I’ll be away from my desk tomorrow, so I thought I’d keep you entertained with a video of me. (Forgive the shameless self-promotion.) In this short video, I’m discussing how Walt Whitman anticipated some truths of modern neuroscience. (I’ve written a whole book on this subject, which will come out this fall.) To be honest, I have yet to watch the video. I just find it too painfully embarrassing*. For those who just want the knowledge without suffering through my voice and nervous bodily tics, here’s a short summary of the talk cribbed from my book:
Whitman was the first poet to write poems in which the flesh is not a stranger. Instead, in Whitman’s un-metered form, the landscape of his body became the inspiration for his poetry. (“The soul is the body and the body is the soul,” he liked to say.) Every line Whitman ever wrote ached with the urges of his anatomy, with its wise desires and inarticulate sympathies. Ashamed of nothing, Whitman left nothing out. “Your very flesh,” he promised his readers, “shall be a great poem.”
Neuroscience now knows that Whitman’s poetry spoke the truth: our emotions are generated by the body. Ephemeral as they seem, our feelings are actually rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our insides. Furthermore, these material feelings are an essential element of the thinking process. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio notes, “the mind is embodied, not just embrained.”
BTW, the National Portait Gallery has an awesome online feature on Whitman, where you can hear the old man reading his poetry.
*Does anybody know why we are so ashamed of our public speaking performances? If not, here’s my experimental proposal. Videotape people speaking in public. Stuff them into an fMRI machine and look at their brain as they are forced to watch themselves talking. My hypothesis is that the insula goes crazy.