SCOTT SIMON, host:
This next story is about an ordinary woman doing nothing very special on an ordinary day. But then, with help from science correspondent Robert Krulwich, things get more interesting.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm thinking of a woman...
Ms. ANNE BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): A charming woman, light, vivacious. Though she was over 50...
KRULWICH: Who steps out of her London home one beautiful morning to buy flowers for a party that she's throwing...
Mr. JONAH LEHRER: Yeah. She lives in a fancy part of London, a fancy neighborhood of London.
KRULWICH: And, says science writer Jonah Lehrer, Clarissa Dalloway - that's her name...
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): I love walking in London.
KRULWICH: Clarissa will wind her way shopping, using, noticing things for 200 pages, and become the central character in Virginia Woolf's famous novel, "Mrs. Dalloway."
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): All she loved was this - here, now, in front of her. The fat lady in the cab...
KRULWICH: During which we spent much time in Clarissa's head.
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): Peter. He could be intolerable. He could be impossible, but adorable to walk with on a morning like this.
KRULWICH: The novel is set in the 19...
Mr. LEHRER: Mid-1920s, yeah.
KRULWICH: And it's written not from the outside, but from inside its character.
Mr. LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. People like Joyce(ph) were doing this, too.
KRULWICH: Yeah. But when you're inside a Virginia Woolf character, listening into a mind, what you hear...
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): Sylvia, Fred, Sally, such hosts of people and dancing all night.
KRULWICH: Is a tumble of odd thoughts, passing faces....
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): Ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird. Oh, that house, that ugly, rambling, old...
KRULWICH: She thinks about salmon, then pearls. She's happy, then she's sad.
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): She felt very young. And at the same time, unspeakably aged.
KRULWICH: There's no logic to her thoughts. Instead, she's full of contradiction, her mind scattered, barely held together, and yet somehow she does hold together. And she knows it.
Mr. LEHRER: I'm always here. I've got the sense of being this continuous thread.
KRULWICH: At the beginning of the book, Clarissa steps before a mirror, her mind all noisy, but what she sees, Woolf writes, is...
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): Pointed, dark-like, definite...
Mr. LEHRER: She's drawn herself together. That's what we all do everyday. We all take this diffused, disparate mind and draw it together, and that's who we are.
KRULWICH: And what are the very last words of Woolf's novel?
Mr. LEHRER: The very last words are...
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): For there she was.
Mr. LEHRER: I think her novels are a search for what is that that holds me together.
KRULWICH: But how can my mind be such chaos and still produce a coherent me?
Mr. LEHRER: That's the mystery.
KRULWICH: And 80 years later, for scientists who study the brain, that's still the mystery. We have a hundred billion cells in our heads and yet...
Mr. LEHRER: There is no single cell in the brain that is you or knows about you or cares about you.
KRULWICH: If Mrs. Dalloway's head is all random and disordered, when scientists look into the brain, same thing. There's no cell, there's no group of cells that seems to be in charge.
Mr. LEHRER: No. There is no center.
KRULWICH: No center.
Mr. LEHRER: There's no there, there.
KRULWICH: And yet we have a sense that we are there. That we are a somebody. But where that sense comes from, nobody knows. In fact, today, when we look into a brain - Virginia Woolf couldn't have known this - we are anatomically divided into two separate compartments. A left brain and a right brain. So we're not just scatter-brained, there are two separate worlds in our heads.
No doubt you learned this in ninth grade, so I'm going to play you a high school film narrated by Michael Gazzaniga, with Roger Sperry did the original work in this area. Gazzaniga wondered, how divided are we? Could the two halves operate separately on their own?
Dr. MICHAEL GAZZANIGA (Professor of Psychology, University of California): Well, a way to get at this question would be to separate the two cerebral hemispheres.
KRULWICH: Which was done to several patients who were suffering from epilepsy, because apparently it helps stop the seizures in those people, if you literally cut the connection between the two separate halves. So they did, and the patients recovered. And did they seemed kind of peculiar after that? Was anything different about...
Mr. LEHRER: No. Actually, you know, scientists looked at these patients for many years and thought they were mostly normal.
KRULWICH: But on closer inspection, some of them began to behave rather oddly. In one case, a patient picked up a book in his right hand and began to read. But his left hand repeatedly slammed the book shut.
Mr. LEHRER: So one hand would be holding the book. The other hand will be trying to close it.
KRULWICH: In the same person?
Mr. LEHRER: The same person.
KRULWICH: So the guy's holding the book and one hand keeps closing...
(Soundbite of book slamming shut)
Mr. LEHRER: Yes.
KRULWICH: Slamming the book?
Mr. LEHRER: Yes. Yes.
KRULWICH: Because the left brain, which can read, controlled the right hand. Its hand opened the book, but the other side of the brain, which can't read, used its hand to close the book. As Dr. Gazzaniga put it...
Dr. GAZZANIGA: And what we found out is that they fight over each other. One hand knows how to do it and one hand does not, and so they more or less squabble.
KRULWICH: In other cases, patients would undress with one hand unbuttoning the buttons while the other hand would button it back up. One hand would open a door, the other slam it shut.
Dr. GAZZANIGA: And these are almost mutually independent systems. It was as if two people were fighting over performing this task.
KRULWICH: And strange as this seems, if you read Virginia Woolf's novels, she sensed this dichotomy. Her main character in the novel "To The Lighthouse," Mrs. Ramsey, worships her husband one moment, dislikes him the next. Finds something beautiful, then ugly. Wants, doesn't want. She seems at war with herself, as Virginia Woolf writes.
Mr. LEHRER: (Reading) Such was the complexity of things, to feel violently...
Ms. BOBBY (as Mrs. Dalloway): To feel violently two opposite things at the same time. That's what you feel was one. That's what I feel was the other. And they fought together in her mind, as now.
Mr. LEHRER: That's actually a very accurate description of these two separate hemispheres and the way they work.
KRULWICH: So in a way, she felt it and they saw it, this struggle for a self.
Mr. LEHRER: Yes. That in the end, they're describing the same thing, just from two different angles.
KRULWICH: And the artist got there first?
Mr. LEHRER: Yes. Yes. It's the artist who identifies the mystery and kind of shows us how to live with it, in a sense.
KRULWICH: And what Virginia Woolf says, you write in your book, is what everybody does, is they take all the contradictory things they think and feel everyday and they pull them together into a story. A story about themselves?
Mr. LEHRER: Yes. And that the mind works a bit like a novelist.
KRULWICH: Like a novelist?
Mr. LEHRER: That we're constantly telling a narrative about ourselves to ourselves, essentially.
KRULWICH: So what we call ourself, is something we make up? We're just an invention, that's what she thought?
Mr. LEHRER: Yeah.
KRULWICH: But since scientists say there's no conductor in our brain, nothing in charge, so who's the storyteller? Does Virginia Woolf know that?
Mr. LEHRER: No. I mean, no one knows. That's the mystery of the brain, is the story so vivid, but who's telling it?
KRULWICH: You. You were listening to me right now. You know that you are there, that you are you. But how you knew that, that's the central mystery of neuroscience today. And long before the scientists got into it, says Jonah Lehrer...
Mr. LEHRER: I think Virginia Woolf was the first one to really identify and frame the mystery.
KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.
SIMON: Jonah Lehrer's essay on Mrs. Dalloway appears in his book, "Proust Was A Neuroscientist." And you can read an excerpt of that book at npr.org. By the way, our Mrs. Dalloway was Anne Bobby.