Was Emily Dickinson a Neuroscientist?
Neurobiology: How It Relates to Psychoanalysis and to Our Sense of Being a Human


First published in NAAP News (Summer 2011 issue):

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You are nothing but a pack of neurons.’” (Francis Crick)

Preparing for a talk, “Neurobiology of Destiny OR Neurobiology is Destiny,” a few years ago, I discovered a beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson, “The Brain”:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease, and You – beside.

The Brain is deeper than the Sea –
For, hold them, blue to blue, –
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For, heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

Through this poem, Emily Dickinson was able to transcend many bridges, and not only to modern American poetry. For many decades, even centuries, we “designated” neurologists and neuroscientists to be in charge of the Brain; psychiatrists and psychologists – in charge of the Mind; poets – in charge of the Soul; and philosophers – to ponder upon what it means to be Human. Driven to learn as much as possible in our specialties, we came to the realization that it is not really enough to be good in just what we are “designated” to do, and that to succeed, we need to cooperate (remember the Prisoner’s Dilemma?). That is how, despite all resistances, new paradigms have emerged in science and in all spheres of our lives. One of them was in drawing on the understanding of the neurobiological roots of everything – from politics, national security, trade, finance, and economics to memory and learning, our sense of “being a human,” feeling ourselves flourishing, “good enough” parenting, and “holistic” health.

In clinical mental health practice, learning about neurobiology of the psyche helps us to better understand ourselves and our clients’ conditions – including disorders of personality, intellect, self, attachment, emotions, social adjustment, sexual identity, reality testing, addictions, psychological trauma, and many others. So, what is neurobiology? When Sigmund Freud said, “Anatomy is destiny,” did he really mean “Neurobiology is destiny,” considering that our knowledge and our professional lingo had changed through the past century? Very likely so. Neurobiology is a collective word for all neurosciences: neuro- anatomy, physiology, histology, pathology, physiology, chemistry, endocrinology, imaging, psychology, as well as neurology,psychoanalysis, computational neurobiology, and many other disciplines contributing to our knowledge about brain-mind-soul interactions.

Another paradigm (or rather paradigm shift) had emerged in science and everyday life, from a desperate need of different professionals to learn from each other, to cooperate, and to engage in transdisciplinary explorations rather than in individual specialty-based research, or even in an inter-disciplinary (team-based) approach. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote: “The historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, scientists during revolutions see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet – where familiar objects are seen in a different light, and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.111). Should psychoanalysts worry that neuroscientists will claim an authority over “mind matters,” since brain and mind are so interconnected and since neuroscience has more “evidence-based” research? Definitely not. We should open our minds and learn from each other. Neuroscientists offer “broader views of behaviors that were previously considered entirely psychological in origin…(while)… psychoanalytic theory is challenged … to provide important questions for further research. … (T)here is no danger that mind will disappear” (Cooper, 1985).