This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the words we use to describe how brains work. What is a “thought,” or a “dream,” in the mind of a human, and to what extent can those terms be applied to other animals. As a science writer, I’m cautious about attributing human-like characteristics to other animals. Humans generally have the capacity to verbalize or otherwise describe their motivations. Since we can’t communicate with other animals in the same way, we can’t really know how they think and feel the way we intuit what humans think or feel based on what they say or do. As a science writer, I worry about anthropomorphizing.
But when I write fiction and poetry, I anthropomorphize all the time, because this is a tool that can be used to inhabit other points of view. And this is not just about seeing the world from the eyes of a cat or a shrimp. If I say, “The wind plays piano upon the palm leaves,” I’m taking the liberty of anthropomorphizing wind so that a reader might understand the view out of my window—it’s not just leaf blades moving up and down in a breeze, there’s a light rhythm to it, an undulation that feels musical.
Something I’m hoping to get out of this collaborative experience is to see where my language needs to be more careful in describing how other animals’ brains process the world, and where I can take liberty with language to imagine something unknowable. Ben mentioned in his previous blog post that art might “provide an alternative means to investigate the unknown and overlooked […] to explore new territories which are currently inaccessible to existing scientific methods.” I find that exciting because it gives us a means to bridge* what is currently known about how animal brains operate with what we’d like to know as we continue to study them.
*Yep, I see what I did there.