The science of mind is the empirical and theoretical search for the foundations of our mental lives. Unlike other subjects of scientific investigation, such as stars or rocks, human mental lives defy easy definition. Yet few would dispute that such a definition would have to encompass consciousness, emotions, reasoning, language, memory, and perception. As far back as ancient Greece, one can find accounts of how these faculties are produced by the body or the soul. But it was only in the seventeenth century that they became subjects of modern scientific investigation. In the subsequent centuries, scientists have sought to dissect the mind into its components, and to assign those components to different structures of the brain. While a full history of the science of mind would demand thousands of pages, a survey of a few key topics can give a sense of its development.
The Mind Before Neurology
To many readers, the relationship between the brain and mind may be obvious, but that has not always been the case. In 1652, for example, the philosopher Henry More (1614–1687) declared that the brain "is no more capable of thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds" (Zimmer, p. 5).
Medieval and Renaissance physicians sought to understand the mind with a mix of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. They believed the body, for example, was divided into three anatomical regions, each designed for its own soul. The vegetative soul in the liver was responsible for desires and appetites. The heart housed the vital soul, which produced passions and action.
The rational soul, not surprisingly, was a more complicated matter. Since it was immaterial and immortal, it could not reside in one specific place in the body. But its faculties—such as reason, memory, and imagination—were believed to be carried out by "animal spirits" that supposedly swirled within three hollow chambers in the head known as the ventricles.
Anatomy, then, was the study of the houses of the souls. But anatomy alone was not enough to account for the life of the mind. Physicians also had to understand the fluids that coursed through the body. Known as the four humors (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm), these humors needed to be balanced for good health; if they fell out of equilibrium, they brought disease. Humors also gave each individual his or her temperament, be it the sad detachment of melancholy or the swift rage of choler. As the humors became corrupted or moved to the wrong place in the body, they could cause epilepsy or alter the temperament, even leading to madness. Physicians sought to cure many psychological disorders by bringing the humors back in balance, typically with bleeding and purging, or by applying herbs.
During the Renaissance, these theories of souls and humors were vigorously debated. And yet in all these arguments, the brain was strangely absent. The substance of the brain—now recognized as consisting of billions of neurons trading complex signals—was seen as nothing more than phlegm. This is understandable when one considers how delicate the brain is. Without preservatives or refrigeration, a brain quickly decays after death, while muscles and bones remain available for further study.
Descartes's Ambiguous Legacy
This "pre-cerebral" view of the mind disappeared in the 1600s, in the wake of advances in physics, anatomy, and chemistry. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and other natural philosophers challenged the physics of Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), replacing it with a new "mechanical philosophy" in which mechanical forces acting on atoms or other small particles produced all physical change. In the 1630s the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) used the new mechanical philosophy to offer a novel description of the body. He no longer relied on vegetative or vital souls to produce the body's functions. Instead, he proposed that the body was made of particles that obeyed the laws of physics. A body was no different from a mechanical doll: neither needed a soul to drive its movements. Instead, Descartes envisioned nerves as a system of cords and inflating tubes that mechanically produced involuntary movements.
Descartes managed to take a crucial step towards a science of the nervous system, despite the fact that he was woefully confused about the brain. He accepted the medieval notion of spirits flowing through the ventricles. He even used it to determine where the rational soul was located. For Descartes, it was obvious that the pineal gland, which was believed to dangle over the ventricles, had to be where the rational soul influenced the spirits, steering them toward different nerves in order to produce voluntary movements.
This scenario, as strange as it may seem to the modern reader, accorded with Descartes's overall philosophy. He believed that nature, including the human body, was composed solely of passive matter. The human mind, on the other hand, was completely immaterial and not subject to the laws of nature. Thus Descartes required a site where the immaterial and material could intersect. The pineal gland fit all of these requirements. It would take a separate revolution in anatomy before the brain could be appreciated as more than a bowl of curds.
Thomas Willis and the Birth of Neurology
The modern study of the body's functions began with the work of the English physician William Harvey (1578–1657). Harvey trained at the University of Padua, where he learned Aristotle's methods of comparative zoology and functional anatomy. He returned to England and eventually became a royal physician to James I and Charles I, during which time he discovered the circulation of the blood.
As important as this discovery was, however, Harvey's methods were even more significant. He did not rely solely on Galen (129–c. 199 c.e.) or some other ancient source. Rather, he searched for confirmation of his hypothesis in comparative studies on animals and through experiments. By the 1650s, young natural philosophers were emulating Harvey, not Aristotle, as they studied the liver, lungs, and other organs of the body. And in the early 1660s, a group of Harvey's disciples applied his methods to the brain.
These natural philosophers were led by an Oxford physician named Thomas Willis (1621–1675). A royalist soldier during the English Civil War, Willis had been rewarded at the Restoration with an appointment as professor of natural philosophy at Oxford. He used the new position to embark on a bold project—to seek out the hiding place of the mind. Based on a decade of previous research, including dissections, chemical experiments, and medical observations, Willis decided that the most promising way to study the mind was to make a careful study of the brain.
Willis enlisted a number of colleagues, including his junior medical partner Richard Lower (1631–1691) and his young friend Christopher Wren (1632–1723). They dissected brains of humans, dogs, sheep, and other animals, and Willis recorded their work in his 1664 book The Anatomy of the Brain, the first major work on the brain ever written. Over the next eight years he would rely on both his anatomical discoveries and his careful bedside observations to write Pathologiae Cerebri (Cerebral pathology), a book on convulsive disorders, and Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes, on neurological and psychological disorders.
Together, this trilogy stands as a defining moment in neuroscience. (Indeed, Willis even coined the word neurology. ) Willis dismissed Descartes's notions of the pineal gland and ventricles, demonstrating that these chambers could not possibly house the spirits. The brain itself was the site of mental functions, Willis argued, and he carried out experiments to show that different functions were localized in different regions. Instead of Descartes's speculative sketch of involuntary movements, he offered a far more accurate account of reflexes.
Willis also added chemistry to Descartes's mechanical nervous system. As a young physician, Willis had been strongly influenced by the work of alchemist-physicians such as Paracelsus (1493–1541) and Jan Baptista Van Helmont; he also worked with the Irish chemist Robert Boyle (1627–1691) in 1650s Oxford. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic (an apparatus alchemists used to distill substances), and he conceived of the brain's disorders as disorders of chemistry. He saw epilepsy, for example, not as demonic possession, but as uncontrolled explosive reactions in the brain and nerves.
In the decades around the turn of the twenty-first century, neuroscientists looked back at Willis's work with growing admiration. He has even been called the Harvey of the nervous system. Not only did Willis create a masterful theory of the brain, but in his writings scientists can see the first clinical descriptions of a wide range of neurological conditions, ranging from myasthenia gravis to narcolepsy. By the late seventeenth century, the work of Willis and continental anatomists such as Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686) and Franciscus dele Bo Sylvius (1614–1672) had led most physicians to accept the basic tenets of neurology.
Nineteenth Century Investigation: Broca and Donders
Neurology advanced during the 1700s and early 1800s, as researchers discovered electricity's role in the nervous system and mapped out reflex pathways between the spine and limbs. But Willis's most ambitious project—to work out the foundations of the mind—did not see major advances until the mid-1800s. The huge technical challenge of studying many aspects of human cognition certainly was responsible for some of the delay. But the Cartesian dualism that lingered into the nineteenth century also acted as a brake on progress. Many researchers continued to believe that the mind was a unitary, immaterial entity. It was therefore impossible to discover its components, as had been done with the heart or the lungs. According to one prominent French neurologist in the 1800s, to divide the soul was to deny it.
A growing number of scientists rejected this claim during the nineteenth century. The concept that humans were the product of evolution—first broached in the 1700s and brought to fruition by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) in the following century—implied that the faculties of the mind were the product of evolution as well. Scientists began to divide the soul, as it were, and in the process they established the foundations of cognitive neuroscience. The work of two researchers in particular, Pierre-Paul Broca (1824–1880) and Frans Cornelius Donders (1818–1889), illuminate the scientific shift that occurred in the mid-1800s.
In 1861, the French physician Broca treated a man who suffered a stroke. The patient could understand language but could not speak, except for one sound, "tan." (The patient became known as Tan.) After Tan's death, Broca followed Willis's example and autopsied his patient's brain. Tan's brain was damaged in the left frontal lobe. Other patients with the same difficulty in speaking exhibited damage in the same place. Broca demonstrated that a restricted part of the brain was responsible for a restricted aspect of human mental life—specifically, the ability to produce speech.
At the same time that Broca was doing this work, the German ophthalmologist Donders was dissecting the mind in a radically different—yet complementary—way. In the early 1800s, physiologists and physicists began to study the performance of people in simple tasks, such as recognizing colors and shapes. These tests, the researchers hoped, would reveal the inner workings of the mind without any recourse to anatomical details. In the 1860s Donders performed one of the most elegant of these tests. He first measured how long it took for people to react to seeing a light come on. In his second experiment, one of two differently colored lights could turn on, and his subjects had to indicate which color had come on. He found that it consistently took 50 milliseconds longer to discriminate colors than to perceive the presence of a light. Essentially, Donders was doing in time what Broca was doing in space: He was isolating and studying a specific mental function.
In the twenty-first century, cognitive neuroscientists continue to employ the methods of Broca and Donders, albeit with more sophisticated technology.
Cognitive neuroscience, which focuses on how the mind emerges from the brain, first developed as a discipline in the 1960s. Unlike Willis or Broca, contemporary cognitive neuroscientists can build on the extraordinary advances in the understanding of the brain that took place in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, it is now accepted that the brain is composed of several billion neurons, which project a trillion branches to contact other neurons. Neurons carry information as electrical impulses, and communicate with other neurons by releasing a variety of chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Cognitive neuroscience has also gained great strength from new technologies that provide high-resolution information about brain activity. Consider one technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI represents a modern twist on the investigative methods of Willis, Broca, and Donders. A human subject lies with head surrounded by a large, doughnut-shaped magnet. The magnet's powerful field causes some molecules in the subject's brain to release radio waves. Detectors pick up these signals, which a computer uses to reconstruct the structure of the brain. Additional analysis of this data can reveal movements of blood in the brain, which reliably indicate highly active regions of the brain.
A complex cognitive task, such as reading or recalling a person's face, involves many regions of the brain. In order to isolate components specific to these tasks, scientists borrow Donders's subtraction method. They scan the brains of their subjects as they perform one task, and then have them perform second task that is almost—but not quite—identical to the first. The scientists then study the fMRI scans for brain activity produced by the second task that are not produced by the first task as well.
Consider, for example, the ability to understand other people's thoughts and intentions (known as mentalizing ). Psychologists and neuroscientists are fascinated by this ability because it appears to be unique to humans and may therefore represent a crucial innovation in the social evolution of the human species. Psychologists have also demonstrated that autistic people do a poor job of mentalizing. Yet despite this deficit, they can still develop other skills such as mathematics and music. This pattern suggests that mentalizing is not the result of a general-purpose intelligence, but is instead a distinct, modular function of the brain that can be selectively disabled.
In 2001, British researchers found support for this hypothesis with the help of fMRI. They designed an experiment based on the game of "rock, scissors, paper." In each round, two players simultaneously choose one object. Rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock. The subjects lay in a brain scanner and played the game on a computer screen. In some cases, they were told they were playing against a computer; in other cases, they thought their opponent was a person. In fact, the researchers generated a random sequence of choices. The only difference lay in the attitude of the subjects. As the researchers confirmed in interviews after the study, when subjects thought they were playing against a person, they tried to figure out their opponent's strategy.
Scans revealed some regions that became active in both versions of the game. But the researchers also found a handful of small regions in the brain that were only active when the subjects thought they were playing against a person. One region has been shown in other studies to integrate information from face and hand movements. Another region is active during emotional experiences, and a third distinguishes self from non-self.
These results illuminate a general lesson of cognitive neuroscience: Most complex functions of the mind, such as mentalizing, are not carried out in a single region of the brain. Instead, a network of regions works together, integrating their activities. This realization has immediate practical implications. The deficit in mentalizing found in autistic people, for example, may not be the result of a lesion to a particular region of the brain. Instead, it may result from damage to the connections between the components of the mentalizing network.
Aspects of Mind
Contemporary cognitive neuroscience has made important strides in analyzing the mind. Three areas of particularly intense research are perception, emotion, and consciousness.
Contemporary cognitive neuroscience focuses on aspects of mind that are both important and scientifically tractable. A vast amount of research has been carried out on perception, and in particular, on vision. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that the mind does not simply perceive a photograph-like representation of the world. That would demand far more information than the brain can handle. Even if the mind could cope with such a torrent of data, it would probably miss the most important aspects of what is seen—for example, a carelessly driven car lurching onto the road.
Instead, the visual perception system searches for certain patterns. If one sees a few fragmentary lines aligned together, the lines are automatically perceived as a single edge. Different parts of the visual system are tuned to different patterns; some neurons are most sensitive to movement, for example, while others are sensitive to contrasts. These regions are arranged in a pathway, with the first regions along the pathway handling simple processing and then passing on information to regions that can recognize more abstract information, such as faces.
Among the investigations of the mind, emotions have posed a particularly difficult challenge. Medieval European thinkers ascribed many of the states called emotions to souls residing in the heart and liver, or to the four humors. Descartes helped to render these explanations obsolete, but his dualism posed problems of its own. Having divided the human being into two distinct substances—body and mind—he had to struggle to find an explanation for emotions. Emotions clearly affect the body, raising heart rate, causing one to blush, and so on. And yet humans also generally used their powers of reason to reach goals, which can be motivated by emotions. Fear of a fire, for example, might spur someone to figure out the fastest way out of a burning building. So somehow emotions must be able to influence the soul, despite the soul being made of a separate substance than the body.
Descartes envisioned passions as purely physical phenomena that could influence the mind by acting on the pineal gland, the soul's intersection with the body. The function of the passions, Descartes argued, was to dispose the soul to want the things that are useful, and to dispose the body to make the movements that would help to acquire those things. But he also argued that passions can cause suffering and thus need to be mastered by the soul. Descartes defined this mastery as wisdom.
Contemporary neuroscientists are weaning themselves from Descartes's dualism in their studies of emotions. They recognize human emotions as having a long evolutionary history. Emotions originated hundreds of millions of years ago as adaptive responses that simpler animals produced in response to a changing environment. Signs of danger, for example, triggered releases of hormones that prepared animals to fight or flee. Signs of potential reward (such as food or a mate) triggered release of neurotransmitters that caused feelings of anticipation and heightened attention.
While human emotions share a common ancestry with reactions in other animals, they are modified for the peculiarities of the human species. Fear is a case in point. Humans and other vertebrates rely on a region of the brain known as the amygdala to produce a sense of fear and vigilance. Rats learn to fear a flash of light if it reliably precedes an electric shock; remove their amygdala, and they never make the association. Humans with lesions in the amygdala also fail this test. But brain imaging shows that the human amygdala is also extremely sensitive to facial expressions. It takes only a few hundredths of a second for the amygdala to respond to an angry face, long before one becomes consciously aware of perceiving it. This is not surprising, given that humans are an intensely social species.
Emotions are also intimately involved in the most abstract thinking of which humans are capable. For example, Antonio Damasio (b. 1944) of the University of Iowa has shown that lesions to an emotion-associated region called the orbitofrontal cortex can lead to poor decision making. Damasio hypothesizes that normally people are guided by emotional reactions to memories of relevant experiences in the past.
While cognitive neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying the components of the mind, they have much left to learn about their integration. Perhaps the most powerful example of this challenge is consciousness. Neuroscientists long shied away from the question of consciousness, feeling that it was impossible to formulate a scientific program to study it. At the close of the twentieth century, though, they began to overcome their reticence and began making serious attempts to solve this mystery.
Consciousness refers to people's awareness of themselves and of their own experiences. At the same time, philosophers also see in consciousness a feature known as qualia: the subjective experience generated in each person's brain. To appreciate the difficulty of studying qualia, imagine a neuroscientist who lacks color vision, seeing the world only in black and white. Imagine that she succeeds in learning everything there is to know about how the retina transfers information about different frequencies of light to the brain, and how the brain processes that information. But she does not know what it is like to experience the sight of red, or any other color. These qualia remain beyond her reach.
Despite these conceptual obstacles, neuroscientists are beginning to study consciousness. Some are using fMRI to compare the human brain in different states of consciousness. For example, scientists can measure the differences in the brain before it is aware of seeing an object and afterwards. They can also compare unconscious processing of sensory information versus conscious processing. In another line of research, scientists place electrodes on a subject's scalp in order to take high-resolution recordings of brain waves, looking for changes in frequencies that might represent signatures of consciousness.
Such studies do not pinpoint a "consciousness organ" in the brain. Rather, they offer an increasingly detailed picture of neural activity that correlate with conscious experiences. In one model that has emerged from this work, brain waves produced in different parts of the brain become synchronized during consciousness, producing a "global workspace" in which the processes going on in different parts of the brain are united.
There are a number of other models that are being explored, however, and none has emerged as a clear favorite over the others. Some researchers have suggested that the study of consciousness in the twenty-first century is like the study of hurricanes in the 1800s. Nineteenth-century meteorologists could collect very little data in order to understand and predict hurricanes. They could take readings of air pressure, winds, and rainfall at a few weather stations, and then try to extrapolate those results. Only when weather satellites were launched into orbit were meteorologists able to see an entire hurricane and track it across the Atlantic. In order to produce a satisfying theory of consciousness, scientists may have to wait for the arrival of satellites for the mind.
See also Behaviorism ; Biology ; Body, The ; Cartesianism ; Determinism ; Dream ; Dualism ; Genius ; Humanity ; Imagination ; Knowledge ; Medicine ; Person, Idea of the ; Psychology and Psychiatry .
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"Mind." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind
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mind / mīnd/ • n. 1. the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought: as the thoughts ran through his mind, he came to a conclusion people have the price they are prepared to pay settled in their minds. ∎ a person's mental processes contrasted with physical action: I wrote a letter in my mind. 2. a person's intellect: his keen mind. ∎ the state of normal mental functioning in a person: the strain has affected his mind. ∎ a person's memory: the company's name slips my mind. ∎ a person identified with their intellectual faculties: he was one of the greatest minds of his time. 3. a person's attention: I expect my employees to keep their minds on the job. ∎ the will or determination to achieve something: anyone can lose weight if they set their mind to it. • v. [tr.] 1. be distressed, annoyed, or worried by: I don't mind the rain. ∎ have an objection to: what does that mean, if you don't mind my asking? | do you mind if I have a cigarette? ∎ (mind doing something) be reluctant to do something (often used in polite requests): I don't mind admitting I was worried. ∎ (would not mind something) inf. used to express one's strong enthusiasm for something: I wouldn't mind some coaching from him! 2. regard as important and worthy of attention: never mind the opinion polls. ∎ [intr.] feel concern: why should she mind about a few snubs from people she didn't care for? ∎ [in imper.] dated used to urge someone to remember or take care to bring about something: mind you look after the children. ∎ [intr.] (also mind you) used to introduce a qualification to a previous statement: we've got some decorations up—not a lot, mind you. ∎ [intr.] inf. used to make a command more insistent or to draw attention to a statement: be early to bed tonight, mind. ∎ be obedient to: you think about how much Cal does for you, and you mind her, you hear? 3. take care of temporarily: we left our husbands to mind the children while we went out. ∎ [in imper.] used to warn someone to avoid injury or damage from a hazard: mind your head on that cupboard! ∎ [in imper.] be careful about the quality or nature of: mind your manners! PHRASES: be of two minds be unable to decide between alternatives. be of one (or a different) mind share the same (or hold a different) opinion. bear (or keep) in mind remember and take into account: you need to bear in mind that the figures vary from place to place. close one's mind to refuse to consider or acknowledge. come (or spring) to mind (of a thought or idea) occur to someone. don't mind if I do inf. used to accept an invitation. give someone a piece of one's mind tell someone what one thinks of them, esp. in anger. have a (or a good or half a) mind to do something be very much inclined to do something: I've a good mind to write to the manager to complain. have someone or something in mind be thinking of. ∎ intend: I had it in mind to ask you to work for me. have a mind of one's own be capable of independent opinion or action. ∎ (of an inanimate object) seem capable of thought and intention, esp. by behaving contrary to the will of the person using it: the shopping cart had a mind of its own. in one's mind's eye in one's imagination or mental view. mind over matter the use of willpower to overcome physical problems. mind one's own business refrain from prying or interfering. mind one's Ps & Qs be careful to behave well and avoid giving offense. never mind 1. used to urge someone not to feel anxiety or distress: never mind—it's all right now. ∎ used to suggest that a problem or objection is not important: that's getting off the subject, but never mind. 2. (also never you mind) used in refusing to answer a question: never mind where I'm going. 3. used to indicate that what has been said of one thing applies even more to another: he was so tired that he found it hard to think, never mind talk. not pay someone any mind not pay someone any attention. on someone's mind preoccupying someone, esp. in a disquieting way: new parents have many worries on their minds. an open mind the readiness to consider something without prejudice. open one's mind to be receptive to: he opened his mind to the ways of the rest of the world. out of one's mind having lost control of one's mental faculties. ∎ inf. suffering from a particular condition to a very high degree: she was bored out of her mind. put someone in mind of resemble and so cause someone to think of or remember: he was a small, well-dressed man who put her in mind of a jockey. put (or set ) one's mind to direct all one's attention to (achieving something): she'd have made an excellent dancer, if she'd have put her mind to it. put someone/something out of one's mind deliberately forget someone or something. to my mind in my opinion: this story is, to my mind, a masterpiece. ORIGIN: Old English gemynd ‘memory, thought,’ of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘revolve in the mind, think,’ shared by Sanskrit manas and Latin mens ‘mind.’
"mind." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind-2
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In the early 17th century, the dramatist Thomas Dekker has ‘Now thou art in thy pee and cue’; pee here is a kind of coat, and cue means either a queue of hair, or possibly cue as a tail; it might however indicate an early currency of this expression through a punning allusion.
See also great minds think alike, little things please little minds, travel broadens the mind, year's mind.
"mind." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind
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"mind." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mind
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Hence mind vb. REMIND; remember, give heed to XIV; (dial.) perceive, notice XV; contemplate XVI; be careful about XVIII.
"mind." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind-3
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"mind." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind-1
"mind." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind-1
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"MIND." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mind-0
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Jorie Graham's "Mind" first appeared in the literary journal Water Table, and is included in her first collection of poems titled Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980). The title for the collection comes from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's book Thus Spake Zarathustra. The poem appears in the fourth section of the collection, following "The Nature of Evidence," a poem about the speaker's ability to apprehend reality. Comprised of thirty-nine short lines, "Mind" tackles a similar theme and is more accessible than many of Graham's poems. However, it still requires rereading for full appreciation.
Graham is known for abstraction in her poems, which means she is as interested in ideas and argument as she is in presenting striking images. Many of her poems are informed by her reading in history, science, art, and philosophy. In "Mind," Graham uses a series of metaphors to describe the idea of the mind and the thinking process. Her poem embodies, as much as depicts, thinking. By comparing processes of nature with the ways in which the human mind makes sense of perception, Graham draws on the romantic tradition in poetry from Samuel Taylor Coleridge through Wallace Stevens, particularly in the ways these poets describe the relationships between imagination and reality, nature and humanity, and the self and other.
Jorie Graham was born May 9, 1951, in New York City, the daughter of journalist Curtis Bill and sculptor Beverly (Stoll) Pepper. She was raised in Italy, as her father worked as Newsweek's bureau chief in Rome. As a teenager, she haunted old churches and watched Michelangelo Antonioni films, soaking up Italy's history and culture. After being expelled from the Sorbonne in Paris for participating in student protests, Graham transferred to New York University, where she studied film with Haig Manoogian and Martin Scorsese. Graham began publishing poems in literary journals and magazines regularly during her twenties and published her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, in 1980, with Princeton University Press. In poems such as "Mind," critics recognized Graham's metaphysical leanings and her ability to synthesize disparate material from the sciences, philosophy, literature, art, and history. Her primary influences, however, are modern poets such as William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and John Berryman.
Upon earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University in 1973, Graham enrolled in the writing workshops at the University of Iowa, receiving her master of fine arts degree in 1978. She has spent almost her entire adult life in academia, teaching at institutions such as Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky; Humboldt State University in Arcata, California; Columbia University in New York City; and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. In 1999, Graham was named Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, succeeding Irish poet Seamus Heaney. She was the first woman to hold this professorship.
Graham's passion for teaching has not stifled her passion for writing. Her numerous collections include Erosion (1983); The End of Beauty (1987); Region of Unlikeness (1991); The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974–1994 (1995), for which she received a Pulitzer Prize (1996); The Errancy (1998); Swarm (1999); and Never (2002). In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Graham has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants, including a 1979 Discovery/The Nation award, and a MacArthur "genius" grant. She has also received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Foundation. In 1997, she was named a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In the first lines of "Mind," the speaker offers a metaphor for the mind, comparing it to "the slow overture of rain." Overture in this context denotes an orchestral introduction to a musical dramatic work. The speaker compares the way the mind moves from one perception to the next, one thought to the next, with the way an overture leads into the musical work itself. The mind is "unrelenting" because it never stops. It is "syncopated" (also a musical term) because, as in an overture, there is a shift to something else, maybe another perception, another subject, or another way of thinking. These lines comment both on the workings of the mind and the workings of this poem, which also shifts subjects.
The speaker continues comparing the mind with natural phenomena. The speaker imagines that the hummingbird and the swallow perceive the world in ways that make sense to them. The hummingbird, for example, mistakes its wings for its heart because its wings are its most strategic asset. Hummingbirds flap their wings from fifty to two hundred times per second and can lift from perches without pushing off. Swallows, which dip and dive dramatically, could easily confuse how the horizon appears to them in flight for what they are doing to it (i.e., lifting and dropping it). This connection between the birds' misunderstanding of the world and themselves and the human mind suggests that human beings also delude themselves into thinking they know what is real and what is imaginary. When the speaker asks, "What is it / they cast for?," she anthropomorphizes them. This means that she projects onto them human attributes, in particular the attribute of desire. "Casting" suggests fishing, a familiar enough activity for birds.
The speaker continues her comparisons, noting the swallows' perception of poplars, quick-growing trees of the willow family found in North America. The speaker describes how their appearance changes depending on the swallows' perception of them. In describing them as "making arrangements," the speaker personifies them, just as she had the swallows and hummingbirds. "Arrangement" is also a musical term meaning an adaptation of a musical composition by rescoring.
The speaker reverses the subject and object of perception. Whereas in the previous descriptions she shows how birds perceive the physical world, in this description she positions the city as the subject drawing "the mind in streets." This reversal gives credit to the phenomenal, material world in constructing reality. The streets "compel" the mind "from their intersections," meaning from where lines connect. The relationship between subject and object, perceiver and perceived, dissolves here.
- On May 20, 1999, Graham read and talked with Michael Silverblatt, producer and host of the literary interview program "Bookworm," broadcast on public radio stations nationwide. In 2001, the Lannan Foundation released a video of the reading and talk, Jorie Graham. Tapes can be ordered by writing to The Lannan Foundation, 313 Read Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501–2628.
- Audio Literature has published an audiocassette on which Graham and other women poets read poems from The Muse in the Body: Love Poems by Women, edited by Catherine Bartlett. Tapes can be ordered by writing to Audio Literature, 370 W. San Bruno Ave., Ste. F, San Bruno, CA94066.
The speaker depicts the mind as an active force that is nonetheless "driven" (though by what readers are not told). These lines are typical of the heavily abstract statements for which Graham is known, statements that are difficult to translate or paraphrase. Gravity has a stake in "all stationary portions / of the world." These "portions" are stationary because gravity keeps them that way (unlike, for example, hummingbirds or swallows, which can defy gravity with their ability to fly).
The speaker uses the symbolic image of leaves in the November soil to suggest decay and fragmentation. When the "edges give a bit / and soften" they lose their definition and become part of their environment. This blurring of a thing (i.e., leaves) with the larger body to which it belongs (i.e., soil) echoes the way in which the mind also blurs as it changes from subject to subject, perception to perception.
The speaker implicitly compares the leaves to the mind, suggesting that in time both fragment and come to rest in the ground, where they are "all the richer for it." This last image suggests a picture of a compost heap where the leaves return to the soil from which they came, and the mind returns to a state in which it no longer differentiates the particularities of the physical world, and is no longer aware of itself as a perceiving entity.
Nature has long been a source of inspiration and an object of inquiry for writers and scientists. Graham employs images of nature to underscore humanity's connection to it. By describing the mind in terms of rain, hummingbirds, swallows, leaves, and soil, the speaker shows how human beings are part of the processes of nature. She links these processes to human acts of perception and imagination. The first lines of the poem, for example, liken "The slow overture of rain" to "the unrelenting, syncopated / mind." By comparing the mind with natural processes, Graham binds the mind inextricably to them. The mind functions in an organic way and, like nature, is subject to and defined by all that surrounds it. Like the leaves described in the latter part of the poem, the mind also dies "in pieces." For Graham that is more a reason for celebration than mourning.
Topics for Further Study
- Draw a picture of how you think (not what you think). What image or images would best represent your thinking processes? Compare your picture with others in your class and discuss differences and similarities.
- Set aside a particular time at the end of each day to meditate on your thinking. Reflect on what subjects have occupied your mind for the day and describe these subjects and your responses to them in a notebook. At the end of two weeks, read through your entries and write a short essay describing any patterns you might see in your descriptions.
- In groups, discuss the differences between the brain and the mind. What points, if any, does the class agree on and how do you account for any disagreements?
- Some critics note similarities between Graham's poetry and that of John Ashbery and James Tate. After reading a few poems from Ashbery and Tate, discuss the similarities and differences among the three.
- Read the rest of the poems in Graham's collection Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants, taking notes on her statements about identity, perception, and language. Then, write a short essay describing Graham's worldview based on the poems in this book.
- In "Mind," Graham describes the mind as "unrelenting." With your classmates, brainstorm a list of other adjectives you would use to describe the mind. Discuss as a class and be prepared to defend your choices.
"Mind" explores the interplay between imagination and reality, suggesting that subjective experience colors perception of the world. Graham uses the hummingbird and the swallow as examples of beings that believe something about nature that human beings, with their scientific understanding of the world, do not. However, the birds' reality is no less real because their beliefs are different than the beliefs of human beings. In exploring the realm of the imagination, Graham writes from the tradition of romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who developed their own styles instead of imitating other writers, and who privileged individual expression. For romantics, the imagination is also the seat of creativity, from which poetry itself springs. By making the subject of her poem the mind and how it apprehends reality, Graham emphasizes her debt to the romantic tradition.
Reality and Appearances
"Mind" attempts to do two things. First, through a series of comparisons, it attempts to figuratively describe what the mind is. Second, it asks readers to question their understanding of reality by paying attention to how their own minds work. By using a series of images connected by abstract statements, Graham forces the reader to participate in the meaning-making process, rather than merely passively consuming her images. This strategy of presenting images and then showing how they are not what they appear to be calls to mind Plato's Allegory of the Cave, a text in which the Greek philosopher argues for the existence of a higher reality than the one human beings experience with their senses. The ultimate reality of "Mind" is, paradoxically, earthbound and unresolved.
Writers create pictures in readers' minds through images utilizing the five senses. Graham employs aural imagery when describing "the slow overture of rain," visual imagery when describing "hummingbirds / imagining their wings," and tactile imagery when describing "the dank … soil." With the exception of the city and its streets, all the images in her poem come from nature.
Abstraction refers to ideas or qualities as opposed to things. Graham mixes abstract statements with her imagery, often using them to comment on the imagery. For example, in the following lines from the middle of the poem, she comments on the mind, using an abstract statement:
what is driven through
all stationary portions
of the world, gravity's
stake in things.
Graham's abstractions make her poem difficult while also making it intriguing. She has attributed her propensity for abstraction to her schooling in France.
Enjambment, also know as run-on lines, occurs when the syntactic unit, or sentence, runs over onto the next line for completion. It is the opposite of an end-stopped line, in which the syntactic unit or sentence ends with the line. Graham employs enjambment throughout "Mind," each line depending on the next to complete its meaning. In this way, the form of the poem dictates the way it is read. The poem is both a description of mind and an illustration of how the mind works during the reading process.
1970s and 1980s
Graham wrote "Mind" in the late 1970s and it appears in her 1980 collection Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. Like many of her poems, "Mind" is not set in any identifiable time or place. Rather, it is a meditation on an idea, the idea of mind. During the 1970s and 1980s, Graham was both a student and a professor in various departments of English, where post-structural literary theories were becoming a regular part of the curriculum. Post-structuralism refers to a set of approaches or attitudes towards texts rather than any codified body of knowledge, and is a response to structuralist theories of knowledge. Some of the features post-structuralist theories share include a rejection of ideas such as essentialism and foundationalism, which inform structuralism. Essentialism suggests there is a reality beyond language, unmediated by how human beings name the world and invest it with significance. Plato, for example, was an essentialist in his belief that ideal forms of ideas and things existed outside of how human beings saw them. Foundationalism refers to the notion that systems of thought can accurately reflect the world and how it works. The ideas of post-structuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, both of whom question conventional ways in which critics interpret texts, became both celebrated and hated in English departments. The anti-humanist theories of Derrida and Foucault were a source of contention and an inspiration for scholars and students alike, and contribute in no small part to the ongoing factionalism in humanities departments today.
The anti-war protests of students in American universities in the 1960s and 1970s helped foster an attitude of rebellion that created an intellectual space for new ideas. This rebellion reached a violent apex in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students during a noontime demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four people and wounding nine others. The protests of the 1970s carried over into curricular reforms in the university itself, as previously ignored groups battled for representation in courses and departments. During the 1970s and 1980s, for example, a number of women's studies programs were formed, as well as programs explicitly addressing the history and culture of groups such as African and Asian Americans. The 1970s and 1980s also saw a dramatic increase in the number of master of fine arts programs in creative writing offered in American universities. Graham herself studied in such a program at the University of Iowa. Thousands of students enroll in these programs each year to hone their writing skills, hoping to land jobs teaching in higher education or to win fame with a blockbuster novel or screenplay.
Outside the academy during these decades, writers explored humanity's increasing alienation from society and one another. Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987), for example, examined the plights of African Americans in a society violently hostile towards them. David Mamet's plays Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed the Plow (1988) chronicled the declining morality of the real estate and show business industries respectively. John Updike continued his detailed examination of the spiritual emptiness of middle-class suburban white men in novels such as Rabbit is Rich (1981).
Graham was well supported in writing the poems for Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. Poems included in the work had been accepted by quality literary journals such as American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, and the New Yorker, and she received a grant from the Paul Mellon Fund of Princeton University Press to help publish the collection.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: A 1980 study by the American Council on Education shows that college freshmen are more interested in status, power, and money than at any time during the past fifteen years. Business management is the most popular major.
Today: Students continue to enroll in business programs and classes. However, because of the downturn in the economy, a master of business administration degree no longer carries the same clout that it did in 1980.
- 1980s: Columbia University, the last all male Ivy League school, begins accepting women in 1983.
Today: Like hundreds of other colleges and universities, Columbia University now offers classes and degrees online, making it possible for students to receive a degree without physically attending class.
- 1980s: In 1985, scientists confirm a hole had opened in the ozone layer surrounding the earth, posing considerable potential health risks for humans.
Today: In 1999, scientists announce that warming temperatures in the Antarctic have caused two ice shelves to break up and melt faster than anyone expected, posing potential danger to human welfare if sea levels rise too quickly.
Because she is still a relatively young poet whose work has just begun to be addressed by critics, there is no criticism as yet explicitly addressing "Mind." However, some critics have written glowingly about Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. In American Poetry Review, Dave Smith writes that the collection is "as promising a first book as any recently published." In his essay "About Jorie Graham" for Ploughshares, Robert Casper praises Graham's ability and calls her poems "crystalline in their concision." In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Peyton Brien points out the influences of artists and poets on Graham's work, including Paul Eluard, Voltaire, Paul Cézanne, and Mark Rothko, all of whom are subjects of individual poems by Graham. Noting the brevity of many of the collection's poems, Brien argues, "Graham's formal strategies in the book are relatively simple and well designed to enhance the intellectual searching of a neophyte poet." Margaret Gibson, who reviewed the collection for Library Journal, emphasizes the abstract quality of the poems, writing, "These are distanced poems, whose difficult language catches and moves us with its beauty." Gibson, herself a noted poet, calls Graham's poems a "mixture of wisdom and discord, desire and faith."
Unlike the critics above, Askold Melnyczuk does not find Graham's first book inspiring, calling it "apprentice work." In "The Mind of the Matter: CAT Scanning a Scat Singer," written for Parnassus, Melnyczuk claims, "The work in this first book leaves this reader annoyed and disappointed. Graham seems to be testing out ways of making poems that will support a content yet to surface."
Semansky is an instructor of literature and composition. In this essay, Semansky considers the philosophy of Graham's poem.
In the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990, Graham says about poetry: "Each poem is … an act of the mind that tries … to clean the language of its current lies, to make it capable of connecting us to the world." However, her own poems often belie this very claim, as they suggest that language is incapable of such an act, and that humanity's separation from the world and human beings' separation from one another are inevitable. "Mind" shows how lying forms an inescapable part of human experience, and how self-delusion is unavoidable.
The very act of writing a poem called "Mind," which attempts to describe in a universal fashion how the mind works, is in keeping with Graham's metaphysical tendencies. Metaphysics, derived from the Greek meta ta physika ("after the things of nature"), refers to a branch of philosophy that pursues knowledge that cannot be gleaned from human sense perception. It is conceptual and abstract in nature, terms critics also use to describe Graham's poetry. More specifically, Graham's poem addresses questions of epistemology (that area of metaphysics concerned with how human beings know what they know) and ontology (that area concerned with the nature and relations of being, or things that exist). Metaphysics by its very nature, however, is speculative. Attempting to describe any subject outside of historical or cultural context dooms one to accusations of universalizing. It is an accusation, however, with which Graham is willing to live.
One of the first "lies" of "Mind" is its use of figurative language. In comparing how the mind works with how nature works, the speaker employs metaphors. However, the very act of using metaphor as a means of description demands lying, in that comparisons are always necessarily approximations of the thing described, and part of a system of knowing. In his essay "Figurative Language," Thomas McLaughlin argues, "If figures tell us anything, it's that meaning is up for grabs, that the world can be shaped in an endless variety of forms, that language is a battleground of value systems." "The slow overture of rain" does not accurately describe "the unrelenting, syncopated / mind" because, after all, the mind is not an overture or rain, but "like" them. Furthermore, the comparison of the mind's working with how hummingbirds mistake "their wings / to be their hearts" and how swallows mistake the horizon to be a fishing line underscores the idea that knowledge of the outside world is impossible, or at least unsatisfying, and that what remains is the imagination.
For Graham, as for Wallace Stevens, the imagination is what animates human knowledge, and the faculty that gives the world meaning. However, the imagination itself is an inherently unstable category, and so different for each person as to make shared experience impossible. Some thinkers, in fact, claim that the category of the imagination itself is innately misleading. For example, in his study Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton argues that, historically, the imagination, "offered the writer a comfortingly absolute alternative to history itself." Eagleton notes that the imagination became emphasized as a transcendent realm during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the function of poets and artists in society had changed, and their work was now seen as "product." Eagleton writes, "The whole point of 'creative' writing was that it was gloriously useless, an 'end in itself' loftily removed from any sordid social purpose." In the last two decades, this notion of the imagination as a transcendent space from which writers can comment on humanity's condition has only solidified.
Rather than "social purpose," the aim of poems such as "Mind" undermines the idea of a common language, adding credence to the notion that poetry is only for other poets, and that real communication, the kind that can "connect people to the world," is impossible. How else to make sense of lines such as the following:
draws the mind in streets,
and streets compel it
from their intersections
where a little
belongs to no one. It is
what is driven through
all stationary portions
of the world, gravity's
stake in things.
Graham's abstractions here make it difficult to know to just what she is referring, and even if readers are able to "decode" the references, their reaction is more likely to be "so what" than "wow!" or "hmmmm." Askold Melnyczuk, writing in Parnassus, writes of Graham's collection that: "Only rarely does the voice speak from an urgency deep enough to justify breaking that cardinal rule of the Pythagoreans: be silent, or say something better than silence."
The poem's final image, that of the mind like leaves in November soil disintegrating into so much compost ("and all the richer for it") is an image of the mind's instability, its refusal to be anchored to the world, yet the inevitability that it will be. This image suggests a more materialist philosophy of mind than a romantic one and is more consistent with post-structural theories of the mind than it is with Graham's notion of the imagination as a place of salvation and comfort, and poetry as a practice that can bring people together. Post-structural theorists question the very possibility of transcendence and transparent communication. Theorists such as Foucault write about "subjects" rather than individuals, and locate the mind in relation to the material phenomena of culture and history. Since "subjects" are embodied in the world, their thinking is social and they take their identities from the groups to which they belong. Reading "Mind" one is hard pressed to "imagine" a body behind the words or a society in which the speaker makes her observations. Yet, the very ideas about the mind that Graham's poem implies are rooted in the twentieth century, and in philosophical and literary discourse.
It is not that Graham is naïve or unaware of the contradictions inherent in her statements about poetry and her poems themselves. In an interview with Mark Wunderlich, Graham offers her wish for poetry's future:
If I have a wish, it is that the body's (the heart's) knowledge be trusted again, that the fear of the body—certainly understandable in the age of AIDS and the plague-like virulence of our instant information technologies—decrease, and that the senses be used again in our poetry, that real images be felt, written, and most importantly, understood for the knowledge they contain.
Understanding "real images … for the knowledge they contain" is an odd desire, coming from one whose own poems appear to question the possibility that the real can ever be known, and whose abstractions dilute the impact of her own images. But then, Graham has made her reputation writing poetry, not talking about it.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on "Mind," in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Prebilic is an independent author who writes and analyzes children's literature. She holds degreesin psychology and business. In this essay, Prebilic discusses how Graham's poem considers the normally weak proclivity of the human phenomenological mind.
Graham published her first collection, Hybrids of Plants and Of Ghosts, in 1980. Graham admired the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, a renowned philosopher, and based the title on his characterization of human beings. Graham bases her collection on the themes of death and change. This collection gained recognition for Graham; subsequently, critics learned to both admire and condemn her poetic prose.
According to Bonnie Costello in Contemporary Literature:
Graham emerged in the 1980s as a major poet, distinguished for her philosophical depth, her sensuous vision, the grandeur of her style and themes…. Inher first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Graham limited her meditation primarily to tentative reflections based on natural objects.
Graham's associations with the art forms of nature bring beauty and style to her work. As Dave Smith says in The American Poetry Review, "Hers is an intricately shaped poetry that is as given to decorum as to discipline." Graham uses her good taste and precision to lure readers into a proactive participation. Whether she poses a question or presents an idea in a new way, Graham's words compel readers to grasp humanness. She presents her ideas succinctly and without pretense. Her style encourages readers to search for a deeper meaning in life and to make sense of things around them.
"Mind," a thirty-nine line poem about change, fits in well into Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. According to Costello in Contemporary Literature, Graham limited her "meditation to individual objects of nature or art around which her thoughts could circle to form twisting, elegant designs." This meditation describes "Mind"; Graham implements this twisting, elegant design superbly by using nature's concrete beauty around which her thoughts can take shape: rain, hummingbirds, swallows, and poplars. As the verse meanders down the page, "Mind" contends with the weakness of the human phenomenological mind. She seeks to convince readers that their minds resist transformation. Graham successfully suggests that the truth of peoples' minds consists of objects and events as people perceive them and not of anything independent to them.
Graham opens "Mind" by immediately introducing an element of nature. She infers a metaphysical connection between the rain and the mind, which swiftly presents the human mind in a way that lures readers into reflection: "The slow overture of rain, / each drop breaking / without breaking into / the next, describes / the unrelenting, syncopated / mind."
The words in Graham's poem fall like an overture: the unhurried, introductory aspect of rain. Her words have formed like raindrops: condensed over time from vapor in the atmosphere and spread systematically onto the page. They stand alone with meaning, each drop gently taking its path without spilling into the next one. Graham's language coaxes readers to broaden their perspectives; some of the words, "overture" and "syncopated," may create a desire to pull out the dictionary and to learn more. This desire starts the search for a deeper meaning.
Graham requests that readers believe that the brain is unrelenting, yet weak. She begins this presentation like the beginning of a rainstorm. At first, readers notice the raindrops, yet they do not foresee the storm's intensity. This engaging metaphor alludes to the idea that people's minds often fail to connect the information that dribbles in, especially at the beginning of an experience. As readers enter her poem, they notice nature, yet do not foresee the journey that comes more intensely as the poem develops.
As Graham's reflections circle around the natural objects, her ruminative process formulates her images and germinates her concept of the mind's weakness. Readers experience this as Graham continues her poem: "Not unlike / the hummingbirds / imagining their wings / to be their heart, and swallows / believing the horizon / to be a line they lift / and drop." The hummingbirds, with brilliant iridescent plumage and long, slender bills, form an image in their mind's eye that their wings are their hearts. In addition, the graceful swift-flying passerine swallows believe that the perceptible intersection of the earth and the sky can only be a line that they lift and then drop. Although from a human perspective, one knows that these perceptions do not hold truth; it does not change the imagination of the hummingbirds or the belief of the swallows. According to Costello in Contemporary Literature, Graham "celebrated the spiritual and metaphysical reach of art" by painting these pictures with her words. Graham invites readers to reflect on her prose and hopes that they acquire the belief that they perceive things in ways that meet their needs and that create safety.
"What is it / they cast for?" Graham's interactive technique, a question, gently asks readers to join in her meditative journey and experience the philosophical and spiritual moment she has presented. Readers cannot easily answer this question in the same way they would describe the color of the sky or the characteristics of a horse. It is more like describing the shape of a jewel whose light radiates from within. The answer requires interpretation. Interpretation comes from within one's mind. It also comes with vulnerability as one identifies and expresses one's beliefs.
Graham continues this inward journey as she introduces the poplars: "The poplars, / advancing or retreating, / lose their stature / equally, and yet stand firm, / making arrangements / in order to become / imaginary." These fast-growing deciduous trees have unisexual flowers densely crowded with catkins. Perhaps the density of their weeping flowers distinguishes them: they lose and gain, advance or retreat, their beauty based on the season or the soil's health. Graham suggests that the trees, like all living things, have an undeniable status or achievement level that they have gained and lost regularly. As the season's change and events occur around them, these trees stand firm. Perhaps this quality mimics the weak, unrelenting nature of people's minds. As events occur and achievements come and go, the mind holds onto its beliefs, its imagination, and its unreality.
What Do I Read Next?
- Graham's 1995 collection The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994 includes poems from her five previous volumes of poetry, including Erosion and Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. This collection received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- The Best American Poetry 1990, edited by Graham and David Lehman, was published in 1991. Graham penned the introduction, in which she elaborates on her ideas of what makes good poetry.
- John Ashbery writes many of the blurbs for Graham's books, and she for his. Like Graham, Ashbery has been influenced by many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French poets. His comic novel A Nest of Ninnies, co-written with poet James Schuyler, was published in 1976.
- Graham derived the title of Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's characterization of human beings in his treatise Thus Spake Zarathustra. Walter Kaufmann's 1995 Modern Library translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra is considered one of the best translations available.
- Steven Pinker's 1997 study How the Mind Works explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows people to sense the world around them. Pinker is an M.I.T. psychologist whose research interests include evolutionary biology.
- Critic Helen Vendler has been one of Graham's chief admirers, writing about her poetry in her 1995 study The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham.
The mind forms the perceptions it needs, and needs what it creates: "The city / draws the mind in streets, / and streets compel it / from their intersections / where a little / belongs to no one." People believe that the people, animals, and wildlife that reside in a city, created it. When looked at in a new way, could it be that the city created the mind? Do the streets define people instead of people defining the streets? What forms the intersections, a locus of points where the streets cross, or the street pavers laying the material and posting a stop sign? As Graham reverses the common beliefs, she argues that people's minds create the views that suit them best. It asks the age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Graham surmises that the city may be a place where a little belongs to no one. This verse in the poem requires that readers step aside from a literal interpretation and begin to meditate on the deeper value to be gained.
Graham continues: "It is / what is driven through / all stationary portions / of the world, gravity's / stake in things." Gravity draws matter towards its center. It is the natural force of attraction exerted by earth upon objects at or near its surface. Graham concedes that gravity pushes, propels, or presses itself onward forcibly through all fixed parts of the earth. It is the way of things; it exists and influences all things just because they are near its power. In the same way, Graham contends that people's minds claim their power over their world. It is the way of people's minds. People's experiences filter through this mind's eye and perceptions form. They emerge as reality. Only if one allows one's mind's eye to shift focus will one allow for transformation.
As the poem winds towards resolution, Graham sums up her underlying principle: "The leaves, / pressed against the dank / window of November / soil, remain unwelcome / till transformed, parts / of a puzzle unsolvable / till the edges give a bit / and soften." Looking at experiences in a new way encourages transformation. Using the vivid metaphor of a window, Graham begins to persuade readers that transformation does occur.
The word "window" originated from Scandinavian invaders and settlers of England in the early Middle Ages. Related to Old Norse vindauga, this compound word summarized the ideas of wind and of eye. At one time, windows contained no glass. So, the "Window of November," as Graham defines it, ties in directly with her concept of seeing things without a filter. The wind caresses the eye of change, the dank leads to a discomfort that encourages discovery, and November sits on the heels of an unwelcome winter season. These things do not feel good. They are unwelcome. They propel people to see things differently. Perhaps people allow their new knowledge to transform them. Graham concludes that if people can look at the unsolvable parts of the puzzle in new ways, the edges of the problem will begin to resolve. When problems seem less rigid, solutions present themselves more fully. The shifts in attitudes allow people to change the nature, function, or condition of something. People can convert their experiences and attitudes of their mind to a new, richer awareness.
Graham presupposes that readers accept her idea when she says: "See how / then the picture becomes clear, / the mind entering the ground / more easily in pieces, / and all the richer for it." People allow their experiences to change them for the better. Through new choices, people can seek out and experience things in ways they never thought possible. When people allow this change to take place in small doses, like pieces of a puzzle they finally link, the picture of their experience becomes clear in a new way. One's mind becomes grounded in true reality. The dank no longer feels unwelcome but becomes an accepted and appreciated part of one's life. People know the dank leads to a window that defines an opportunity. It becomes part of life's cyclical nature. Graham believes that this realization transforms people; their lives contain more meaning and significance.
"Mind" invites readers to take an inward journey to discover its gem. It is not didactic, yet offers an opportunity to learn. Expressive words encourage readers to gain knowledge of new terminology. Associations with nature allow readers to view Graham's theory of transformation in a new way. Although not clear-cut, her poem imparts a straightforward idea: people see life through their mind's filter. Yet, people can change their filter. The ultimate picture comes from a puzzle whose pieces fit together as one meditates. Whether or not a reader agrees with Graham's idea that the mind's truth consists of objects and events as people perceive them, one thing is certain: her meditative poetry draws readers into the mind of Graham, and Graham into the minds of her readers.
Source: Michelle Prebilic, Critical Essay on "Mind," in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Partch is a Jungian astrologer, writer, and graphic designer. In this essay, Partch considers the validity of Jorie Graham's use of poetry as a "medium for spiritual undertaking."
While there are many excellent poets who are fully accessible through a single glance at a single poem, Graham is not a poet whose work can be understood or appreciated in isolation.
Some critics may object to the need for any special "preparation," lobbying for the democracy of immediacy. But how many uninitiates can truly appreciate a Jackson Pollock painting, say, without some introduction? To the casual or innocent eye, his work looks like the careless splatterings of a child or a madman, and indeed these comparisons have been made. With a little guidance, it becomes apparent that Pollock was attempting not at all to make pretty pictures but to portray movement in time. Beyond that, he sought to challenge the whole conceptual framework of reality—to bend space and time. With this perspective, his "action paintings" can be appreciated as delayed-shutter portraits of his dance, more like capturing the motion of writing with a penlight in the dark than snapshots of a posed static scene.
Graham is an enthusiastic fan of Pollock's work and shares similar aims of evoking process in her own work. Rather than the body's dance through the fields of space and time, she seeks to simulate, and then to stimulate, perception and thought isolation, to extend this motion beyond the limits of language, the static "poetic moment" and the printed page, into the reader's ongoing experience. Graham seeks in her poetry to create for herself and recreate for the reader moments of opening, of beginning, rather than endings. Her poems may not always succeed on these grounds, but they must be judged as moving collages rather than failed still life snapshots, or the neatly wrapped-up happy ending will always appear to be missing. The open-ended lack of resolution is deliberate, not accidental. The suspended non-ending is intended to invite the reader's participation.
Many of Graham's detractors, such as Sven Birkerts, writing in the New York Times Book Review, question "the viability of poetry as an instrument of philosophy." Birkerts is also bewildered by "the onward march of mind and spirit searching for some arrival, some consummation, some end to all of this tending toward." But who is to say what is a suitable theme for poetic experience and expression: only matters of the heart? Can the processes of the mind really be declared off-limits? Apart from the aesthetic values normally applied to poetry (and here Graham's work must speak for itself), surely the realm of experience to be explored is no less a matter of poetic license than experiments in form. Some would have it that the immediately accessible realm of the senses and emotions, with some kind of conclusive point, constitutes the only "appropriate" terrain for "the poetic impulse." How can one really reserve the poetic endeavor for such touchy-feely subjects as love, loss, and memory? It could even be said that the whole crux of the poetic moment lies in the collision between consciousness and experience—reality. Poets, even the ancients, have always explored this synaptic leap of faith between the so-called objective and the subjective, between outer fact and inner response. Moments of sublime realization, however ambivalent or complex, cannot be disqualified as too intellectual if the entire question of mind is the very landscape of the poet's (perhaps deeply emotional) experience. The postmodern view has shown once and for all that the very notions of self, identity, experience, other, object, etc., are nothing if not conceptual.
The mind can be said to be the heroic subject of a great deal of Graham's enormous body of work, and "Mind" can by no means be considered an exhaustive portrait. But she does here achieve the elusive goal of transcendence, going beyond the individual personal mind. The poem reaches beyond even the projected divine mind to the more mystical concept of the phenomenon of mind underlying and pervading reality on a subatomic level. For mystics of every tradition, mind inhabits and vivifies the infinite spaces between things and is the governing principle behind thingness—the very ground out of which subject and object emerge. In keeping with the model of modern physics, the perspective of modern phenomenology maps the activity of the mind as more of a field of consciousness than a linear progression of thoughts. The mind is seen as but one phenomenon within the universe, which is a field of interwoven and interacting forces, rather than a simple progression of causally related events.
The opening lines of "Mind" evoke and mimic the atmospheric affect of this nonlinear percolation:
The slow overture of rain,
each drop breaking
without breaking into
the next, describes
the unrelenting, syncopated
Everyday thoughts may seem to unfold one into the next, in an orderly single-file procession of cause and effect. However, Graham points out that in actuality, thoughts are often more random and chaotic than one might like to think, more like popcorn popping or rain drops falling than links in a chain. Sometimes thoughts come one after the other, sometimes simultaneously—but one thought may no more arise with any causality or logic from its predecessor than one rock following another in an avalanche.
Graham both imitates and mocks this common misconception of the inherent orderliness of the mind's associative processes in the shape of the poem—a neat, narrow column of no more than five words on a line—and the poem's uninterrupted flow, coming on in a downpour of images, ideas, and words. But in the end the poem does resolve itself, not with the decisive closing of a door but with a beckoning to a window, where it tells the reader to "See."
The second group of lines following the lines above portray the mind's tendency to project the patterns of its own workings onto what it perceives:
imagining their wings
to be their heart, and swallows
believing the horizon
to be a line they lift
and drop. What is it
they cast for?
Later in the poem, Graham subtly shifts the ground of what readers think of as cause and effect:
draws the mind in streets,
and streets compel it
from their intersections
where a little
belongs to no one.
Thoughts tend to follow their routes, once established, as obediently as falling rocks yield to "gravity's stake in things." So, the question arises, does the mind arise from thought and not the other way around? Can the mind exist without language? Is there mind without thinking? Descartes would have it that being itself is dependent on thought, while spiritual teachers of the East and the West would have it precisely the other way around—being begins when thinking stops. Only when the continual chatter of the mind is silenced, when its relentless busy-bee buzzing is stilled, can consciousness truly interact with reality. This is what is meant by pure mind. Pure mind is the intersection toward which Graham is ever striving—the intersection between not only reality and consciousness but between being and doing, between experience and expression. Graham is continually striving to write from this place of clarity of pure being and to evoke those gem-like moments for the reader.
Like Pollock's attempt to explode the boundaries of his canvas, Graham seeks to speak from silence, to arrive at a place beyond words, by using language to delineate the contours of the ineffable.
It is only when the sharp edges of the "puzzle pieces," the random shards of Mind (thoughts), soften a bit that readers can see how
the picture becomes clear,
the mind entering the ground
more easily in pieces,
and all the richer for it.
The unity of the whole emerges from the fragmentation of the habitual mental processes of the mind, into the fertile ground of the universal mind from which all phenomena, within nature and human consciousness, arise. When the edges are sharp and rigid, overly defined, the edges cannot penetrate the ground of their own being and the puzzle remains unsolvable. It is only when the thoughts' hard edges "give a bit" that they can return to their source.
In a 1992 interview with Thomas Gardner in the Denver Quarterly, Graham commented, "Poetry is an extraordinary medium for spiritual undertaking." The immediate and unceasing appreciation and recognition that her work has received—including a Pulitzer Prize in 1996—attest to the validity and viability of her endeavor. The more one knows about poetry and spirituality, the more one will appreciate the risks Graham has taken in her bold experiments in both her content and its necessary form, as well as her task and her achievement. As to the appropriateness of her "use" of poetry for philosophical or spiritual purposes, one might even ask, what else? Are they not one and the same?
The ambitious thoughts represented in "Mind" are not so shabby, coming from the precocious mind of a twenty-something-year-old poet in the late 1970s, a self-confessed hybrid of Whitman's lyricism on the one hand and Nietzsche's philosophy on the other.
Graham's early musings inscribe an arc with a promising trajectory; a promise duly fulfilled in the ongoing experiments and mature work of this highly complex, philosophical, and intellectual— and also beautifully musical—poet of the postmodern mind.
Source: Marjorie Partch, Critical Essay on "Mind," in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Birkerts, Sven, "States of Being," in the New York Times Book Review, May 19, 2002.
Brien, Peyton, "Jorie Graham," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120: American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 96–101.
Casper, Robert, "About Jorie Graham," in Ploughshares, Vol. 27, Issue 4, Winter 2001, pp. 189–94.
Costello, Bonnie, "Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 373–95.
Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 20–21.
Gardner, Thomas, "An Interview with Jorie Graham," Denver Quarterly, 1992.
Gibson, Margaret, Review of Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants, in Library Journal, May 15, 1980, p. 1170.
Graham, Jorie, Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants, Princeton University Press, 1980, p. 61.
——, ed., The Best American Poetry 1990, Scribners, 1991, pp. xiii–xviii.
McLaughlin, Thomas, "Figurative Language," in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 80–90.
Melnyczuk, Askold, "The Mind of the Matter: CAT Scanning a Scat Singer," in Parnassus, Vols. 12–13, Nos. 1–2, Spring–Summer and Fall–Winter 1985, pp. 588–601.
Smith, Dave, Review of Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants, in American Poetry Review, January–February 1982, pp. 36–46.
Wunderlich, Mark, "Interview: The Glorious Thing," in American Poet, Fall 1996.
Bottoms, David, and Dave Smith, eds., The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, William Morrow & Co., 1985.
This is one of the first major anthologies in which Graham's work appeared.
Furniss, Tom, and Michael Bath, Reading Poetry: An Introduction to Theories, Histories, and Conventions, Prentice Hall, 1996.
Furniss and Bath provide an introduction to the ideas and techniques that can help students critically analyze poetry. This study shows how various and contemporary strands of literary theory can be applied to difficult poetry such as Graham's.
Holden, Jonathan, Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, University of Missouri Press, 1986.
Holden analyzes Graham's work and that of her contemporaries in this critical study.
McDowell, Robert, ed., Poetry after Modernism, Story Line Press, 1991.
This collection of essays by poets and critics examines the various aspects of postmodern poetry such as formalism, the relationship between business and poetry, politics and poetry, and psychoanalysis and creativity.
"Mind." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/mind
"Mind." Poetry for Students. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/mind