This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer

There are certain points where we can truly bridge the gap between arts and science, and the psychology of characters – whether fictional or non-fictional – is a perfect example. At this event at the Royal Society’s One Culture festival, author Sebastian Faulks and neuropsychologist Uta Frith spoke together about this point where the two worlds of science and art meet.

Sebastian Faulks and Uta Frith at One Culture

Whilst novelists are capable of creating a character seemingly out of nothing, Sebastian Faulks reminds us that it is only the skilled writer who is able to create a credible character whose life, character and thoughts we can easily slip into as we read. The author must make the fictional individual interesting and consistent, but an element of inconsistency is also needed to ensure that the character is not stereotyped and engages curiosity in the reader.

This idea of curiosity of characters is a subject that has always been important in literature, but is only now gaining the interest of neuroscience. Traditionally, science tended to be less interested in the individual, and more interested in the whole; questions such as ‘why do people differ in their curiosity?’ and ‘why do people fluctuate in their curiosity?’ seek to look at each person as a unique concept, thus science reaches into the world of the arts.

It was mentioned during the discussion that it is really incredible how someone who is totally imaginary can effect and engage us to such a large extent; and this is not something that we have to learn to do, instead it comes innately, allowing us to play with the idea of other possibilities of ourselves through the imagination of the writer. Uta Frith brought up the point that when reading about such characters, the reader’s life feels enriched, and Sebastian Faulks illustrates this with a literary example from Emma by Jane Austen, where Emma and Mr Knightly improve their characters throughout the book, but it is the reader who truly feels enriched by the end of this fictional story.

Sebastian Faulks and Uta Frith in conversation

In his earlier books, such as Birdsong and Girl at Lion D’or, Sebastian Faulks aimed to explore the concepts and ideas of characters and how they can be shaped by the world around us; which is a hugely important and interesting concept in psychology today.

Our scientific understanding of psychology, psychiatry and neurology is linked to writing throughout history. Early authors such as Homer wrote about characters who were not much differentiated from each other, and the motivation of their actions came from voices of the gods, rather than from the development of character and personality. It was not until Harold Bloom seemingly invented the idea of human personality, that there was any notion or idea in literature that a human character could be predictable and capable of relationships with others.

The recent psychological concept of the Social Brain, which suggests that we have a lot in common with everyone around us, brings with it the idea that we can understand ourselves much better by understanding those around us; and leading from this, we can also learn a lot about other people from the books we read.

The arts, therefore, have been seeking for the answers of questions that have only recently come to the attention of science. On the other hand, the science of understanding character and its development has enhanced literature throughout history, which has in turn contributed to the enrichment of our lives.

After the event I caught up with Sebastian – click here to download a video of our conversation (m4v).

You can also listen to a podcast of Uta discussing the festival as a whole.

Sebastian Faulks at the Royal Society

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