From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became
The making of our densely networked crucible of thought and tenderness.
By Maria Popova
It seems inconceivable — that everything we know, everything we love, everything that ever was and ever will be, banged into being from the singularity, and out of that near-nothingness arose mitochondria and music and “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” all of it conspiring in the wonder of consciousness — the universe’s way of comprehending itself.
Down here on Earth, as if the way life evolved weren’t miracle enough, we were handed down through billions of years of evolution the miraculous benediction of brains — those densely networked crucibles of thought and tenderness, out of which our capacity for transcendence arises.
In an uncommonly poetic passage from his novel The Echo Maker (public library), Richard Powers traces the evolution of that benediction, from its cellular beginnings to its existential end:
Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signaling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a lowly slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar — a notion of nouns and verbs and even prepositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves — brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world — exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other minds, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from… Unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infinitely fragile.
Complement with the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas’s forgotten masterpiece The Fragile Species and the fascinating science of how we think not with the brain but with the world, then revisit Powers on the power of music, living in bewilderment, and how to begin rewriting our planetary future.
Published March 21, 2023