Deb: Brains and Heart

I took a writerly side trip yesterday. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how it might be for a writer like me to have the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skull remains unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Their theory is controversial, disputed by paleoanthropologist John Hawks. Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you caught some Twilight Zone episodes during the New Year’s marathon? Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors also believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If novel writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another. But apparently there’s a downside to super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. In other words, they were several thousand years ahead of their time. I filed that away as a great rejection pick-me-up line.

But more important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got. I’m heartened by the legacy of pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, who died last week. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry. Never mind bickering within the writing community and admonitions that the money could have been better spent. Lilly followed her heart. The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether.

2 thoughts on “Deb: Brains and Heart”

  1. Thanks for a great read this morning.
    While I am not a poet myself, I do appreciate them.
    I remember hearing about Ruth Lilly's gift to Poetry magazine.
    I literally laughed out loud and then promptly wept a few tears.

    I often laugh when surprised by beauty and these days often weep when witnessing kindness.

    But there was more than kindness in Ruth Lilly's gift. What I loved about it was that she gave her all to what she loved. She wrote her poetry and did not become bitter at being unpublished. She gave to support future poets. She put her money where her mouth was. I know that lady had a lot of smarts and a lot of love. See, now I have to stop typing because I am starting to weep at the thought of such a fine, good woman.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I read that Lilly obituary, too — wasn't it great?

    But besides that: what incredible info about those big-brained Boskops! I'd never heard about them and I'm fascinated. There must be more to understand about why they didn't thrive. Weird stuff.

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