A poem by Anne Stephenson touches a nerve

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‘It looks so simple from a distance’  is the title of the poem by Anne Stephenson that was chosen for Poems on the Underground in 2010, the year that celebrated 350 years of the Royal Society. I was asked for a short comment at that time that I don’t think ever appeared anywhere.

I was captured by the title which expresses a familiar experience. This is what I have felt when looking at wonderfully lit-up brain images that dimly reflect what a person in a scanner thinks or feels. Brain images are full of promise and mystery; they can indeed seem like lit-up cities at night, when seen at a great distance from a plane. Here too the lights dimly reflect what people think and feel.Neuroscientists have gained amazingly detailed knowledge  about the working of the synapse, the point of contact between one nerve cell and another. Here is the pulsing and stretching and here is the electrical activity, which sends information from one part or our brain to another. But how does this exquisite ‘local’ activity in the membrane of nerve cells – as seen in a powerful microscope –  map onto what goes on in our mind? How does it result in our lives touching each other? This is a huge gap in our knowledge. The cities of the mind are only glimpsed in velvet darkness.  Anne Stephenson reminds us of the dark side of our mind. But she also lets us think of gold. The gold is already visible in the sparkling lights that make up highways and bridges, thus showing us the chains of communication. To me the chains are also reassuring because they bind ‘black hostilities’.

I am glad that poets take neuroscience as inspiration for their work. The future discovery of how the brain produces the mind is a challenge that needs to be met not just by scientists, and philosophers, but also by creative artists.