An Alchemy of Telling
Diane Ackerman totally turns me on. And thatís what she tells us about in most of her writingógetting turned on by experience, by living itself. Her writing inspires me to put more into my own, and her living, as she describes it in her books, inspires me to get more out of mine. Her 2004 book, An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, is the latest of her guided tours through human experience, and mostly it continues her delightful series of explanations about how we come to be the way we are and what that means in learning to live life fully.
As she did in her first best seller, A Natural History of the Senses and the natural sequel to it, A Natural History of Love, she grounds everything on extensive research into biology, phenomenology, psychology, anthropology, neurology and physicsóall the relevant sciences, as well as the major spiritual traditions of East and Westóand (most rewarding of all to us readers) embeds her facts in prose so rich and vibrant that we are carried enchanted through her images.
Alchemy begins with a description of evolution as it has created the human mind by means of "that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag." In other words, our brain. Itís this kind of elaborate metaphoring that gives her writing its rich bouquet. Some may find it tiring, if they are simply looking for the facts. But like observing life itself, itís in the myriad of details, the subjective impressions that our minds take in (even if we choose to ignore them in our focus on "substance") that give us what itís really like out there. Thereís nothing dry in Diane Ackermanís writing. "Juicy" describes it as clearly as any other word this writer can come up with.
She goes on to describe the physical brain, and memory, and the fiction we call a self, and emotions, and language, and then ties it all together in a final section she calls "The Wilderness Within: The World We Share." A graduate-level course, sans final exam. If you want academic support, there are endnotes, bibliography and an index.
As Ken Wilber points out in his elaborate theoretical system on the structures of consciousness, everything in the Kosmos (which includes but is not limited to the Cosmos) has four aspects of manifestation: the individual interior, the individual exterior, the plural interior, and the plural exterior. He charts them into four quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left and lower right. Our minds are in the upper left, the individual interior. Our brains are in the individual exterior. One cannot separate them, except in the abstract. We have developed the means to examine the activity of the mindóvery roughlyóby observing electrical activity in different parts of the brain, but we cannot observe a personís thoughts except as that person reports them. We know, from our own individual experiences that such reports are but a weak representation of whatís really going on in oneís mind. Couple that fact with the severe limitations of language itself, and we can perceive only the tiniest fraction of someone elseís consciousness. Itís a wonder we can understand each other at all. Diane Ackerman surely adds to our understanding through her use of language. Her three advanced degrees from Cornell and the list of her published books may impress the skeptical, but itís her way of looking at the world that made me fall in love with her.
Now, hungry as I am for understanding of myself and how I fit into the universe, Iíd probably read her books along with all the other credentialed writers I hear aboutóSteven Pinker, Susan Blackmore, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, and othersóbut from her I get something more. I read her for mental nutrition and enjoyment. Itís not just "a spoonful full of sugar helps the medicine go down," itís a spoonful of expensive amaretto blended with a hint of chocolate and a dozen other flavors that I canít always identify. But yum.
And the thing about it is that she doesnít just make taking in the medicine of knowledge easier, her medium (her use of language) is also her message (to resurrect poor old Marshall McLuhenís theme). She illustrates her secret formula, not only for writing in a way to communicate subtle nuance, but for observing the world around us. How much clearer is our mental image of the mind-as-object after reading, "Sometimes as the fog of sleep lifts, the mind becomes aware of the traffic, like commuters on an expressway, messages speed across the corpus callosum, a thick bridge of 200-250 million nerve fibers spanning the brainís two hemispheres. More will follow in a continuous stream of hubbub going in both directions. The brain is a duet of specialists which produces a single experience thatís part enterprise, part communion, but all process, all motion."
Mental images translate the language of our outsides to the language of our insides. Metaphors and similes donít only add entertainment to messages; they increase the possibility of true understanding. Details can make the difference between "getting it" and simply not quite.
Which brings me to my other point: that if I intend to function as a writer who puts words together with the desire for other people to understand what Iím thinking and experiencing, then I need to take the examples provided by other writers who move me, and shape my own writing accordingly. Not to copy, but to make use of the inspiration, the message in the medium, of writers I admire.
At the top of my list, beyond a doubt, is Diane Ackerman. I canít think of a better role model.
Submitted to Amazon.com as book review 10/2005
October 30, 2005