Evan Thompson, Ph.D.

Evan Thompson Ph.D.

Waking, Dreaming, Being

The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky

What Emily Dickinson Can Teach Neuroscience

Posted Apr 16, 2015

When I was a student at Amherst College and had trouble writing a paper, I’d go for late night walks and pass by the Emily Dickinson Homestead at 280 Main Street, where the poet was born in 1830 and spent most of her life. The thought of her at work in her bedroom—where she wrote almost 1800 poems—encouraged me and I’d go back to my room nearby at Tyler House and work some more on my paper.

Later I learned that Dickinson wrote several poems about the brain. The most well known is probably number 632 (she didn’t title the majority of her poems): [For formatting reasons, I've had to insert lines to separate the stanzas.]

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —

For — put them side by side —

The one the other will contain

With ease — and You — beside —

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The Brain is deeper than the sea —

For — hold them — Blue to Blue —

The one the other will absorb —

As Sponges — Buckets — do —

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The Brain is just the weight of God —

For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —

And they will differ — if they do —

As Syllable from Sound —

Neuroscientists like to quote this poem. The late Nobel laureate, Gerald Edelman, used it as the title for his 2004 book, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. Stanislas Dehaene takes the first stanza as an epigraph for his recent book, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. Reading these scientists, one gets the impression that they see Dickinson as having anticipated and given poetic justification for their view that the mind is just the brain or is what the brain does. Poets, they seem to think, can intuit what scientists prove, and make it beautiful—an important task if the scientific findings seem dispiriting. But does the poem really say what these neuroscientists seem to think it does—that you are your brain? And is this the right way to think about poetry—as a handmaiden to science?

No. The poem is richer than that reading. By leveling its meaning, these neuroscientists miss the poem’s insights and the questions that it raises. The insights are proper to poetry and philosophy, and the questions are ones that poetry and philosophy address but that neuroscience on its own cannot.

The poem presents a three-part comparison—the width of the brain to the width of the sky, the depth of the brain to the depth of the sea, and the weight of the brain to the weight of God. The brain is wider than the sky, because it contains it. As the manuscript shows, Dickinson toyed with the word “include” for “contain,” putting them both side by side and marked with plus signs, leaving us with textual variants. The 1896 edition of the poem uses “include” (but doesn’t preserve her dashes and capitalization). The inclusion isn’t physical, of course, but mental. The brain includes the sky as a mental image or an object of thought. The container/inclusion metaphor governs the second comparison, too. The bucket contains the sponge, but the sponge absorbs and contains the water; and nature includes the brain, but the brain includes the sea by absorbing its image.

Although Dickinson uses “brain” to stand for “mind,” she doesn’t equate them in a reductionist way; rather, she uses something tangible—the brain as a physical organ—to indicate something intangible—the power of thought to envision the enormity of nature.

“Metonymy” is the name for this figure of speech. Its basic strategy, according to literary theorist, Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), is “to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal and tangible.” We speak of the “heart” instead of “feelings,” or “the brain” instead of “thought” or “imagination.” Dickinson’s figure of speech is also a synecdoche, because she treats the brain as a part that stands for the whole of the mind, and as a microcosm that includes the macrocosm.

Dickinson’s poem presents an experience of the sublime—of the awesome boundlessness of nature. The “Dickinson sublime” is unique. Whereas some philosophers, notably Immanuel Kant, thought that, in experiencing the sublime, we distance ourselves from nature and proclaim our superiority over it by being able to comprehend it, Dickinson undermines this distance by having the brain—a material thing of nature—be that which does the comprehending. This makes the brain, too, sublime, because its power to contain by comprehension is so vast that it includes the sky and sea. Dickinson’s vision of the sublime isn’t the Kantian one of the mind transcending nature; rather, it’s a vision of the mind in nature or the mind as nature. Nature, by way of the brain, beholds itself. The Dickinson sublime is the “inclusive sublime” (a term I owe to Hilary Thompson).

But this power of the brain is also terrifying—another quality of the sublime—because, as the poem tells us, the brain also easily contains “you.” If “brain” stands for “mind,” then the mind is not only wider than the sky; it’s also wider than you. You might think that you contain your mind, but it’s actually the other way round: your mind contains you—your sense of self—and your mind is too vast for you to comprehend. Think of a dream. From the depths of your mind (or brain) a dream is generated, and neither you awake nor you within the dream knows how and why this happens. Instead of there being a separate self that contains and controls the mind, the self is something that the mind (or brain) envisions. (This idea is a central theme of my book, Waking, Dreaming, Being.)

Again, the poem isn’t saying “you are nothing but a pack of neurons” (to quote another late, Nobel Laureate biologist—Francis Crick). For one thing, Dickinson’s dashes express a suspension of such certainties. For another, she isn’t reducing the mind to the brain, but juxtaposing them, as in poem 937:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind —

As if my Brain had split —

I tried to match it — Seam by Seam —

But could not make it fit.

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The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before —

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound

Like Balls — upon a Floor.

Here the part of the mind that escapes the comprehension of the self is the sequence of thoughts, which decades later William James would call “the stream of thought,” and today psychologists and neuroscientists call “spontaneous thought.” Unlike task-directed thought (for example, solving a crossword puzzle), which is the kind of thought that cognitive science has mostly studied, spontaneous thought happens without conscious control—for example, when you daydream or your mind wanders. Usually such thought contains some mental image of “you”—recalled from your past or projected into your future—but “you” don’t control the thought and its deeper sources in the mind and brain seem inscrutable. In this poem, Dickinson doesn’t just anticipate William James and cognitive science; she also anticipates Sigmund Freud.

We see another kind of juxtaposition in the third stanza of poem 632, but one that changes the terms and metaphor of the comparison. The brain is compared with God, and weighing is the metaphor, not containing. The brain is only or exactly (“just”) “the weight of God.” Dickinson was raised in a Calvinist household and knew the Bible well, so she probably would have known that one of the Old Testament Hebrew words translated as “glory” also means “weight,” and she would have been familiar with Paul’s “Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” in the New Testament, in which he writes of an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). For Christians, the word “glory” describes the manifestation or presence of God, and human beings are believed to share in this glory by having been made in the image of God. So, by writing, “The Brain is just the weight of God,” Dickinson might have meant that the brain is the glory of God, a manifestation of His presence in nature, or that the brain or mind is fashioned in God’s image. Yet, given the line of thought in the previous stanzas, she equally might have meant that God is an image made by the human brain or mind. (Dickinson struggled with faith and doubt, and by age thirty-eight had stopped attending church. Her poem 202 declares: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention/For Gentlemen who see!/But microscopes are prudent/In an Emergency!” And poem 1577 states: “The Bible is an antique Volume/Written by faded Men/At the suggestion of Holy Spectres.”)

If the brain and God differ in their weight—in their heaviness, importance, or glory—it will be, the poem tells us, “as Syllable from Sound.” Nature contains sounds, but language contains them in the form of syllables. Vowels and consonants are the sounds of language; syllables are their organization into sequential units, which in turn make up words. On the one hand, syllables require sound, so the poem could be suggesting that the brain or mind requires or depends on God. Perhaps (as Johnny Lorenz suggests in an article on this poem) the brain is an organized “unit of God,” as a syllable is an organized unit of sound. On the other hand, sound not structured into syllables lacks meaning, so the poem could also be suggesting that God is meaningless without the brain (contrary to the first verse of the Gospel of John, which announces, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”).

These ambiguities—the brain as part of God’s glory versus God as an image devised by the brain; the brain as dependent on God versus God as dependent on the brain—are essential to the poem’s climactic stanza. So, too, is the ambiguity of using “brain” as a metonymy or synecdoche for “mind” in the poem altogether. These ambiguities are still very much with us today. Although neuroscience can tell us much about ourselves, it can’t teach us how to think about these kinds of ambiguities; for that we need poetry and philosophy.

Dickinson’s voice has been described as having “a volcanic power to bide its time.” That time is increasingly now, as we learn more about the brain and ponder its relationship to the mind, nature, religion, and the self. Neuroscientists should learn from Dickinson’s “inclusive sublime” and not interpret too narrowly her thought that “the brain is wider than the sky.”

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This post—the first of my new blog here at Psychology Today—touches on many of the things I plan to write about—the mind, brain, self, and consciousness, seen through poetry, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and religion. I hope you’ll join me.

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