Melville’s Neurophilosophy




Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

“Moreover, while in most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided as they are by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them like a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys; this, of course, must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts. The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him. Man may, in effect, be said to look out on the world from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his window. But with the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows, but sadly impairing the view.”

–Herman Melville Moby-Dick, ch 74

3 Responses to “Melville’s Neurophilosophy”

  1. N. N. says:

    In most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain. [...] The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side.

    Judging by the first sentence, Melville should have said that the whale’s brain must see distinct pictures. Given the whale’s predicament, I wonder if the pictures are “produced to” different sides of its brain. If so, the Whale’s brain’s eyes will need to be on either side of the brain to be able to see them. This, no doubt, would sadly impair the view.

  2. Peter says:

    I remember being very struck by this passage when I read Moby Dick. I wonder how whales manage their attention - is it possible to pay attention to two completely separate visual fields at the same time, or is it really a matter of looking out of one eye at a time, with the other just sort of idling?

    It seemed a strange idea, but would it be very different from, say, wearing a helmet with a broad nose-piece that restricted your view quite a lot? Actually I suppose it would: human eyes have such closely overlapping fields that there’s only a tiny strip at either side which they don’t have in common. To get the real whale effect, you’d have to rig up something with mirrors, and then it would be hard to distinguish the effects of the separate visual fields from the general disorientation.

    Might be worth doing, though. My guess is that your attention would automatically flip regularly, except when concentrating in order, say, to read (or check out a possible sighting of some krill or something).

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Peter,

    Perhaps relevant is that cetaceans sleep with only one cerebral hemisphere at a time.