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From Walt Whitman to Modern Neuroscience: The Poetic Appeal of Neuronal Networks

Submitted by on March 18, 2017 – 12:55 PM

Nerve-Cell-3A noiseless, patient spider,

 

I mark’d where, on a little promontory, it stood isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself;

Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

 

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing—seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

-Walt Whitman

 

Neuroscience talks in clipped tones on the subject of consciousness. Literature paints out multi-colored worlds within the 7-colored world, makes gustatory buds drip, makes one feel, intensely. They speak different languages, but seek to describe the same thing.

 

This poem by Walt Whitman captures the idea of connection. Amongst the wide seas of otherwise nothingness, the spider and the soul actively seek out to find anchor- to weave out a pattern and make sense of it all. I will not go into the poem’s explication but would like to show how it is not just the arachnids and the Geist, flinging filaments from their little spinnerets, but that the vivid picture the poem evokes or the themes it addresses, also extend to the dry mechanics of neuroscience.

 

A human brain contains over 100 billion neurons. But it is not about the sheer number or even the absence or presence. Their magnificence lies in connection, in synapses and their assembly. From the time a human brain starts growing in the womb, through our earliest inklings of consciousness, or our clumsy first steps, nerve cells are ‘ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing’ their axons, interlocking themselves with dendrites of others, forming a bond.

 

In famous experiments on kittens, albeit ethically questionable, we could demonstrate, that in the critical window time frames, if the eyes have not been stimulated by light, and the optic nerves allowed to form connection with the visual cortex, then the kittens could just as well turn blind. The neurons are still there. But atrophied. Useless. All through our lives- the rigorous rigmarole of learning, the people and places we grow to love or abhor, the unexpected swell of emotion upon a memory trigger, the shades of competencies and personalities that make us who we are, are after all a grand orchestra of neuronal networking.

 

Links to the amygdala for emotion, projections to the limbic cortex for memory, striations to our frontal lobes during spontaneous decision-making go on ’till the ductile anchor holds’. What a lovely juxtaposition! ‘Ductile’ implies almost fragility whereas ‘anchor’ gives the sense of something durable. In an electron microscope one sees it, the axonal ends bulge and sink into a cradle of the post-synaptic neuron. Binding proteins, that appear so insubstantial, hold the two limbs cautiously together.

 

But the fact that it still exists and holds on makes all the difference. Is it the individual H2O molecules that impart water its overall wetness, what is in these ‘isolated’ wisps of protoplasm that make for the seamless continuity of human consciousness? The magic perhaps lies in their patient, noiseless endeavor to efface gaps, to reach out and connect. It is the ‘gossamer threads…ever unreeling, ever tirelessly speeding’ that join the dots and make for a very rich, unique tapestry of life.

 

 

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