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March 2011

The enchanted loom

Symphony of Science has recently posted ‘Ode to the Brain!’:


‘Ode to the Brain’ is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects [of] the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, Bill Nye’s Brain episode, BBC’s ‘The Human Body’, Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, Discovery Channel’s ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’, and more.

Carl Sagan:

What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

Wikipedia — Enchanted Loom:

The enchanted loom is a famous metaphor for the brain invented by the pioneering neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington in a passage from his 1942 book Man on his nature, in which he poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during arousal from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

The “loom” he refers to was undoubtedly meant to be a Jacquard loom, used for weaving fabric into complex patterns. The Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was the most complex mechanical device of the 19th century. It was controlled by a punch card system that was a forerunner of the system used in computers until the 1970s. With as many as thousands of independently movable shuttles, a Jacquard loom in operation must have appeared very impressive. If Sherrington had written a decade later, however, he might perhaps have chosen the flashing lights on the front panel of a computer as his metaphor instead.

According to the neuroscience historian Stanley Finger, Sherrington probably borrowed the loom metaphor from an earlier writer, the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to “picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work”. Perhaps in part because of its slightly cryptic nature, the “enchanted loom” has been an attractive metaphor for many writers about the brain …

Oliver Sacks:

We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination

‘Whole orchestras play inside our heads’ (Sagan).