Sunday Science Poem: Emily Dickinson and the Experiment of Consciousness

Emily Dickinson’s # 822

PurkinjeCellHow much consciousness is necessary for experience? Does a lobster or E. coli have experience, or does experience exist only with more awareness, awareness not just of the environment, the direction of a food source or a competitor for a mate, but awareness of self, of the passage of time, of the past, and of the alternative possibilities of the future?

In # 822, Emily Dickinson describes experience as an experiment in consciousness. Each of us, as a consciousness, is aware of environment (‘the Sun’), our fellow species members (‘Neighbors’). We share this basic level of awareness with much of the living world. A much rarer awareness, probably existing only in some vertebrates, is self-awareness (‘itself’ is used five times in this poem of 67 words), and awareness of death.

Beyond self-awareness, we have a capability for mental experimentation that is only possible with language, and is thus probably unique among organisms. Here is how Daniel Dennett illustrates this capacity:

What varieties of thought require language? What varieties of thought (if any) are possible without language?… I hereby invite you to imagine a man climbing up a rope with a plastic garbage pail over his head. An easy mental task for you. Could a chimpanzee do the same thing in her mind’s eye? I wonder. I chose the elements – man, rope, climbing, pail, head – as familiar objects in the perceptual and behavioral world of a laboratory chimp, but I wonder whether a chimp could put them together in this novel way – even by accident, as it were.1

Using scientific terms, Dickinson describes Experience, that interval we traverse, as an experiment to test the adequacy of our mind’s properties. But unlike science, the results we find may be incommunicable. Science is a community activity – findings must be communicated and accepted to count as discoveries. The findings of an isolated consciousness may be incommunicable, because they result from an adventure purely within ourselves, attended by the “single Hound” of our own identities.

Poetry is a relatively condensed form of expression, but even by the standards of poetry Emily Dickinson’s poems are gnomic, rivaling the expressive density of T’ang Dynasty verse. In this set of four quatrains, arranged in a hymn-like rhythm of alternating four-beat and three-beat lines, she communicates the incommunicability of experience.


This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men -

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto itself
The soul condemned to be -
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

1. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), p. 371-372

Image credit: Drawings of neurons by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1899

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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