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Literary neuroscience: “Unseeing” in China Miéville’s The City & The City

As everyone is well aware by now, last month was quite the zombie neuroscience month for me. There was zomBcon, my interview of George Romero, and the National Geographic special, "The Truth Behind Zombies".

Well, I don't want to be a one-trick zombie pony. So I'm branching out with the whole neuroscience and science-fiction thing.

A few weeks ago my friend and colleague Roby Duncan told me that he was submitting an abstract to the 32nd annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida. He told me this the day before the deadline while I was at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. Yeah; I was working on a tight schedule...

Yesterday, I found out that my abstract was accepted! Thus, I will have 20 minutes to "read my paper" at the conference in March. That last bit is in quotation marks because that's a social science/humanities phrase that I think means give a talk, but I'm honestly not quite sure and I need to sort that out. This is my first non-scientific conference presentation. It should be an interesting conference. After nearly a decade of scientific conferences, I'm curious to see how the other half of academia approaches things. I expect about the same: with beer.

Anyway, for those interested, I'll be talking about China Miéville’s book, The City & The City, and the unique perceptual/awareness habits of its citizens. It's an excellent book, and Miéville is one of the best contemporary science-fiction/fantasy writers, in my opinion. The full abstract, as accepted, is below.

Breach in the mind: The hypothetical neuroanatomy subserving the process of “unseeing” in China Miéville’s The City & The City

In China Miéville’s The City & The City, citizens of the grosstopically overlapping cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are taught from birth to “unsee” the architecture, people, events, and surroundings of the other city. Despite the terminology, unseeing is not just limited to the sense of vision, but to all other senses as well, and as such citizens must also “unhear” and “unsmell” stimuli from the other city. The consequences of failing to unsee are dire and possibly life threatening, as the semi-mystical force of “Breach” is charged with removing any offenders who willfully or accidentally notice the other city. In areas where the cities are cross-hatched, citizens of each city must carefully and selectively unsee their surroundings, even for houses neighboring theirs, for cars sharing the same roads, and for people walking the same streets. All the while they must unsee while noticing just enough to avoid running into their forbidden neighbors.

Although Miéville uses the process of unseeing for great narrative effect in a fictional setting, there is a rich neuroscientific literature surrounding the neuroanatomical bases for attention and awareness, perception, directed forgetting, sensory adaptation, repetition suppression, and other associated processes. In this presentation I will provide an introductory discussion on the neuroanatomical basis of attention and perception. From that foundation I will then provide a “hypothetical neuroanatomy” of what the brain of a person raised in a culture of unseeing might look like such that they could consciously and willfully unsee.

According to ironic process theory, the human brain fares quite poorly at avoiding certain thoughts when deliberately trying to suppress them. Thus I propose that a Besz or Ul Qoman citizen’s brain must develop differently when raised in an unseeing society to allow for such directed forgetting. Such goal-directed behaviors are mediated by an area at the front of the human brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex exerts control over sensory processes during normal perception, memory, and cognition. This process is referred to as “top-down” control.

I incorporate into my hypothetical neuroanatomy information from literature on patients with focal brain lesions, from neuroimaging, and from neural development to provide a hypothetical account for unseeing. Specifically, I will cite evidence from the brain lesion literature that shows that damage to specific brain regions affects the ability to attend to, remember, or be aware of certain stimuli, as well as brain imaging studies on attentional “blinks” and the role of ongoing brain activity in awareness, perception, and memory. Finally, I will discuss the physiological mechanisms behind sensory adaptation and how such mechanisms may subserve unseeing.

This science-nonfiction evidence can provide an understanding of the science-fiction of the Besz and Ul Qoman brain. I believe that the neuroanatomical plausibility of Miéville’s unseeing is what lends such strong credibility and interest to the story itself, as his narrative device of unseeing remains fantastic enough to differentiate from the real while being grounded enough in fact to remain comprehensible and relatable.


  1. Dan H10:20

    There are some conferences where "reading a paper" literally means the speaker sits up there and reads the paper while the audience has the same paper in front of them. I don't know how common this process still is, but it, shockingly, still happens.

  2. Hmmm... I'll have to contact the organizers then. Because that's not how I roll.