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Whitman Neuroscience

On How Walt Whitman Anticipated Neuroscience


The fusion of body and mind in the Whitmanian premise already anticipated what neuroscience would take years to rectify.

Before science suspected it, Walt Whitman knew that the deepest of all thingsresides in the skin. In Leaves of Grass, the bard wanted to build an immense poem that would encompass a man’s (him) entire body and soul, which would be a mirror where the reader could see himself reflected whole (beside him). In other words, he wanted to build the metaphysical soul of fat and flesh. A poem made of skin. With his central poetic idea, that we do not have a body but that we are a body, Whitman was anticipating one of the most important neuroscientific discoveries of the 20th century.

In the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer describes the entire torrent of horrors and discrepancies that Whitman generated by uniting the body and metaphysics in the same poetry book. The writer was breaking with the separatist idea that began in the 17th century with René Descartes. It was this philosopher —the most influential of the century— who first separated the brain from the body: he disassociated the being into two separate substances: a divine soul and a mortal carcass. The soul was the source of reason, science and everything good. Our skin, on the other hand, was like a clock, a machinery that bleeds. With this schism, Descartes condemned the body to a life of submission.

It is not surprising, then, that Whitman’s fusion was a revolutionary idea, as radical in concept as his free verse. During those times, science still believed that our feelings came from the brain and that the body was just a cumulus of inert matter. Therefore, his poetry was denounced as erotic and bold, and even as a “pornographic utterance”. For Whitman, however, the profane and the profound were simply different names for the same thing.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from,
The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

Whitman was the first to write poems in which the flesh was no stranger, and he extracted his theory from bodily feelings based on research he carried out on himself. The landscape of the body was his inspiration. Each word he wrote would ache somewhere in the body, would bristle some epidermal strand; was made of anatomy. Leaves of Grass is a being that is built by accumulation, it cannot be understood but as a whole. With frankness and without blinking, the bard gave dignity back to that which remained repugnant through religion and relegated by science —He invented sexuality as a topic in North American poetry. He sung the body electric.

Come, said my Soul

Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one)

Neuroscience knows that Whitman’s poems spoke the truth: emotions are generated by the body. “Ephemeral as they seem, our feelings are actually rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our insides”, Lehrer writes. “The mind is embodied… not just embrained”.

It has been calculated that with every breath we take we are introducing approximately one atom of every single breath that floats in the planet. By exhaling we give it back, and so forth twenty thousand times a day by seven billion people.

When in 1855 Walt Whitman was writing “Song of Myself” and in his verses affirmed that the atoms of his blood were made of soil and air, that there was not a single atom in his body that did not belong to us, he was, undoubtedly, expressing profound truths that were not yet discerned in the science of his age. The premise distilled from his philosophy is that we are the poem that emerges from the unity of body and mind. That fragile unity —this brief parenthesis of being— is all we have. Let us celebrate it.


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

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