Dashing Genius: 
Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition
Written by Elizabeth Howell Brunner at Cal Poly, 1997, for English 510: Seminar on Emily Dickinson, taught by Professor A. Estes.  Posted online September 1999. 
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
Safely encased by the curve of bone, a palm-sized mass of wrinkled grey tissue throbs in the commotion of imagination. As tiny electrical currents spark, nerves burst into action along multiple pathways. Spider-shaped neurons pulse with messages throughout the cerebral cortex. Electric signals race down the axon of one nerve to the dendrite of the next, until even the most brilliant brain must pause for an infinitesimal moment, awaiting the leap -- the leap of embryonic, encoded ideas across the synapse, that tiny gap interspersed between membranes of adjoining neurons. Once past this cognitive divide, secreted neurochemicals wash through cellular landscapes and the brain registers human possibility. 
Over one century ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, the particular brain of a gifted poet made precisely these synaptical connections, transforming reflections born from solitude into the actions of a pen on scraps of paper. And as Emily Dickinson scrawled her distinctive handwriting into the sloping curves of nonconventional verse, she chose to punctuate with the dash, perhaps in unconscious tribute to a gap and a leap within the mind. 
     Brain Science During Dickinson's Lifetime
If Dickinson dashed with a fluid twist of her wrist in representation of brain leaps, she operated from poetic insight rather than scientific knowledge. As science writers Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi describe in The Three Pound Universe, research into the neuro-source of consciousness made slow advances until the 1980s. Twenty years before Emily Dickinson's birth, Franz Joseph Gall attempted to map the personality traits through bizarre charts of head-contour phrenology (27). In 1837, three years before Dickinson entered Amherst Academy, Marc Dax, a country doctor in France first hypothesized that human speech arose in the left hemisphere, an accurate conception but lampooned as "quackery and pseudoscience" (Andreasen 87). In 1843, as Dickinson transitioned from child to teenager, physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond demonstrated that an "electrochemical pulse . . . beats in our neurons with a rhythm that is no less than the language of the brain" (Johnson, G. 11). With a family devoted to periodicals, Dickinson surely read about the 1848 Vermont construction site explosion which left an iron rod impaled through a foreman's skull and resulted in personality changes which fascinated New England physicians (Hooper and Teresi 39). In the year that Poem 168 declared "Doubtless, we should deem superfluous / Many sciences, / Not pursued by learned Angels / In Scholastic skies!" the French anatomist Paul Broca identified the region in the frontal lobe responsible for speech (Sagan 9). And in 1871, soon after Higginson's first visit to the Dickinson home, the Italian physician Camillo Golgi viewed nerve cells through a microscope (Hooper and Teresi 29). In 1887, a year after Dickinson's death, Doctor William Keen "performed the first brain tumor operation in the United States," quite likely extracting with his fingers and a teaspoon (Noonan 40). Within a decade, scientists began probing the interior wiring of the brain. But almost a century would pass before neuroscientists fully recognized association areas "between sensory input and motor output"  which allow the "near-infinite" range of human conception through an "exponential increase in the number of cells and interconnections" in comparison to other species (Hooper and Teresi 50). 
Although living before most revolutionary breakthroughs in the scientific understanding of brain functions, Dickinson conceivably drew from other sources of knowledge -- perhaps turning to the philosophy of John Locke and the typographical experiments of Laurence Sterne. In his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke analyzes the functioning of his own mind to describe how sensation and reflection combine into personal knowledge. Like Emily Dickinson, Locke drew from his Puritan background while challenging any claims to theological faith which could not be verified through his own clear, rational thought process. Locke required the first-person experience of sensations prior to the formulation of ideas. In chapter XXXIII, Locke examines the "association of ideas" as a process bordering on "a sort of madness" and at times relying on accidental connections (395). He describes with dramatic personification how some ideas form natural "Correspondence and Connexion one with another," while other ideas -- "not at all of Kin" -­ become inappropriately associated until "the whole gang always inseparable shew themselves together" (395). As Charles Anderson documents, the thousand-volume Dickinson family library eventually included writings by John Locke, although archivists do not necessarily know which volumes were acquired during the poet's lifetime (298). 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com