'The Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs': An Interview with Ransom Stephens

There's no shortage of books about the brain. Over the centuries, authors have scribed many, many texts on the topic--and I've read a few, but I've never heard of a fictional one.

Until now.

In The Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs, Ransom Stephens takes a different tact to an oft-covered subject.

I recently sat down with him to talk about his new book.

PS: Why did you write this book?

RS: I got into neuroscience when I was researching my second novel, The Sensory Deception. The premise is built on the relationship between the senses and the mind. I had a lot of questions and got really into it. I think everyone wants to look under the hood and see how the brain works.

In writing The Left Brain Speaks The Right Brain Laughs (LBSRBL), I set out to understand things like what happens in our brains when we read a novel, watch a movie, or experience virtual reality. What does it mean to "know" someone and how close can we get? And how can we position ourselves to have better ideas, create better stuff, solve harder problems?

I don't think of LBSRBL as a self-help book, but it can help us squeeze out a bit more creative horsepower than we could before. We only get a few decades of awareness and we have some big problems to solve; we should put our heads to work.

PS: Thousands of books discuss how the brain works and neuroscience. What makes yours different?

RS: The simple answer is that LBSRBL covers more ground than the others: the nature of consciousness, why we mourn a friend's death, how nature and nurture play together, and why we pursue some questions but not others. Most popular science books hit one thesis statement that you can usually figure out from the back copy and first couple of chapters. LBSRBL entertains a lot of the Big Questions, but what I really tried to do was provide the neuro-infrastructure for new ways that you can think about those questions.

As fields of science go, neuroscience is in its infancy. My background is in physics, the most mature of the sciences, so I bring a different perspective. I did my best to convey those aspects of neuroscience that are likely to survive through the next century of research and identify those results that are on more tenuous ground.

LBSRBL is different in another way. I tend to be the impatient guy in the back row with a short attention span making jokes during the lecture. Same deal here. We need a good laugh to get through.

PS: Why is it so important to move out of your comfort zone?

RS: If we get too far from our comfort zones we tend to freak out and make mistakes. If we stay inside them we can't excel. We need to find that state of resonance where we're fully engaged. Picture your comfort zone as a chair; you want to be at the edge of your seat--right on the edge doing something you're good at, but that challenges you to the limit of your ability. That's when you're in the zone. We've all been there. We love it. It's why people ski down mountains. Why we try to change the world. Why we switch careers. It's even why we like to solve puzzles.

PS: Why do novels work?

RS: Novels are virtual reality. Neuroscience has a pile of evidence for special "mirror neurons" that activate when we watch someone perform an act, just as they activate when we ourselves perform that act. The same thing happens with emotions and thoughts. When we see someone else experiencing joy, grief, humor, or even the "aha!" instant of discovery, some of our joy, grief and light bulb neurons fire in response.

Stories excite within us the very circuits through which we interact with the world. Like any other experience, that interaction alters our models and changes our worldview. As you envision a setting, your visual processing centers activate in a way that is strikingly similar to how they would activate if you were actually there. In other words, when a novelist does a good job portraying a character in a rose garden, you catch a hint of the scent; an act of fictitious injustice makes you feel outrage; a good sex scene perks you right up.