Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Books that can read your mind

Yesterday I found myself browsing a site called 'Neurofiction', which purports to offer "a new kind of literary experience" in which stories can change themselves in response to a reader's brain activity. According to the site's authors:

"In neurofiction, the story’s effect on the reader’s brain – electrical activity of their neurons – is captured using an electroencephalography headset. Using an algorithm that learns what themes and elements engage each reader, our neurofiction engine turns this data into a unique path through the story. The reader can be guided to one of multiple possible endings or allowed to explore a new region of the story space."

In short, you get given the story that the neurofiction engine thinks you'll enjoy or respond to most and "neurofiction readers become subconscious collaborators in the creation of a new narrative."

In itself, the idea of being a 'subconscious collaborator' is fascinating. A technological development like this seems to take the Extended Mind Hypothesis to its extreme logical conclusion. If elements of our environment (including computers) can be considered part of the mind, then our minds can interact with them to shape our experiences. 

To any writer of fiction, the initial reaction to neurofiction is likely to be one of scepticism, or even fear. Surely one of the great things about literature is the way it can challenge our expectations and open us up to new experiences, rather than giving us what we want in response to perceived preferences. But since we often choose to buy books that we predict we'll like anyway, is this really much worse than the way we often limit our own exposure to literature, picking books we 'know' we'll enjoy?

Some of my favourite pieces of writing do just the opposite, challenging our idea of 'what happens next'. A poem that springs to mind is Don Paterson's 'An Elliptical Stylus', in which, after recreating a scene of family humiliation in a record shop, the narrator bluntly resists  "any attempt to cauterize this fable / with something axiomatic on the nature / of articulacy and inheritance" and finishes by offering to swing for the reader. Often, good poems wrongfoot us, albeit in less violent ways than 'An Elliptical Stylus', making us realise we don't quite know where we are after all. In his essay 'My marmalade passion or remembering Proust's gloves', poet Alan Buckley goes further, suggesting that good poems often traumatise us in some way. 

"Whatever the poem’s register or genre there has to be some quality of disturbance, of the reader being engaged by something at least partly familiar before being startled into a different or heightened awareness. Frost’s dictum of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” suggests that a similar process has to have happened during composition; the analyst Wilfred Bion said that if there aren’t at times two frightened people in the consulting room, we will only find out what everyone already knows, and the same applies to the little room of the poem."

If it only succeeds in giving us what we want, neurofiction may never give us what we need.

1 comment:

  1. Would you ever read the same story twice with this neurofiction thing, then? I don't like the idea of reading a story I really like, then going back to read it again and finding that it's changed, because I'm in a slightly different mood today than I was when I first read it. Now I'm going to have to browse this site myself because I'm confused, and kind of intrigued... :P