Language’s Power: reading the code

As we near the start of IPM 2017 on Feb. 1st, submissions are arriving and I’m getting excited about presenting them to our readers. I was thinking about communication networks, social networks and neural networks. While looking for images of neural-network maps, I ended up with a bit of a headache from trying to understand what is and isn’t understood about how these cells function in the brain. It turns out there are hundreds of different types of neuronal network maps. I finally settled on one that reminded me of a Gustav Klimt painting – it’s from the sound-processing area of a mouse brain.

A two-photon microscopy image showing a calcium sensor (green), the nuclei of neurons (red) and supporting cells called astrocytes (magenta). Credit: John Issa/Johns Hopkins Medicine
Credit: John Issa/Johns Hopkins Medicine

The number of neurons in the human brain is enormous, estimates vary from 86 to 100 billion, but the truly fascinating thing is that each person has an individual ‘neural map’ that develops over time, formed and annotated by personal experience and varied input. One of the many jobs these networks do from the very beginning is process language – expanding our ability to express ourselves and to understand one another. One of the tools we use to achieve this result is the word; but words must be set within a structure to be understood. Some languages are now unreadable – such as those of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations: the words and their supporting structure are there to be read but, frustratingly, we can no longer decode them. As I mentioned in my previous post, others, such as the Sumerian and Akkadian of the Gilgamesh epic, are thankfully still communicating across the millennia despite the challenges of decoding them.


As this makes clear, despite its power, language is limited – it needs not only a transmitter but also a receiver. As Andrea Moro points out in his book I Speak, Therefore I Am: Seventeen Thoughts About Language:

“We don’t actually see light, we only see its effects on objects. We know it exists because it is partly reflected by the things it encounters, thereby making visible what would otherwise be invisible. In this way nothing, illuminated by another nothing, becomes, for us, something. Words and sentences work in the same way: they have no content of their own, but if they encounter someone who listens they become something.”

Submissions are still open, so if you’re a poet please send your work to be considered. If you’re a reader – get ready to illuminate with your gaze the upcoming 28 poems and transform them into the splendid ‘somethings’ they were meant to be.

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