The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Catching the Light of the World: The Entwined History of Vision and Consciousness

“The light of the mind must flow into and marry with the light of nature to bring forth a world… To see, to hear, to be human requires… our ceaseless participation.”

Catching the Light of the World: The Entwined History of Vision and Consciousness

“For this we go out dark nights, searching for the dimmest stars, for signs of unseen things,” the uncommon-minded astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson wrote in her sublime ode to darkness and light. But even down here on Earth, our search for light unfolds amid unseen things — radiant realities beyond the creaturely limits of our vision. Our eyes, those crowning curios of evolution, evolved under our yellow star and now our vision peaks at the yellow portion of the spectrum, on which all visible light is but a slender band wedged between ultraviolet and infrared, spilling into the infinite invisibilia of X-rays and radar, radio and cosmic rays. Our vision is thus both a triumph and a trial of consciousness — something Adrienne Rich captured hauntingly in her poem “Planetarium”:

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This intertwining of physics and poetry, impression and interpretation in the very act of seeing comes alive on the pages of the 1993 gem of a book Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (public library) by Arthur Zajonc — a physicist with a poet’s spirit, devoted to “bringing all of who we are to all that the world is.”

He begins with a striking example of the dialogue between eye and mind: Dr. Moreau’s famous case study of a congenitally blind eight-year-old boy whose eyes were restored to optically working condition by a revolutionary surgery at the dawn of the twentieth century, but who found himself unable to actually see the word because his brain had never learned the language of light. Moreau himself wrote:

The operation itself has no more value than that of preparing the eyes to see; education is the most important factor… To give back sight to a congenitally blind person is more the work of an educator than of a surgeon.

The history of medicine is strewn with similar experiences, many ending with the patient so overwhelmed by the psychological crisis of this new language and they outright reject their sighted life and return to the familiar reality without it — a staggering revelation of just how blurry the boundary between physiology and psychology is, just how continually limited we are by the Cartesian inheritance of seeing the body and the mind as separate. Zajonc reflects:

The lights of nature and of mind entwine within the eye and call forth vision. Yet separately, each light is mysterious and dark.


Two lights brighten our world. One is provided by the sun, but another answers to it — the light of the eye. Only through their entwining do we see; lacking either, we are blind.

Art by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann.

Light is one of our richest and most versatile metaphors — perhaps because, in the physical world, light is the source of images and without poetic images there would be no metaphors for the mental world — and so this central paradox of vision parallels the central paradox of life. Thoreau captured it two centuries ago as he contemplated knowing versus seeing and what it takes to apprehend reality unblinded by preconception, concluding that “we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Zajonc writes:

New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decide it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The sober truth remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.


In many ways, we act like Moreau’s child. The cognitive capacities we now possess define our world, give it substance and meaning. The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty. One must die in order to become. Newly won capacities place us in a tumult of new psychic phenomena, and we become like Odysseus shipwrecked in a stormy sea. Like him we cling tenaciously to the shattered keel of the ship we originally set out upon, our only and last connection to a familiar reality. Why give it up? Do we have the strength to leave, to change? Perhaps the voices encouraging us to venture out on our own belong only to the cruel Sirens? So we close our eyes, and hold on to what we know.

Besides an outer light and eye, sight requires an “inner light,” one whose luminance complements the familiar outer light and transforms raw sensation into meaningful perception. The light of the mind must flow into and marry with the light of nature to bring forth a world.

Art by Ohara Hale for “Let There Always be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)”

But this, Zajonc notes, raises the inevitable question of that outer light — nature’s light, itself invisible yet summoning into view the entire world. It is a question that has been asked, and answered wrongly, with slow increments of error-correction, since the conscious dawn of our species. (Even Plato’s allegory of the cave — the first great thought experiment in understanding consciousness itself as a lens on reality — is woven of light.)

Tracing a panoply of answers across cultures and civilizations — from Euclid (who, blinded by his geometric obsession, believed the eye emitted rays that shine onto the outside world to reveal its contents) to the Arab mathematician and astronomer Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham in the tenth century (who leapt humanity forward from a spiritual conception of vision to something closer to a mathematical or physical theory) to Kepler in the seventeenth century (who built on Newton’s Optiks to devise a complete geometrical explanation of the camera obscura and an inverse-square law for the intensity of light while landing his mother in a witchcraft trial) to twentieth-century laser experiments with quantum optics — Zajonc frames the central inquiry into how our yearning to understand light has illuminated the human mind itself:

Light touches all aspects of our being, revealing a part of itself in each encounter.


How have we changed this thing called light through the lights of our own consciousness? In the mingling of nature and mind arises an understanding of the life of light.

One of Goethe’s geometric studies of color perception

As a young man, Zajonc had fallen under the spell of Goethe’s beautiful but wrong theory of color perception, growing enchanted with the intersection of science and philosophy, of sight and mind — an intersection from which contemporary science has increasingly cowered, hiding behind the blinders of its neo-Cartesian materialism, against which only the rare poetic physicist dares raise a voice of nuanced dissent. Two and a half millennia after Plato correctly deduced the psychological aspect of vision despite his almost comically incorrect theories about its physiology, observing that “the mind’s eye begins to see clearly when the outer eyes grow dim,” Zajonc looks back on the history of our reckonings with the nature of light and insists on the necessary twining of world and mind:

The light of imagination will occupy half of our history, because of its significance for both the ancient world and poetry and the present world and science. No matter how brilliant the day, if we lack the formative, artistic power of imagination, we become blind, both figuratively and literally. We need a light within as well as daylight without for vision: poetic or scientific, sublime or common… The mind is subtly and usually unconsciously active in sight, constantly forming and re-forming the world we see. Thus, we participate in sight.


In antiquity, our role in seeing, in granting meaning to the sense world was felt more keenly than today; the inner light was closer to consciousness. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we live habitually in a scientific world view that too often treats our participatory role in cognition as unessential or illusory. Yet to see, to hear, to be human requires, even today, our involvement, our ceaseless participation.

Polychromatic fringes from the 19th-century French physics textbook Le monde physique. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This, to be clear, is not a mystical claim. Several years earlier, the influential theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler — who salvaged Einstein’s general relativity from its postwar neglect and popularized the term “black hole” — presented his landmark (and ingeniously titled) It from Bit theory, in which he argued that given the information-based nature of all things physical, “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information.” Months later, the human-warped optics of the Hubble Space Telescope demonstrated this equivalence from the backside, giving us our first glimpse of faraway galactic light from the cosmic horizon of our sight and leaving us gasping at a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”

Once again peering back into the long tunnel of sensemaking that stretches between particle physics and Plato, Zajonc writes:

Ancient understandings of sunlight and the sighted eye… will appear, initially, unfamiliar and even absurd. Yet the strangeness may be largely a reflection of the modern imagination we bring to ancient experiences. At every stage, we will need to reimagine the universe, to participate in it empathetically in order to hear the epic song of light.


What begins as a lively, soul-spiritual experience, be it of light or sight, attenuates, clarifies, and divides into optics and psychology. More than an intersecting historical observation, our changing view of light is symbolic of a major change in consciousness, an important threshold crossed in the history of the mind.

There is a sense in which the history of anything is the history of everything, history being the work of human sensemaking — a model of the world made of story and selective memory, each piece of it a fractal miniature of the model-maker’s mind. Inside the history of light — as inside any history — is the history of thought, of the mind reflecting upon itself, the ouroboros of consciousness. The history of science in particular — the place where we build our most elaborate and daring models to be tested continually against the reality they seek to represent — is one extended cautionary parable about the human mind’s perennial tendency to be seduced by its own models, mistaking them for reality, mistaking the extent of our knowledge for the limits of the knowable. Whitman captured this in his searing poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as watched the thrill of discovery tumble into the hubris of certainty in the golden age of telescopic astronomy.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Every epoch has its seductive young science. In our time, we are living through the puerile overconfidence of neuroscience — a discipline no farther along its vector of maturation than astronomy was in Whitman’s time — and its dogmatic view of the brain as the exhaustive engine of experience. Invoking the many persuasive but wrong theories of light and vision over the millennia, each held as dogma in its epoch, Zajonc considers the broader bearing on the history and future of science:

Scientific models certainly have their rightful place. But when does a model become an idol, that is, when is it taken for something other than a model, becoming “reality”? The model of an atom as a miniature planetary system is helpful only as long as it is not taken literally. Quantum physicists discovered long ago the dangers of idolatry. Neurophysiologists have yet to learn the lesson. For many of them, the brain has become an idol; it has become quintessential man.

The dangers associated with this kind of adulation of the brain are innumerable. The image we have of ourselves is a powerful thing; it shapes our actions, and so also the world we fashion for us and for our children. It is important, therefore, patiently and carefully to distinguish between idol and fact… To embrace the results of science without falling into such idolatry… is the challenge we confront in our times. Our success or failure in fashioning a nonidolatrous science will determine much of our future.

In the particular context of understanding the nature of light and vision, this would require shedding our culturally constructed blinders to regard reality on its own terms, which will always exceed our ability to grasp them fully, because we ourselves exist by those terms, are terms. On the other end of the century in which Max Planck, having originated quantum field theory and won the Nobel Prize for it and hurled humanity into the imagination-trying bewilderment of wave-particle duality, cautioned that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve,” Zajonc writes:

As the light of the eye dims, that of the world brightens. As the beacon of the eye gradually retreats, the power of sunlight projects itself deeper and deeper into the human being until finally the ethereal emanations of Plato… vanish from the Western scientific sense of self… Our habits of thought become perceptions, and while powerful and pervasive, these are not universal or “true.”


Cognition entails two actions: the world presents itself, but we must “re-present” it. We bring ourselves, with all our faculties and limitations, to the world’s presentation in order to give form, figure, and meaning to that content. The beautiful and productive images we craft on the basis of experience are images only — fruits of the imagination. They are no less true for being so.

Light distribution on soap bubble from the 19th-century French physics textbook Le monde physique. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the remainder of Catching the Light, Zajonc goes on to explore various aspects of the twin histories of light and mind, from anatomy to the aurora borealis, from photography to quantum field theory, from Homer to the Brothers Grimm. Complement it with his magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, then savor Elson’s “Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter),” read by Patti Smith and animated by Ohara Hale for the second installment in the animated season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being:


How to Live with Fear and What It Means to Love: A Tender Meditation in Ink, Watercolor, and Wonder

“Nothing beats kindness… It sits quietly beyond all things.”

How to Live with Fear and What It Means to Love: A Tender Meditation in Ink, Watercolor, and Wonder

“What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?” the Proust Questionnaire asked David Bowie. “Living in fear.” Partway in time between Proust and Bowie, the young Hannah Arendt examined the eternal paradox of how to love and live with fear in her earliest published work, observing: “Fearlessness is what love seeks. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

And yet a hallmark of our complex animal consciousness is our prospective imagination — the ability to tense into the future and everything that could possibly go wrong in it, aware that at any given moment we could be making the wrong choice, aware that even if there were a right one, and even if we had the wisdom to discern it and the will to make it, chance will always play a greater role than choice. This is the price we pay for the chance-miracle of being alive at all, each of us the improbable product of chance events that long prefigure our consciousness and its capacity for choice. (Just ask James Baldwin.) So we find ourselves here, cosmic castaways living with the perennial burden of figuring forward in an uncertain universe, discovering again and again in this burden the greatest blessings of beauty and meaning — the object of every theorem and the subject of every work of art, followed to its deepest source.

How to live not without fear but with it, how to let it be the foothold to our capacity for kindness and beauty, is what artist Charlie Mackesy explores in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (public library) — a serenade to life, in all its terrifying and transcendent uncertainty, sung in ink, watercolor, and wonder.

The book is less a story than a sensorium for meaning, rendered in spare words and soulful pictures. In a series of encounters and conversations with three other animals, each the keeper of a different kind of wisdom, a small boy confronts life’s big questions: how to live with fear, what it means to love and be loved, where to find the deepest and purest wellspring of fulfillment.

There is an Odyssean quality to the path they travel together, but it is not that of the archetypal hero’s journey. At its heart is a celebration of friendship as life’s supreme collaborative heroism, which saves us from ourselves (the way anything that unselves us saves us).

To a jaded grownup eye, this painted meditation might at times appear as the moral of a Zen parable or an Aesop fable, delivered without the storytelling and poetic rewards of the parable or fable — a little too obvious, a little too simplistic, a little too fortune cookie. But wherever it risks being trite, the story is saved by tenderness.

It helps, too, to remember to take Mackesy’s hand and step into the perspective from which the story unfolds — that of a child wide-eyed with wonder, asking the simplest questions, which are also the deepest questions, with unselfconscious sincerity; it helps to remember Aldous Huxley’s admonition against our fear of sincerity as he contemplated the two types of truth all artists must reconcile, reminding us that while “not all obvious truths are great truths,” “all great truths are obvious truths.”

In this regard, the book feels like a spiritual heir of Winnie the Pooh. And who, this side of 1943, can encounter a fox in a picture-book without thinking of The Little Prince?

Leafing through it, I find myself thinking of the Stoic strategy for overcoming fear: “If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes,” Seneca wrote two millennia ago, “train him before it comes.” Better yet, this uncommon book intimates, train him before he becomes a man — train the child that becomes the man, the child that goes on living inside him, the eternal inner child for whom Maurice Sendak made all of his books, knowing that the highest achievement of adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Complement The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse — many fragments of which Mackesy has made available as cards and prints — with poet Joseph Pintauro’s wondrous vintage picture-books for adults about life, love, mortality, and the wonder of uncertainty, then revisit the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on fairy tales and the importance of fear and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love.


Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve… to live in the world with the absence of someone… ingrained in your understanding of the world… For the brain, [they are] simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time.”

Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief,” Emily Dickinson wrote as she calibrated love and loss. But she did not mean that it is good to ruminate and wallow — Dickinson so deftly played with the surface of meaning, so delighted in startling us into a flinch or furrow before plunging us into the deeper truths she fathomed. She meant, I think, that a love lost is grieved forever, whatever the nature of the loss — this she knew, and turned the ongoingness of it into a lifetime of art — but by looking back, we are reminded over and over that the sharp edge of grief does smooth over time, that today’s blunt ache is worlds apart from the first stabs, until grief becomes, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his stirring letter of consolation to a bereaved young woman, “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

And besides, what does it mean to lose a love anyway? We never lose people, not really. I don’t mean this in some mystical sense — let there be no confusion about what actually happens when we die. I don’t even mean it in the poetic sense. I am speaking strictly from the point of view of the mind emerging from the dazzling materiality of the brain — that majestic cathedral of cortex and synapse shaping every thought we have and every feeling we tremble with.

I am speaking of the paradox inside the brain:

On the one hand, we lose people all the time — to death, to distance, to differences; from the brain’s point of view, these varieties of loss differ not by kind but only by degree, triggering the same neural circuitry, producing sorrow along a spectrum of intensity shaped by the level of closeness and the finality of the loss.

On the other hand, no person we have loved is ever fully gone. When they die or vanish, they are physically no longer present, but their personhood permeates our synapses with memories and habits of mind, saturates an all-pervading atmosphere of feeling we don’t just carry with us all the time but live and breathe inside. Or the opposite happens, which is its own devastation — the physical body remains present, but the person we have known and loved, that safehouse of shared memories and trust, is gone — lost to mental illness, to addiction, to neurodegenerative disease.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

In both cases, the brain is tasked with the slow, painful work of reconstituting its map of the world, so that the world makes sense again without the beloved person in it. Mapping, in fact, is not a mere metaphor but what is actually going on in the brain, since our orientation in spacetime and our autonoeic consciousness — the capacity for mental self-representation — share a cortical region.

Where the missed and missing person goes on the map, how the remapping actually unfolds, and what it takes to redraw the map in such a way that the world feels whole again are the questions coursing through The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (public library) by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor — a pioneer in fMRI research since the technology first became available, who has devoted a quarter century to studying the particular neurophysiology of grief. She writes:

The brain devotes lots of effort to mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so that we can find them when we need them. And the brain often prefers habits and predictions over new information. But it struggles to learn new information that cannot be ignored, like the absence of our loved one.


Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, and grieving necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world. This means that for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time. You are navigating your life despite the fact that they have been stolen from you, a premise that makes no sense, and that is both confusing and upsetting.

Making an important distinction between grief (“the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored”) and grieving (an ongoing process punctuated by recurring moments of grief but stringing the moments into a larger trajectory), O’Connor adds:

Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together and transforming our relationship with this person who has died. Grieving, or learning to live a meaningful life without our loved one, is ultimately a type of learning. Because learning is something we do our whole lives, seeing grieving as a type of learning may make it feel more familiar and understandable and give us the patience to allow this remarkable process to unfold.


Grief never ends, and it is a natural response to loss. You will experience pangs of grief over this specific person forever. You will have discrete moments that overwhelm you, even years after the death when you have restored your life to a meaningful, fulfilling experience. But… even if the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes. Feeling grief years after your loss may make you doubt whether you have really adapted. If you think of the emotion and the process of adaptation as two different things, however, then it isn’t a problem that you experience grief even when you have been grieving for a long time.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

Although volumes have been written about the psychology, philosophy, and poetics of grief — none more piercing than the Joan Didion classic, none more practical than Seneca’s advice to his bereaved mother — there is something singularly revealing about exploring grief from the point of view of the brain beneath the mind, which must begin at the developmental beginning. Childhood — the brain’s most fertile growth period, when most of its major infrastructure is laid out — is also our training ground for loss. Every time we are separated from our primary caregivers, we experience scale-models of loss; every time they return, we learn that the loss of their presence is not a loss of their person, of their love. (A pause worth taking: every abandonment is a miniature of grief.)

In those formative attachments, we also learn the role we ourselves play in the relationship. Because, in building its relational world-map, the brain is constantly computing our loved ones’ position in three dimensions — time, space, and closeness, also known as psychological distance — we learn the causal link between our behavior and a caregiver’s position in the closeness dimension, just like we learn the causal link between our bodily movements and our position in space. When there is secure attachment, the child learns that throughout various surface disruptions, situational factors, and passing emotional weather patterns, there is a steadfast underlying closeness. O’Connor writes:

Closeness is partially under our control, and we learn how to maintain and nurture this closeness, but we also trust those who love us to maintain that closeness as well.

The obvious — and heartbreaking — corollary is that children who grow up without secure attachment experience the pangs of miniature grief much more readily throughout life, with each departure of a loved one, however temporary, because trusting a continuity of closeness does not come naturally to us. But no matter the formative experience of closeness, human beings are universally undone by the death of someone close — the final abandonment, at once the most abstract and the most absolute absence, in which our brains simply cannot compute the total removal of a person so proximate and important from the fabric of psychological spacetime.

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing the disoriented devastation of a woman ghosted by a lover, O’Connor notes that “ghosting” is the neurologically appropriate word-choice for such abandonments — studied under fMRI, the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to “ghosting” behaves much the same way as the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to death, the mental map suddenly crumbled and torn to pieces. O’Connor describes the strange yet strangely sensical way in which the brain copes with this incomprehensible disruption of reality:

If your brain cannot comprehend that something as abstract as death has happened, it cannot understand where the deceased is in space and time, or why they are not here, now, and close. From your brain’s perspective, ghosting is exactly what happens when a loved one dies. As far as the brain is concerned, they have not died. The loved one has, with no explanation, stopped returning our calls — stopped communicating with us altogether. How could someone who loves us do that? They have become distant, or unbelievably mean, and that is infuriating. Your brain doesn’t understand why; it doesn’t understand that dimensions can simply disappear. If they don’t feel close, then they just feel distant, and you want to fix it rather than believe they are permanently gone. This (mis)belief leads to an intense upwelling of emotions.


If a person we love is missing, then our brain assumes they are far away and will be found later. The idea that the person is simply no longer in this dimensional world, that there are no here, now, and close dimensions, is not logical.

Drawing on brain imaging studies, she adds:

The ephemeral sense of closeness with our loved ones exists in the physical, tangible hardware of our brain.

The particular bit of hardware is the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex — our built-in GPS of love. Scanning the environment and processing innumerable bits of sensory information, the PCC is constantly calibrating and recalibrating the psychological distance between us and the people we love, tightening the bond the closer we feel and loosening it when we sense distancing. Death turns the GPS into a crude compass trying to orient to an all-pervading, ever-shifting magnetic field suddenly bereft of its true north. O’Connor writes:

After the death of a loved one, the incoming messages seem scrambled for a while. At times, closeness with our deceased loved one feels incredibly visceral, as though they are present in the room, here and now. At other times, the string seems to have fallen off the board — not shorter or longer than it was before, but simply stolen from us entirely.

Liminal Worlds by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

This confusion is so fundamental and so primal, so beyond the reach of reason, that it befalls minds indiscriminately along the spectrum of intelligence and self-awareness — a reality most clearly and devastatingly evinced in the extraordinary love letter Richard Feynman wrote to his wife 488 days after her death and 6,994 days before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

But O’Connor notes that while Western physicians long believed such continuing bonds across the life-death divide to be a symptom of poor coping with grief that makes for poorer bonds with the living, recent research drawing on various grief rituals and customs from cultures around the world has demonstrated that such ongoing inner dialogue with the dead might actually enrich our relationships with the living and allow us to show up for them in a fuller, more openhearted way. She writes:

Our understanding of ourselves changes as we gain wisdom through experience. Our relationships with our living loved ones can grow more compassionate and resonant with gratitude as we age. We can also allow our interactions with our beloved ones who are gone to grow and change, even if only in our minds. This transformation of our relationship with them can affect our capacity to live fully in the present, and to create aspirations for a meaningful future. It can also help us to feel more connected to them, to the best parts of them… Their absence from our physical world does not make our relationship to them any less valuable.


Instead of imagining an alternate what if reality, we must learn to be connected to them with our feet planted firmly in the present moment. This transformed relationship is dynamic, ever-changing, in the way that any loving relationship is ever-changing across months and years. Our relationship with our deceased loved one must reflect who we are now, with the experience, and perhaps even the wisdom, we have gained through grieving. We must learn to restore a meaningful life.

The greatest challenge, of course, is the perennial challenge of the human mind — how to integrate seemingly contradictory needs or ideas in such a way that they coexist harmoniously, perhaps even magnify each other, rather than cancel each other out. Without such integration, any new relationship can feel like a threat to this ongoing inner bond with the dead, undamming a flood of grief at the notion of emotional erasure: grief for the grief itself, for that outstretched hand holding on to the gone and to ourselves at the same time, to the map as it used to be. This is a fear so understandable as to cusp on the universal. It is also — and this might be the most assuring part of O’Connor’s research — a neurophysiologically misplaced fear. Within the brain, every person we love leaves a tangible, structural imprint, encoded in synapses that can never be vanquished or replaced by new and different love. Because that bond — like every bond, like every idea, like the universe itself — was “only ever conjured up in the mind,” it is there too that it always lives, unassailable by other minds and other events.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

O’Connor writes:

Gaining a new relationship is simply not going to fill the hole that exists. Here is the key — the point of new roles and new relationships is not to fill the hole. Expecting that they will can only lead to disappointment.

The point is that if we are living in the present, we need to have someone who loves us and cares for us, and we need someone to love and care for as well. The only way to enjoy a fulfilling relationship in the future, however, is to start one in the present. If we can imagine a future in which we are loved, then we must start a relationship that eventually will become important to us in a way that is different from our previous relationship, but rewarding and sustaining.

Understood this way, then, the ongoing relationship with the gone is a lavishment to other loves, for it has made us exactly who we are — the person doing the loving, the person being loved, the mapmaker of present and possible worlds. O’Connor offers neural affirmation for this poetic aspiration:

After a loved one dies, they are clearly no longer with us in the physical world, which each day proves to us. On the other hand, they are not gone, because they are with us in our brain and in our mind. The physical makeup of our brain — the structure of our neurons — has been changed by them. In this sense, you could say that a piece of them physically lives on. That piece is the neural connections protected within our skull, and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death. So, they are not entirely “out there,” and they are not entirely “in here,” either. You are not one, not two. That is because the love between two people, that unmistakable but usually indescribable property, occurs between two people. Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us. This experience reaches beyond the love for the flesh and bones of the person we once knew on this earthly plane. Now loving is an attribute of us, regardless of who we share it with, regardless of what is given to us in return. This is a transcendent experience, a felt sense of being loving without needing anything in return. In the very best moments together, we learned to love and to be loved. Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.

Complement The Grieving Brain with a mathematician’s geometric model for living with grief and this soulful animated film of “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — the most beautiful homily on the emotional paradox of loss I know — then revisit Nick Cave’s life-honed wisdom on grief as a portal to greater aliveness.


So I Danced Again: A Vibrant Animated Meditation on the Limits of Words and the Power of Embodied Music in our Search for Meaning

Sound, color, and wonderment where the body meets the soul.

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts quipped as he aimed his wry wisdom at the paradox of our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf exulted in how music and dance rehumanize us, how “dance music… stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — [so that] you forget centuries of civilization in a second.”

Another half-century earlier, searching for the score of the dance we call being, Walt Whitman resolved: “Now I will do nothing but listen, to accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.”

Generations after Whitman, after Woolf, after Watts, artist Lottie Kingslake — who animated the stunning poem-song “Singularity” for The Universe in Verse — shines a sidewise gleam on these questions in her lovely animated film So I Danced Again…

Inspired by communal ritual dances and drawing on conversations with a musician, a music therapist, a neuroscientist, and several dancers, the film is part visual sketchbook of recorded sounds and part abstract existential inquiry. What emerges is a subtle meditation on the limitations of words — that is, of disembodied language — in conveying emotional meaning, which is (as Whitman well knew) an ongoing dialogue between the body and the soul, cerebral and sensorial at the same time, a quickening of thought and feeling that moves through us as we move through the world.

It’s very hard, finding the words for things, isn’t it? But, then, perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking about it too much, and just enjoying it.

Complement with Helen Keller’s exultant epiphany about how dance is like thought upon visiting Martha Graham’s dance studio, then revisit Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from dancers.


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