We are our brains

On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Stine Charlotte Hansen, April 2013, © Fynske Medier.
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.


Meet the successful writer who’s not afraid to doubt – who on the contrary, wants to be confused until he dies. 

Author Christian Jungersen has kind eyes and a heartfelt laugh. He’s sitting on a barstool in the restaurant on the top floor of Illum in Copenhagen, eating risotto and zander filet. Around him is the music that’s supposed to get the shoppers on the floors beneath us to buy more.

Jungersen has been fascinated by the human brain for years. Out of that fascination grew You Disappear, a novel about how our brains function – and what happens when they break down. It was on the 2012 bestseller list and has just been awarded the Readers’ Book Prize.

We’ve come to Copenhagen to talk with him about the exciting part of the human being that can be so difficult to grasp. And it’s here, by a high black wooden table in a universe of designer vases, glossy magazines, and cappuccino with foam on top, that we begin a sometimes unpredictable discussion of the brain and what it can do. Who we are. Why it’s not a bad thing to doubt. And how nothing is certain because we have free will.

Our brain controls everything we do. Can you fathom that?

“I wouldn’t say that we’re controlled by our brains; we are our brains. And if that’s so, then of course everything’s controlled by us.”

     But we can’t control what happens in our brains – so then how can we be our brains?

     “We have just as much control over our brains as we have over our experiences, which also affect us. The brain doesn’t knock our free will out of commission any more than our experiences do. You can have involuntary experiences that you can never let go of. And conversely, you yourself can influence your brain. If you think in a particular way, it does change your neural pathways. The brain is something that can evolve.”


The authorial brain

We shift from the mass of brains over to a specific brain. The author’s. When Jungersen creates the universes and characters of his books, it requires that they really reside in his head. That he enters into his protagonists.

Do you enjoy being in the world of your characters?

“Yes and no. It’s fascinating to live other people’s lives in your head. But in my books, they’re often not doing so well,” he explains. “So I can definitely become affected emotionally.”

Jungersen began writing in order to feel that he was coming closer to the world, to experience its nuances. He points to a green plant on the table.

“This flower, for example: how does it look? One often thinks of plants as being green. But it isn’t merely green, of course. Look here, there are red streaks on the underside of the leaves. The green buds have yellowish shadows. It has all kinds of colors, all kinds of shades and textures and forms. It’s insanely complicated. To see the complexity in it is intense and real. I felt that my world was too flat until I began to write. But to write is to explore and to open oneself to the world’s riches, so it’s been good for me. For the flower isn’t just green, you see; that’s a simplification. It’s a lie to call it green!

“And you have to do the same thing with your characters. Open them up. Find the unexpected. Experience them more richly by living your way into them. The writing life might seem deathly dull to someone standing outside, for apparently you just stay home at sit at your desk. But it’s extremely draining and marvelous and good. It’s lovely when you’re overwhelmed by what you’re imagining, but if it’s six hours a day, it’s easy for me to feel that I almost can’t take any more mentally.”

Doesn’t it ever get to be too much?

     “It’s never too much if you’re trying to write the best book possible. But yes, it can become too much for me to handle.”

What happens when it gets too overwhelming?

“Then I feel as if I’m a VW bug and someone’s equipped me with a rocket engine. It’s a great experience, but I feel that I’m just about to go to bits. Then I just need to take care of myself. To take a day off. Cool down a bit.”


Design your own brain

Even though there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of how the brain functions, we’re getting to know it better and better. So well that, in time, we’ll be able to change it at will.

So will we be able to order another personality?

“Yes, we can already do that now to some extent. We can affect the brain in many ways; your drinking coffee, for example. That’s changing your brain, after all – it’s not psychology. You’re not changing your experiences or your personality; you’re affecting your brain chemistry in order to focus and concentrate better.

“At present, the effects are rather imprecise. But as we start being able to see where in the brain we make long-term plans, where we deceive, where we empathize with others, and as we start to become more familiar with the mechanisms, it’s possible we’ll be able to say, This medicine will change your ability to make constructive choices with respect to your education. Or Your wife’s complaining that you never ask her how she’s doing, but with these pills you’ll be more empathetic and interested in it. That’s easy to imagine. But it’s still a long way off.”

It’s still a little freaky.

“It is. And that’s because we live in a world where we forget that we’re biology. We try to repress it because we have a hard time understanding it. And it’s uncomfortable to think about – just like we don’t like to think about the fact that we’re going to die.”


Terror reveals what’s meaningful

Why is writing the most important thing in the world? Or is it?

“No, perhaps it isn’t – it’s not the most important. Probably not.”

Jungersen’s eyes grow distant.

“The first time I was going to read aloud for someone something I’d written, many years ago, was in a small writing group with six people, in one of the others’ kitchens. When it got to be my turn, sweat was pouring down my face and my heart was hammering like crazy. I was terrified. It was strange – because I’d had job interviews, flirted with girls, been to oral exams, the whole time thinking I was pretty good at keeping my cool. But apparently I wasn’t as cool as I’d thought. It was just that those other things weren’t so important to me. It was a very surprising evening.

“There I realized what really meant something to me. And I saw that as a sign – that it was what I should be doing, precisely because could make me afraid. It meant something. Writing.”


Free will

The conversation proceeds to free will: the ability to decide oneself. Free will is something we’re all happy to think we have.

I have a hard time understanding that free will can exist. If I am my brain, how can my will be free?

“Because no one can predict what your brain will do.”

     Not even if I have a genetic predisposition for something?

     “Exactly. One could make a qualified guess, but one thing that’s unique about humans is that, even if all the analyses, experiments, and statistics say that now you’re going to kill your cousin, there’s still a chance that you won’t. You may surprise everyone – because you’re human.”

Could the opposite occur as well?

“Sure. No one can be completely certain what you’re going to do.”

     But doesn’t it depend on the situation?

“If you’ve killed 20 people, and you’re standing there, switchblade in hand, one would of course think that things don’t look so hot for number 21. But it’s possible that you won’t kill her. That’s one of the fantastic things about people. Your brain is so complicated that no one can figure it out. No one.”


Confused until death

Jungersen seems very confident in his case, there in the middle of the restaurant, and all this talk about the brain and free will suddenly becomes too much for this truth-seeking journalist.

But if free will is random, we can’t count on anything whatsoever!

The author remains unperturbed by the outburst. His gaze becomes more attentive. He replies.

“You shouldn’t despair of complexity; you should embrace it. Being confused is a fine, beautiful, special thing about being human.”

Than how can we trust that things are as they appear?

“We can’t, and we shouldn’t. We should ask questions about everything. And part of literature’s job is to extract that certainty from us. Doubt needn’t be a bad thing. One can be both happy and full of doubt at the same time. One ought to doubt everything.”

One ought to? Isn’t it nice to know how the world works?

     “Yes. But we don’t know how the world works, do we. It might well be that it’d be lovely to believe so – but that’s a pleasure that won’t last long.”

But I’ve spent years trying to figure things out – for instance, why people act in certain ways.

     “There’s no contradiction there; I’m not saying that you should stop studying things and just drop it all. I’m trying to learn new things myself, to become smarter, to read and live. It’s just that, with some parts of reality, you get the most accurate picture of them by doubting. If you say, That’s definitely the way it works, you diminish reality. Then you’re almost lying. Just like with the green plant.”

But what if I want to feel secure? That’s what most people want, don’t they?

“Then I think you should find another way to feel secure than by making yourself dumber than you are.”