Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Eagleman

The long and the short of it

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Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane

One of the greatest compliments that we can pay to any story is that it seems shorter than it actually is. It’s obviously best for a narrative to be only as long as it has to be, and no more, which means that the creator needs to be willing to cut wherever necessary. (Sometimes it’s even better if these time or length limits are imposed from the outside. I’ve always maintained that Blue Velvet, my favorite American movie ever, was tremendously improved by a contractual stipulation that forced David Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham to cut it from three hours down to two. And as much as I’m enjoying the streaming renaissance on Netflix, I sometimes wish that the episodes of these shows were shorter: without a fixed time slot, there’s no incentive to trim any given installment, and a literal hour of television tends to drag toward the end.) But it’s nice when a movie, in particular, grips us so completely that we don’t realize how long we’ve been watching it. I still remember being so absorbed by Michael Mann’s The Insider that I was startled to realize, when I checked my watch after the screening, that it was two and a half hours long: I would have guessed that it was closer to ninety minutes. And you only need to compare the experience of watching the original cut of Seven Samurai with, say, four episodes of the second season of True Detective to realize that three and a half hours can be something very different in subjective and objective time.

But there’s another storytelling trick that deserves just as much attention, which is the ability to make a short work of art seem longer. I’m not talking about the way in which even a twenty minutes of a bad sitcom can seem interminable, but of how a story can somehow persuade us that we’ve lived through a longer and more meaningful experience than seems possible to encompass within a limited timeframe. On some level, this is an illusion that you encounter in most narratives of any kind: with the exception of the rare works designed to unfold in real time, we’re asked to believe that the relatively short period that it takes to physically view or read the story really covers days, weeks, or months of action, and occasionally much longer. Many biopics, for instance, ask us to go through an entire lifetime in a couple of hours, and the fact that the result is usually so unsatisfying only indicates how hard it is to pull this off. But it has a greater chance of succeeding when it uses our perceptions of time to convince us, in a pleasurable way, that we’ve seen and felt more than could be packed into a single sitting. We could start with Citizen Kane, which is exactly a minute short of two hours long—which, like Blue Velvet, probably reflects an attempt to meet a contractually mandated length. Yet more than any other movie, it feels like a full picture of a man’s life, and the fact that it asks us to assemble Kane’s story from the fragments of other people’s memories offers a very important clue as to how this kind of thing works.

Hamilton

Because one of the best ways to create a subjective impression of length is through contrasts: the alternation of big and little, loud and soft, fast and slow. I got to thinking about this while listening to “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which is one of the two or three best songs in Hamilton. It’s as epic a number as you could imagine, and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve lived through an unforgettable experience, but it lasts just four minutes. In his notes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains how it works:

Part of the inspiration for the structure of “Yorktown” is what I call the “Busta Rhymes soft-loud-soft technique. On countless songs, Busta will give you the smoothest, quietest delivery and then full-on scream the next verse. It makes for a delightful tension and release, and it’s entirely vocal. Same here. “I have everything I wanted but I can’t die today / We’re going into battle / Here’s what my friends are doing / Hercules Mulligan!” Thank you and God bless you, Busta Rhymes.

It isn’t hard to see why this kind of alternation creates an impression of length, in the much same way that we find with the experiments with chronology in Kane. With every transition, the listener has to readjust, and the mental effort of these regroupings draws out our perception of time passing. The switching costs of moving from one moment to the next allow the story to do with a juxtaposition what would otherwise require a pause. As the old proverb says, a change is as good as a rest.

And this phenomenon emerges from something fundamental in how our brains are wired. As the neurologist David Eagleman says about the perception of time in everyday life:

When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.

In other words, it takes a while for the brain to process new information, leading to a subjective impression of extended time. It’s why travel or a change of scenery can make our lives seem to slow down, and why we’re advised to use surprise or variety to keep the days from turning into a blur. The real challenge for artists is to combine different kinds of time within the same narrative. A movie or book that consists of nothing but action will quickly become boring, and so will a string of talky interior scenes. If you can speed it up and slow it down in the right proportions, the result, at its finest, will make you feel as if you’ve lived a rich, fulfilling life over the course of two hours. Hamilton does this beautifully. So does Kane—and you could even argue that the best reason to use a nonlinear narrative, rather than as a gimmick, is the ability it presents to treat time as a tool. You’re not just painting a picture; you’re asking the audience to assemble a puzzle. And it helps to use different kinds of pieces.

Do novelists have free will? Part 1

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Sam Harris

Recently, as part of a writing project I’m hoping to finish within the next couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of free will. Free will, like consciousness, is a phenomenon that seems perfectly obvious in our everyday life but increasingly elusive the more we try to pin it down. As David Eagleman points out in his book Incognito, science has long since established that much of what we think of as our own intentions and behavior arise from parts of the brain that aren’t immediately accessible to conscious thought. In the famous Libet experiment, for instance, subjects were told to flick a finger at the time of their choosing, while recording what they perceived as the exact moment at which they decided to move. What Benjamin Libet discovered was that readiness potentials associated with muscle movement could be detected in the brain about half a second before the subjects were conscious of having made the decision. Later tests have found similar brain activity as much as seven seconds in advance—which implies that consciousness, at least under some circumstances, is really just a way of retrospectively rationalizing actions we’ve undertaken before we’re even aware of it.

To some extent, we all know how this feels. This morning, for instance, while mulling over today’s blog post, I brushed my teeth, showered, shaved—and then brushed my teeth again. Why? I don’t know. My eye happened to fall on the toothbrush by the sink, and without any conscious input whatsoever, my “brushing my teeth” subroutine was absentmindedly activated for the second time in twenty minutes. Later, I made coffee and my morning omelet, and it’s safe to say that I was operating mostly on autopilot: I was watching my daughter and thinking about what I was going to write at the same time, so I was more than happy to outsource my breakfast to a different part of my brain. This kind of automation is a necessary part of survival, as well as basic happiness: I’d go crazy if I had to consciously think over each step of such routine activities, much less to remind myself to breathe twelve times each minute. It’s far less comfortable to acknowledge that higher levels of our actions and behavior may be equally out of our control, but the more we try to grasp what we mean by free will, the more it seems to slip through our fingers.

Samuel Johnson

Opponents of free will certainly have a strong case on their side. Every human thought or action arises from the firing of the brain’s neurons, which in turn are governed by the laws of physics, and attempts to explain consciousness by reference to quantum mechanics are really just a way of replacing one mystery with another. Go down far enough and we’re nothing but physical processes, and any event in the brain, big or small, can be traced back to another. Even if we’re willing to entertain the existence of a soul, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the unconscious roots of our influences and intentions, as Sam Harris notes in his little book Free Will: “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” Harris writes elsewhere that most attempts to salvage the idea of free will begin with the premise that they want to prove, and that such efforts have more in common with theology than science or philosophy. And although Harris’s case is in some ways irrefutable, one is still tempted to respond to it in the same way that Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life, replied to the doctrine of idealism:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—”I refute it thus.”

It might seem equally quaint to point to one’s subjective perception of free will and say: “I refute it thus.” But that’s really all most of the arguments in favor of free will can do—and make no mistake, it’s a powerful piece of evidence. What Daniel Dennett has called “our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions” is something we can’t easily dismiss. And although it’s far outside this scope of this blog to make a case one way or the other, I think it’s worthwhile to consider it through one particular lens: that of creative activity. At first glance, the act of writing a novel—or composing a symphony or executing a fresco—seems like a strong demonstration of willed, conscious activity: each book is a series of choices, executed over a long period of time and with a lot of reflection, constrained only by the artist’s ability. As much as any action in which human beings engage, the novel is an exercise in sustained consciousness that can take years to complete, and the result, however flawed it may be, can only be something that the author meant to do. Or can it? Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the process of writing as an act of free will, and try to consider how much, or how little, it really explains.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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