There are many uses for the word cerebral in the realm of medicine and other sciences. They all have to do with the brain and the various ways in which the brain controls the human body. Some also deal with disease, such as cerebral palsy, clearly one of the worst diseases to attack the human body.
But for today’s sake, let’s just concentrate on the literary use of the word cerebral. It’s an adjective which originates in the Latin word cerebrum, which simply means “brain.” When used in the more literary sense, it defines conversation which is lofty, or intellectual. When someone presents a cerebral lecture to a class it is very heady, filled with a lot of data, big words, and resource material. There is an absence of story or commentary which might ground the topic in everyday experience. We’ve all sat through such lectures and may even remember some details of them. For the most part, for the average student, it is necessary to have taken notes, as the presenter probably has more of an understanding of the point of the lecture than the students. Notes will be helpful in an exam or when writing a paper. It’s not likely to be something that will be remembered for future use…unless, of course you are an intellect like the professor.
One of the places the term cerebral is used frequently is in commentary on sermons. If the “preacher” relies upon a text and spends a good amount of time defining words and recounting details, the sermon may be said to be more cerebral. There may be continual reference to authors and other “experts” in the field, many of whom may be known only to the preacher. The hope of most people in the congregation is that there will be some way in which the homilist connects the words to everyday life, making the sermon or homily less cerebral.
Novels, works of art, and even pieces of music can be defined as cerebral. It means that there is some degree of analysis required in order gain full appreciation of the piece. The creator or performer intends for the recipient to find a “deeper meaning” to the piece. Even a conversation about sports can turn cerebral when tons of statistics become the primary point of the dialogue. The smell of popcorn and the taste of a cold beer on an August evening can be lost in the midst of batting averages and percentages of stolen bases.
It’s possible that you, too, have been caught in a dinner party seated next to someone who is cerebral to the point of boredom. What may have been intended to be a chatty dinner among friends turns out to be a tiresome, boring exercise in self control. The technical and environmental aspects of fracking in Northern Canada may be important to some, but it can ruin a perfectly good piece of salmon.
To be clear, the absence of intelligent conversation is not the issue. One would hope that all conversation would not be shallow or missing in importance. That is not the point. But there is a difference between smart conversation and cerebral exercises in information-dropping. It’s not hard to recognize the difference.
Image Credit: Drew Litton
* Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.