Saturday, 27 July 2013

The power of narratives

We've all heard about how science fiction can inspire real science. If you frequent the type of nerdy, techy blogs I do, you'll see with some regularity "6 discoveries that science fiction thought of first", or some variant along those lines. We get it: science fiction gives us context for understanding science and technology and how it fits into our society.

The assumption, though, is that this is done more or less on purpose. That is, the science fiction writers are trying to extrapolate existing technology and imaging how it will affect society. They're doing thorough research into where technology might be headed; they're talking to engineers and scientists; they're making the best predictions they can. While this is true of a number of science fiction writers, many others are far more concerned with net effects of being able to do a particular thing, rather than the science that would go into doing it. This latter type of story can still provide powerful narratives for shaping our understanding of and reactions to new science.

An interesting example of this happened last week. In this article in Science, researchers reported being able to implant a memory into a mouse. How they did it is super cool, but I'm not going to go into it here; it's covered in the many articles I'm about to link to.

If, upon hearing that researchers could implant a memory, you thought of the 2010 movie Inception, you're not alone. A lot of other people did too. In fact, one of the authors of the study referred to the movie in talking to the press, and other one used the term "incept" to refer to the memory implantation process.

And here's what I find fascinating about this: the movie had nothing to do with the actual science that went into the mouse study. One of the things that I find by turns brilliant and infuriating about Christopher Nolan (who wrote and directed Inception) is that he has a keen sense for paring away details that aren't relevant to the story he's telling. In the case of Inception, the important points are that people can enter other people's dreams, and in doing so extract information or, rarely, implant ("incept") new ideas. Everything else is swept away; we don't find out anything about how people share dreams or where that technology comes from (other than that the military developed it), and we don't find out any psychological reason why moving an inanimate object in someone's dream would cause an idea to germinate and flower in their mind--we're simply told it is so. Nolan gives us only enough details to move the plot forward; the last thing he's trying to do is teach the audience some science.

The study on mice doesn't even use dreams. Nor does it plant the seed of an idea in the mice and allow it to grow. In fact, it's not even really about implanting ideas, but rather a particular remembered fear reaction. The only thing it has in common with the movie is that they both involve someone deliberately changing someone else's conception of reality.

Of course, that in and of itself is scary. The simple idea that there might come a time when our memories and ideas might not deliberately manipulated by someone else has terrifying implications for our sense of self. And that is why we turn to narratives to help us understand what's going on. Humans are story oriented. A significant part of what makes up a culture, and what distinguishes it from other cultures, is a collection of shared stories. We moderns may have moved away from myths as our explanations for how the world works, but that doesn't mean we don't have a need to frame those explanations in terms of stories. And Inception has given us a powerful, shared story about altering memories.

Put a bunch of science geeks (I category I willingly admit to belonging in) together and ask them about movies, and you'll find out that we love to nitpick. My undergraduate physics society once hosted a showing of The Core precisely because the science in it was so terrible that it gave us hours of enjoyable discussion about how bad it was. Sometimes, though, the details aren't the most important part; sometimes narratives get repurposed in ways the authors couldn't have imagined. And sometimes we in science should remember this, assuming of course that what we remember is really up to us.

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