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Syntax/Synapse Essays

On Mind & Meaning

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Dexter Palmer


The pattern of my conversation with strangers at parties changed in two ways after I published a novel. The first, and the less common of the two, was that people began to ask me if the name I’d given them as mine, Dexter Palmer, is in fact my real name. (It is.) “It sounds like a pen name, though,” I sometimes hear, which raises the question of what mysterious characteristics make a pen name sound like one—on occasion people will suggest that a person with a name like mine was destined to be a writer, just as a person whose last name is Freeze or Storm will end up becoming a TV weatherperson.

The second and far more common change is that, after a bit of conversation regarding what my books are “about,” people will often ask me “where I get my ideas.” I’m sure this is a question that creative artists are more likely to receive than anyone else, though people with other occupations, sommeliers and bricklayers and chief financial officers, also have minds and ideas that go along with them, and would therefore “get ideas” from somewhere as well. I usually say I get them in the shower, which is a well-intentioned lie to help the conversation along: the truth is, I don’t know. But creative ideas are often considered to be of a special class, one that requires summoning, whether it be through the invocation of a Muse or the constant spatter of hot water against the back of the head.

Of course, questions of how ideas come into being have been more than mere cocktail-party talk for centuries, and are tied in with questions of what the mind is, or—before the concept of “mind” was conceived—the soul. Rene Descartes, writing in 1649, believed that the seat of the soul was the pineal gland, an endocrine organ nestled deep in the middle of the head, roughly the size and shape of a pine nut—hence the name, according to the 2nd-century philosopher Galen (the Latin glandula pinealis deriving from pinus pinea)[1]. Descartes thought this was the case because the pineal gland was the only part of the brain that sat in the center, and did not have a symmetric twin; thus, its purpose must have been unification, combining the impressions received from two eyes into one image, combining sensations received from disparate sources into thoughts[2]. For Descartes, this gland was where much of what we’d now consider thinking happened; moreover, Descartes thought that the results of these thoughts must have a physical manifestation, such that the gland “must vibrate back and forth to convey desire,” or that “the impulse to run would spur the little gland into rotary action[3].” Descartes’s thinking on the subject fell largely out of vogue by the 1670s[4], but its principal contribution lingered in discourse concerning what came to be called the “mind:” that the immaterial phenomena of ideas must necessarily manifest in a physical place within the body, one that can be identified and located.

John Locke was already writing what would become the early drafts of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1671; its first edition would be published in December 1689[5]. It’s here that the concept of the “mind” takes a significant leap forward for several reasons, one of which is its argument against the general proposition asserted by the group of philosophers collectively known as the Cambridge Platonists—that all humans are born with innate knowledge of certain first principles, such as the existence of God. Locke, in contrast, held that all ideas came to the mind through either sensation or reflection, through either experience or meditation upon one’s experiences. The mind of a newborn was, in effect, a blank slate.

Locke, in the Essay, is a lover of categories and taxonomies: he separates ideas into those that are simple or complex; true or false; adequate or inadequate; real or fantastical. The party guest who asks me where I “get ideas” wants, I suppose, specifically to know where I get ideas perhaps best classified as complex and fantastical. Complex ideas are, for Locke, combinations of simple ideas, such as pain or coldness or whiteness[6]; however, distinguishing real from fantastical ideas presents some initial difficulty: “…’tis plain that the mind of man uses some kind of liberty, in forming those complex ideas: how else comes it to pass, that one man’s idea of gold, or justice, is different from another’s? Because he has put in, or left out of his some simple idea which the other has not. The question then is, which of these are real, and which barely imaginary combinations?”[7] (We will return to this series of questions later.) Those ideas that Locke defines as fantastical are those that were “never found together in any substance: v.g. a rational creature, consisting of a horse’s head, joined to a body of human shape, or such as the centaurs are described: or, a body, yellow, very malleable, fusible and fixed, but lighter than common water […].”[8] Locke’s examples here are fanciful objects, possible to imagine but impossible to realize, but here we are starting to get into the territory of the process of writing fiction, or other creative arts: real concepts are combined in the mind in novel ways, whose purpose is not necessarily to empirically describe the world in which one exists.

And yet if writing fiction were as easy as combining together elemental concepts in original ways, as if simple ideas were Lego bricks to be moved about and pressed together at will, the process would be much more straightforward, and I would have spent fewer hours of my life staring at empty pages and blank screens. And I would never have to worry about how my writing was received: as a novelist one generally gets the impression that no one ever reads the book you spent years writing. They might read one that has all the same words arranged in the same order, and may, if you’re fortunate, enjoy it—it nonetheless is not the book you wrote, but one that is familiar in some ways, different in others. Every published writer has had the secret experience of having someone describe their own work back to them and thinking, how comes it to pass that your idea of this writing is different from mine? They express their enthusiasm (or, if you’re unlucky, their displeasure) about a story you never wrote, one that has somehow become labeled with your name.


The neuroscientist Uri Hasson, associate professor at Princeton, has graciously agreed to talk with me as preparation for writing this essay, and so we meet at a Middle Eastern restaurant downtown for lunch. The lamb shank, he thinks, could be good—he is Israeli, and has discerning opinions on the dish. We both order the lamb shanks, and while we are waiting for the dishes to arrive, he requests a notebook and pen from me and gives an impromptu lecture, filling two pages with scribbled notes and diagrams of brains (their cross sections neatly suggested by a single graceful loop of the pen).

I’ve mentioned Locke to him on the way over to the restaurant, and he begins by drawing a straight line across the page, labeling one end “blank slate” and the other end “nativist.” Neither the positions of Locke or the Platonists is fully correct, he says: the truth is somewhere in the middle. (Neuroscientists must also be philosophers, it turns out.) It must be the case that some knowledge is innate: for instance, how to learn language. Babies don’t need to be told that the sounds coming out of the mouths of adults have patterns and meanings: they realize this on their own.

In fact, Hasson’s research largely involves the study of language processing and how we interpret stories. Now he draws a quick series of brain diagrams and waveforms to describe an experiment he and his team conducted, involving placing subjects in an MRI scanner while they listened to recordings of a story that had been manipulated in various ways: played backwards so that it was unintelligible; chopped up so that individual words were decipherable, but followed each other randomly; similarly disassembled at the sentence and paragraph levels; and, finally, the story as it was originally delivered[9]. The important thing here is that words, sentences, and paragraphs, when spoken, occupy different periods of time, so Hasson’s experiment was intended to measure the “temporal receptive windows” of different parts of the brain for different units of speech. Hasson discovered that the more complex the ideas conveyed by a speech unit (and the longer period of time the speech unit occupied), the higher the order of the brain area that processed it (the higher the order of the brain, the more associated it is with brain activities uniquely performed by humans). Significantly, areas of the brain behaved in a similar, hierarchical fashion for the different recordings of the story across all subjects: for all subjects, phonemes are processed in one area of the brain, which delivers input to another area of a brain responsible for processing words, which in turn sends information to a part of the brain that handles sentences, and so on until the idea that is represented by a few sentences, or a few dozen words, or a few hundred phonemes, is understood. So if Descartes’s speculation about the pineal gland being the location of the soul turned out to be wildly incorrect, it is at least the case that, centuries later, we see that some identifiable and locatable parts of the brain are responsible for some processes related to thought, and that the functions of these areas can be measured and predicted.

It’s also the case, according to Hasson, that areas of the brain at the top of the processing hierarchy share similar responses based on meaning, not on word choice: if two people are presented with the exact same set of words in the same sequence, but are led to believe beforehand that these words have a different meaning, then their brains will behave differently in response. In a second experiment[10], two groups of subjects listened to a recorded adaptation of the story “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” by J. D. Salinger[11]. Part of this story’s beauty, in its original published version, results from its underdetermined narrative. There are three characters: a gray-haired man, Lee; a girl (unnamed, her relationship with Lee left unspecified, the two of them in bed together); and Arthur, who calls Lee in the middle of the night—he doesn’t know where his wife, Joanie, is, and believes she may be cheating on him. Arthur spends much of the story excoriating Joanie, while Lee futilely attempts to calm him down (the girl lying in bed and listening to one side of the call the whole time). Eventually—after Arthur proposes coming over to Lee’s house for a drink, and Lee suggests this isn’t a good idea—Arthur hangs up the phone. After Arthur disconnects, the girl says to Lee: “You were wonderful. Absolutely marvellous . . . God, I feel like a dog!”[12] Shortly afterward, Arthur calls back and informs Lee that Joanie has returned unexpectedly; Lee cuts the conversation short, claiming to have “a helluva headache all of a sudden.”[13] As the story ends, Lee seems inexplicably disquieted, attempting to smoke a cigarette that slips out of his fingers.

There are (at least) two possible interpretations of these events: either the girl in the bed with Lee is Joanie, or she is not. If she is, Joanie is having an affair with Lee and listens to him try to talk Arthur out of doing something rash, and Arthur lies during the second phone call when he says Joanie has returned. If the girl is not Joanie, then Arthur is telling the truth when he says that Joanie has returned, and the girl’s exclamation (“God, I feel like a dog!”) is irrelevant to the phone conversations between Lee and Arthur.

“We ruined the story,” says Hasson matter-of-factly. Before hearing the recording of “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” the two groups of subjects were primed with introductions that offered different plot summaries: in one, the girl is identified as Joanie, and it’s made clear that she and Lee are having an affair; in the other, the girl is identified as “Lee’s girlfriend Rose,” and Arthur is described as paranoid. The subjects listened to the story (the identical story, in both instances) while in an MRI scanner; immediately afterward, they were asked a series of questions to test their comprehension. The results of the scans showed that though both sets of subjects heard the same story, they had different neural responses depending on whether they were told beforehand that the woman in the bed with Lee was Joanie or Rose. Moreover, people who believed that the woman was Joanie (and that Arthur was therefore being cheated on) had similar responses to others who thought the same, as was the case for those people who believed the woman was Rose (and that Arthur was therefore paranoid). Hasson says that if presented with an unidentified brain scan from one of the two groups, he can determine which interpretation of the story the subjects were primed to embrace with an accuracy rate of 85%, based on whether the scan is similar to scans of the brains of listeners who are already known to have been exposed to one interpretation of the story or the other.

To a writer, this finding has interesting implications. For one thing, it suggests to me that there may be evidence to support the dislike many people, including myself, have for spoilers—having a spoiler revealed to you seems to ensure that you will have a measurable, qualitatively different experience of a story, that you’ve been permanently robbed of the experience you would have otherwise had during the initial hearing. (And isn’t one of the basic results of this experiment strange, that people who hear the same story about adultery have similar neural patterns in response? After all, people will presumably have different ideas of what adultery is, based on their differing personal experiences and opinions: some will condemn it more than others; some will have been its perpetrators, or its victims, or neither, or both, or they may not view adultery as an immoral act that has a perpetrator or a victim. Why would the brains of all these people behave so similarly, so predictably? Hasson, careful in the manner of a good scientist, does not hazard an answer, saying only that he finds this “surprising.”)


The final drawing that Hasson hurriedly squeezes in to the bottom of a notebook page (we can see that the lamb shanks are already on their way from kitchen to table) is of two brains, one labeled “speaker” and the other “listener,” with sound waves emanating from one to the other. He draws arrows from the sound waves up toward the representations of the brains from the previous experiment (these have been labeled “affair” and “crazy”). All this research suggests a model of the creative act in which speech and writing serve as a set of instructions for a listener who wants to replicate the state of mind of the speaker; however, language itself is an imperfect vessel for carrying the message, because the meanings of words and the implications of statements are unavoidably colored by the listener’s prior experiences. In the case of the Salinger experiment, the exposure to prior ideas is carefully controlled; outside experimental conditions, this isn’t the case at all.

I’m left wondering, after this, whether this question sometimes posed by readers about “where ideas come from” is even the right question. Doesn’t it have a silent, problematic assumption baked into it—that the idea that the reader receives from reading the text is invariably the one that the writer intends to convey? Even if creative artists merely served as amanuenses for Muses, transcribing what they saw in the mind’s eye, would their ideas ever exist, in the form they first did in the artist’s mind, in any other place than that mind?

Perhaps the more interesting question, and one that subsumes the question of where ideas come from, is: “How can I best convey an idea from my mind to yours, with the smallest amount of distortion or corruption?”

Or does even that question propose a fool’s errand?


I’m reminded here of a conversation I had over lunch in Paris a few years ago with the two translators of my novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Anne-Sylvie Homassel and Blandine Longre. It was a spirited discussion, joyously technical, during which they told me of the changes they’d made to the novel to get it to sound its best in French. For example, they rendered the occasional bits of poetry (penned by the protagonist, a greeting-card writer) in alexandrines instead of iambic pentameter (because the rhythm of iambic pentameter in French, they said, is unpretty); also, because there are fewer words for colors in French than in English, the colors they used often had to be followed by adjectival modifiers. Nobody, not even an editor or a copy editor, thinks about a novel in the way a translator does, considering the choice of every word in relation to every other, and yet one has to ask if this new version of the book is in fact the same book. It isn’t, but pure fidelity to the text isn’t the goal of a good translation—it might be better to say that the goal, put prosaically, is to generate the same neurological response in a French reader’s brain that the original book would generate in the brain of a native English speaker.

It would seem that Hasson’s experiments confirm, or at least support, some of the tenets of that subfield of literary criticism called “reader response criticism,” which places the reader in a position of primacy over the author in matters of determining the meaning of the work. If we don’t have the empirical backing to say, as some reader-response critics might assert, that a text doesn’t have any meaning at all until a reader interprets it (something like a tree falling in the woods unheard not making a sound), we might say that meaning is collectively contributed by the author, by the reader, and by the gap in experiences and in understanding of language that lies between them. (That gap can happen in time as well as in space—when I read my own writing from even a few years ago, it can sometimes seem as if it were written by someone else, and seems to have a different meaning to me now than it did to the person I was when I originally put pen to paper. In the intervening years my brain has changed, and my mind is now made of different stuff.)

This model for how meaning is created indicates that the reader is a silent partner in the creative act, and it suggests that reading is never strictly passive. A successful reader will model what one imagines to be the mind of the author, which in turn requires an awareness of one’s own mind, and of one’s understanding of language and how it might differ from others’ understanding. (Some editions of particularly difficult novels, or those books far removed in time and space from contemporary culture, will sometimes assist a reader in this modeling through footnotes and annotations—Ulysses, for example, is a different and less interesting book for those who don’t know as much about Catholicism as Joyce did, or who don’t have a map of Dublin at hand.)

But what happens when this modeling fails, partially or entirely? Because my grasp of French is minimal, the French translation of The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a case where my own ideas are not intelligible to me: I’m forced to take the word of French readers and reviewers regarding the quality of the work (thankfully, I’ve heard good things). When speaker and listener are both fluent in the same language, they can’t experience a breakdown in communication so absolute, but they might have different understandings of different words, or they may color their interpretations of the text with their own memories, ideas, and experiences, known to themselves, unknown to others. Misunderstandings in matters of art can lead to bad experiences with it at the worst. Outside of art, in personal relationships or politics or law, the consequences can be far more harmful.

But to speak only when one is sure to be completely understood is not to speak at all. So you hope that as your ideas travel from your mind to those of others, the versions held by their receivers will be accurate, or interesting, or beautiful, even if they do not perfectly mirror your own; you hope, in the end, for listeners with elastic minds, who interpret your words in good faith.


[1] “Descartes and the Pineal Gland.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published April 25, 2005; revised September 28, 2013.

[2] Makari, George. Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. New York and London: Norton, 2015. 93-96.

[3] Makari, 94.

[4] Makari, 96.

[5] Locke, John. An Essay on Human Understanding. Edited with an introduction and notes by Roger Woolhouse. London: Penguin Books, 1997. ix.

[6] For instance, according to Locke, our complex idea of what a “lodestone” is is composed of simple ideas such as hardness, friability, and the ability to attract iron: see Locke, 269.

[7] Locke, 335.

[8] Locke, 336.

[9] Lerner, Yulia, et. al. “Topographic Mapping of a Hierarchy of Temporal Receptive Windows Using a Narrated Story.” The Journal of Neuroscience, February 23, 2011. 31(8):2906-2915.

[10] Yeshurun, Yaara, et. al. Same Story, Different Story: The Neural Representation of Interpretive Frameworks. Psychological Science (2017) 1-13.

[11] Salinger, J. D. Nine Stories. Boston, Toronto and London: Little Brown and Company, 1981. pp. 115-130.

[12] Salinger, 127.

[13] Salinger, 129.

About the Author

Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer lives in Princeton, New Jersey. His first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010, and was selected as one of the best debuts of that year by Kirkus Reviews. His second, Version Control, was published by Pantheon Books in February 2016.

He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the novels of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).

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