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  • Back to the Future: Charles Dickens and the Prospective Brain
  • Maria K. Bachman (bio)

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has called the human brain an “anticipation machine” whose fundamental purpose is to produce the future (177). Our “anticipation machines” create what we experience as expectations–beliefs we have about what should happen or about the way things should or will be. Expectation, moreover, is a constant part of mental life.1 Remarkably, Alexander Bain made a similar observation in 1859–“Everyone’s mind is occupied more or less with his future” (Emotions 83). Two decades later, James Sully, a seminal figure in late Victorian psychological circles (and a student of Bain’s) gestured presciently toward what is now referred to as “mental time travel,” the capacity to mentally simulate past events and to imagine and anticipate possible future ones.2 In Illusions: A Psychological Study (1881), Sully hypothesized that such imaginative constructions and reconstructions enable people to form expectations and prepare for the future: “Any kind of vivid imagination tends to pass into a semblance of an expectation of a coming personal experience, or an event that is about to happen within the sphere of our own observation” (306).3 [End Page 224] Remarkably, it has been only recently that researchers in the sciences of mind have begun to corroborate Bain’s and Sully’s early theories of how expectation is dependent upon mental simulation.4 Indeed, brain imaging research shows that prospection–the ability to imagine what might happen in the future–is not only a central function of the brain, it is at the very core of cognition. Moreover, thinking about the future, rather than the present or the past, appears to be the brain’s default mode.5

Well over 150 years before the advent of cognitive neuroscience Charles Dickens intuited what scientists have only recently documented: our brains are wired for expectation. Dickens, of course, was not unfamiliar with the contemporary discoveries and theories in the new mind-brain sciences of the nineteenth century.6 The purpose of this essay is twofold: first, to explore the ways in which Dickens anticipated and extended Bain’s and Sully’s early theories on the mind to develop in his novels a psychology of expectation; and second, to show how the fictive evidence that Dickens presents on the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight is remarkably prescient of twenty-first century research on prospection. Specifically, the force and energy of such novels as Dombey and Son (1846–48) and Great Expectations (1860–61) rely heavily on expectation–prospective mental simulations for characters and readers alike–and the cognitive and affective fallout when expected outcomes are violated, contradicted or disconfirmed. As readers are caught up in the idealized futures that make up the complex, inner lives of the characters who populate Dickens’s fictive worlds, we can begin to see not only how our brains work in the future tense, but also how our expectations bend reality. [End Page 225]

Martin Chuzzlewit

I begin with Dickens’s disillusionment with America as a formative moment in his own thinking on how expectations can shape experience for good or ill. As Dickens planned his journey to the United States, he wrote in September 1841 to Lewis Gaylord Clark about how much he looked forward to setting “my foot upon the soil I have trodden in my day-dreams many times [… and] I cannot describe to you the glow into which I arise, when I think of the wonders that await us, and all the interest I am sure I shall have in your mighty land” (Letters 2: 394, 445). Indeed, America and its promise of egalitarianism had long haunted his dreams7 and Dickens, a self-professed “Lover of Freedom” (Letters 3: 176) arrived in the New World naively expecting the lawmakers of Washington, DC, to “apply […] themselves in a new world to correct some of the falsehoods and vices of the old” (American Notes 133; ch. 8). As has been noted however, Dickens’s initial delight quickly degenerated into “disenchantment and even repulsion” (Letters 3: vii).8 Disgusted with American politics, customs and manners, he wrote indignantly to Charles Macready,

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pp. 224-244
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