Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker, belongs to a recently emerged genre neurothriller, where the plot and central questions revolve around brains and consciousness. It is also a serial killer story, which I find not interesting, but I persevered because reading about brains is interesting enough I’m willing to tolerate all kinds of improbable set-ups and blaah plot devices. 


Near-future USA, where brain scanning has become commonplace. A middle-aged academic dude gets drafted to help FBI to solve a serial killer case. Our dude is an university lecturer and his specialty is neuropsychology’s philosophical and ethical implications. The serial killer is his old best friend, who does gruesome brain modifications to his victims. Our dude has to figuratively get in the head of his friend while friend quite literally gets in the head of several other people. Also, he has to explain several times how brains work what consciousness is, what “self” is, and especially what it is not.


What I find either not believable or extremely sinister is the lack of knowledge about brains, consciousness etc everyone apart from protagonist, adversary and this one older professor side character show. In the book, brain scanning and neural manipulation technologies have improved a lot compared to current situation, and I would assume they would be standard background knowledge for example for crime investigators etc., even if just vaguely. But everyone who hears our protagonist explain how consciousness is “just an illusion” etc is deeply disturbed at this new information. Shocked, really. Either worldbuilding falters or then the surveillance state the future USA has become is also actively suppressing information about neuroscience. Internet is in total control of the state so this would be a reasonable assumption… if not for the psychology professor protagonist himself having no idea that his field is shrouded in secrecy.  But perhaps entire troublesome fields of information could be dampened and withdrawn from the collective common knowledge with enough information manipulation power.


Some sort of petty/childish glee at shocking people with your radical views pervades this whole book. I ofc don't know what kind of education the expected reader base has, but I knew by age 4 that thinking is done in the brain. While this understanding has gained details and sophistication, and a few difficult philosophical questions have arisen, the basic premise is the same. So it's hard to understand the tone of the book.


Reading Neuropath made me remember two other books that fall within neurothriller genre, and certain parallels appear. 


Quantum Night by Rober J. Sawyer is marketed as a thriller but it’s actually relaxing, pleasant read about academic researchers figuring out that the world is in a way more complicated we imagined but in practical terms actually simpler. I kind of wish this “you can safely ignore most people as they do not have interesting/worthwhile inner lives” position had been drawn a little further, the radical ethical implications explored more thoroughly. I sure can emphatise with the feeling that many people seem to have not much going on in their heads. But I find it sort of lazy and lowest common denominator under-the-belt strike to use that feeling, which I’m sure many people share, instead of challenging it… kind of “Mary Sue” thing, “just me, you and a precious few other people on this Earth are worth anything, and here’s a witty scientific quantum neuro proof for it”. Like, already there’s a tendency to nonhumanize others than those not belonging in one’s immediate social circle, and a smart writer can of course use that to elicit a pleasurable reaction from the reader, but is it the right thing to do? Esp. given that much of the book deals with utilitarian ethics. 


Blindsight by Peter Watts takes human (and vampire) brains with their inbuilt possibilities and limitations into space. Alien contact story where, as traveling and coming into contact with foreign culture often does, meeting aliens actually makes us see ourselves more clearly, our idiosyncrasies, our obsessions, our capacities, our limitations. Of these three books Blindsight is unquestionably the best. It really draws the conclusions as far as possible, it is fascinating and attention-grabbing and terribly effectively written (really goes under your skin), with extremely creepy sense of wonder, and, well, all this without once having a middle-aged academic man giving a lengthy info-dump monologue to educate a strikingly beautiful woman who is eager to listen, and smart enough to grasp his ideas but not that smart as to express any counterarguments.


Why has this genre appeared now, when we’ve had brains all the time?

Neuroscience has advanced remarkably in the past few decades, making the age-old philosophic questions of identity, free will, perception etc more tangible and immediate. There’s also another cause for this surge in interest in brains, what they do and our inner experiences, one that does not require intense study of neurones and brain anatomy: It tends to be impolite or weird to discuss one’s mental states in detail, except for certain emotions that are socially approved parts of regular interaction. But the mental processes themselves, or atypical reactions, they just are not the thing to talk about out loud. If someone did, most likely they did not find anyone sharing the same condition and consequently shut about their strange experiences. Until recent years, when the semi-anonymity of internet made sharing these things easy and painless, and made possible finding others with the same condition no matter how rare. For example aphantasia, the inability to imagine visually, has become a recognised phenomenon, as well as trypophobia. And ASMR, which has grown to a wildly successful subculture. Probably also autism spectrum community has solidified and diversified thanks to internet. Oh, and The Dress! That really made clear we literally don’t see the world the same way and that there’s always an interpretative element at play.


Who knows what conditions and mental architecture differences remain yet to be discovered by this accidental but thanks to sheer numbers effective crowdsourcing method! Quite exciting, actually. I’m also guessing categorising people according to their method of thought will be the next big thing in self-help industry.


I used to assume everyone thinks like I do, ie in abstract concepts that have to be translated into words, the silence of their brains only occasionally disturbed by a stuck melody loop. But then I found out that all that talk about ‘inner voices’ and ‘inner monologues’ was not hyperbole or metaphor, it is the actual way many (if not most) people’s brains produce thoughts. It still feels incredible to me but I have to accept there are many different methods of thinking and that inner voice thing that to me appears a mental disturbance, even an illness, is just… normal. It is so easy to universalise from personal inner experience, since we are stuck in our own minds. So. My unconcern and many others’ concern for this idea that there is no “real” me may also be, instead of hysterizing and ridiculous naivety on the part of those others, pointing out a lack in me. Is there a more sophisticated consciousness, more deep, more subtle, more meaningful, more something, that I’m missing and that’s why I’m not appalled at the idea that the feeling of coherent self is the product of neurons firing? Have I just outed myself as only barely passing the consciousness threshold?