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Bewilderment

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Dec-20-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Science is a fundamental part of modern reality. It is used to explain the workings of the world around us and is instrumental in making that world a more hospitable place to live in. There are those who assert that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. They advocate considering science and religion as parallel but not intersecting ways to understand the place and purpose of human beings. What about science and art?  Or science and literature? Can they peacefully co-exist? Richard Powers is an author who has dedicated his literary career life to the proposition that they can.

In his latest book, Bewilderment, he examines the question whether neurobiology can help people achieve empathy, potentially even merge with another person. Theo is an astrobiologist, someone whose job is to explore the conditions on the many planets in the universe and to determine if they are able to support any form of life, but especially human life. The underlying premise is that there are bacteria, fungi, and animals that can live under very extreme circumstances on Earth. So even if other planets have different atmospheres, ambient temperature, water, or chemical elements, Earth should not be the only planet with life.

Theo’s wife, Alyssa, has recently died in a car accident and he is still grieving the loss. She was pregnant at the time, and the accident occurred when she lost control of her car when trying not to run over an animal on the road (more on this in a minute).  Theo has one son, Robin, who is very bright but on the autism spectrum with significant anger issues. The father and son are fiercely connected and share their lives; the early part of the book beautifully describes a camping trip that they take together. But Theo has his hands full with Robin. In order to avoid medicating his son, Theo enrolls him in an experimental program, Decoded Neurofeedback  (abbreviated DecNef, like any DARPA-sounding program). The experimental study will enable Robin to control his emotions better. This would be accomplished by capturing his mother’s brain waves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The pattern of her neural activity, which reflected her intense love of animals and nature, would provide a template that could be channeled into her son using feedback methods. The objective of the experiment  is to convert Robin into a more sensitive child who is more attuned to the world around him. Robin is remarkably responsive to the sessions, more so than any other participant, and he becomes someone who has the same warmth and protective feelings towards animals and the environment as his mother. But funding for the project is terminated, Robin’s fMRI sessions stop, and he gradually reverts back to the child he was. There is a final twist. But I leave that to those who are motivated by this annotation to read the book.

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