Happy Twentieth: Neural Pathways in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Happy Twentieth to all the Epicureans everywhere! Today I will share a portion of the Lucretian text that explains the ancients’ conception of neural pathways, the modern confirmation of which sparked the emergence of the scientific field of neuroplasticity, or how the brain can be changed through certain practices in order to facilitate long-term pleasure and happiness. This is a subject that I discuss with great excitement in my book, where I cite research on chanting, on zen meditation, and other practices, and I also describe examples from antiquity, such as the Epicurean practice of repetition which would have been not too different from Buddhist chants and other similar liturgical practices.

During the First Century in Book IV of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius gave an account of these “paths within the mind” that form through repetition and habituation. He uses our ability to reminisce and be naturally high on music, and the activities that happen when we dream that mock daily life, as examples of how the mind naturally carves neural pathways when we develop a habit.

And to whate’er pursuit
A man most clings absorbed, or what the affairs
On which we theretofore have tarried much,
And mind hath strained upon the more, we seem
In sleep not rarely to go at the same.
The lawyers seem to plead and cite decrees,
Commanders they to fight and go at frays,
Sailors to live in combat with the winds,
And we ourselves indeed to make this book,
And still to seek the nature of the world
And set it down, when once discovered, here
In these my country’s leaves. Thus all pursuits,
All arts in general seem in sleeps to mock
And master the minds of men. And whosoever
Day after day for long to games have given
Attention undivided, still they keep
(As oft we note), even when they’ve ceased to grasp
Those games with their own senses, open paths
Within the mind wherethrough the idol-films
Of just those games can come. And thus it is
For many a day thereafter those appear
Floating before the eyes, that even awake
They think they view the dancers moving round
Their supple limbs, and catch with both the ears
The liquid song of harp and speaking chords …

This subject is important for many reasons, but at the heart of the matter for us Epicureans is the firm belief that although we are born within certain natural and societal conditions, ultimately in order to develop a mature moral character, we must take responsibility for the content of our minds and of our character. This is the expectation that Epicurus lays on all his followers, and it goes as far as inciting them to make sure that they change the atomic structure of their brain by habituation into the most perfected, most moral, happiest and healthiest version of ourselves–as attested in the surviving 25th Scroll On Nature, subtitled On Moral Development.

The fact that Epicurus knew about neuroplasticity and that this was passed down in our wisdom tradition for centuries, and many generations later was later attested again in such plain terms by Lucretius, serves as just another testimony on the precocious and scientific nature of this teaching. Let’s keep Epicurean ethics going! Please share Epicurean writings and articles with everyone!

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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7 Responses to Happy Twentieth: Neural Pathways in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

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