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Virginia Woolf, At Intersection Of Science And Art

A portrait of writer Virginia Woolf, circa 1927.
Evening Standard/Getty Images
A portrait of writer Virginia Woolf, circa 1927.

Virginia Woolf wanted to think about what it's like to think about nothing special, about ordinary things. "To feel simply, that's a chair, that's a table ... and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy," she writes in To the Lighthouse.

Every so often, gazing at a fruit, at a flower, a bee, a friend, we all know what she means. Moments for no good reason can become extraordinarily beautiful, hauntingly so.

But Woolf wasn't concentrating on special moments. She wanted to convey the flow and tumble of ordinary sensations over a whole day -- and so she created Clarissa Dalloway, a woman who lives in London, has just recovered from a bad bout of influenza (a bad, bad influenza that was then sweeping the globe) who is about to host a party. Nothing special.

And yet, as science reporter (and my colleague on NPR's Radio Lab) Jonah Lehrer writes, "The mind is not an easy thing to express."

Thinking About Nothing…

Woolf thought, and thought hard, about how a mind processes all that it sees, hears, feels, tastes, remembers. "The mind receives a myriad of impressions," Woolf wrote. "From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms," and she wanted to describe that process.

Novelists, Woolf stated, should "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent…"

And so Woolf created minds in action. Clarissa Dalloway in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse are portrayed from the inside out. They are all mind -- jumbles of thoughts, memories, faces, objects, peeves, joys -- all disconnected and incoherent. And yet, out of all that blabber there emerge very distinctly, real personalities.

How did that happen? "If the mind is so evanescent," Lehrer writes, "how does the self arise?"

Making Up Mrs. Dalloway

Woolf not only made people up. She wondered out loud how she did it and, more importantly, how we all do it.

Woolf even came up with a theory of mind that explains how all of us, every day, manage to stumble and bumble our way through tasks, walks, talks, jolts of recollection, loves, hates -- and still come out whole.

In the process, Lehrer believes, Woolf anticipated what scientists would discover decades later: that our very brains are divided into "left" and "right"and that we are, in our architecture, not of one mind.

'Proust Was A Neuroscientist'

In his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Lehrer explored how Marcel Proust and other novelists closely studied the human mind and memory.

Lehrer's notion is that the mystery of "self," now the great challenge for neuroscientists all over the world, was a puzzle first articulately addressed by artists untutored in science.

Scientists probe, pluck, test and analyze questions. Artists discover questions to ask. Both art and science explore what it's like to be alive -- and only when they work together do we exercise all our powers.

"We now know enough to know that we will never know everything," Lehrer wrote. "This is why we need art; it teaches us how to live with mystery."

Special thanks to producer Josh Rogosin, in NPR's New York bureau, and to Anne Bobby, who last appeared on NPR as the lullaby-singing mother in our version of Oliver Sacks' Study of "Mrs. O'C." She can do anything.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich
Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.