books psychology science

Science and Poetry on science, language, and ‘the reptilian brain’

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.

The brain suffers from plenty of bad language….[In Alchemy of the Mind, 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?

I say ‘no’. All language is imprecise to some degree. This is what gives it power- without imprecision you couldn’t have generality. To try and cut out all figures of speech would be to buy into the idea that perfect truth can be expressed in language, which is the sort of absolutist manifesto that leads to fundamentalisms of all sorts (including scienticism).

A good figure of speech can convey whole worlds of understanding, as well as being part of the fun that you need to motivate you to keep reading. Precision in scientific understanding is like democracy – something to always strive towards without fooling yourself that you’ve ever completely arrived.

So, yes poetry is dangerous, but so is trying do without it- any dealings with the ostrich-literalism of Creationists will demonstrate that.

Damn, I’m so liberal sometimes i make me sick.

The real problem with poetry is that people are given more license to get away with complete nonsense. But then the problem isn’t poetry – it’s nonsense.