Walt Whitman and Right Hemispheric Thinking

Breaking Bad has taken over my life. Besides that, it also introduced me to a fun poem by Walt Whitman:

180. When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I sent this poem to a friend, and we ended up having an interesting e-mail correspondence, which I’ll share with you below:[A is for myself, and F is for my friend]

F: Nice.  I’m not sure what he means by unaccountable, though.  i.e., why is he feeling sick?
It seems to me he might be getting at the idea I sometimes hear, where people feel that examining natural phenomena scientifically somehow ruins the experience of them.   The idea being that we should just look at the universe in wonderment, and enjoy the feeling of wonderment but not pursue our curiosity.  I disagree with that sentiment, of course…

A: Let’s take Icebergs. I think knowing more about them makes them way cooler… But no matter what, I’ll always just be taken away by the unspeakable beauty of them. What I took away from the poem, which upon further reflection is probably not what Whitman wanted to mean, is just that there’s always this magical thing about nature, the stars, etc. that can’t be put into words, charts, diagrams, etc.
If Whitman is being anti-scientific, then that sucks. But if he is describing a moment where the breakdown of this unspeakable beauty into words/numbers/representations just seems gross, and where he just wants a moment to experience it as it appears…then I like that.
…This is what I’m trying to say: there is the rational way to approach things, and there’s the immediate/instinctual/unfiltered way of approaching things. Now, as someone who’s always loved science and rationality, and such, I almost always approach things from the former perspective. But sometimes, it can be this phenomenal experience to shut that off and see the world from the latter perspective. I think that to explain the world, the former should be used. But sometimes, I just want to shut off my brain and ‘experience’. That’s what I like about the poem.
I don’t think it’s trying to argue to only view the world from the latter perspective. Maybe just a “sometimes thinking gets to be too much…and you just get sick and want to go outside and breath it in and look up and just lose yourself”

Dawkins talks a lot about what you mentioned. He refers to it as Unweaving the Rainbow. He argues that it’s not true, that understanding the world only brings more wonder and amazement. I TOTALLY agree with him. What I’m talking about though, is much smaller, and is just about sometimes being bogged down with thinking too much, and just wanting to experience things from this totally stupid perspective. To just experience nature in a totally “zen” way. Have you ever read about zen buddhism? I don’t care for any of the dogma or metaphysics it might have, but I like the main idea behind it: sort of anti-logic. It’s all about shutting off your brain and the way it processes the world, and to experience the world with no logical thoughts. Sometimes it’s nice to do that (not that I’ve done it, but I think I get the idea). Dennett also talks a bit about what your’e talking about. He refers to it as Breaking the Spell. Sort of, if things are explained, then the ‘spell’ is broken and we’ll never get it back. Like if someone were to tell Dumbo that the feather doesn’t help while he’s in flight. You’d ‘break the spell’ and he’d fall flat on his elephant ass. I’ve lost what I was talking about.
[Friend], we’ll talk about this sometime. I’m trying to talk about something that is delicate: I love love science, but I want to just touch on some of the possible benefits of being anti-scientific. Not in any way that would relate to explaining the world or how we should do things…but simply for personal psychology…for a break. The moon just sometimes is so powerful…it’s beautiful. In those moments, you just want to ‘be’ and not think.
I give up.

F: I think I agree with all the sentiments you’re explaining.  It reminds me of Jill Bolte Taylor, whose book I have but have not yet read.  She had a stroke, and very much enjoyed the experience of having her rational mind shut down, literally, so she could just experience the world unfiltered, as she describes it.  I imagine it’s somewhat similar to the fun of taking certain psychoactive drugs, and having a little mental vacation…
OK, I’m willing to give Whitman enough credit that he meant it’s SOMETIMES nice to shut your brain off and just experience the world, and he wasn’t being anti-scientific.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But just barely.
My sister is a practising buddhist, and I was interested so one day while I was staying with her I got her to take me through a meditation.  As she describes it, the practice of buddhist meditation involves thinking hard about a particular topic for a prescribed period of time.  She gave me a short text to read beforehand, and as I recall the topic of the text had to do with putting others before oneself in all situations.  But the text had a lot of ideas I didn’t agree with in it — a lot of, “Given that you’ve read such-and-such about reincarnation and totally agree with all of that, therefore it’s a good idea to put others’ needs before yours.”   I agreed with the sentiment to a certain extent, but not with the argument they were making.  The upshot was that there was a mantra we were meant to repeat periodically during the meditation to bring our minds back to the central idea when it wandered.
The experience of the meditation was alright, but after sitting for that long, I felt like I needed a good stretch or some exercise.  So I decided yoga was more interesting for me. 🙂  Is the practice of zen buddhism different from what I’ve described?

A: Nice response! Way to pick your priorities 😉
I think Zen buddhism is different. It’s form of meditation wouldn’t focus on anything. It tries to get to ‘pure’ consciousness by eliminating all forms of logical/rigid thinking or whatever. I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘pure’ consciousness, or most other things related to zen buddhism, I just like their attempts to get to a non-logical state.
I’m watching the Jill Bolte Taylor TED video (as you can probably see). Yeah, this is exactly what we’re talking about…and yes, this is what drugs are like (mushrooms, MDMA, salvia (all of which I’ve done muuuuultiple times).
Hmmm….maybe I’ll pick up this book.


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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