Guest post by Uta Frith.
For some time I have been intending to write a post about Jorge Luis Borges as a writer who inspired my work, but I never got round to it. Now, our One Culture festival on 1-2 October has suddenly made clear to me that I must write this piece now. My choice is after all a striking illustration of the idea of One Culture, the writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Why Borges? This is not just an afterthought to suit the One Culture theme, but I quoted one Borges’ stories in my PhD thesis, “Funes the Memorius”. Funes was the name of a remarkable and tragic figure, who had supernaturally accurate memory. This story touched me at a critical phase when I was first trying to interpret the enigmatic features of autism.
Here is the context. At the time I saw classically autistic children who showed a particularly intriguing symptom, ‘echolalia’, that is, echoing of speech. They were incredibly good at repeating back what was said to them. Intriguingly, when asked to repeat words arranged in meaningful phrases they did not do that much better than when they words were random strings. For all other children this makes an enormous difference: they recall far more words when they are presented in meaningful phrases (Hermelin & O’Connor, 1967; Aurnhammer-Frith, 1969).
Here is an excerpt from my PhD thesis (London University, 1968, p. 29-33), typed of course by hand:
“Since the nervous system is limited in its capacity to discriminate and store all the possible stimuli appearing in the environment, some mechanisms must be postulate for the reduction of input[…] [A]technique is to condense or to categorize…this presumably involves the induction of rules enabling the organism to pick out the important aspects of the input.”
[…]“The intimate relation between information reduction and the formation of rules, concepts, ideas etc is made plain when systems with no information reduction are considered. Borges (1945) in his ‘Funes the Memorius” describes a hypothetical young man who as a result of an accident had infallible and infinite perception and memory[…] He was almost incapable of general platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and differing forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion.”
Many people I know have been moved by Borges’ writings. They touch on science fiction, history, legend, archaeology, and here on neuropsychology. But there was something extraordinarily important for me in this story: it was true. Such cases with superior memory had occasionally been described before. However, Borges revealed a dark side of this talent. Being able to remember every single detail, minute by minute, may prevent you from getting the bigger picture.
Also in my PhD thesis I referred to a case study by the great Russian neuropsychologist Aleksander Romanovich Luria. He described in detail his investigation of a memory expert who did quite closely resemble the fictional Funes. He also seemed to me to have distinctly autistic traits. I doubt that Borges ever knew of this parallel case, and I doubt that Luria knew of the Borges story. This is what makes both these accounts, the fictional and the scientific, so very clearly a case of the One Culture principle.
It is probably no coincidence that Borges inspired my work in my twenties. It is startling to me to realize how different I looked at that age. These years were for me a time of tremendous excitement, discovery, change and inspiration. Before then I had no idea what I would like to do or even who I would like to be. I dreamt of being a writer, a gardener, a linguist, a doctor, an archaeologist and so on. Everything fell into place when I moved from provincial Germany to metropolitan London. My future husband, Chris, introduced me to Borges, an introduction to a new and unexpected world on the very border of literature and scientific writing, and I felt it was tailor made for me.
I was only just then learning to write up psychological experiments in a ‘scientific style’, and yet I continued to love the ‘romantic style’ as exemplified in some of my favourite German authors, such as Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. These authors too touched on scientific questions but exemplified the awesome and wondrous in science, rather than the cool and rational. I am glad to say that I came to prefer the cool! It seemed to me that Borges was a virtuoso who played with such different and cool modes in his stories that they became for me a fresh and plentiful source of inspiration. The collection ‘Labyrinths’ seemed to me to dance on the border between two complementary stances and made each of them throw some new richer colour onto the other. Imagine writing fiction as if it were a scientific account, footnotes, references and all, Imagine, writing up empirically based research as if it were a suspenseful narrative. I have been seeking this kind of cross-over, but have never achieved it myself.
Professor Uta Frith FRS is Emeritus Professor at University College London and a Research Foundation Professor at the University of Aarhus.