New Book!

After 20 years of research and writing, my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (2015) Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, is available on Amazon and other sites. During the month of August it had a #1 Hot New Release rating in Neuropsychology and Poetry/Literary Criticism in the US and France. If you are interested in the brain, consciousness, creativity and the arts, I think you will find it an illuminating read. A Kindle version is now available as well.

Consciousness and the Brain according to Stanislas Dehaene

I have read many books and articles on this subject over the past 20 years; but, I must admit, this book by French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene (Viking, 2014) feels like he's geting a lot right. He does it through brain imaging and metaphoric language.

His main contention is that "a staggering amount of unconscious processing occurs beneath the surface of our conscious mind." Imaging methods have become so precise that they can now show exactly where global unconscious processing crosses over into conscious thought. Admittedly, David Eagleman has been saying the same thing in his popular PBS series, The Brain. What does pass into conscious thought, said in the French way, is la crème de la crème of what the unconscious proposes to the conscious mind. Further, as Eagleman has said too, what we sense is "not raw sensation, but an expert reconstruction of the outside world."

Here's a good metaphoric offering from Dehaene:

"Unsurprisingly, it turns out that our attentional spotlight is operated by armies of unconscious workers that silently sift through piles of rubble before one of them hits gold and alerts us of its finding."

In another metaphoric rendering, he says: "The fortress of the conscious mind possesses a small drawbridge that forces mental representations to compete with one another. Conscious access imposes a narrow bottleneck." The best thought breaks on through to the other side.

Unconscious processing explains how mathematicians and scientists suddenly get answers to tricky conundrums when stepping up on a bus or shaving; and how poets get a fully formed poem, seemingly from out of nowhere, when waking up in the morning or taking a walk in the afternoon. The unconscious miners have been sifting through the rubble all along and the drawbridge has been crossed.

If the hard work is going on beneath the hood, so to speak, what is consciousness for anyway?

Simply put, unconscious processing is fleeting and unstable, whereas consciousness pins it down. On top, in the prefrontal cortex, neurons can hold on to and manipulate at a later time thoughts that would otherwise be lost forever down in the basement. It is also the front of the brain that allows us to share information with others. As Dehaene says, "Imperfect as it is, our human ability for introspecting and social sharing has created alphabets, cathedrals, jet planes and lobster Thermidor." With his penchant for poetry, Dehaene cites Julian Jaynes's definition of consciousness as "a secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries."

Further, consciousness has a "tipping point." In an "avalanche" of neuronal activity, another Dehaene metaphor, "the frontal regions of the brain are being informed of sensory inputs in a bottom-up manner, but these regions also send massive projections in the converse direction, top-down, and to many distributed areas." The end result is a brain web of synchronized areas. Only activation of the prefrontal cortex (top) and the parietal cortex (bottom) in long-distant loops creates conscious experience.

But that's not all. With all this activity going on, some neuronal firing has to be pared down to let the essentials through. A conscious idea is encoded by small patches of active and synchronized cells, together with a massive crown of inhibited neurons--a positive electrical potential--called the P3 wave on the surface of the head. Dehaene theorizes that the brain is highly self-stimulating, creating its own neuronal activity all the time, even when we are asleep. In the absence of external stimulation, the brain generates its own, as we saw in Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations.

Having worked with babies, along with his wife who is a neuropediatrician, Dehaene has concluded that babies are most likely conscious at birth, but their developing minds work much more slowly than ours. Even at two months old, they are already processing language in Broca's area in the left hemisphere and show evidence of remembering. Yes, he uses fMRIs designed especially for babies.

Dehaene made the interesting discovery that the amygdala, which lies at the bottom of the temporal lobe, responds to fearful words flashed to it, even without the person's conscious awareness. This unconscious processing of an invisible word remains in the left temporal lobe, only becoming conscious when it invades the frontal lobes. Of course, since he does not introduce the notion of atypical lateralization, I must add that the light bulb over the head effect might be occurring over the right side of the brain for some.

Here is a Dehaenian formula worth repeating: "My theory is that the architecture of the conscious workspace plays an essential role in facilitating the exchange of information among brain areas. Thus, consciousness is a useful device that is likely to have emerged a long time ago in evolution and perhaps more than once." Further, he says that the workspace system "may well be present in all mammals" and possibly in birds and fish as well. However, "[i]n humans alone, the power of this communication device was later boosted by a second evolution: the emergence of a 'language of thought; that allows us to formulate sophisticated beliefs and to share them with others."

Finally, Dehaene explains schizophrenia as a breakdown in the top-down processing of neural information. With their long-distance neural connections impaired, schizophrenics would feel that "something remains to be explained, that the world contains many hidden layers of meaning, deep levels of explanation that only they can perceive and compute. As a result, they would continually concoct far-fetched interpretations of their surroundings." As the top-down prediction system fails, as sense impressions become strange, "it is a short step to becoming convinced that you hear voices in your head."

Leonardo's Brain and Leonard Shlain

Like most people writing about the brain, Shlain (2014) focused first on a “universal model” which recognizes the primacy of the left hemisphere for language, linearity and logic while the right indulges in emotionality, poetry, creative artistry and humor. With his dual scientific and artistic genius, Leonardo did not fit the “typical” dominance mold. Shlain proposed that Leonardo’s brain was bilaterally organized, with neither side favored over the other. With this cerebral balance, Leonardo could be both an “extraordinary left-brained academician obsessed with portraying perspective correctly and an impish right-brained trickster who takes delight in fooling the viewer with perspectivist sleights of hand (7).” Leonardo, per Shlain, excelled in both science and art thanks to a large corpus callossum with more than typical neurons connecting the left and right hemispheres.      
      I was initially pleased that Shlain wrote about Leonardo’s childhood traumas because it fit my own paradigm of the creative poetic mind. Leonardo was the illegitimate child of a peasant girl and a rich city boy. His mother, whose marriage to another man had been arranged by Leonardo’s father’s family, raised him in the countryside. But, when Leonardo’s biological father married a 16-year-old girl, he moved his now 5-year-old son back into his own household, separating him from his biological mother. The new stepmother died in childbirth. Leonardo’s father married three more times, producing ten more children. This all sounds highly traumatic, but Leonardo would be well raised by his grandparents and his uncle Francesco (Capra: 66).

       When Leonardo’s grandfather died and Francesco married, even these losses led to a significant gain for the now 12 year old. Leonardo left the farm for the beautiful, artistic city of Florence with his father. He began an apprenticeship with an important artist and craftsman, a friend of his father’s, several years later. According to Fritjof Capra (2007), this intellectual and creative environment “shaped” Leonardo’s “entire approach to art and science (73).” He had at his disposal all the equipment and materials he needed for his many inventions in this workshop. In a later move to Milan, he was given a large workspace to fulfill his artistic duties to the court and do research on his burgeoning scientific and mathematical interests, especially geometry, along with access to the large and important library at the University of Pavia.
      Leonardo led a seemingly charmed life. He was considered by one and all to be physically beautiful; a flamboyant dresser; loving, eloquent and charming; an athlete; an excellent horseman; a musician, and serenely self-confident (Capra: 18-21). Nonetheless, at the societal level, his illegitimacy barred him from attending university; he did not begin learning Latin, necessary for reading most scholarly works, until he was 40 years old. This very constraint may have impelled his insatiable scientific inquiries through direct observation and his need for perfection in his art. We should also recall that he was a product of his times. Being a “Renaissance” man required knowing everything then, as it does now.
      Yet, an underlying difference in Leonardo’s brain lateralization cannot be denied. Shlain (2014) quotes Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (1651), which advised artists how to “quicken the spirit of invention”:

  • You should look at certain walls strained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose stroke you may find every named word which you can imagine (61).

While possibly good advice, it tells us more about the extent of Leonardo’s own active imagination and his ability to convert environmental sights and sounds into a new vision or voice, transformed from a stain on a wall or heard in clanging bells. Leonardo’s advice notwithstanding, this is not a universal skill. Rather, it is more likely encountered in altered states of consciousness, from whatever the source—sleep deprivation, isolation, drug usage, or organic injury to the brain, such as epilepsy or head trauma. A left-hander’s bilaterally organized brain, with an enhanced right hemisphere, could make associative visual or auditory connections that typical minds could not.[1]
      Shlain was one of the first writers to accent the left versus right hemispheric differences in creativity, based on important theorists of the 1980’s. I agree with him that myths derive from left-hemispheric confabulated stories trying to make sense of anomalous right-hemispheric voices and visions. Shlain says,

  • Although each hemisphere has its own preferences and approaches, each contributes to make a whole person only when the corpus callosum integrates the two. But in the process of generating a major creative insight, a disconnect must occur between the two halves. Arthur Koestler called this the ‘hemispheric bisociation’ (91-92) . . . [Koestler also described the act of creation as “thinking aside” and it was clear to him that there could be no truth without beauty, whether artistic, mathematical, or scientific. If you look closely at the tattered cover of my 1989 edition of Koestler's classic, you'll see that the figure is tossing about pages of Leonardo's drawings, a poem, and musical notes. [These were the days when cover art was beautifully enigmatic, not diagrammatic or technological.]

Still describing the typical mind, Shlain says the “the right brain is essentially bereft of language, the description in words of how the creative process proceeds is practically impossible. Ask artists or scientists how they arrived at their most novel and creative work, and you will no doubt receive either an inarticulate answer or the left brain’s confabulation (98-9).” He does not postulate that language can be dominant on the right or spread out in both hemispheres.
      Beyond his reliance on science mostly from the 1980’s, Shlain comes to this odd conclusion about creativity:

  • Creativity is at its base a combination of fear and lust. Danger and sex are the fundamental processes that artists traditionally call upon to create a work of art. Of course, he or she is not aware that these are the root causes. Creativity begins with perceiving a pattern, a feature, or an alternative use for a common object.[2] After recognizing something novel, the artist breaks down the observation into its component parts. This is primarily a left-brained function, reductionist and analytic. An artist will reassemble the pieces into a new and compelling manner that others will recognize as art. But the work of art must contain ‘passion.’ It must be a work of ‘love.’ He or she must be in a nearly ‘orgasmic’ state to produce it. Our word enthusiasm comes form Dionysian enthousiasmos, a wild state of holy inspiration. Orgasm is a right-hemispheric function. Love is rooted in the right brain. Ecstasy is an emotion experienced at the right of the corpus callosum (100-101).”
     Pursuing Leonardo’s cerebral differences, Shlain explains that the anterior commissure, which connects the temporal lobes, can be as much as 30 percent larger in women than men, 15% larger in gay men than straight men and larger still in both left-handed men and women. Most authors agree that Leonardo was left-handed and possibly gay, so he would indeed have had a more bilateral brain. Fritjof Capra (2007) says the artist was ambidextrous, able to write equally well with both hands.
      What about the mirror handwriting? Some authors agree that Leonardo wrote backwards so as not to smear the ink (Shlain; Nathan and Zöllner). Shlain adds that “[l]eft-handers must employ hook handwriting to avoid this distressing trait when they write from left to right (173).” Again, as a left-hander, and with confirmation from others on my blog post “The Eye of the Beholder,” I know that all left-handers do not hook their hand when writing. It depends on whether they are left or right dominant for language (President Clinton does not hook his hand. President Obama does). If indeed Leonardo’s mirror writing was designed to avoid smearing the ink, it would put his language function more squarely in the left hemisphere, reserving the right for visuo-spatial processing. The fact that he drew facial profiles to the right and his background hatching ran top left to bottom right shows a left-hander at work (Nathan and Zöllner: 137, 196). 

His impressive maps were in part drawn on Ptolemy’s Geographia, but he was also a mountaineer. His aerial views may well have been part visionary, part actual, part imaginary, like so much of his work (image below in Nathan and Zöllner: 484-5). Shlain suggests that Leonardo practiced remote viewing to get these views on paper. I will not discount the possibility of non-local perception, given the extent of Leonardo’s bilateral dominance, with enhanced right-hemispheric functioning.

   Shlain recognized that Leonardo’s language was highly metaphorical and that poetry is right-hemispheric language, as professor and poet Julie Kane has explained. Shlain’s conclusion, specifically with regard to the Renaissance artist, is well put, but requires refinement: “Leonardo had all the characteristics of the brain that would allow for an increased sensibility to aesthetics, harmony, and creativity. They were present as the result of differences in the organization of the possibly gay, left-hander’s, musical, backward-writing, ambidextrous brain (175).”
      While I am indebted to Shlain for the biographical details on Leonardo da Vinci’s early life, and agree in principle with the bilateral thesis, we need a fuller picture to understand the artist’s mind and practices. Capra, for instance, says Leonardo’s notes for his drawings were not only written backwards, they were “disjointed,” using “highly idiosyncratic” spelling and syntax, no spaces between words, and virtually no punctuation other than periods. It is quite possible that he was dyslexic, with compensatory visual prowess, or, possibly, that he was merely in a rush to get the words down, while perfecting his images, over and over again. Leonardo himself asserted that drawings were much important than words and painting more important than poetry (Capra: 39, 143).      
     Leonardo also did more drawings than paintings when usually the reverse is true for artists (Nathan and Zöllner: 12). An enormous percentage of his works has been lost and no studies remain for the Mona Lisa (Nathan and Zöllner: 16). What is especially interesting to me is his visuo-spatial capacity. Rather than drawing from a model, he was often drawing on memory alone and actually sought out certain faces on the street to be captured on paper only after returning to his study.  
     The fact that Leonardo never systematized his scientific work, according to Capra, shows him to be deliberately secretive, making it more difficult for others to steal his ideas. He even "designed his study so that the platform holding his work could be lowered through the floor to the story below . . . to hide it from inquisitive eyes whenever he was not working (Capra: 27)." Critical transcriptions that do exist to decipher Leonardo’s mirror writing, which has proven to be "highly eloquent, often witty, and at times movingly beautiful and poetic (Capra: 166-8)," suggest a right-hemispheric provenance for language.
      Even Leonardo’s study of science sounds right hemispheric, because his focus was on patterns, not logical sequences. The Dyslexic Society claims many artists and inventors among their ranks, including Leonardo. Capra (2007) realized that:
  • Leonardo’s systematic studies of living and nonliving forms amounted to a science of quality and wholeness that was fundamentally different from the mechanistic science of Galileo and Newton. At the core of his investigations, it seemed to me, was a persistent exploration of patterns, interconnecting phenomena from a vast range of fields (Capra: xviii).
     Capra cited an exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings at the Hayward Gallery in London, which summarized the master’s art as "part of a vision embracing a profound sense of the interrelatedness of things (Capra: xix)." I see it as analogical thinking (right-oriented) at its height, combined with an unprecedented attention to detail and an obsessive need to depict the real, as it actually is (left-oriented), as well as moving through time and space (non-local). Science and art were synthesized, even synchronized, showing whole brain simultaneous processing. Leonardo also had a prodigious memory, capable of holding enormous amounts of visual information in mind before committing it to paper or canvas, which, complementing his insatiable, intellectual curiosity, provided the intuitive means and the practical skill to get whatever he saw right, with a minimal use of words.
      Leonardo never accepted blindly the words in classical texts; rather, he did his own experiments and directly observed nature to decide for himself (Capra: 156). As to art, he could do both linear perspective drawings with mathematical precision and hyperrealistic human and animal drawings, the former left hemispheric and the latter, right hemispheric, in my opinion. His art was scientific and his science artistic, accenting one side or the other at will, depending on the eyes’ focus and the mind’s intent. Leonardo’s vision, thought processes and memory were so keen that intuition, a form of cognition for him, permitted him to make inventive leaps centuries ahead of his time.
      Mind must have a body and a brain, so Leonardo did not believe in disembodied spirits or an afterlife. But he did believe in the importance of the mother, beautifully expressed in this passage from his notebook that accompanied his splendid drawing of the fetus in the womb:
  • One and the same soul governs these two bodies; and the desires, fears, and pains are common to this creature as to all other animated parts. . . . The soul of the mother . . . in due time awakens the soul which is to be its inhabitant. This at first remains asleep under the guardianship of the soul of the mother who nourishes and vivifies it through the umbilical vein (in Capra: 254). 
Capra says succinctly: "Never again . . . was so much intellectual and artistic genius embodied in a single human being (259)." Leonardo apparently agreed, acknowledging about himself:

 Read me, O reader; if in my words you find delight,
 For rarely in the world will one such as I be born again.

Capra, Fritjof. 2007. The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of  
    the Great Genius of the Renaissance. New York: Doubleday.
Kane, Julie. 2004. "Poetry As Right-Hemispheric 
     Language."Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11 (5-6): 21-59.
Koestler, Arthur. 1964/1989. The Act of Creation. London and New      York: Arkana.
Nathan, Johannes and Zöllner, Frank. 2014. Leonardo da Vinci 
      1452-1519: The Graphic Work. Cologne: Taschen.
Shlain, Leonard. 2014. Leonardo's Brain: Understanding Da 
      Vinci's Creative Genius. Guilford, CT and Helena, MT: Lyons

[1] As a left-handed, right-dominant person myself, I can provide a telling example. I once made a journey from the US to France with a long layover in London. Not having slept the entire night in Heathrow Airport, I boarded a small plane bound for Toulouse and immediately fell asleep. In that moment, I saw a static hypnagogic image of a ship crossing the English Channel with a crusader standing at the helm, white tunic and bright red cross gleaming. After arriving in Toulouse, and driving with my son to my destination on unfamiliar roads, I fell again into a fitful sleep. In the morning, I awoke to frightening images of “monkey men” projected onto the rough-hewn walls of the medieval stone house where I was staying.
[2] This is a common scientific study method, which, I consider unsuitable for judging artistic creativity.

Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations: What a trip!

Sacks says that, despite the bizarre forms they may take,  hallucinations are a rather common experience. They can present themselves using any or all forms of sensory experience--aural, visual, olfactory or tactile--or you can seem to leave your body all together. Sacks sees schizophrenic hallucinations as a category apart and does not consider them in this book. If you are interested in  psychotic hallucinations, see my earlier post.

  As others before him have done,  Sacks suggests that folklore, religion and aboriginal art may all have derived their myths and imagery from hallucinations, often with a sense of divine provenance. Julian Jaynes, whom Sacks mentions, considered poetry and prophecy as originating in the right or non-dominant hemisphere and said that all people before 1000 B.C. had divided minds.  Jaynes believed that a singular consciousness arose after the introduction of written language and migrations that dealt a blow to consensual acceptance of the existence of the gods. Sacks recognizes that altered states produce anomalous sense impressions; but uses first-hand contemporary accounts, including his own, along with his up-to-date knowledge of brain anatomy and neuroscience to present his own case. 

    The major source of hallucinations, for Sacks, is in the area of the brain responsible for interpreting the sense experience during normal conscious experience. So, the right inferotemporal cortex, responsible for face recognition, will hallucinate faces; the visual word form area in the left fusiform gyrus will produce hallucinations of letters, musical notes, mathematical symbols and numbers. Usually, the letters are unreadable or nonsensical, such as in the case of a woman with Charles Bonnet Syndrome who saw “black Hebrew letters dressed in ballet dresses of white . . . danc[ing] to beautiful music” that appeared from right to left. Right to left is significant, because the left hemisphere is projecting the vision.

Additionally, different brain areas may be simultaneously activated, producing an “involuntary, incongruous collision or conflation.” Dancing Hebrew letters may be one effect; or, you might get surreal imagery, with a flower jutting out from the side of a face. Human figures may be seen floating through the street; or someone may produce a double, another self, who walks beside or in front of them. Think Moses, Jung or Flournoy's account of Hélène Smith's dissociative priest. Visions can expand, filling up the whole horizon, or shrink to minuscule beings. Handwriting can be written on the wall. The divine is often felt. How else to explain these strange occurrences? 

   As in Charles Bonnet Syndrome brought on by blindness, it is when a sense is deprived of input that the hallucinatory goes into overdrive. Dark caves, vast deserts, frigid, lonely mountain-trekking, long-distance sails or car trips, may produce hallucinations. Whether seeking sensory deprivation in specialized tanks or being thrown as a prisoner into a dark dungeon, the effect is the same: hallucinations. It is the lack of external input that produces compensatory hyperactivity in the regions responsible for the neglected sense. The dreaming mind falls prey to the same overcompensation.

While visual hallucinations may be produced where there is an organic problem, with entertaining or terrifying results, one-line auditory hallucinations can present themselves under external circumstances that require immediate action. They command or give a particular message. Anyone who is sufficiently stressed in a dangerous situation can produce a commanding voice. It happened to Sacks when he was injured on a mountain and needed to keep going despite the pain. Freud even had two sense modalities present themselves at once when he was in extreme danger: “I heard the words as if somebody was shouting them into my ear, and at the same time I saw them as if they were printed on a piece of paper floating in the ear.” A sense of another’s presence, not seen or heard, but felt, is also a common experience, often described as on the right. 

    The most bizarre hallucinations are usually the product of drugs. Cocaine and amphetamines stimulate the reward systems via the neurotransmitter dopamine. Hallucinogens—mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, and probably DMT—act by boosting serotonin in the brain. Stimulants affect left-hemispheric approach action; hallucinogens boost internal right-hemispheric events.  Sacks describes his own experience taking 20 Artane pills, normally used in much smaller quantities for Parkinson’s disease. He hallucinates an entire conversation with friends, sight unseen, from one room to the next as he made breakfast for them, only to discover they were never there at all and he had cooked way too many eggs. He also hears the deafening sound of a helicopter overhead and rushes outside thinking his parents have dropped by to visit from England. No, they have not! Back in the kitchen, he carries on a long, philosophical conversation with a spider on the wall.

   Sacks’s most fascinating account involves staring at a spot on his sleeve, motionless, for 12 hours, as the armies of the English and the French prepared to fight the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the direct result of having read a historical text along with Shakespeare’s Henry V. The two texts now conflate in miniature and in Technicolor. On another occasion, stoked on amphetamines, he reads straight through a 19th-century, 500-page textbook on migraines, not sure whether he is reading or writing the book, wondering who in his time could be like this admirable author from the past. A very loud external voice says, “You silly bugger! You’re the man!” This is not the first case I’ve read of an avocation unveiled by a hallucinatory voice.
Yes, hallucinations or delirium can solve problems and provide important breakthroughs. Sacks cites Vladimir Nabokov who did advanced mathematical calculating when delirious. With malarial fever, Alfred Russell Wallace conceived of the idea of natural selection. Poet Richard Howard saw a pageant of literature acted out by the staff in period dress on different floors in the hospital where he had just had back surgery. Although not mentioned in the book, Francis Crick got his vision of DNA on LSD. Other folks converse with their deceased spouse without the aid of drugs or delirium. Mrs. Blake, for one, as I know from my own research. 

Sacks’s bottom line is this: “Something has to happen in the mind/brain for imagination to overleap its boundaries and be replaced by hallucination. Some dissociation or disconnection must occur, some breakdown of the mechanisms that normally allow us to recognize and take responsibility for our own thoughts and imaginings, to see them as ours and not as external in origin . . . . but dissociation cannot explain everything, for quite different sorts of memory may be involved.” Connecting with my earlier post on OBEs/NDEs, Sacks attributes these events to the right hemisphere because of its role in body image and vestibular sensations.

It's a trip reading Hallucinations: sometimes terrifying, sometimes hysterical, always illuminating, but never boring!!

Jung's NDE and my Creative Response

Who is to say where our thoughts come from? I'd say from everything we've heard, read, seen or dreamed about, and sometimes from a distant shore or shared mind-space as in my "Freud only got it have right. Read the two Hyperion poems" dream. May I add that at the Julian Jaynes Society Conference, to my shock, I learned that I was not the only one to get a message to read a Keats poem in a dream. Life stresses can make significant messages and unusual creativity erupt in altered states of consciousness.

Around 10 years ago, I was doing a workshop based on Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way at the Jung Center in Houston. I hoped to open my mind to creativity. A mainstay of the course is writing "Morning Pages," where 3 pages must be produced without editing upon waking in the morning. On this day, we were to describe "My perfect self on a perfect day." I had read Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections and was taken with the idea of "the stripping process" he experienced in an NDE occurring at the time of a heart attack. Here is my slightly edited version of that assignment:

My Perfect Self on a Perfect Day

I awake early, having slept well in the night. Revelatory dreams provide clues that unravel the seams of mystery. I write and I write, turning what I have heard into massive reams of prose, exposing the underbelly of existence for what it really is: a stark void spun into stories that comfort and contain us or nagging urges to create anew against the current of consensual reality. Pages accumulate, ideas proliferate, metaphors clash and spar for expression.  I have to tame the flow to get it all out, to get it right.

Head spinning with the creator’s passion, her pleasure pulses at every turn of phrase. 

Now she sits in a sacred space, facing the Buddha: we are serene, proud, and terribly alone. She decides to let it ALL go.

Transported to a desert, she experiences the final stripping process. Imploring the universe (which doesn’t exist, except as a spinning confection gone out of control) to lighten her load, to pick the thoughts one by one from her brain, to free her from the last vestiges of ideation. Now the pictures go. They spin out into the sky, racing, gyrating, jolting against each other; then, with a snap and a puff, they are gone. 

Alone and free, the skin melts from her bones. Nothing remains but her bones, bleaching in the afternoon sun. The whiteness startles her—it is bright, sparkling with perfection. The sun’s light polishes them further: smoothing, pruning, etching out the last vestiges of individuality and imperfection. Glorious light shines forth. She is the light. Shaking, aching tranquility pulses through the night towards a final destination: a distant star, as bright as she, where she will pour forth every last atom of pure energy. Molecules spin and dance, delighted that they have found their new home, where neither word nor image recurs, unsparingly, unsympathetically to scar her soul from its one true delight: 

Perfect, silent, merged splendor.

Quantum Consciousness Redux

I'm not one to shun anomalous possibilities. If enough strange things happen to you, it's difficult to dismiss the uncanny as all in your head. But, I do tend to think that certain people, owing to genetic predisposition and traumatic experiences, are more open to paranormal experiences. What is the most traumatic experience of all? Dying, of course. 

I've just finished reading Pim van Lommel's book, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience. In 2010, I met van Lommel and heard his presentation at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson. He was a serious, intelligent fellow, noticeably Dutch in his yellow pants. Van Lommel is a cardiologist whose job is bringing people back from cardiac arrest. He had heard so many tales of NDEs in his practice that he began to research further. His book is a laudable effort to explain the unexplainable, to grasp the unknowable.

He says that people undergoing NDEs have heightened intuition, clairvoyance, premonitions as well as increased empathy for others, both during and after their experience. It's as though the mind, once opened, remains open, at least for a while. Children are more prone to NDEs, especially through near-drowning. The aftermath can be negative: hypersensitivity to sense impressions, strong emotions; alcohol or drug problems; ADHD, depression or suicidal tendencies. Van Lommel cites Kenneth Ring's connection between out-of-body experiences (OBEs) resulting from childhood trauma and a later propensity to have NDEs. 

Sensing presences, usually departed relatives, and going toward a light in a tunnel are typical of an NDE in all places and at all times. Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch depicted this in Visions of the Afterlife in the early 16th century. Speech is not necessary in NDEs as verbal communication happens seemingly telepathically. Because of the euphoric sensation, NDErs often do not wish to return to the world of the living until their "spirit" relatives convince them that they must.

Van Lommel spends about half the book describing NDEs, then  explains them scientifically. First he says what they are not (e.g. oxygen deprivation), then what they are: nonlocal, quantum physical events. In an eternal present, past and future are relative and space can be traversed instantaneously. 

I will say that his description of "endless" consciousness as the material world's particle function collapsing into a nonlocal wave function is a useful mental construct that made sense to me. But I'm not sure if I agree that the medium for these messages is in our DNA, as he suggests.

It is well known that environmental effects can either suppress or trigger gene expression. Animals seem to have greater nonlocal connections, witness the tight formations of birds in flight or busy bees following the dictates of their queen at a distance. This is evidence of their genetic unity and of the social composition of their groups. But their brains are much smaller and less complex than ours, making their seemingly robotic adherence to their clustering effects possible. It is also well known that animals can sense dangerous environmental happenings in the near future, like hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. or that their masters are on their way home (Sheldrake). Little gets in the way of their survival instincts.

In human consciousness, in order for the more anomalous features of consciousness to occur, parts of the brain must be offline, shut down or damaged. This is what allows the generally non-verbal visions and knowledge to arise. Dreams, hypnosis, meditation, mental or developmental disorders, epilepsy or altered states brought on with psychotropic drugs are examples. 

A friend of mine is an intuitive healer. In a video interview, she describes how a part of her mind stands aside as she receives inner wisdom that helps her heal herself or others. Van Lommel also cites scientific evidence where fMRIs have registered active changes in the clients of healers who were working at a distance.

Now I'll present my pitch for the right-hemispheric connection in NDEs. First, all of the hypersensitive changes that van Lommel details above, both in the NDE and its aftermath, are aspects of right-hemispheric functioning. It is well known that the left hemisphere processes details, whereas the right's domain is the big picture, broad stroke, associative, emotional and sensorial sphere. Elsewhere, I have written about the right-hemisphere to right-hemisphere connection in telepathy and the mother-infant bond.

Copyright Cartoon A Day / 2009.* 

Doesn't it make sense that the particle function would rely on the logical left, whereas the right would let in the light to both guide and console during our most trying times? Even this beautiful image, frequently seen on the Internet, shows right-brain functioning as "waves." 

Trauma plays a role in opening the mind to the right's associative and/or dissociative wisdom. My friend's experiences with voices began after her mother died and she had started meditating. Both trauma and practice gave her the entry which began, literally, with external fountains of light that she could turn off and on at will. The Sufi poet Rumi once declared: "Don't turn your head. Keep looking / at the bandaged place. That's where / the light enters you."

When I got the startling dream message, "Freud only got it half right. Read the two Hyperion poems," perhaps it was a nonlocal communication from Jung himself. Or perhaps I was dictating to myself through a quantum field what was already known to me in the future. That my dreaming mind could create such wizardry on its own seems unfathomable to me.

In The Secret History of Dreaming, Robert Moss* tells how cigar-smoking Freud, in a dream reported by one of his early patients, got a glimpse of the oral cancer that would cause his death. Unfortunately, Freud failed to recognize what would seem a warning designed just for him. Jung, highly predisposed to voices and visions and practiced in active imagination, had a late-life NDE where he catapulted from his body into outer space during cardiac arrest. The more left-brained father of psychoanalysis sought out the particular sexual underpinnings in the mental illnesses of his clients. The right-brained Jung saw the archetypal dimension that we all share. His notion of the collective unconscious could be explained using the nonlocal paradigm. But maybe the right hemisphere deserves some credit for allowing the magic to happen.

*Moss's bio says he survived three NDEs in his own childhood.

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