Siri Hustvedt's latest book, The Sorrows of An American, is published by Sceptre.

All ingrained in a chunk of brain matter

"Don't do anything you don't really want to do," my mother said as she drove me home one afternoon. I don't remember anything else she said during our conversation, and I can't say why she offered me this piece of advice just then. I do remember the stretch of Highway 19 just outside of Northfield, Minnesota that is now forever associated with those words and that it must have been summer because the grass was green and the trees were in full leaf. I also distinctly recall that as soon as she had spoken, I felt guilty. Was I doing things I didn't really want to do? I was fifteen and no stranger to private longings, confusions, and torments. My mother's words gave me pause.

It's a curious sentence when you look at it closely with its two "don'ts" framing the highly positive phrase "anything you really want to do." I knew my mother wasn't offering me a prescription for hedonism or selfishness, and I received this bit of wisdom as a moral imperative about desire. Notably, my mother did not say, "Don't have sex, take drugs, or go wild." She cautioned me to listen to my moral feelings – but exactly what are they?

Many years ago, I stumbled across the story of Phineas Gage in a neurology textbook. In 1849, the railroad foreman suffered a bizarre accident. A four-foot iron rod rammed into his left cheek, blasted through his brain, and flew out through the top of his head. Miraculously, Gage recovered. He could walk, talk, and think, but along with a few cubic centimetres of the ventromedial region of his frontal lobe, he lost his old self. The once considerate, highly competent foreman became impulsive, aggressive, and callous with other people. He made plans, but could never carry them out. Fired from one job after another, his life deteriorated, and he wandered aimlessly until he died in San Francisco in 1861. The story haunted me because it suggested an awful thing: moral life could be reduced to a chunk of brain meat.

I remember asking a psychoanalyst about this story not long after I had read it. She shook her head: it wasn't possible. From her point of view, the psyche had nothing to do with the brain – ethics simply don't vanish with grey matter. I now think of the Phineas story differently because I know that our brains develop through experience. Gage lost what he had gained earlier in his life – the capacity to feel the higher emotions of empathy and guilt – both of which inhibit our actions in the world. After his injury, Gage behaved like a classic psychopath. Although no one knows, it's possible to speculate that the psychopath simply doesn't acquire what poor Gage lost.

In Decartes' Error, the neurologist Antonio Damasio retells the story of Phineas Gage and compares his case to that of one of his patients, Elliot, who, after surgery for a malignant brain tumour suffered damage to his frontal lobes. Like Gage before him, Elliot could no longer plan ahead and his life fell apart. Although his intellectual faculties appeared to be intact, he lacked feeling, both for himself and for others. After doing a series of experiments on his patient, Damasio theorizes about what my mother took for granted: emotion not only enhances decision-making, it is essential to it, and decisions are about their consequences in the future. The future is, of course, imaginary – an unreal place formed by our expectations, which in turn are created by our remembered experiences, especially repeated experiences. Both Gage and Elliot could reason well, but something had gone awry with their emotional imaginations.

A couple of years after that conversation with my mother, I was skiing at a resort in Aspen, Colorado. Early one evening, I found myself at the top of a steep slope made more frightening by the mini mountains on its surface known as moguls. I wasn't a good enough skier to take that hill, but I had boarded the wrong chair lift. There was only one way out for me and that was down. As I stood there at the summit looking longingly at the ski chalet below, I had a revelation: I didn't like skiing. It was too fast, too cold. It scared me. It had always scared me. One may wonder how it is possible for a young woman of seventeen not to have understood this simple fact about her existence until faced with a crisis. I come from a Norwegian family. My mother was born and raised in that northern country and my father's grandparents emigrated from Norway. In Norway, people say that children ski before they walk, an overstatement that nevertheless brings the point home. The idea that skiing might not be fun, might not be for everyone, had never occurred to me. Where I come from, the sport signified pleasure, nature, family happiness. As these thoughts passed through my mind, I noticed that the chair lifts were closing and the sky was darkening. I took a breath, gave myself a push with my poles, and went over the edge. About half an hour later, a patrol on a snowmobile discovered me lying in a heap under a mogul minus a ski, but otherwise whole.

Ridiculous as the story is, its implications are far-reaching.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



Issue 11 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop