Perception, Neurology, and Fiction

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice, (she was so surprised that she quite forgot how to speak good English,) “now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Goodbye, feet!” (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed almost out of sight, they were getting so far off,) “oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I can’t! I shall be a great deal too far off to bother myself about you: you must manage the best way you can—but I must be kind to them,” thought Alice, “or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go! Let me see: I’ll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.”
~ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Over the past century and a half or so since the original publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a number of scientists, doctors, and literature lovers have speculated as to what the real-world sources of the fantastic elements of Lewis Carroll’s story were.  One interesting suggestion is that Carroll suffered from the altered perception of body size that is sometimes associated with migraines, and this was the inspiration for Alice’s potion-induced shrinking and growing when she first tumbles down the rabbit hole.

While it turns out that the speculation about Carroll is probably incorrect (pdf), the complexity of the human brain leaves it vulnerable to neurological disorders and illusions that alter the perception of the world such that it doesn’t accurately reflect reality. While that can be distressing and debilitating to the person who is afflicted, such alterations can be an excellent inspiration for speculative fiction. What sets SF apart from non-genre fiction is that it often depicts what we would normally consider a delusion as an accurate reflection of reality.

For example, people who suffer from Capgras syndrome believe that one or more of their loved ones has been replaced by an identical looking duplicate. In the related Fregoli syndrome, the delusion is that different people are a single individual changing shape.  In the speculative fiction versions of those syndromes, friends and family actually have been replaced by one or more imposters. Examples include John W. Campbell’s shape-shifting alien in the novella “Who Goes There?” (1938), the alien pods in Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and the robotic housewife replacements in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1975).

A bit less creepy is inattentional blindness, a phenomenon in which the brain doesn’t perceive people or things that are in plain sight. The principal was used by Douglas Adams for the  Somebody Else’s Problem Field in the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, which was used to disguise large spaceships and unexpected appearances of aliens from people who just don’t want to perceive reality. In a more serious vein, it also plays a major role in Peter Watts’  hard science fiction novel Blindsight - as do several other disorders in the neurology of perception (read Watts’ notes for details).

And then there are zombies – not so much the brain-eating living dead variety, but the kind with living bodies and brains lacking self-awareness. For example, Daryl Gregory has speculated on what a person with a functional brain but no consciousness would be like in his short story “Second Person, Present Tense.”

Not too surprisingly, most of the stories I’ve mentioned have a strong horror element. While it’s frightening to think that our brains might malfunction in such a way that we perceive imposters all around us or monsters we can’t see, I think it’s even worse to consider that such apparent delusions might actually be true. Despite that (or perhaps because of that), it can make for riveting storytelling,  and there are many  quirks and defects of human perception that have yet to be tapped in fiction.

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Illustration: Lewis Carroll’s drawing of Alice after “opening out like a telescope”, from the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground .

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