Dutch Novelist Is Writing While Connected to Electrodes: Quantified Self Experiment
NEW YORK TIMES, NOVEMBER 30, 2013
The Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, at work on a novella in New York while attached to electrodes.
Writers working on new books often complain about the pressure. But on a recent evening, the Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg was sitting at a cluttered desk in his shoe-box apartment in Midtown Manhattan, with more reason to kvetch than most.
Researchers are tracking brain waves and other data with electrodes as Mr. Grunberg writes a novella.
Next, members of the public will be studied as they read Mr. Grunberg’s work.
First, there was the novella he was trying to get off the ground, the latest in a string of more than a dozen books that have made him, at 42, perhaps his country’s most celebrated novelist and a literary star in Europe.
But more pressing — quite literally — was his headgear, a sort of bathing cap affixed with 28 electrodes that made him look like an extra in a mermaid mash-up of “A Clockwork Orange.”
“After about a half-hour, your head starts to hurt,” Mr. Grunberg said, as a technician from a Dutch software company carefully poured water over some of the electrodes to improve their conductivity. “Also, it can get a bit drippy.”
The cap, the novella and the technician were all part of Mr. Grunberg’s latest project, a literary stunt turned lab experiment that combines the rigor of academic neuroscience with the self-obsessive spirit of the “quantified self” movement, which has inspired people to track (and broadcast) the minutiae of their lives, down to the last step taken, penny spent and milligram of caffeine ingested.
Over the past two weeks, Mr. Grunberg has spent several hours a day writing his novella, while a battery of sensors and cameras tracked his brain waves, heart rate, galvanic skin response (an electrical measure of emotional arousal) and facial expressions. Next fall, when the book is published, some 50 ordinary people in the Netherlands will read it under similarly controlled circumstances, sensors and all.
Researchers will then crunch the data in the hope of finding patterns that may help illuminate links between the way art is created and enjoyed, and possibly the nature of creativity itself.
“Will readers of Arnon’s text feel they understand or embody the same emotions he had while he was writing it, or is reading a completely different process?” said Ysbrand van der Werf, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, who designed the experiment with Jan van Erp of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “These are some of the questions we want to answer.”
This experiment is connected with the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics, which over the last decade or so has attempted to uncover the neural underpinnings of our experience of music and visual art, using brain imaging technology. Slowly, a small but growing number of researchers have also begun using similar tools to scrutinize the perhaps more elusive, and perhaps endangered, experience of literary reading.
Last year, researchers at Stanford University drew headlines with the results of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) experiment showing that different regions of the brain were activated when subjects switched from reading Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” for pleasure to reading it analytically. And this fall, a study out of the New School for Social Research showed that readers of literary fiction scored higher on tests of empathy than readers of commercial fiction, a finding greeted with satisfied told-you-sos from many readers and writers alike.
Mr. Grunberg, however, seems to be the first novelist to submit not just his work, but also his own creative processes to direct scientific scrutiny. And he claims no investment in the idea that his darkly satirical and piety-poking books — including the recently translated“Tirza,” praised in The New York Times Book Review as “never less than enthralling,” if “not always enjoyable” — will be shown to be socially or morally edifying.
“I don’t think this experiment needs to prove that literature can be good for you,” he said. “Sometimes, literature can actually be dangerous, if you take it seriously.”
Mr. Grunberg, the son of German-born Holocaust survivors, has become a celebrity in the Netherlands precisely by treating the business of being a writer as a bit of a lark, his admirers say.
His first novel, “Blue Mondays” — written after he had dropped out of high school, failed as an actor and then gone bankrupt as a publisher — became a best seller and won a prestigious Dutch prize for the best first novel of 1994. Six years later, a minor scandal ensued after he won the prize again with “The Story of My Baldness,” written as Marek van der Jagt, a fictional author who had taken some public whacks at Arnon Grunberg for good measure.
Although Mr. Grunberg has lived mostly in New York since 1995, he can seem omnipresent in the Netherlands: writing a daily 150-word column for the front page of The Volkskrant, a leading newspaper; conducting regular public interviews with prominent politicians, scientists and artists; even lending his name to a wine company (its first blend: Freud). He can also seem to be everywhere else, thanks to his newspaper articles based on his experiences embedded with troops in Afghanistan, with dining car waiters on a Swiss train, with masseurs at a Romanian resort, with patients in a Belgian psychiatric ward (where he received most of the treatments, he said) and even with an ordinary Dutch family on vacation.
“Sometimes it seems like he’s living five different lives next to each other,” said Garrelt Verhoeven, the chief curator of special collections at the Amsterdam University Library, which will be organizing an exhibition about Mr. Grunberg’s career next October. “He’s very serious, but it’s also part of a game for him.”
The current experiment, Mr. Grunberg said, emerged out of a desire to play with the darker possibilities of e-reader technology. If Amazon can track where Kindle users stop reading, he wondered, how else might an author be able to spy on his audience?
His Dutch publisher, Nijgh & Van Ditmar, persuaded him to make himself part of the experiment. And once he connected with the neuroscientists, the transformation from provocateur to guinea pig was complete.
“I was just the object,” he said. “It’s like having someone else embedded in my own brain.”
But the real quantitative science will come later, Mr. van der Werf said, when the researchers measure the novella’s effect on the 50 readers. They have asked Mr. Grunberg to try to keep each chunk of text limited to one dominant emotion, and have tracked where his cursor was at various points in each writing session, to match his words with the physiological data. The 50 readers will read the novella on an e-reader, to allow similar tracking.
Mr. Grunberg, who estimated that he would take another five months to finish the book, said the sensors have interfered less with his creative process than he feared, but he did allow that the experiment itself might end up figuring in the book, which he said will address issues of privacy and cybersecurity.
And he admitted to sometimes staring up at the cameras after the technician had left, wondering if they were really off.
“I find myself having all these fantasies,” he said, “like that I was part of an experiment supposedly looking at my brain while I was writing, but the real point was something else entirely.”