Neuropsychology and fiction, what do they have in common? I mean, they might not be the first two things you pair together. That is unless you’re familiar with the late Oliver Sacks who managed to write books on neurology which told the stories of his experiences with patients.

But, there are a couple of key principles both psychology and fiction writing share. They both tell stories of other people. And both explore the idea of understanding what is by examining what isn’t.

First things first, what is neuropsychology?

Neuropsychology is a specific field of psychology which looks at how the brain functions and how this relates to thinking and behaviour.

One of the ways that we can better understand the human brain and how it works, is to look at when things are a little bit different or don’t quite work the same. Most of the examples I’ll give tend to occur after a brain injury or stroke which causes damage to specific parts of the brain.

Achromatopsia – the inability to see colour

Now, this is not your regular garden-variety colour-blindness. 8% of men and around 1 in every 200 women are colour-blind.

Achromatopsia is a little different. It’s where everything you see is in varying degrees of greyscale. It most commonly occurs where people have damage to a specific part of their brain. By looking at brain differences between people with and without achromatopsia, we can better understand how the brain processes colour.

The ocean and the mood in black and white

Prosopagnosia (face blindness)

Oliver Sacks himself was apparently prosopagnosic (he struggled to recognise faces). The ability to face-recognise seems to be on a spectrum, where some people can’t recognise even familiar others. Instead they have to rely on other things like the way they stand, their smell or contextual clues.

There are also some people who are super-recognisers, where they never forget a face. But, the majority of people fall somewhere between the two extremes. You’ll likely know yourself at least vaguely where you fall on the spectrum.

I’m a bit useless when it comes to faces and if I’ve not seen someone in a while or see someone I’m not expecting to without context, I’ll likely just stare at you trying to place you. Or when I watch films if someone appears on screen lying down I struggle to know who they are.

By comparing people’s brains with and without these particular conditions, this can not only help to understand people with neuropsychological disorders, and hopefully come up with ways to help them if needed. It can also help us to understand how colour processing or facial recognition work in the majority of people.

How about them bookiewooks?

“Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

Ursula Le Guin (introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness).

If we can understand our brains by hearing the experiences of people whose brains work a little differently, how can fiction help us to understand our own world?

In dystopian tales, like The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984, the events of history and issues in society are able to be expressed in a way that takes a step back from reality. This gives a kind of objectivity so that real issues can be explored: Religious fundamentalism, the modification of history to suit political agendas. Neither Margaret Atwood, not George Orwell was pulling stuff out the air when they came up with Gilead and Airstrip One. Instead, they were describing events that had come before and those that we can still see happening today.

There’s a tendency to use an outsider as the protagonist. Winston Smith is an apparent outlier in his hatred toward the society he’s forced to live in. This is very commonly used as a technique, particularly in science fiction to introduce us to a world an society that is both similar and dissimilar to our own.

Man with his face close to a rainy window
Fiction allows us to explore ourselves without having our faces shoved up against the glass.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, the protagonist is a man from Earth who travels to a planet (Gethen) where all individuals are androgenous apart from during certain days of the month. On Gethen, all people can become female and carry children. This allows the story to explore the influence of gender and gender-roles on society our own society by envisaging a society where these things do not have an influence.

Finally, you have the example of Lilliput and Blefuscu (bless you) from Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift). On his travels, Gulliver comes across the Lilliputians.

As well as being 5 inches tall, the Lilliputians are a people that live across the water from Blefuscu, another nation of equally sized people who they are at war with.

Gulliver discovers that the reason for their war is a difference in opinion of how to crack an egg. Some people are ‘big-endians’ while others are (little-endians). In this, you have two groups of people who are similar in all ways apart from this little difference which causes a war between their people. It might seem ridiculous until you think about the fights and friction caused between neighbouring sports teams.

You know what they say…

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Through fiction, we can explore real issues in a way where your face isn’t pressed right up against the glass.

A woman standing in front of a sunset with her arms open wide
That feeling when your nostrils are clear again after a case of the sniffles

Want to read more?

If you’re interested in reading more about psychology and writing, or psychology and social media you might want to take a look at my other posts on social influence and social media. Or how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are.