I live just above a sorcery shop, a shop for sorcerers, selling all the material sorcerers need. Not the Harry Potter memorabilia but the real stuff. It is an ironmongery for sorcerers, far more ancient than Harry Potter. There are not many sorcery shops; it is the only one I know, in fact, and I just happen to live upstairs. I never dared to enter the shop (I must be a little scared, I suppose) but I never miss looking into the window. Everything is a bit dusty. There are crystal balls of various sizes, tarot cards, small bottles filled with powder or bluish liquids, and a handbook for chiromancy. It is a big and thick volume, like a dictionary. The cover features an open hand nicely schematized with its different lines set out in colors, each bearing its name.
Then I sit in my favorite coffee shop with a newspaper. It could be Sunday, 18 May, 2014. I have opened The Daily Mail, and I read in big bold print, “Machine that Could Scan the Brain and Read Your Dreams.” There is a picture that looks like a kind of colorful X-ray of a brain. I know (having read Bernard Baertschi’s paper, see below) that the picture is nothing like an X-ray. It is more like a drawing, really, which illustrates the report of the experiment and satisfies my aesthetic taste. Nevertheless, I read the article avidly, thinking it would be nice to have a little film of my dreams in the morning. The paper does not say that I would have to sleep in a scanner. In any case, I also learn that “scientists believe it could be used in the future to reconstruct people’s memory.”
Or it could be The Guardian, on May 12, 2013: “How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain.” There are two pictures below the title; one is a normal brain and the other a murderer’s. Indeed, the two brains look very different. It should not be difficult to spot the murderer’s brain: the green zones are reduced to a few isolated spots surrounded by dark shadows, whereas green covers most of the normal brain.
Is this neuromancy, a practice similar to chiromancy, but concerned with the brain instead of the hand? It seems to share with chiromancy this vague image: we must have, impressed on our body with mysterious signs, something crucial about our person that we do not know ourselves. We need an expert to read our brain, as we do to read our hand. We hope, or fear, that the scientist, as a sorcerer, will discover something about us, about our past, or our likely future, or our personality, which has remained [End Page 3] hidden to us but which is there. We may have a murderer’s brain, or a pedophile’s,1 and we do not know it.
“No mistake has been made: the brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own”(Ohikuare)
This line does not come from a science fiction novel, but from a press report about the neuroscientist James Fallon who discovered quite by accident that his brain had similar features to those of the psychopaths he had studied.
Of course, newspapers articles (typically, as in The Guardian mentioned above) may deform, or widely extrapolate actual results from neuroscience, or exaggerate the scientists’ comments. Already, in 1949, Norbert Wiener complained about this, as this New York Times journalist stresses (possibly not without humor): “’Inculcation of synthetic emotions into the present “electric brain” calculating machines is a quite conceivable future development,’ Dr. Norbert Wiener of the M.I.T. declared today, requesting his comments not be ‘sensationalized’” (Hill).
There have been a number of studies concerning reports from the press on neuroscience (see Racines et al.), which put emphasis on the exaggerations of these reports. This “sensationalization,” to use Wiener’s term, if it may not be peculiar to neuroscience reports, does raise the question of our interest in neuroscience and its relationship to fiction. Why do “we” tend to fictionalize it so easily?
Since Wiener, at least, the comparison of the...