William H. Calvin and Elizabeth F. Loftus, "The poet as brain mechanic:  A 2050 version of Physics for Poets," an occasional paper for the Global Business Network (April 2000)
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This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA


The Poet as Brain Mechanic

A 2050 version of Physics for Poets



William H. Calvin and Elizabeth F. Loftus[1]


How do we sometimes escape from the blinders inherent in our inborn psychological makeup?  We can still find animistic and other pre-modern concepts, uneasily coexisting with our present rational view of psychological reality, reminding us of what the old days were like for everyone.  This virtual-classroom freshman seminar examines the revolution in selfview produced by what used to be called the “neuro­sciences” and “cognitive science.”

The Fine Print

If you cannot join the faculty in their Seattle conferencing room between 1700-1900 hrs GMT Mondays, you will be expected to have, or borrow, a video-wall room (VirtualOxbridge 7.1 or higher) sufficient to view a roundtable of the 16 selected participants.


Week 1: 
The Faster-is-Better Trap:
Sprint vs. Marathon Thought Styles

Physicians in ancient Greece were familiar with the tendency of patients to think that if some was good, more was surely better -- thereby converting a useful medicinal herb into a deadly poison.

Faster is better has its problems, too, especially in childhood.  In what we now call the Accelerated Childhood Syndrome, speaking in complete sentences by 11 months of age turned out to preempt some later developmental stages.  The result was much like that blues lament, “Your mind is on vacation while your mouth is working overtime.”

Fast is always relative to some other speed, and to a particular point of view.  Both are well illustrated by the story of the two guys being chased by the bear -- you don’t have to run faster than the bear, only faster than the other guy, and only for a little while.  Capture phenomena like that were prominent in turn-of-the-century economics.  (“It wasn’t that the big ate the small in globalization, but that the fast ate the slow.”)

Now we realize that the process of sorting through alternatives and “making up your mind” is also a matter of relative rates and capture.  But artificially faster thoughts (via the PsychStim lessons of recent decades) may capture consciousness without, in fact, being better than the alternative subconscious thoughts still cooking on the back burner.

Week 2:
Memory Unreliability
and the Rule of Law

Though they became popular as aids to tying a name to a face at a social gathering, the pinhole cams in eyeglass frames greatly augmented the record of noteworthy events (early models merely whispered the name into the wearer’s ear, rather than labeling foreheads on the heads-up display).  Just as the 20th-C “instant replays” showed how sports referees could be wrong, so these commonplace eyeglass cams began to prove something that had been long suspected, namely that eyewitnesses were often badly mistaken.

And much of the trouble came from memory malleability, not initial perception.  Even if they were correct in reporting an episode ten minutes after it happened, witnesses often recalled things differently after a few weeks.  Video­taping every retelling of a story showed conclusively how memory stumbled into error.  It became a staple item of high school students’ science projects, to demonstrate to their friends (and often their parents) how their retelling of a story became fixated on repeating an earlier error.  Distortion of eyewitness memories via pretrial coaching of witnesses by lawyers was greatly reduced via the Supreme Court rulings of 2017.

Week 3:
Copycat Memories and
Educating for Illusions

There was a time (and there are subcultures now where that time still exists) when people could think that their memories were their own, and not someone else’s.  Yes, some memories were lost but those that were found were presumed autobiographical.  Early in the 20th-C days of group psychotherapy, however, one patient would sometimes challenge another, saying their personal story was identical to that someone else had revealed a month earlier.  Some people were unwitting sponges in this regard (having “amalgamated autobiographies”), others were relatively nonstick.

Even though the copycat tendency was somewhat genetic, it proved, like myopia, to be frequently correctable by training and gadgets.  Though the common perceptual illusions had quickly been made a part of elementary education, training that included the common memory illusions and amalgam­ations was delayed, not so much by insufficient technology as by fundamentalist resistance.

Week 4:
Back When Hearts Outlasted Minds

Early in the 20th-C, the industrialist Henry Ford tried to make sure that no parts of his automobile were over-engineered, saying it was expensive to have an engine that lasted twice as long as the steering could endure.

By the second decade of the 21st-C, it was clear that medical advances were achieving hearts that outlasted their steering -- that dementia could be staved off only for so long, and that having the circulatory system fail about the same time was perhaps a good thing.  The transition to the modern practice was accomplished not by design but by the chance observation in 2013 of “cold-turkey rebound” -- that, in aged individuals who suddenly stopped taking antihypertensive medications without tapering off the dose, blood pressure would triple when lying down.  Those who forgot to take their pills for a week often died suddenly in their sleep, much as they would have wished.

Gradually, part of the new ethic of “personal autonomy” began to include the notion that, beyond a certain age, there were certain things that you could only do for yourself, that no one else could do them for you -- forgiving your enemies was one, and taking your pills was another.

Week 5:
The Constructed Self:
Revisionism Revisited

The “constructed” self is seen in pure form in the current generation of Medicare-approved pet-companions:  the ImmortalPet whose robotic “mind” can be transplanted into a new-model “body” having augmented massage and butler abilities, while retaining all its owner-constructed personality and vocabulary.

Psychotherapy in the 20th-C (http://Virtual­ attempted “remolding” of self (and was subject to the parody, “You are... who you are... if you think you are”).  Religious concepts of forgive-and-forget led psychotherapy to become less concerned with what actually happened than with papering over long-standing conflicts.  The Truth is a Trap metapolitical movement observes that old memories keep neighboring ethnic groups raiding one another in a cycle of violence -- and proposes book-burning.

“Reconstruction” per se is now recognized as something that individuals do to themselves all the time, particularly during dreaming sleep.  But, with new technology to guide the reshaping, extensively “altered egos” are increasingly controversial (as in the imitators of famous personalities) and legally troublesome (responsibility for last year’s personality).

Week 6:
Hyper-IQ and the Lake Wobegon Project

The spread of the bell curve of IQ began early in the 20th-C via assortative mating.  Sending both young men and women to a coeducational college with a high entry requirement, at an age when shopping for mates was intense, resulted in more high IQ babies.  Not only was the high end of the bell curve augmented, but there was a balancing increase in low IQs. (“They were the best of minds, and the worst of minds.”)  When the cream rises to the top, what’s left behind is thinner -- but the bottle average doesn’t change.

The second manifestation of the Luke Effect (the biblical “the rich get richer”) occurred when parents tried to assure the best for their baby via germline gene technology, and by elective abortions of low-IQ fetuses.

The arms race in functional intelligence was made worse when the technological life style began changing so rapidly that a person’s working lifetime had to include one career after another after another.  But only the best and the brightest can cope with such frequent change, leaving most of the population constantly battered by insecurity and lack of job satisfaction, alienated by the situation in which they are trapped.

The Lake Wobegon Project (named after a fictional town “where all the children are above average”) was the first attempt to narrow the IQ spread which threatened to unzip the ties that bind a community together.

Week 7:
Understanding Where We Come From

That the African apes were our cousins, and that their social behaviors might be close to what our ancestors had, was apparent even in Darwin’s time, two centuries ago.  But the higher intellectual functions  (see­/­wcalvin) were seen as a great departure from anything apelike -- all of those manifestations of structured thinking such as language with syntax, multistage contingent planning, rational chains of reasoning, games with arbitrary rules, and our fascination with discovering hidden patterns (so important for crossword puzzles, music, humor, and doing science).

Even at the end of the last century, many college graduates thought that some miraculous explanation was needed for this big step up, not just Darwinian evolution.  Even scientists sometimes wondered. But between the ape researchers, developmental psychologists, evolutionary linguists, and neuroscientists, structured thinking came to be understood, both in the stages of early childhood development and in how evolution might have made it that way in the last few million years.

Just as the practice of medicine was largely empirical (“Try it and see if it works”) at the beginning of the 20th-C, so too was education at the beginning of the 21st-C.  The transition from an empirical to a scientific medicine (where you know not only what works, but how and why it works) doubled lifespan and vastly reduced suffering.

The transition from an empirical to a scientific educational practice is far from complete, but knowing “what to do when” during childhood has already produced modern adults significantly different from those of a century ago.  As newborns, we still look and function much like the newborns of 1950, but by the time we are adults, we function as individuals on some metalevels that our great-great-grandparents wouldn’t have comprehended (what they would have marveled at is our now-mundane ability to repeat 15-digit telephone numbers a day later, and even backwards).

Week 8:
The Poet as Brain Mechanic

As top-down approaches to higher intellectual function by the philosophers and psychologists began to meet the bottom-up attempts to ascend the cognitive hierarchy by the neuro­scientists, it was realized that cartoonists and poets were the best exemplars of truly efficient packaging of memes, that “messing with your mind” was a description of what they did best.

Poets are particularly good at arranging words in ways that overwhelm us with intense meaning.  Skeletal outlines of emotion-triggering features are what cartoonists do so efficiently.  Eventually neuroscientists began using their art to dissect away the layers of cognitive processing that follow perception.

The creative process was imagined as a “house of cards” -- a series of unstable levels of organization, where creating a new metaphorical level depended on somehow shoring up the underlying levels.  Poets striving to create “metapoetry” became the exemplars of how higher intellectual function could be further augmented by cultural evolution.

Week 9:
The Headlights of Foresight

We still drive too fast to stop or swerve around things just outside the sweep of our headlights.  Out-driving our societal reaction time has already come close to triggering catastrophic climate change via a failure of the Gulf Stream, and the rapid spread of “altered egos” threatens to create serious instabilities. Fortunately, science has augmented the foremost of our higher intellectual functions, foresight.

Fatalism is one way of dealing with the future but with it may go an abdication of responsibility for seeing that things go on and that everything turns out well.  The future is arriving more quickly than it used to, and, since our reaction time is slowed by the necessary consensus-building, it makes foresight more important than ever.


In the futurist tradition, these are neither predictions nor even desirable futures; they are merely glimpses of where we might end up.  We thank the denizens of Tully’s Think Tank, and Peter Rockas in particular, for helpful suggestions; we have quoted some lines from David Brin, Thomas Friedman, Garrison Keillor, Mose Allison, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks.


[1]William H. Calvin is Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA, Email

 Elizabeth F. Loftus is Professor of Psychology and Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Washington, Seattle WA 98195-1525 USA,  Email


Eyewitness Testimony
by Elizabeth F. Loftus (Paperback - March 1996)

The Myth of Repressed Memory : False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse
by Elizabeth Loftus, Katherine Ketcham (Paperback - February 1996)

Witness for the Defense : The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial
by Elizabeth Loftus, Katherine Ketcham (Paperback - September 1992)
by Elizabeth Loftus (Paperback - June 1980)

Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky With the Human Brain
by William H. Calvin, Derek Bickerton (Hardcover, 2000)

How Brains Think : Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now
by William H. Calvin (Paperback - September 1997)

Conversations With Neil's Brain : The Neural Nature of Thought and Language
by William H. Calvin, George A. Ojemann (Paperback - May 1995)

The Cerebral Code : Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind
by William H. Calvin (Paperback - April 1998)




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