Art and science


As a psychology undergraduate a few years ago, I studied biological psychology as part of my degree. I remember coming across the following quote by Francis Crick and balking at it with every bone in my (biological) body. In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis – The scientific search for the soul (1994), he suggests

” … that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

The quote was intended to provoke a reaction, and it clearly did in my case. Crick’s reductionist viewpoint (that all psychological events can be explained in terms of biology) evidently gives us a partial version of “the truth” about how people behave. Crick conveniently ignores the influence of our social environment for example. No single discipline can give us the whole picture.

Over the intervening years, I have developed an interest in neuroscience as advances in technology enable us to explore the brain’s activity, particularly the processes relating to creativity and the arts. (If you’re interested too, Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist is an accessible read.)

I realised how far I had travelled from my original reaction to Crick’s statement when I read an article from yesterday’s Observer on Sean Haldene, a poet (nominated for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University) and a clinical neuropsychologist for over 30 years.

“There has been work done on why poetry can send shivers down our spine. The poem activates the same parts of the brain that react when a child is separated from its mother. A deep sense of separation and longing.”

I love the idea that the spirit of the Renaissance is alive and well in Haldene. For years, our education system has been, in effect, forcing kids to make choices between studying arts or science subjects at age 14. Back then, I chose languages and literature. I had to wait a few decades to find my way back to the sciences.

As a coaching psychologist, I work on fostering creative thinking to enable change in my clients. Often people who want to make changes resort to well-worn paths of rational thinking and logic to come up with solutions. The breakthroughs and ‘eureka moments’ I’ve witnessed rarely come via this route. I think Haldene hits the nail squarely on the head when he says:

“If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.”

Those shifts in perspective are the midwife to new ideas, new ways of thinking about an issue. Understanding both the mechanisms and appreciating the depth of emotions involved surely gives Haldene, and the rest of us, a ‘truer’ picture of our potential to act than Crick’s one-sided explanation.

Read the full interview at

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