Five books that influenced Chris Frith FBA's life
by Professor Chris Frith FBA
1 Mar 2018
To celebrate World Book Day, we asked Chris Frith FBA – psychologist and professor emeritus at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London – to talk us through a few of the books that have made an impression on him.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
I lived my earliest years in the tiny village of Cross-in-Hand, Sussex. This lies on the very edge of Ashdown Forest where Winnie-the-Pooh lived, and there was a convenient bridge near our cottage for playing Poohsticks. Pooh, of course, was a sophisticated poet generating imaginative counterfactual analogies, as Terence Cave points out in Thinking with Literature. But I was more influenced by that other poet, the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’sThe Wind in the Willows. After being read that book, my love for nature, poetry and fine food has never wavered.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly:
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
I read very fast and fail to notice mistakes (which is probably why I still can’t spell!). In my gap year, when I briefly worked in a hotel kitchen, I could read a complete detective novel during my afternoons off. Detective stories, fantasies, science fiction: I was after anything that described a world just that little beyond my somewhat boring reality. A little later this all came wonderfully together when I discovered the works of Jorge Luis Borges.
In the collection Labyrinths, apart from one of literatures most intellectual detectives, there is a story about neuropsychology, which was to become my discipline. In Funes the Memorious, the protagonist – as a result of brain damage – acquires an almost perfect memory. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a great disadvantage since there is no longer any need to structure the world through generalisations. Why should ‘a dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) have the same name as a dog at three fifteen (seen from the front)?’ asks Funes. In others of Borges’ stories, the worlds he describes tend to seep out and start contaminating the real world.
Tales of Hoffman by ETA Hoffmann
By the late 60s I was doing a PHD in experimental psychology, but the main event was meeting and marrying Uta Aurnhammer [now Uta Frith FBA]. A crash course in German culture was essential. I learned to recognise that Hermann Hesse, a previous favourite, wrote kitsch. ETA Hoffmann, in contrast, was one of the greatest late romantic writers of fantasies. Today he is remembered only for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann but the original Tales are much darker and more prescient. Automata and The Sand-Man are both concerned with the creation of artificial intelligence and the difficulty of distinguishing this from the real thing (a hundred and fifty years later Philip K Dick explored the same theme in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). In the first part of Automata, Hoffman describes an early example of behavioural psychotherapy, designed to cure ‘an over-excited imagination’. The consequences are disastrous.
The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos by Anne Carson
Much of my working life involves writing research papers. Such papers are very formal. They must have four sections – introduction, methods, results, discussion – and one must never use the word ‘I’. These constraints are remarkably similar to those of the Chinese ‘eight-legged essay’, ridiculed by Mao Tse-Tung in his own eight-legged essay, Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing: ‘The first indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it fills endless pages with empty verbiage.’ The advantage of poetry, however, is that it has constraints but does not contain the endless empty verbiage. Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A fictional Essay in 29 Tangos is a terrific example.
Cell to Civilizations by Enrico Coen
There is a mistaken belief that scientists spend most of their time in the lab, running experiments and analysing data. In reality, we spend most of our time writing and many scientists have produced excellent popular books about their subject. My favourite is Enrico Coen’s Cells to Civilizations. This is a daring attempt to show that certain basic computational principles underlie the evolution of species, the emergence of individuals from a single cell, and the development of culture.
These principles are especially concerned with the way individuals fit into their world. There are two ways this can be achieved: we can change ourselves, or we can change the world. Humans have been spectacularly successful with the latter strategy. Books take this strategy a step further. They create new mental worlds in which we can thrive.
Professor Chris Frith is a Fellow of the British Academy and a psychologist and professor emeritus at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy and Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
Photo of Chris Frith by Anders Gade