A poem is a dance with the other lobe

June 6, 2010 at 9:20 PM
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A poem is a dance with the other lobe

Bronwyn Lommel and Jim Stellar

Bronwyn and I knew each other some time ago as lab student and professor in molecular-behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern. We both had an interest in larger questions and recently began to talk about how my emerging blog and her writing might be connected. She produced this small poem and that got us thinking about how poetry might be seen as having a contribution from “otherlobe” type thinking. Given the academic status of poetry, we wondered if there might not be some insight to be gained from looking at a poetic treatment of a classical theory of mind. First the poem:




Little man, sequestered in the

greymatter sprawl –

Droopknuckled ape, opressor unwitting.


I am his prisoner,

mouthpiece, muse. His numbness

clasps tight the strings of my

Feeling –


His blindness wills my gaze – Silence

tugs at my tongue. I am governed deftly in his paralysis.


            Yet, should I fall at last to calm –


Peel back the layers and, with great care,

open his glistening ivory chamber.


I have been his prisoner,

he the mute unquestionable habitant

Within, poised atop hills I could not mount –

Now fugitive, defeated tyrant in a desolate country.


What does “otherlobe” thinking have to do with this poem, aside from the fact that it touches on a topic long discussed in Neuroscience, the homunculus? While BL points out that Mallarmé famously said that poems are “about words,” someone once told JS that the highest form of writing was not description of people, places, things, ideas, or one’s own feelings, but rather a “verbal object” and a poem was offered as an example of a verbal object.  We took that to mean that it had some creative, internal structure that would allow it to generate multiple meanings and symbolism. Then we thought that poems must be the interplay of the academic part of the brain with the emotional and intuitive part of the brain. There must be a dance here between these partners, and like any good dance, the integration must be smooth and sophisticated if it is to work.

BL is interested in the ways in which these ideas might touch on concepts of determinism vs. free will, and the value of ambiguity and whether meaning is determined or open. She says: What makes poetry work is indeed the multiplicity of meanings. Ambiguity is beautiful, and it can be wielded very powerfully in any kind of artistic expression. That is another feature of poetry that may show this “otherlobe” functioning in that the mind-as-computer does not do well with ambiguity or open-ended meaning.  For example, consider the ultimate fairness in an academic test – a multiple choice test.  There can be no complaint that the test is unfair as the answers are right there in front of you and questions are the same for everyone in the class. Essay tests are much more real-world and can support some form of ambiguity. Also, rarely does someone from the world outside the academy ask your opinion about something in multiple-choice format. 

The relationship between reader and poem parallels the mind/brain quandary extant in neuroscience and philosophy, for in some sense one could argue that the poem’s meaning depends on the reader who draws it out– And yet the persona of the reader is manipulated by what meaning may be said already to exist in the poem. There’s a codependence, much like that depicted in Homunculus. As the poem progresses, it lays out the many very personal and yet indirect ways in which the “ghost in the machine” can be seen to manifest in the individual’s life. The search for the ghost in the machine, in Homunculus, (occurring when the “glistening ivory chamber” is opened) is reminiscent of the search for Schrödinger’s famous cat. Where is our tyrant, of whom we have only indirect knowledge? This dualistic, somewhat contradictory nature explored in the poem echoes the way in which a reader might interact with the poem itself.  Maybe this is the same discussion as the one about whether Michelangelo put a brain structure into his painting of the neck of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We would be interested in readers’ opinions on these issues or anything else that you may see of interest in the topic or the poem.  We would be especially interested in what research you knew about that linked brain areas to this kind of intellectual product – highly creative writing.

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4 Responses to “A poem is a dance with the other lobe”

  1. E. Fernández says:

    Low-level processing of sentences copes with ambiguity extremely well, so well, in fact, that we hardly notice when a sentence could mean something else. It has to, because there are many ambiguities in sentences. Consider “the painting of the neck of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel” — on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is there a painting, or a neck? 🙂

    The coping mechanism is built-in preferences for (generally) simpler structures. No wonder poetry is so hard and so stimulating. What a thought-provoking post!

  2. Bronwyn Lommel says:

    @ E. Fernández:

    Interesting point about the innate ability to run with ambiguity. It seems we do that merely by making educated (or at least conditioned) assumptions in the simpler situations you speak of. These sub- or semi-conscious snap judgements make it possible to parse the world around us and, as you say, cope.

    If we had always to be dealing, on every front, with the more complex ambiguities that I find so tantalizing in poetry, the arts and even in science (which we humans love to call ‘concrete’ – and yet!) we might well be paralyzed by that.

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  3. Jim Stellar says:

    Eva, Bronwyn,
    In a previous comment conversation on entrepreneurship we go into a nice conversation about risk in the comment section. I just wanted to point out here that perhaps risk and the “ability to run with ambiguity” are processed by the same limbic system brain circuits. For example, animals without much of our vaunted cerebral cortex follow the Matching Law of operant psychology in allocating time/effort to alternatives that produce different leves of reward. Coming to a conclusion about the value of something as represented in Damasio’ book, “Descartes’ Error” is part of what started this blog. I am tempted to see all of this as what we have been calling other lobe processing that is massively informed by the experience of a student in doing it … and maybe in the real world. Poetry slam anyone?

  4. Susan Salk says:

    Hi Jim,
    I love this poem. I haven’t logged on as I’ve been so busy with my blog (updating it 3-4 times a week), but today stopped a minute to read this. What a treat.

    – Sue

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