essay isn’t up to date either. In light of these disclaimers, I’m going to limit myself to two remarks: I really wonder whether lay readers will appreciate why consciousness is an interesting and worthwhile problem for science to address. I also doubt that readers with a limited knowledge of the relevant intersecting disciplines will be able to understand what it would mean to have scientific answers to some of questions that arise in the overlap between fields.

The problem is that Lloyd has left too big a gap between “The Thrill of Phenomenology” and “The Real Firefly”. I suspect it will be too large for all but a small number of scholars versed in these three fields and their very different kinds of complexity.

Neuroscience and brain science appear to be underrepresented in the Lab Lit List. There are many possible reasons, but one possibility seems especially likely to someone whose colleagues in the sciences often treated the “softer” sciences as not quite worthy of the mantle. They seemed to draw the line between research that related brain states to measurable movements of the body and research that related brain states to subjective reports. However, for the owner of a brain, nothing is more obvious or real than the experience of thought and emotion. And a variety of investigations have made it clear for a very long time that these mental states are related to activity in the brain.

There are a large number of bestselling thrillers based on some manipulation of an individual’s mental geography, yet realistic treatments of the science behind mental states are few and far between. David Lodge’s novel Thinks… (2002) is the only title I’ve found on the Lab Lit List that tackles this intellectually messy frontier of contemporary science.

Dan Lloyd’s Radiant Cool (2004) is a more explicit treatment of the nexus of questions that haunt philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists. Whether you believe these two books involve realistic scientists engaged in realistic research will depend on whether you think some events that occur in our minds are beyond the reach of objective investigation.