Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


Okay. Walt Whitman and Neuroscience.

"The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science . . . .any description of the brain requires both cultures, art and science." (Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, X)

It's kind of funny if you really think about it. Reductionist theory. The idea that we would understand something by cutting it in half and half again - until we got down to it's smallest part. Or, the idea that if we just had a strong enough magnifying glass we could look "into" something and, in that way, looking down down down, discover the truth of it, its essence. I mean, let's say that the atom (or any particle below/inside it) had turned out to be the smallest part of the material things in the universe. Then what would we have known or done? What would it have meant? "Ladies and gentleman, this is the smallest part of the universe." And someone would have to ponder of course: "And your point is . . . ?"

The fact is that we drilled down and down and kept finding smaller parts. At some point the stuff was too small for a lightwave to even see it (it was shorter than the wave!). So the meaning of what it was became pretty unreal as it no longer even existed in our visible universe. But, here is the other important thing: by the time we have broken the thing into the trillions + (possibly infinite) particles that compose it, we are also incapable of grasping or understanding what all those component particles, taken in tandem, could possibly mean apart or together anyway.

This particularly struck me as I sat in a lecture at Caltech the other night on neuroplasticity. We were just looking at a rat's brain and the number of neurons and synapses and structural elements in one part of that brain was mind boggling. We may understand that a portion of the brain is responsible for say, language or emotions (well, in a rat not so much I guess!), but the fact is that for us to ever understand the billions and billions of connections that get made in the brain in order to trigger just one tear or one vocalized word is way beyond a super computer -much less the little brain of a human or rat.

And to search for the trigger and meaning of that tear in a series of neuron firings in the brain neglects everything else about that human being that brought on the moment of sadness. Her history, her environment at that very moment, all the her memories, her friends and family, her job, her birth order number, the city she lives in, the man she is married to, the lovers she has known, her relationship with her sister, her hobbies . . . . well you get the picture, I could go on infinitely.

Will we know a human being better, will we understand reality more completely by observing the parts or the whole? And which “parts” are we going to study? (I'll attack the impossibility of understanding the whole in Part 2). The particles of matter or the life events and experiences of the person?

We have come to accept that science looks at the parts, and art at the whole. That science is about reality and art about the emotions. But if I am crying because a friend betrayed me, is my experience with the friend or the particles in my brain that are lighting up and “talking” to each other more pertinent?

What Lehrer points out in this analysis of artists' roles in science is that art is also science. That art can look at the parts, in its way, as science must look at the whole as well as the parts. That one cannot ignore either the art or the science if we are to understand anything.

Poet Walt Whitman was prophetic and controversial for proposing this long before it became fashionable (well, it is not yet fashionable in much of our world, still). Whitman was really arguing that the soul and the body were one. Heresy in his day. Since the time of Rene Descarte, people believed that being consisted of two things: a soul and a mortal carcass. (3)

Since the soul seems to have been conceived of as the mind in Whitman’s time (a bit of a stretch for us today), he was actually anticipating the mind-body connection being studied and talked about in neuroscience currently. The mind body loop as Damasio and other neuroscientists now refer to it. (I’ll talk more about this later)

Lehrer contends that Walt Whitman understood the absurdity of reductionist theory (beginning to be popular also in psychology of his time) when he considered himself while writing Leaves of Grass and wrote that his existence could be “comprehended at no time by its parts, at all times by its unity.” (5)

We can take a rock (see animation previous post) and reduce it to its elements, its atoms. We can break those atoms apart, or peer inside them. Down down down. But what we discover “at the bottom” – if ever a bottom we reach – is not an understanding of the rock. The rock is lost by then.

We may discover some really cool things “down there.” Elements which, when fused with other elements, can make other cool things. Elements that can be entangled allowing us to influence one by altering its twin. There may be all kinds of innovative and useful science we can do down there – but it has nothing to do with the rock. The rock is not suddenly understood when we dig down to its structural physical elements. The rock is long gone.

Walt Whitman gave rise to an understanding that, like the rock, a human being cannot be understood by dissection or study of its parts, either. A human being is a whole, and it is mutable second by second by its experience and environment. Even if we could trace every neuron that fired preceding that teardrop, would a photo of an injected dye tracing out the neuron firings preceding a tear, or the analysis of a journalist or fiction writer describing to us all of the childhood hurts, lost opportunities and a description of the friend’s betrayal that proceeded that tear, mean more to us as observers? Even if we are a scientist trying specifically to understand the physical components of a fallen tear, can we really understand it in any meaningful way if we do not know that those firing synapses were the result of human betrayal?

During Whitman’ time, William James (a psycholgist and the elder brother of writer Henry James), called for the end of the notion of scientific ideas as the “mirrors of nature.” (16) The “truth of an idea, is in its use. . . . we only experience the feeling as a conscious whole – and not as a sum of separate sensations. Thus a practical poet like Walt Whitman could be just as truthful as an accurate experiment.” (17)

We humans (and animals) do not experience atoms, or component parts. We live in experience, in feeling. Nor can we experience existence in component parts: the content of our minds, according to both Whitman and William James, are representations of our real world “ensemble.”

To be continued.

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