The Marginalian
The Marginalian

From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

The making of our densely networked crucible of thought and tenderness.

From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

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.

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s revolutionary drawings of the brain.

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.


O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

The ultimate anthem of resistance to the assaults on life.

O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

There is a nonspecific gladness that envelops humanity in the first days of spring, as if kindness itself were coming abloom in the cracks of crowded sidewalks, quelling our fears, swallowing our sorrows, salving the savage loneliness. We are reminded then that spring — this insentient byproduct of the shape of our planet’s orbit and the tilt of its axis — may just be Earth’s existential superpower, the supreme affirmation of life in the face of every assault on it.

That superpower comes alive with dazzling might in a century-old poem by E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), originally published in his 1923 collection Tulips & Chimneys (public library) — that epochal gauntlet at the conventions of poetry, which went on to influence generations of writers, readers, and daring makers of the unexampled across the spectrum of creative work — and read at the fifth annual Universe in Verse by the polymathic creative force that is Debbie Millman, with a side of Bach.

by e.e. cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

            fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

        beauty    how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

            thou answerest

them only with


Couple with spring with Emily Dickinson, then revisit E.E. Cummings (who, contrary to popular myth, signed his name both lowercase and capitalized) on the courage to be yourself.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Roxane Gay reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die,” Zoë Keating reading Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” Rebecca Solnit reading Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” and a series of animated poems celebrating nature.


The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

In praise of our “property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.”

The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

We know that life is the self-correcting mechanism for error — as much in its evolutionary history as in its existential reality. And yet we are living our lives under the tyranny of perfection, as if all the right answers await us at the end of some vector we must follow infallibly until we arrive at the ultimate ideal. But the truth is that we simply don’t know — we don’t know where life ultimately leads, we don’t know what we want or what to want, and we don’t really know ourselves. It is by erring again and again that we find the shape of the path, by tripping again and again that we learn to walk it. Along the way, the answers emerge not before us but in us.

Van Gogh knew this when he reckoned with how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) knew it when he composed his wonderful essay “To Err Is Human,” found in his 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail (public library) — one of my all-time favorite books.

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

With an eye to the advances in so-called artificial intelligence that our machines made in a blink of evolutionary time — the fruition of Samuel Butler’s prescient Victorian prophecy of the emergency of a new “mechanical kingdom” of life — Thomas writes:

A good computer can think clearly and quickly, enough to beat you at chess, and some of them have even been programmed to write obscure verse. They can do anything we can do, and more besides.

An epoch before ChatGPT, he adds:

As extensions of the human brain, they have been constructed with the same property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.

Rather than measuring the merit of our machines the punitive way we measure our own — by fidelity to some ideal of perfection — Thomas argues that this capacity for error is the supreme gift of the mind, of the more-than-machine we live inside, capable of surprising itself and capable, therefore, of glorious deviations from course, into new vistas of possibility:

Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This generative possibility of being wrong is by definition a function of the friction around being right — contention is the crucible of creation, within us and between us. (The great writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray called this creative friction “antagonistic cooperation.”) Thomas observes:

Whenever new kinds of thinking are about to be accomplished, or new varieties of music, there has to be an argument beforehand. With two sides debating in the same mind, haranguing, there is an amiable understanding that one is right and the other wrong. Sooner or later the thing is settled, but there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides, and the argument. The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.

The possibility of wrong choices is itself an assurance of multiple options — a multiplicity that is always our best bet for creative paths forward that transcend the blockages of the past. Thomas writes:

We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground. This process is called exploration and is based on human fallibility. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In a sentiment that applies as much to our personal existential evolution as to the collective creative challenge of abating climate change, he adds:

What we need, then, for moving ahead, is a set of wrong alternatives much longer and more interesting than the short list of mistaken courses that any of us can think up right now… If it is a big enough mistake, we could find ourselves on a new level, stunned, out in the clear, ready to move again.

Complement with philosopher Daniel Dennett on the art-science of making fertile mistakes and philosopher Amélie Rorty on the value of our self-delusions, then revisit Lewis Thomas on the mystery of the self, our human potential, and his forgotten masterpiece about how to live with ourselves and each other.


May Sarton on How to Cultivate Your Talent

“A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used.”

May Sarton on How to Cultivate Your Talent

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin bellowed in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

There is a reason we call our creative endowments gifts — they come to us unbidden from an impartial universe, dealt by the unfeeling hand of chance. The degree to which we are able to rise to our gifts, the passionate doggedness with which we show up for them day in and day out, is what transmutes talent into greatness. It is the responsibility that earns us the right of our own creative force.

That is what the great poet, novelist, and playwright May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in an entry from her altogether magnificent journal The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

With an eye to a young writer she was mentoring, Sarton reflects:

One must believe in one’s talent to take the long hard push and pull ahead, but a talent is like a plant… It may simply wither if it is not given enough food, sun, tender care. And to give it those things means working at it every day.

Echoing Mary Oliver’s admonition that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time,” Sarton adds:

A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used. Closing the gap between expectation and reality can be painful, but it has to be done sooner or later. The fact is that millions of young people would like to write, but what they dream of is the published book, often skipping over the months and years of very hard work necessary to achieve that end — all that, and luck too. We tend to forget about luck.

Complement this fragment of The House by the Sea (public library) — which also gave us Sarton on how to live openheartedly in a harsh world — with poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, discipline, and the two driving forces of creative work, Jennifer Egan on the most important discipline in creative work, and Maria Konnikova on the psychology of luck, then revisit Sarton’s spare, splendid poem about the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, her ode to the art of being alone, and her cure for despair.


View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from any link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)