by Mark Alpert
I started having eye problems a few months ago. My eyes got dry and irritated while I slept, and my vision was blurry when I awoke. My ophthalmologist said this was a common, age-related problem. He recommended eye drops and a humidifier. It’s not a big deal, just annoying. I hate the fact that my body doesn’t work as well as it used to.
And it made me think about the importance of eyesight to a writer. Most writers are also voracious readers, so we ruin our eyes on novels and newspapers, not to mention all the hours spent rereading our own manuscripts. What’s more, so much of our memory and imagination is visual, at least for writers with normal eyesight. For better or worse, I rely on my eyes more than my other senses, blithely ignoring entire universes of sound, smell and touch. When I think of my childhood, I see mental snapshots of my family’s old apartment in Queens, along with a half-remembered collage of classrooms, playgrounds and birthday parties. And when I use my imagination to construct fictional scenes, the building blocks are mostly visual: what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, how their expressions change, and so on.
In my latest novel, which will come out in a couple of months, I take this idea to its logical extreme: you are what you see. One of the characters in the book, a brilliant bioengineer, figures out how to build brain implants that can copy and download a person’s visual memories. The technology has great commercial potential; millions of people would surely pay for the implants so they could archive their lives or share their favorite memories on Facebook. But the bioengineer has an ulterior motive. He’s dying of cancer, and he believes he can resurrect himself by downloading all his visual memories to a powerful computer that can mimic the functions of the human brain. The computer would be programmed to generate new thoughts and emotions based on his memories, and because memories are the building blocks of personality and identity, the intelligence inside the computer would be identical to the bioengineer’s intelligence (in theory at least).
This idea, I hasten to add, isn’t my own invention. It’s the Holy Grail of the Singularity movement, which has been inspired by the writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) and others. My twist on the notion is to focus on visual memories. Scientists understand the visual cortex better than other brain regions, because it’s relatively easy to do experiments that involve visual stimuli. Researchers have constructed elaborate, spaghetti-like maps showing how visual information moves from one part of the brain to another, traveling to the regions that store memories (so you can recognize the objects you’re looking at) as well as the regions that control muscle movements (so you can catch the baseball that’s speeding toward you). Because we already know a lot about the visual cortex, the prospect of building a computer that mimics this brain region seemed somewhat believable to me — more like a thriller, and less like science fiction.
In my novel, the bioengineer’s technology goes awry, of course. (I won’t say any more, because I want you to read the book!) But while I was writing the novel I became convinced that the underlying premise — you are what you see — may have some truth to it. I don’t believe there’s any need to assume the existence of some intangible, unobservable entity (soul, spirit, whatever) to explain the mysteries of consciousness and personality. The brain can assemble an identity out of the memories of early childhood, because the interconnected whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Strictly speaking, some of the parts aren’t really memories — they’re instincts genetically hard-wired into the brain, which govern an infant’s life until learned behaviors can take over. And memories of sound, smell, taste and touch also have powerful influences, particularly on the development of language and emotions. But for someone like me, who relies so much on eyesight, life is like a long, meandering movie, a film that’s being constantly re-edited as I watch it.
And this brings me back to fiction. When I’m working on a novel, I see the scenes in my mind’s eye before I put them down on paper. I can’t start writing until I can see, at least blurrily, where the characters are and what they look like. As I write the scene, the setting and characters usually come into better focus, and when I’m finished I can go back to the blurry parts at the beginning and sharpen them by adding more detail. I also add sounds and smells if they’re relevant and compelling; it’s a good idea to describe taste sensations when the characters are eating, and tactile sensations are vital to any description of sex or violence. But for me, the process starts with images. I have to see it to believe it.
I’m not alone on this one, am I? Do most authors visualize their scenes before writing them? And does anyone else have this nighttime dry-eye problem? I’d appreciate any advice, because it’s driving me crazy.