One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out these past couple of weeks is how use concrete poetry as a formal means to write about neurobiology. As I’ve documented in previous blog posts, I’m pretty taken with the physical/chemical properties of neurons and how they transmit information within a cell and between cells. I’m also very interested in the words we use to describe what nerves/brains/animals do (what is a “thought” at any of these physical scales?). As a starting point for putting these two interests together, I tried to think of inanimate things that behave in ways that mirror neuronal processes. For example, a dry river bed that “remembers” the river such that the next season’s rains trace the path and bring the “memory” of the river back to life. Once I’d got a list of these ideas written down (a typical poem, by my standards), I started to play with sentences written in loops and curves that intersected each other (like nerve circuits).
I showed Ben a draft of this to get a sense of whether it would work stylistically. He pointed out some features of it that I think are useful going forward, so I’m excited to continue along this vein and see how his feedback from time to time helps me construct or refocus the poem.
Apart from that, I’ve been reading some interesting research papers on cognition at various scales. One is a newly reported study on social learning in giant land tortoises. Another is an older study I stumbled upon exploring why humpback waves save other animals from orcas. And the third is on the step-by-step decision-making patterns of a single-celled freshwater organism. While none of these papers is directly related to Ben’s and my project, I find them fascinating to think about in the context of our discussions. We began our collaboration by talking about how writing might be a way of accessing something we cannot yet understand, but want to—and the alien mindscapes of other organisms are a pretty compelling thematic umbrella. Obviously a single-celled organism has no mind, but neither does any isolated cell in a brain. Yet the decision-making process of a single-celled organism helps us imagine how multi-celled animals aggregated such decision-making into the complex feedback loops that remind a 100-year-old tortoise how to pass an experimenter’s test for a food reward, or help a 30,000-kilogram whale decide to save a 60-kilogram human from predation. That’s pretty incredible, and the sort of stuff I file into a catalog of references for poems.