Mikhail I. Rabinovich, Alan N. Simmons, and Pablo Varona, ‘Dynamical Bridge Between Brain and Mind’, Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 453-61.
This is an intriguing article that, I’ll be honest, eludes me just a little because it’s unforgiving with its technical vocabulary, and has some pretty serious equations as well. The main idea, though, seems fairly clear: the authors are exploring ways of understanding and predicting how the brain’s various processes work together to create a mind. Their solution is suggesting mathematical models to describe the ‘dynamical’ quality of these processes, which are characterised by complex interactions and links that change over time.
Early on there is a nice quotation from William James in 1890: ‘Thought is in constant change… no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before’. I take this to mean that it’s part of the Protean nature of thought that it should have components that can be used repeatedly, but that their recurrences will not be the same in manifestation or consequences. At this point I was already thinking about poems, and especially about refrains, those little repeating features of stanza forms.
So I then began to form a parallel argument in my mind. Rabinovich et al. were explaining what mathematical models of dynamic networks of brain activity might achieve, while I was making their phrases resonate rather differently, as hints at how poetic refrains might themselves model the ways in which thoughts interconnect and resolve into mental functions.
They were pursuing ‘itinerant brain activity’… ‘robust transient mind dynamics’… ‘functional networks, including hubs’; hubs made me think of refrains. They noted that ‘specific nodes have been identified as critical points in the connective network’… and ‘these adaptive networks change over time’… ‘in response to the perceived and predicted needs of the system’; adaptive critical points made me think of refrains. They put emphasis on an orientation towards the future: ‘predictive patterns of the mind result in predictable structured patterns in the brain’; predictive patterns made me think of the qualities of verse forms in general (including refrains).
Here’s a poem by Thomas Wyatt, written during the reign of Henry VIII. One story is that the poem is about the execution of Anne Boleyn; Wyatt himself was suspected of being her lover. Each stanza has a slightly different focus: the first says that if you want to remain at ‘ease’, avoid public life; the second says that in particular one must avoid the heights of society, from which there is a great fall; the third focuses this wisdom into the speaker’s harsh experience of ‘these days’; the fourth conveys that the speaker has seen something particularly awful that he cannot forget; the fifth reiterates the advice of the first two, with the additional point that ‘wit’ won’t help arrest your fall. Each stanza ends with the same phrase.
In my book Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition I tried to develop the argument that renaissance rhetoric, in theory and practice, is a cognitive science, in that it contains all kinds of ideas about how thought works. I would say the same about poetic form and the study of poetic form: the article by Rabinovich et al. has enabled me to suggest one way in which a feature of poetry, the refrain, might show how minds, like poems, reuse key structural resources that are never quite the same twice.
Coming Soon: More Refrains; And An Attempt At Defining What Refrains Know.