Many Minds, One Story

Essay / by Richard E. Cytowic /

Virginia Woolf’s mental illness may have ultimately defined her craft—one that rejected convention in a decades-long attempt to portray the very character of consciousness.

Image courtesy of Tara Hunt.

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse opens in opposition, with a fragment of conversation already in progress: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” says Mrs. Ramsay to her son James. “But,” contradicts his father two paragraphs later, “it won’t be fine.”

The novel is unbalanced from its first line. Within four paragraphs, points of view shift among mother, son, and father; then an omniscient voice reveals the thoughts of all three members of the Ramsay family, “that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that.”

Recently I read Woolf’s entire oeuvre chronologically and noted opposition throughout: tensions between public and private; alienation versus belonging; nature versus man-made artifice; inner time versus the imposed timekeeping of Big Ben’s hours. In The Waves, Woolf actually refracts six separate consciousnesses into one mind, the biographer Bernard. She also liked ambiguity, something she borrowed from Russian writers such as Chekhov and Dostoevsky. When the text allows for alternate readings, she declines to take sides.

Could such opposing attitudes reflect Woolf’s own considerable ambivalence? Do the author’s real-life equivocations echo in the indecisiveness of her fictional characters and her inconclusive plot arcs? In her diaries, Woolf regularly described a recurrent “madness,” referring to the disruptive mood swings that plagued her career and ultimately led to her suicide. As a doctor who has studied neurological disorders for 35 years, I recognize such periodic and cyclical fluctuations as manic–depressive illness, or bipolar affective disorder.

Woolf plays creatively with two prime forces behind her bifurcated self: a fragile sense of ego in relation to those of her parents (portrayed by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay), and self-doubt as an artist (Woolf herself as portrayed by Lily Briscoe). The structures of Woolf’s novels themselves differ dramatically. It’s nearly impossible to fit them into a coherent attitude one might call Woolf’s theory of art, and judging by the diverse Woolf scholarship that exists instead of a consensus, I am not alone.

And that might be the point: Woolf could not piece herself together when unpredictable mental illness fragmented her world. “Virginia could be a very enchanting person,” said Vogue editor Madge Garland, “but there were times when I felt that she was more nearly enchanted.” When depressed, Woolf took to bed and withdrew, viewing the world as meaningless and without hope. On the upswing to mania she wrote at breakneck speed, the words seeming to compose themselves.

In her autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past” (published in Moments of Being), Woolf claims that To the Lighthouse came out “in a great, apparently involuntary, rush…Blowing bubbles out of a pipe gives the feeling of the rapid crowd of ideas and scenes which blew out of my mind.” Like others gripped by mania, she did not feel herself the author of her own thoughts, but a puppet of another consciousness: “My lips seemed syllabling of their own accord as I walked. What blew the bubbles?...I have no notion.”

At these heightened times Woolf needed to know every detail of people’s lives. The novelist Christopher Isherwood reports how engaged and social Woolf was during elevated states:

We are at tea table. Virginia is speaking with gaiety, delicate malice and gossip—the gossip which is the style of her books and which made her the best hostess in London; listening to her, we missed appointments, forgot love-affairs, stayed on into the small hours, when we had to be hinted, gently, but firmly, out of the house.

Because the distorted thinking of bipolar individuals persists even when they are neutrally poised between mania and depression, Woolf read meaning and portent into events that were likely coincidental. This tendency may be one reason Woolf’s novels are strewn with odd, minute details that lure readers to hunt for significance in them.

Critics and therapists often presume psychodynamic explanations of causation despite lack of evidence in Woolf’s writing. The thinking goes that because the young Virginia was sexually abused, she portrayed the sexes as incommensurable, misogynistic in the way Richard Dalloway is in The Voyage Out or Mr. Tansley is in Lighthouse. The modern habit is to think about mental forces in terms of cause and effect.

What if instead one took a biological perspective and asked how the distorted perceptions and self-absorption typical of bipolar individuals might have colored the thinking of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated authors? Such a mind makes it hard to see objectively, let alone distinguish facts from its projections. Though Woolf confused subject and object most often during manic upswings, she also did so to varying degrees all the time.

From my perspective as a neurologist who studies minds and as a creative writer who imagines characters’ inner lives, Virginia Woolf’s mind is a marvel to behold. No two books are alike. “Not this, not that,” she seems to be saying as she rejects convention and hones her technique in a lifelong experiment to portray consciousness and the character of thought. Her ideas about the unreliability of language were prescient given what science now knows: that the very structure of human brains allows language to introspect only a fraction of consciousness.

Critics and therapists often presume psychodynamic explanations of causation despite lack of evidence in Woolf’s writing.

Biology likewise confirms Woolf’s intuition that “reality,” a term she put in quotes, is contingent. We cannot know one another absolutely. “What solitary icebergs we are, Miss Vinrace! How little we can communicate!” says Richard Dalloway in The Voyage Out, while Terence Hewet is correct that “I say everything’s different. No two people are in the least the same.” Reality is subjective because the brain is not a passive antenna for “objective data” impinging on it, as people often suppose. Each brain actively pursues what interests it, filtering the world in its uniquely subjective way. Genes prime a life while experience in a given culture contextualizes it.

From my physician and writer perspectives, mental illness motivates her art far more than supposed choices to rebel, prove herself, win parental approval, or other so-called reasonable explanations. I’m led not to look for preconceived reasons, but evidence of bipolar traits in Woolf’s work.

Start with her voluminous output. Bipolar disorder is one of several conditions characterized by incessant writing, or hypergraphia. Though letter writing was as common in Woolf’s time as emailing and texting are today, she exceeded norms of her peers with reviews, novels, biographies, essays, correspondence, and 26 diary volumes in which she wrote about what she was writing. She took up new experiments in narrative before finishing what she was working on, revised obsessively even after publication (which is why British and American editions differ in numerous small ways), and even took back Between the Acts from the printer: “I will revise it…I didn’t realize how bad it was.”

Woolf’s psychotic episodes made it hard to separate her thoughts from others’ (e.g., hearing voices or, famously, birds singing in Greek), or to be sure of what was real. She was at times violent, delusional, and incoherent. Given her assertion that the life of the mind was the only “real” life, the grip on what she called reality must have felt tenuous.

She had what I would describe as a faulty theory of mind—a standard term describing a developing child’s ability to attribute mental states to others that depends on what are called “mirror neurons.” Though one cannot know others absolutely, once developed, our brains are good enough to infer what others might be thinking or feeling, allowing for empathy. Throughout her fiction Woolf dramatizes the challenge of separating self from other, a move that was both creative and therapeutic. On finishing To The Lighthouse she wrote, “I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I suppose I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients.”

Woolf’s portrayal of psychic fragmentation anticipated the discovery that brains do have multiple domains of consciousness. The most relevant is the left-brain interpreter, a Bernard-like press secretary whose impulse is to explain. Its narrative is unreliable, however. How marvelous that life should imitate the unreliable narrator of fiction.

We have long known that each brain hemisphere has a separate sensory–motor interface with the world. Different cognitive functions lateralize, too, meaning that they reside in one hemisphere or the other. Language is usually left hemispheric. Woolf thought deeply about the unreliability of language, but also about meaning, which is not restricted to the language hemisphere. These physiological facts are therefore germane.

In 1953, Roger Sperry and Robert Myers began the first split-brain research, cutting all the connections between the brain’s hemispheres so that the two could no longer cross-communicate. This research, which helped Sperry earn a 1981 Nobel Prize, eventually proved that the two hemispheres have distinct ways of perceiving, speaking, thinking, and remembering. Each possesses separate minds that differ in content, mode of organization, and their approach to problems. Each has a distinct personality and characteristic likes and dislikes. Accordingly, the two hemispheres have similar, but not identical, concepts of self with respect to past and future, family, culture, and social history.

Woolf revealed her contrary selves in letters and diaries. But the counterintuitive reality of multiple minds in a single person is one most people resist given that they feel themselves a singular “me.” That feeling, however, is an illusion.

Refusing to simplify life’s complexities helped her and her readers see the sane and insane Virginia Woolf side by side.

The idea that humans possess more than one mind, in a literal, physical sense, was first suggested in 1844 by Arthur Wigan. In The Duality of Mind, he described the autopsy of someone he knew well in which one brain hemisphere was discovered to be entirely missing! Wigan had wits enough to deduce that a single hemisphere was enough to be a person. It implied that the brain is not a single organ of two halves, but a closely apposed pair just as the kidneys or lungs are paired one to a side. Wigan concluded that if one hemisphere was sufficient to have a mind then the customary pair made having two minds inevitable. His astute observation suggested a physical basis for why it is ourselves with whom we are most often at odds and “can’t make up our minds.”

Multiple lines of evidence confirm that the act of doing and the feeling of doing it are unrelated brain events. That is, being conscious of our actions does not mean we intended to cause them. Nonetheless, the subjective certainty that thoughts do cause actions is enough to override any amount of scientific preaching that their actual causes are generated unconsciously while memory-related circuits invent a narrative to explain matters after the fact. (Naysayers: see Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will for the evidence and argument.)

Like the magician’s trick in which the audience never sees the actual contraptions and accomplices in its causal sequence, the real sequence of far-flung brain events causing a behavior is greater than what we’re able to perceive. Yet we say, “I wanted to do it, so I did it,” when the objective truth is, “My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.” Woolf did speak of sensing an agency at times that did not feel like herself.

Pertinent to “What blew the bubbles?” is the observation that creative persons often admit to not feeling like the source of their inspiration. Divided consciousness accounts for the detached feeling of not authoring the very craft that others ascribe uniquely to them. When ordinary people are particularly clever they think, “Where did that come from?” Yet try to act cleverly and one often looks foolish. Unsummoned, insight and moments of wit feel different from the mental effort we exert when solving other problems.

The trouble is the left-brain interpreter’s habit of explaining situations it had nothing to do with and consequently cannot understand. Its existence was first revealed by split-brain research, but the implications apply to everyone. In one famous experiment, a subject’s left hemisphere saw one picture while his right hemisphere viewed a different one. Without speaking, he then had to pick from an array of pictures in full view of both hemispheres any associated with those that had been separately flashed to either side of his brain. In one setup, a chicken claw was flashed to the left brain while a snow scene was flashed to the right. The best matches from the full-view array were a chicken head for the claw and a shovel for the snow scene. As expected, the subject’s left brain did pick the chicken head and his right brain the snow shovel.

When asked to say why, his left brain (where language is located) explained correctly that the chicken went with the claw picture his left brain had seen. But how to explain the shovel? His left brain knows nothing about the snow scene but had observed his right brain, which cannot speak, choose the shovel. “Oh, that’s simple,” it piped up. “The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left brain falsely interpreted the right brain’s choice in the context of its own limited knowledge. Similarly, we can flash a gruesome photograph to the right brain just long enough to stimulate the quick emotional pathway but not the slower circuits that lead to consciously “seeing” it. Thus, when asked, subjects say they saw nothing. Nonetheless, they emotionally registered the horrific photo and feel unsettled. They do not and cannot know why they feel that way. The left-brain interpreter, trying to make sense of matters, always concludes falsely because it can never know the feeling’s true cause.

I can imagine Woolf struggling to find a stable identity in both the inner and surface worlds that her illness made more arbitrary, unpredictable, and inexplicable than most. She spoke of building “comfortable cocoons” of identity, but the unity of consciousness is as fictional as her novels. Ironically, in concurring with Woolf’s prescient conviction about the unknowable other, it logically follows from the evidence I’ve laid out that readers can never know the “real” Virginia Woolf.

Given that a favorite theme was the impossibility of knowing another, perhaps the other was not an actual person but another mute yet conscious self inside her, perhaps one of several. An auxiliary intelligence is not unconscious but rather nonverbal and accordingly inaccessible to the left-brain’s introspection. The interpreter’s need for subjective consistency and narrative order—concerns that motivate Bernard in The Waves—recasts Woolf’s literary experiments as attempts to bring coherence to her own disordered mind.

Though multiple minds are usually coordinated, there are times when they are discrepant. Temporary discrepancies may be why the mentally ill hear voices, see hallucinations, and believe delusional thoughts. Woolf was also synesthetic, and her perceptual sensitivity acute: decades after the fact she recorded early memories of “colour-and-sound,” smell, touch, warmth, and shape. My reading persuades me she had eidetic memory, too (popularly described as “photographic”), suggesting a basis for the minutely rendered details characteristic of her writing. By any measure her intelligence was extraordinary as was her skill in imagining fresh metonymies, metaphors, and similes. Could nonlinguistic facets of Woolf’s mind have made themselves known through such “illogical” devices? Could the inkling of another, hovering presence make Dostoevsky’s idea of the double attractive enough to experiment with it in Woolf’s own fiction? Science can raise these questions, but not answer them with surety.

Brains excel at finding patterns but also err by seeing patterns where none exist. We resist the idea that life is arbitrary and make up reasons for random events such as Rachel Vinrace’s senseless death. Ambiguity and senseless acts in Woolf’s fiction allowed her to translate on the page the meaningless complexity of affect and perception that burdened her own mind. By so doing she worked through it. In her diary she wrote, “I am sure that this is the right way of using [images]—not in set pieces as I had tried at first, coherently, but simply as images; never making them work out.” Spoon-feeding readers as to what events meant did not interest her. Refusing to simplify life’s complexities helped her and her readers see the sane and insane Virginia Woolf side by side, polar opposites that make up the whole person.

However ill Woolf was, an astonishing instinct for wholeness burned within her. The image of splinters runs throughout her writing. At the age of 16 (three years after she was first labeled “mad”), Woolf already sensed her mental fragmentation, but also sensed the possibility of restoring “some kind of whole made of shimmering fragments.”

Richard E. Cytowic is a neurologist and coauthor of Wednesday Is Indigo Blue (MIT Press). An expert on synesthesia, a neurological trait in which senses such as sight and sound are cross-wired, Cytowic is widely acknowledged for reinvigorating fruitful research on the phenomenon over the past 25 years. This essay is based on research and an article available at Cytowic’s site.

Originally published February 2, 2010

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