Plato was a Neuroscientist, too; or, Plato’s Purple Haze

A new Oliver Sacks book is out, The Mind’s Eye. We are kicked in the eye with metaphor, philosophy, and dichotomy, and we have not even opened the book yet: metaphor because Sacks is talking about the brain, for the mind, as Jonah Lehrer put it, “is really just a piece of meat” (Buckminster Fuller defined the mind as the capability to leverage ideas from single case experiences – see Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth); philosophy and dichotomy because to speak of the mind as an idea distinct from the brain is to cross into Plato territory (a very large country of philosopher states).

We came across Sacks’s new book in the April Harper’s Magazine, in a review by Israel Rosenfield, “Oliver Sacks and the plasticity of perception.” The brain is on the move again.

We ordered The Mind’s Eye; meantime, what does Rosenfield have to say about it? Rosenfield makes this claim: “There is a simple fact about evolution that, although rarely mentioned, is very revealing: plants don’t have brains.” (Of course, why mention the obvious, a claim about which there is no disagreement?) Yet here’s his explanation for why plants don’t have brains: “Plants don’t have brains because they don’t need them; they don’t move from place to place.” In grade school we called this moving from place to place “locomotion.” The classic example is the amoeba, but do amoebas have brains? We understand that plants don’t have the same locomotion that animals do, but we question Rosenfield’s claim that plants don’t move from place to place, because plants do move from place to place. They travel underground and in the wind, float down rivers and out to sea, appear in the most unlikely places, out of cracks in the hot summer asphalt. In fact, as Michael Pollan has suggested (The Botany of Desire, 2002), plants manipulate animals: we taxi them around, ferry them, fly them to the moon. Plants may not have brains, or locomotion, but they do get around.

Rosenfield says that brains “create something that is not there; and in doing so they help us to make sense of our environments.” To illustrate, he uses the phenomenon of color. According to Rosenfield, there is no color outside of the brain: “There are no colors in nature,” he says. (Tell that to Van Gogh, whose paintings reveal the brush of a butterfly and the heart of a hummingbird.) Nature, without a brain to perceive it, is like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: “If we were aware of our ‘real’ visual worlds,” Rosenfield says, “we would see constantly changing images of dirty gray, making it difficult for us to recognize forms.” But Zoe, our cat, has no problem recognizing forms. Then again, she does act like she’s on Purple Haze most of the time. In any case, the mention of separate realities brings to mind Plato as well as Purple Haze. Any mention of forms brings us back to Plato. We might also work in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Is there something outside the brain? Is there something inside the brain? What does it look like when the brain is asleep, or astroke?

But it’s a sunny morning in Portland, the first in some time, the sky a solid blue, fronting the promise of a solid gold weekend. Both our brain and mind seem to agree that we should get out and into this sun. Zoe’s already out there, chasing the forms around the Salsa Garden. Ah, Bartleby; Ah, locomotion!