Our Minds Rest on Poetic Foundations

Cape Times (South Africa), May 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Our Minds Rest on Poetic Foundations


The middle-aged man hobbled into my consulting room. "I need an anti-inflammatory shot, doc. I'm running the Comrades Marathon this weekend."

The other day I was called to the procedure room to see a patient; she was having palpitations and difficulty breathing. I asked her some questions, examined her, and did an ECG and blood tests.

Her symptoms, I discovered, were caused by a large intake of caffeine and nicotine and the stress of building renovations going wrong. I advised her to reduce or stop drinking coffee and smoking, and to look at how she can manage her situation better.

"Oh I can't give up coffee and cigarettes now," she objected. "I am far too stressed for that."

These examples of ordinary madness are not uncommon.

Every day, I see patients who make bad choices in the face of incontrovertible reason. The appeal to logic is frequently futile. Advise an exhausted workaholic to go on a holiday and she is more likely to take on another deadline.

Warn your friend that the man she is about to marry is a gambler and a womaniser, and she will cut ties with you and carry straight on down the aisle. Or there's that good idea of bringing democracy and fairness to Iraq by employing undemocratic and criminal means.

There is something else going on - some story that is a more powerful directive than the most reasonable argument based on overwhelming evidence. Scientific method has brought us huge benefit. It has also gone some way towards altering the way we understand ourselves and our universe.

Yet we tenaciously, unconsciously, hold on to our non-rational ways because they contain value. Story, with its appeal to something other than logic, is the way our ancestors explained phenomena for millennia. Thunder was an angry god; the moon was Mantis's shoe. This is a poetic, symbolic view of the world.

We make sense of our lives and we make decisions by associating this with that. All living things survive by being able to match what is happening in the environment with what is occurring internally.

If I trip, I raise my hands to protect my face. If I am hungry, I find food. The association areas in the human brain continually make these links.

Science is a tool of measurement that tests which of the numerous linkages are true. Instinct might make me run away if my clothing catches fire, but we know this is precisely the wrong reaction.

Story and art use association in a completely different way. Juxtaposing images or relating them through narrative can excite us in recognition to do with symbol.

Symbol stands apart from science in that it cannot be measured. A snake, scientifically, is a legless reptile that can be dissected and compared. Symbolically, a snake can stand for aspects as diverse as healing, death, evil, the penis and wholeness.

We are poetic as well as scientific beings. We respond to holy stones, lotus flowers and sacrifice. These images stimulate the poetic foundation of the mind - the aspect that merges and connects, rather than the superstructure of the incisive and categorising mind.

Humans are rooted in subliminal stories which inform our choices. …

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