“Remember the Thalamus!” A Review of Andrew’s Brain

The narrator of E. L. Doctorow’s new novel is Andrew. Or, more accurately, Andrew’s brain. Or, perhaps most accurately, some consciousness that refers to itself as Andrew. It’s hard to get your bearings in this novel of neuroscience, because Andrew is the ultimate unreliable narrator: he knows that “there is nothing you can think of except of yourself thinking.”

How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it? I can’t trust anyone these days, least of all myself. I am a mysteriously generated consciousness, and no comfort to me that it’s one of billions.

Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow Random House, 2014 200 pp (hardcover) Source: public library Amazon

Andrew’s Brain
by E. L. Doctorow
Random House, 2014
200 pp (hardcover)
Source: public library

Andrew identifies himself as a cognitive scientist with a history of traumatic personal relationships. For the duration of the novel, he’s talking (or is he just thinking that he’s talking?) in some unknown place to an unknown second party (a therapist, perhaps). His account starts as a sad but mostly ordinary life before taking some fantastic turns.

Is he lying? Is he confused as a result of post traumatic stress? Is he telling the truth? He knows what he thinks has happened, but as he points out:

We have to be wary of our brains. They make our decisions before we make them. They lead us to still waters. They renounceth free will.

Andrew calls himself “Andrew the Pretender,” but this isn’t an admission that he’s falsifying his story. He explains:

We’re all Pretenders, Doctor, even you….Pretending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.

Oh? What can it pretend to be, just by way of example?

Well, for the longest time, and until just recently, the soul.

Doctorow is asking some of the biggest questions of our time: What is consciousness? What is personal identity? Is there any way in which we are more than the sum of our circuits?

…the great problem presenting neuroscience is how the brain becomes the mind. How that three-pound knitting ball makes you feel like a human being….If we figure out how the brain gives us consciousness, we will have learned how to replicate consciousness.

Andrew’s Brain is not light reading, but it’s a satisfying challenge. Drawing on current research in neuroscience (see, for example, Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: The Brain as Self), it’s a story about what we’re thinking about when we’re thinking about how we think. It’s cleverly framed. The characters Andrew describes are fascinating. And subtle stylistic choices like the lack of quotation marks shake the reader’s confidence in what Andrew knows – and therefore what we know.

Which, given how trustworthy our brains are, makes this unreliable narrator possibly the most reliable narrator I’ve ever read.

In search of belief changing ideas