Author: Lindsay Brownell

Squeezing the Universe into a Ball: Poetry and Meaning

“How are you feeling?” asked the doctor. His patient was suffering from semantic dementia, a condition in which damage to part of the brain’s temporal lobe disrupts the connection between words and their meanings. Her vocabulary had been reduced to just 3,000-4,000 words, fewer than what a four-year-old can use (the average adult English speaker knows 20,000–35,000).

She was a widow, her husband having passed away not long before, and lived by herself.  Answering the doctor’s simple question was a difficult task; she had no words to express abstract concepts like being alone. After a few moments she was able to respond, “Well, when I am at my place, it’s only me and the place.”

The doctor, Thomas Bak, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh and founder of the Cambridge International Poetry Club, called it “one of the most beautiful descriptions of loneliness I have ever heard.”
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Category: Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Is Your Brain On Poetry

I know it’s coming, and it still gets me every time. I turn the page of my well-worn Norton Anthology of American Literature and take a deep breath, steeling myself before reading the next stanza.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

I don’t even make it to the second line before it starts. As I read the words on the page, it feels like someone has touched a nerve somewhere on my scalp, causing a wave of prickles to run through my skin, down my arms and legs into my toes and back up again. Images flash through my my mind of a man dropping a sphere of galaxy-speckled space to bounce along the floor, a woman whose immaculately curled hair makes a gentle dent in a satin pillow: unrequited love in a cream-colored sitting room. And then, when I get to the end of the last line, my breath catches in my throat like I’m going over the first, big drop on a rollercoaster, and the words reverberate in my head for a few seconds before finally letting me go.
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Category: Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Musicology, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments