The Loom

In the New York Times this morning, the poet Diane Ackerman has written an essay about the brain, in which she waxes eloquent about its ability to discern patterns in the world. The essay is distilled from her new book, An Alchemy of the Mind, which I’ve just reviewed for the Washington Post. I didn’t much like the book, although it took me a while to figure out what was bothering me about it. If you read the essay, you can get the flavor of the book, not to mention Ackerman’s general style in her previous books (which have taken on subjects such as endangered species and the senses). Ackerman has a fondness for sipping tea, tie-dye dresses, and hummingbird feeders, and an even greater fondness for writing about them. I know people who have been put off by her aesthetics, and I find them cloying as well. But that wasn’t really at the heart of my dislike of the book. (And besides, my own aesthetics leans towards shark tapeworms and dissected sheep brains, so I’m hardly one to complain about other people.) It took me a few days to realize that the problem with the book was embedded in a deeper problem: how we talk about nature (which includes our own minds).

By we, I don’t mean cognitive neuropsychologists or planetologists or molecular ecologists. I mean the rest of us, or the collective us, the ones who consciously or unconsciously create the language, metaphors, and stories that serve as our shared understanding of the world. The words we use, even in passing, to describe genes or brains or evolution can lock us into a view of nature that may be meaningful or misleading. When people say, "Being dull is just written into his DNA," they may only intend a light joke, but the metaphor conjures a false image of how personality emerges from genetics and environment and experience. This figure of speech may seem like nothing more than a figure of speech until people step into the office of a genetics counselor to find out about their unborn child.

The brain suffers from plenty of bad language. In some cases, the language is bad because it’s unimaginative. In Alchemy of the Mind, Ackerman points out that calling neurotransmitters and receptors keys and locks does a disservice to their soft, floppy nature. In other cases, though, the language is bad because it’s based on gross simplifications of outmoded ideas. Yet it survives, taking on a life of its own separate from the science. My favorite example, which I wrote about last year, is the bogus story you always hear about how we only use ten percent of your brain.

Ackerman indulges in this sort of bad language a lot. One example: she loves referring to our "reptile brain," as if there was a nub of unaltered neurons sitting at the core of our heads driving our basic instincts. The reality of the brain–and of evolution–is far more complex. The brain of reptilian forerunners of mammals was the scaffolding for a new mammal brain; the old components have been integrated so intimately with our "higher" brain regions that there’s no way to distinguish between the two in any fundamental way. Dopamine is an ancient neurotransmitter that provides a sense of anticipation and reward to other animals, including reptiles. But our most sophisticated abilities for learning abstract rules, carried out in our elaborate prefrontal cortex, depend on rewards of dopamine to lay down the proper connections between neurons. There isn’t a new brain and an old brain working here–just one system. Yet, despite all this, it remains seductive to use a phrase like "reptile brain." It conjures up lots of meanings. Ackerman floods her book with such language, which I grouse about other bad language in my review.

Which makes me wonder, as a science writer myself: is all poetry is ultimately dangerous? Does scientific understanding inevitably get abandoned as we turn to the juicy figure of speech?

Update: 6/14/04 11 AM: NY Times linked fixed


  1. #1 joseph duemer
    June 15, 2004

    Speaking as a poet with an interest in science, I’d say that poetry, understood the way Ackerman understands it, is not only dangerous to sicence — it is dangerous to poetry. You nail down in your comments above just what has always bothered me about Ackerman’s nature writing. For her, nature seems to be not much more than a repository of potential metaphors. I’d argue that poetry, properly understood, is as rigorous as science in its approach to the world, though the emphasis or “spin” is likely to be different in these two branches of human creativity.

  2. #2 gwangi
    June 15, 2004

    FYI, your link to Ackerman’s NYT essay is not working.

  3. #3 Carl Zimmer
    June 15, 2004

    The link works now. –CZ

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    June 15, 2004

    I think the problem is that when the poetry isn’t coupled to understanding, you get jabberwocky.

  5. #5 Lance Boyle
    June 15, 2004

    “simplifications of outmoded ideas” The mode which is out is a function of the group mind. There’s a time lag, and resistance, and pet ideas, romanticized schema, all the superstition and wrong directions.
    It gets cleaned up through education. But the educational processes are lagging seriously behind the actual group neurology which is the television and its lesser shunts the print media. Digital linkage is so atomized, there’s no hierarchy but the personal.
    I read this, but does Diane Ackerman? Or next year’s Ackerman?
    The clearest view of what really is is coming out of the labs right now, how is it processed for the public, where is it going? Straight into the pages of Time magazine?
    I hope not. I don’t want my kids’ view of scientifically validated reality coming from Time or Newsweek, these are not trustworthy sources for something so critically important.
    If I had to suggest a solution, I’d say we need a venue where someone like Ackerman could offer her world-view as representative of the larger mind, which is a responsibility of poets and always has been, and have it groomed, deloused, gussied-up, by mediators and translators, and popularizers whose first loyalties are to the truth, and whose second loyalties are to the people for whom poets speak.
    I don’t want scientists in charge of what poets do best – speaking for the people and to the people about the world – but it doesn’t work to have poets in charge of science either, as this post makes so plain.
    The problem is the disconnect, the time lag between scientific validation and poetic digestion, and the inadequate infrastructure to expedite that. But then that’s what you’re doing here isn’t it?
    Good job.

  6. #6 Dano
    June 17, 2004

    BAD poetry is an impediment to ALL understanding, not just scientific understanding. Poetry in and of itself is not dangerous to scientific understanding, unless you consider the possibility that poetry may cause opening up of the mind to the limitations of Platonic dialogue or reductionist thought dangerous.

    It is very difficult to write good poetry, and my personal opinion is that very few people do it well today. Relying on modern poetry to help oneself understand the world is like relying on American newspapers to gain knowledge on the wide world.

    I don’t care for Ackerman’s work, but I don’t think her work gives cause to reject all writing of this sort; I’ve learned a lot about the environoment and human nature from Seamus Heaney and no one calls him a flaming environmentalist…

    Keep up the good work, sir.


  7. #7 Neil Slade
    July 21, 2004

    The only problem with Carl’s opinion above– and it is OPINION– is that it’s in conflict with the opinions of other experts who know as much, or more likely, MORE about the subject of brain and behavior and its definitions than writer Carl.

    Ackerman just didn’t pull her book out of a hat.
    I sense professional jealousy here– ah yes, envy, that’s an extension of reptilian brain ego survival mechanisms- expressed in English language, an ability of the human cortex.

    Dr. Paul McLean, of NIMH was one of the first to coin a popularize the term “REPTILE” brain, and without going into long details– his opinion of the use of this phrase is totally at odd’s with Carls poo-pooing of the use of this term. The entire model of the “triune” brain, as called by McLean and countless others, is based PRIMARILY on the fact that each of these areas of the brain ARE in fact distinct in behavioral character, as well as physical attributes– if you are talented enough to see the differences.

    I would suppose also the Carl would lump together Picasso and Van Gogh—I can hear him now “All that art just looks the same” 😉

    The layers of the brain are distinct, not uncommonly does one layer suffer damage– and another layer continues to function perfectly well- not exactly evidence of an unseparatable unified brain.

    As for the “bogus story you always hear about we only use ten percent of our brain”– Carl’s presumtive expertise seems to be in direct conflict with Nobel prize winners among others. Carl fails to recognize – or admit contrary to his opinion- that this phrase is generally meant as a METAPHOR– and someone actually using a couple more percent of largely dormant brain POTENTIAL will accept that.

    The first to outline this theory, later proved a fact by others, was Australian Neurology Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles. (Lecture: University of Colorado, University Memorial Center Boulder, July 31, 1974.) “The brain indicates its powers are endless.”

    In England, John Lorber did autopsies on hydrocephalics. This illness causes all but the 1/6th inch layer of brain tissue to be dissolved by acidic spinal fluid. He tested the IQ’s of patients before and during the disease. His findings showed that IQ remained constant up to death. Although over 90% of brain tissue was destroyed by the disease, it had no impact on what we consider to be normal intelligence.

    Russian neurosurgeon Alexandre Luria proved that the 1/3 bulk of frontal lobes are mostly dormant. He did this by performing ablation experiments on persons. He gave physiological and psychological tests before, cut out parts and whole frontal lobes, the re-tested after. His conclusion: removal of part or all of frontal lobes causes no major change in brain function, (some change in mood alteration). The frontal lobes are mostly dormant, asleep. (Luria, A.R. “Frontal Lobes and the Regulation of Behavior.” In: K.H. Pribram and A.R. Luria, Editors, Psychophysiology of the Frontal Lobes. New York, and London, Academic Press, 1973)

    Finally, the human brain contains 10 billion neurons, mostly in the outer layer of brain cortex. the function of these currently dominant cells is fairly clear. but the brain also contains 120 billion glial cells. Aside from some secondary nurturing of neurons, the primary function of the glia is not clear. What big bang mirical awaits mankind within these mysteries?

    Today, most would agree without argument that the potential of the human brain is infinite. Thus, to state that a person uses 10%, 5%, or even 1% of their potential brain cpacity (infinity) is overly generous.

    The point is this: There is no dispute among honestly rational experts about the latent potential of the human think box. There is only friendly dispute about how much and what still awaits us, patiently to be self-discovered between each set of ears. Hence, the wisdom of intuitive folksay was correct: “The human brain is only 10% functional.” John eccles thinks that number is too high. “How can you calculate a percentage of infinity?”

    Admittedly, and arguably, we use all parts of our brain to some extent. But to say humans live up to the potential of what is possible within the frontal lobes- this is laughable. The common folksy saying that “We only use 10% of our brain”- this is not really too far off. We use an infinitely small part of our infinite potential– this is what is really meant by a 90% dormant brain, so says Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles. (Lecture: University of Colorado, University Memorial Center Boulder, July 31, 1974.)

    Alas, Carl, you must circuit more electrochemical activity forward from reactive un-creative old habit reptilian circuits into new thinking frontal lobes for a more accurate brain image. You may then learn to appreciate a good thing when you see it.

    Neil Slade

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