An Alchemy of Mind

— The Marvels and Mystery of the Brain — 

As an unnamed reviewer from The Washington Post puts it in a back-cover blurb of a paperback edition: “Diane Ackerman is like no other writer I have ever encountered. She writes a swiftly moving and sensuous prose that is extremely accessible but also reflects the encyclopedic knowledge and attention to minutiae of a laboratory scientist.”

Beginning an essay about a book by spotlighting its author may seem strange, but that’s due to the nature and quality of the author herself. Books by Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, Deep Play, and twenty-some others) can be as much about the rich, expansive, metaphorical yet specifically detailed way she writes as they are about the subjects she lovingly explores. Reading any one of them has the capacity to globally expand one’s perspective.

This book’s title, including, as it does, the word alchemy, alludes to the fertile interplay of subject, author, and style. Such clues alert us to the transmutations involved in the processes of discovery, learning, writing, reading, and who-knows-what-else that waffles the connection between brain and mind, transforming the common into the unique. Didactically accurate scientific passages become poetic:

“Human beings are sloshing sacks of chemicals on the move. The skin provides a clear boundary between self and world. Or so it seems. Since we don’t have microscopic vision, we can’t see our ragged edges swapping molecules with the invisibly teeming air. Thus we imagine containers everywhere, outside and in. In the mind’s eye, we imagine the body full of vessels, pockets, chambers, receptacles. The blood circulates inside veins, arteries, and capillaries. Cells and plasma fill up the blood. A cage of ribs holds the heart and lungs. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are girdled by spandex-like skin….”

And this relates to brain and mind how? By setting the framework for discussions that range from the physical nature of our bodies, and, therefore, the gray matter sitting in the bony bucket of our skulls, to an exploration of memory, emotions, the stories we tell ourselves through language (Ackerman contends that language, not tool use, is our true distinction from other inhabitants of Earth), the world we share and the others we share it with, as well as riffs on consciousness and recent brain research.

Eminently more readable than any textbook on neuroscience, Ackerman teases us to consider the color of the wind, the taste of music, the sound a touch makes, and other synesthetic possibilities that bubble out of the brain/mind cauldron. Knowing she’s a synesthete (someone who experiences sensations in ways other than the sense being stimulated: feelings taste, images hear, sounds fill with colors, etc.) helps frame Ackerman’s lyrically descriptive language. Many writers work diligently to develop the kind of luscious and luminous metaphors her senses naturally deliver.

An Alchemy of Mind allows Ackerman to wander productively among a wealth of issues, including the science-based research on the physical brain and psychological states, the raging philosophical debates about the nature (and location) of “mind” and consciousness, memory and what happens to it in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease (as well as why we are actually “wired” to forget a lot of what happens to us), the usefulness of dreams, our penchant for storytelling, and how personality is formed, among others. Through it all runs a capacity for wonder at the complexity and the simple grace of humanity. For example:

“A self is deciduous; it leafs out as one grows, changes with one’s seasons, yet somehow stays briskly the same. The brain composes a self-portrait from a confetti of facts and sensations, and as pieces are added or removed the likeness changes, though the sense of unity remains, thanks to well-furnished illusions. We need illusion to feel true. A medley of different selves accompanies us everywhere. Some are lovable, some weird, some disapproving of each other, some childish or adult. Unless the selves drift too far apart, that solo ensemble works fine and copes well with novel events. As the psychoanalyst Philip M. Bromberg writes in Standing in the Spaces: ‘Health is not integration. Health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them. This is what I believe self-acceptance means and what creativity is really all about — the capacity to feel like one self while being many.’ Even at the cellular level we’re a mosaic. A self is a powerful sleight of mind arising from 100 billion neurons communing at 100 trillion synaptic bridges.”

To Ackerman, the value of this sense of individuality and its collective nature is nothing short of our very existence: “Without a self, the complex socializing we require to finish wiring our brain and teach it survival skills and mating wisdom would be overwhelming. Just think about the complexity of speaking with another person, someone important to you, in a relationship you cherish. You’re attending to the subject you’re talking about, talking, and, at the same time, monitoring how the relationship is faring from moment to moment.” In the true sense of the word, such feats are nothing short of miraculous.

And Ackerman reminds us that the potential possibilities contained inside each of us, although seemingly messy at times, are, nevertheless, the richest field with which we can experiment.

“Our brain is sloppy and imprecise, but that’s its strength. We strive to be orderly, evolution doesn’t. It adds on, tinkers, reuses parts. Evolution favors anything that works, no matter how wacky. It chooses easy over best, quick over precise. This doesn’t result in perfect designs, but in good enough. When it comes to creative solutions, messy offers far more scope than tidy, and gadgets prosper where precision instruments fail…. Living systems like brains do better with the untidy, inexact, but versatile approach. It’s jumpier but more flexible. Although most brains learn well, and are superb at finding patterns, they can’t compete with a computer or even a calculator for basic math, and they’re tragic at logic, which most of us learn the hard way, through trial and error, if we survive the first thousand or so humiliations. Unlike precision instruments, brains don’t need to be accurate all the time. Good enough often enough will do, even if that means skimping, doubling up, or sheer gamble. A limber brain is a successful brain, however sloppy. A precision brain is a computer. A perfect brain doesn’t exist.”

In this voluptuous volume, Ackerman focuses the experience of her multi-sensory, synesthetic world on the one bodily organ that actually feels nothing. And yet, from there, not only can we appreciate the range of our senses and the literal convolutions of gray matter folding over on themselves to fit more and more capacity into the same skull space, we may even begin to hear the sound of chocolate and taste the color of the sky.

Author: Diane Ackerman
Published: New York: Scribner ©2004

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos