An Enchanted Loom

  • Alwyn Scott


In Chapter 3, the subject of biochemistry was introduced through a metaphor that has always fascinated me: fireflies communicating with each other on a summer evening by switching on and off their mysterious lanterns of luciferase. A similar metaphor was used by Charles Sherrington—the leading neurophysiologist of his time—to describe the brain’s behavior. In his presentation of the 1937–38 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, the waking of the brain was pictured as follows:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of travelling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

In 1940 these lectures were published as a book entitled Man on his nature, in which the knowledge and wisdom of an eminent neuroscientist are enriched by the style of a poet to trace the development of mankind’s self-knowledge throughout history (Sherrington, 1951).


Firing Rate Cell Assembly Lateral Geniculate Body Logical Calculus Binding Problem 
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© Springer-Verlag New York 1995

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  • Alwyn Scott

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