Neurology and Poetry

Ann E. Michael, Contributing Editor

For me, reading about consciousness, neurology, the evolution of brain development, and scientific studies on neuropsychology is oddly soothing. The findings in these articles and books often mesh well with books I read about Buddhism, meditative practices, Taoism, some types of philosophy, and also poetry. Granted, I may be an odd duck when it comes to self-calming through neurological research; but another side effect of my peculiar reading habit is its benefit to my writing life. Sometimes, neurological findings have informed my poems, though the effect isn’t necessarily obvious.

In the 1990s, there was a surge of interest in brain evolution and processes made possible by MRI technology. Psycho-neuro experiments began to crowd the pages of scholarly journals dedicated to human consciousness, psychology, and brain study, and the research has only picked up since. Researchers can now “see” which regions of the brain react, respond, fire, or remain flat during various kinds of memory, activities, stresses, and emotions. The research proved useful in multiple disciplines, including sociology, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics—even economics…and literature. One set of theories that intrigues me involves story-making—the human drive toward narrative.
Mark Turner’s book The Literary Mind posits that language arises out of a need to create narrative (as a sentient, conscious drive-to-tell), rather than the more traditional theory of story arising from language (as a semiotic drive-to-name). Turner often collaborated on research with George Lakoff, who co-authored the book Metaphors We Live By, a wonderful study of creative human expression.
Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories follows a slightly different thread of research to end up with similar speculations about what makes human beings into storytellers, although his research aligns with Turner’s in suggesting that narrative urge has been ingrained in the human mind through the genome. In other words, evolution: making stories required us to invent the kinds of communication systems we employ, to keep us in communities where we could raise our helpless offspring (who have such a slow maturation rate), to solve problems collaboratively and, inevitably, I guess, to teach. We could pass information, advice, rules, rituals, social norms to one another through generational and cultural interactions. Stories. Parables. Metaphors. Poetry in a nutshell.
A colleague of mine told me that too much scientific information about the brain, consciousness, and the evolutionary drive behind storytelling “takes the mystery out” of poetry and fiction. I don’t see it that way, obviously; the insights about how the brain works amaze me as much as inform me. They inspire toward more imagery, more subtle connections, more tonal shifts, more surprise—not less. Knowing that the mind collects and processes images and creates narratives and parables in day-to-day living, not just when composing poetry but out of an almost inherent social need, makes me feel even more inclined to celebrate poetry, to create new work, and to relish the work of other writers.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett, persuaded by many scientific studies of memory, memory-images, and brain structure and function, floats the idea (proposed in somewhat similar fashion by cognitive philosopher Shaun Gallagher, neuroscientist Antonio D’Amasio, and Buddhist practitioner Rick Hanson) that consciousness consists of “contents within a narrative that strings together momentary snapshots of self” over time and through repeated experience, in a seemingly coherent way (the quote is Hanson’s). Images that build or overlap to cohere into an experience we and others can identify…through language, and over time: is this not what a poem does? 
My writing mind and my writing life, my reading mind and my life through reading, my everyday narratives and experiential snapshots—all are enhanced when I consider the work of cognitive researchers. And I find that learning about the functioning of neurocircuits is surprisingly comforting, even though it is more about what we human beings don’t know than about what we do know.
Which is where the mystery still lies.
Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained
Antonio D’Amasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain
Mark Turner, The Literary Mind
Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

Rick Hanson & Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom