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 from the publisher in a very well-made paperback edition. Initially a #1 Hot New Release in Neuropsychology and Poetry/Literary Criticism, the book is available on as well, along with a Kindle edition. If you are interested in neuroscience, consciousness, creativity and the arts, I think you will find it an illuminating read.

Consciousness at the Quantum Level

In April, I attended my fourth Science of Consciousness Conference (TSC). Sitting near a waterfall behind the conference hotel one day, I asked a woman nearby about the timing of an evening event. She noted my name tag identifying me as an author and asked me what I had written. I told her about my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, and she told me she wanted to write a book. When I mentioned that she might talk to my editor who was attending the conference, she said, “The universe brought us together to convey this information.”

 Now, what is more likely: with so many authors at the conference peddling their books, there was a greater than average chance she would meet someone with this information; or, had the universe conspired to bring us together for that hillside moment?

I’ve been moving in mystical arenas for some time. It started with my oneness experience in San Antonio, TX, where, standing awestruck in the Spanish market, awash in foreign, sights, sounds and smells, I lost my sense of individual identity and felt ultimate bliss. Only one word seemed sufficient to describe it: Nirvana. My next moment brought terror. After a dear friend claimed to be channeling an angel in my backyard, I read a book on dissociative identity disorder late into the night. Finally asleep, I was awakened by a dream image of a patient lying on a psychiatrist’s couch. With eyes rolling, mouth neon-lit, a Darth Vader-like voice shouted out: “Freud only got it half right! Read the two Hyperion poems!

In my book, I describe how this enigmatic message led me to Jung and Keats, along with an exploration of paranormal connections in poets of genius and their great creativity. My book brought me an invitation to a symposium on “Further Reaches of the Imagination” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. Here, assembled scholars told tales of bizarre, unexplainable phenomena in their lives. I recounted my San Antonio experience and how I had returned to the same spot to recapture it and, sadly, NADA happened this time. They all shouted out at once: “You forgot to lick the blue water ice!” Indeed, that final element, that I had theorized in a paper submitted before the conference, had possibly tipped me into a state of synchronized brain hemispheres and supplied the key to unlock cosmic consciousness.

Now at the Science of Consciousness Conference, my former experiences, Esalen, and uncanny science all seemed to meet up. Garry Nolan, a physicist participating at Esalen had claimed that the time-space continuum could speak to us at the cellular level, if we have the proper antenna. He had been working with Dean Radin, who would also be speaking at the Consciousness Conference on remote viewing. Apparently, only one in a thousand can do it. Garry had also mentioned Marjorie Woollacott’s book, Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind (Rowman & Littlefield; Oct 15, 2015), which describes her conversion from pure neuroscientist to a believer in so much more by the touch of a guru during a meditation session. Not remembering Garry’s reference to Dr. Woollacott, I was now sitting right in front of her at a morning workshop in Tucson.


But, here’s where it gets really interesting. All signs at the Consciousness Conference were tying anomalous events to hard science. First, let’s consider the claims of spirit mediums. Arnaud Delorme judged mediumship to be an altered state of consciousness. Julia Mossbridge had a model of mind that especially spoke to me: the non-conscious mind is actually the puppet master controlling the more limited conscious mind. Whereas the conscious mind does not normally access future events, precognition and presentiment are “fast-thinking, system one processes” the non-conscious mind uses to prepare us for the future. It is in fact a survival mechanism. I thought back to my precognition as a young college student on a park bench who got the startling precognition that I would marry a guy who happened to be walking by at the time. Indeed, I did marry him. My future had been preordained or in some sense already existed.

I had read medium researcher Julie Beischel's book, Investigating Mediums, before coming to the conference. She was too sick to attend, so her husband stepped in for her. In her book, she cites the possible role of the right hemisphere in mediumship and references its higher level of negative emotions, which I say definitely points to the right hemisphere. One of the mediums she tested noted that her energy shifted and came in on the left. Julie says trauma is always a part of the mediums’ mix, as I do in my research on poets, along with the role of maternal attachment and loss.

In the Unity of Consciousness workshop, Joran Josipovic explained that the right angular gyrus integrates body mapping, so that people with injury to this part of the brain have mystical experiences since they cannot feel their bodies. He also differentiated high entropy versus low entropy states in the brain: the former characterizes psychedelic states, infant consciousness, REM sleep and dreaming, NDE’s, magical thinking and temporal lobe epilepsy, all of which produce divergent thinking and creativity.

Stu Hameroff, an anesthesiologist, professor, and original founder of the Science of Consciousness Conference along with David Chalmers, believes the brain evolved to feel good. Here’s a piece he wrote that explains his thesis in simple terms:

Deepak Chopra gave an amazing talk on the Conscious Universe. He believes EVERYTHING is conscious. Body/Mind should be seen as a unified wholeness of experience. The true self generates qualia (our perceptions of what’s out there). Consciousness is a formless, primitive, ontological entity existing at the quantum level. He also has a new book out on how we can change our genes.

Rudolph Tanzi, who co-authors books with Deepak, had good news about Alzheimer’s disease. The bad news is that the disease is found in 40-50% over people over 85 and that it starts in your 40’s. Tangles in the neurons produce a neuro-inflammatory response; inflammation, not the tangles, is the real issue. The good news is that they’re working on a way to stop the degenerative process before it starts. He mentioned Cat’s claw extract (Cognitive Clarity TM), which is now available; meditation, exercise, and diet (less red meat), along with 7-8 hours of sleep each night to clear out the brain.

Time and consciousness melded into one big theme at the conference. As I’m running out of time (and space), I’ll be brief. Reality, it seems, is a handshake between waves going forward and backward in time. Quantum entanglement occurs in time. The most important function of the brain is to predict the future. The quantum field is in some sense eternal. We exist in electromagnetic light fields. The brain is an electric organ and a pattern detector.

An aside about mentions of Julian Jaynes, whose theory on the right hemisphere was an early inspiration to me: a graduate student at Columbia began his talk citing Jaynes’s book, without verifying or attesting to his theory, and ended his talk referencing Jaynes. Before coming to the conference I had read Allan Combs’s Consciousness Explained Better (a riposte to Daniel Dennett’s early salvo called Consciousness Explained (1992)). Combs opens his own book with Jaynes's initial paragraph, in all its metaphoric musing and alliterative allusions, from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I sought out Combs at the conference to tell him how much I enjoyed his very readable book. He waxed elegiac on Jaynes, not for his theory so much as for the beauty of the writing, considering it the best of its kind in the 20th century.

Final quips and quotes of note: Mental health issues arise from problems in time and space, problems distinguishing self from other. The grandfather of all the senses is the basic tendency to either approach or avoid. Is this good for me or bad for me? Self-preservation asks us to avoid, while self-development suggests we adapt. The Self is both part and whole and when we have no body to maintain we feel bliss (remember that in a Oneness experience we lose our sense of the body’s limits). Our prefrontal lobes are not totally developed until our 20’s and consciousness narrows as a function of age. As we know more, we see less. Rat studies show that the brain is hyperactive in the dying process as it is trying to save the heart in the absence of oxygen. Serotonin surges. These two findings might account for NDEs. Only 5 % of people survive heart attacks and 20 % of them have NDEs. Light is associated with death, mystical experiences and gurus, like Alain Forget, who gives light energy to open the hearts of his students, claiming he is multi-dimensional when he does it. I felt energy pouring out from my heart in my spontaneous San Antonio experience and saw sparks of light spreading out seemingly infinitely beyond me.

It seems I had come to the right place at the right time to get answers to the mysteries of my own heart and mind in a throng of like-minded folks dedicated to understanding consciousness. We are singular and infinite all at once, both awaiting spontaneous gifts of knowledge and struggling hard to make sense of our and others' experiences. I should add that there was a lot of support for belief in reincarnation amongst the presenters.

“In all chaos there is cosmos, in all disorder, a secret order.” C.G. Jung

 “Heaven lies about in our infancy. Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.” Wordsworth

“The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.” Leonardo da Vinci

The Red Book and the Left / Right Emotional Divide

I first bought the large edition of Jung’s long-awaited tome with its magnificent facsimiles of artwork and calligraphy. Both mesmerized and bewildered, I tried to read Sonu Shamdasani's introduction at the back of the book, but it was too large to be functional. Finally, I learned that A Reader's Edition existed. This was manageable and utterly essential to marking passages in the text and taking notes on Shamadasani's invaluable introduction and footnotes. As Shamdasani says, everything Jung ends up saying in future books did indeed come out of this early hallucinatory experience which began during the same time that André Breton and his Surrealist circle were experimenting with their own automatisms and Frederic Myers, Théodore Flournoy and Pierre Janet were studying famous spirit mediums. W.B. Yeats was engaged in séances with his wife, George, as his medium and Jung had a copy of the resulting text: A Vision. The paranormal was in the air and spirit contact was actively pursued.

As I attempted to show in my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, not everyone has the ability to receive visions, make a planchette move over a Ouija Board, or get answers in a séance. It requires an atypical mind with enhanced right-hemispheric functioning and a partner. Jung fits the mold. First, he had a genetic predisposition to internal division. His mother had two personalities, No. 1 and No. 2; his grandfather, and his cousin, whose séances and splits he studied and encouraged, had the same dissociative tendencies. As a young boy, Jung felt divided between a depressive lonely self and a spirit from an earlier historical period. At the environmental level, Jung suffered from early maternal attachment issues that have been shown to presage a split personality resembling schizophrenia, but more rightly termed dissociation.

On a grander scale, the impending World War threatened his psyche. He had horrific precognitive visions in tandem with his professional break with Freud and an extra-marital relationship with Toni Wolff, who lived in his house as a second wife and shared merged dream states and fantasies with him.* Including his professional interest in troubled minds, we can understand why he felt compelled to write, in painstaking calligraphy, in Latin and German, the words he heard; then illustrated them with brightly colored, tightly controlled, symbolic imagery. As a female voice told him, it was not science, it was art. Further, it was art in service to a suppressed conscious mind.

Jung himself said he felt threatened with madness.** Environmental circumstances reinforced his intention to explore his own psyche through visions and imaginary dialogues. Based on my research into the minds of poetic geniuses, I would say Jung was predisposed to dissociate because of his bilateral brain organization, with neither side dominant, as environmental stressors pushed him over the edge. His use of right-hemispheric poetic writing and highly symbolic, vertically oriented, left-hemispheric painting helped him regain his equilibrium. Both highly verbal and artistic, he retained a helping figure, Philemon, who walked and talked with him, until he was no longer needed. Michael Persinger associates a sense of presence with synchronous activation of both hemispheres.

One of Jung’s early patients provides evidence of a how this type of mind might work. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, written by Aniela Jaffé using Jung’s notes, much of which ended up on the cutting room floor, we learn of a female patient who heard voices. She described a voice in the middle of the thorax as ‘God’s voice.’ Her other voices were distributed on both sides of her body. The ‘divine’ voice commanded that Bible chapters be assigned before each therapeutic session followed by a test. After six years of therapy, the voices ‘had retired to the left half of her body, while the right half was free of them (127).'" Both sides could speak, with more negativity coming from the right hemisphere; but the left hemisphere, focused on reading and reciting, had healed.

Neuropsychologist D. W. Harrison, writing in 2015, confirms that hallucinations experienced on the left side of the body are negative and coming from the right hemisphere; those experienced on the right are coming from the positive left hemisphere (the proverbial demon on one shoulder, the angel on the other). While writing The Red Book, Jung referred to left- versus right-sided visions. For instance, he describes a vision of a winged being sailing across the sky, coming from the right (= LH provenance), a guru with superior insight, as Shamdasani described him. Jung maintained his therapeutic practice and professional and family activities, retiring to his study in the evenings to engage with his voices and visions.

Even as a child, Jung had been a voracious reader. So, it is not surprising that his readings entered into the dramas he evoked through “active imagination.” Shamdasani traces these influences very well, which included the Bible, Swedenborg, Nietzsche and Dante, in his footnotes to The Red Book. Jung admired art as well. William Blake was an influence, although Jung criticized his predecessor's drawings as artistic rather than an “authentic representation of unconscious processes (Letters 2. Pp. 513-14).” Jung also admired Odilon Redon’s symbolist paintings. The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy, had a strong impact on Jung (as it had on poet and occultist James Merrill who spent 20 years in Ouija Board sessions with his partner, David Jackson). The frescos and mosaics there translated into Jung’s own “strong colors, mosaic-like forms, and two dimensional figures without the use of perspective (34)."

Parapsychological events occurred in Jung’s house that affected everyone in it. In Shamdasani’s account, Jung’s son raved in his sleep and couldn’t wake up; asked for paper and colored pencils; he drew “a man angling for fishes with hook and line in the middle of the picture.” Again the left/right emotional divide is evident: on the left was the Devil saying something to the man, but on the right was an angel. Two of Jung’s daughters “thought they had seen spooks in their rooms.” The next day Jung wrote his “Sermons to the Dead,” claiming in Memories, Dreams, Reflections that the haunting stopped as soon as he picked up the pen.

Parapsychological events often occur when some emotion inside needs to come out. It is as though a strong energy is trapped and must be expressed. Poltergeist phenomena in adolescent children have been described this way. Both St. Augustine and French writer George Sand claimed to have heard the words "Tolle, Lege" [Pick up and read] from an external voice, leading to a change in life course. She also had an ambiguously gendered inner figure named Corambé with whom she communicated as a child. This figure disappeared after she wrote her first book in a dissociative state. In times of great stress, inner voices can save a suffering soul. What they and we are all seeking is meaning and a way forward in difficult times.

Were Jung's Sermons “a curiosity from the workshop of the unconscious,” as he would later say, or was there a deeper meaning? What was the strong need to get those words and images on paper? And who was their author? Shamdasani says Jung’s “I" was the author in the "Black Books" section, but it was Philemon in “Scrutinies.” In some sections of Liber Novus it is was the serpent or the bird. The overall theme was “how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation. This is ultimately achieved through enabling the rebirth of a new image of God in his soul and developing a new worldview in the form of a psychological and theological cosmology (Shamdasani 48).” In every poet I have studied who held dissociative discourses with "spirits," the end result included a "new" religion.

In my view, as reason gives way to the irrational, a deeper associative meaning can be uncovered, suggesting, in modern neuroscientific terms, a shutdown of the prefrontal cortex where conscious thought is processed, now expressed through symbols and imagery. The logical left hemisphere is giving way to the mythopoeic right that has similarly informed important religious figures in the past.

Was Jung mad? Richard Hull, Jung’s translator, wrote to William McGuire, who represented Princeton UP papers, saying but for Jung's “hammer[ing] out his experience into a system of therapy that works,” he’d be considered “as mad as a hatter.” Further, “[t]he raw material of his experience is Schreber’s*** world over again; only by his powers of observation and detachment, and his drive to understand, can it be said of him what Coleridge said in his notebooks of a great metaphysician . . . He looked at his own Soul with Telescope / What seemed all irregular, he saw & shewed to be beautiful Constellations & he added to the Consciousness hidden worlds within worlds (March 17, 1961, Bollingen archives, Library of Congress). The citation from Coleridge was indeed used as a motto for Memories, Dreams, Reflections (see fn. 257, p. 94 in The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition).”

By Liber Secundus, Jung seems sure of the Power of the Divine Word that others before him had also received. Writing down the Divine Word protects against “the daimons of the unending, which tear at your soul and want to scatter you to the winds. You are saved if you can say at last: that is that and only that. You speak the magic word, and the limitless is finally banished. Because of that men seek and make words (250).”

From my vantage as a reader of Jung’s text, it often does sound mad, with anomalous sense impressions common to psychotic episodes, including his recognizing highly significant messages that nonetheless cannot be understood because they are seen in unusual scripts, such as hieroglyphics. The frightening sound of flapping bird wings as well as seeing “shadow forms” are also common. The accent on negativity that Jung hears in his left ear with the word “Misfortune” also shows right-hemispheric provenance. When the God calls to him, the voice is coming from both sides, which Jung interprets as a middle road; but more likely, it is a synchronization of the hemispheres known to occur in oneness experiences, where a sense of self is lost or the self and the divine are felt as coterminous. The very sense that he is working “against will and intention,” manipulated by an external source, is telling.

Underneath all of the imagery and voices, three things shine through to me: his mother complex, from which he needed to be freed, his conflicted relationship to his pastor father's religion, and the legitimization of his extra-marital relationship with Toni Wolff. When Elijah gives Salome to Jung in The Red Book, he says, “For God’s sake, what should I do with Salome. I am already married and we are not among Turks (435).” Yet a dream will convince him to enter into a sexual relationship with her. The fact that “[a] turbaned Mohammad appears the fourth night after Philemon went away, wearing a long coat and a turban, claiming to bring ‘the bliss of paradise, the healing fire, the love of women (539)” is as telling as Jung’s interpretation of “Philemon’s words that I must remain true to love to cancel out the commingling that arises through unlived love. I understood that the commingling is a bondage that takes the place of voluntary devotion. . . . I had to remain true to love, and, devoted to it voluntarily (540).”

In his epilogue to Liber Novus, Jung wrote that he had worked on the book for 16 years, and then yielded to a study of alchemy, which helped him understand what he had written. He admitted, “To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness. It would also have developed into one, had I not been able to absorb the overpowering force of the original experiences (555).”

A synthesis of supposedly opposing forces occurs in an appendix to Liber Novus: “Logos [male] and Eros [female] are reunited, as if they had overcome the conflict between spirit and flesh. They appear to know the solution. The movement toward the left, which started from Eros at the beginning of the image, now commences from Logos. He starts moving toward the left [the heart side], to complete with seeing eyes what began in blindness (571).”

A final note on the issue of madness: Dirk Corstens, head of the Hearing Voices Network in the Netherlands, does not believe that schizophrenia exists at all; rather, voices are a feature of dissociation, which originates in trauma. The “madness” comes by way of a fearful reaction to the voices. If one engages with the voices, reasons with them, they can be cajoled, tamed, and reduced to harmless or even helping presences. I believe this is what happened in Jung’s case. Through his calligraphy and art, he tamed his mind, bringing about his own healing as well as a system that could and does work for so many others.

*According to Shamdasani's research, while Toni Wolff was in analysis with Jung, she was having incredible fantasies. Jung wrote that "her phantasies entered exactly into my line of thought. Toni Wolff was experiencing a similar stream of images. I had evidently infected her, or was the déclencheur that stirred up her imagination. My phantasies and hers were in a participation mystique. It was like common stream, and a common task [April 1-2, 2011 seminar, Jung Center of Houston]."

**Michael Cornwall believes psychotic episodes should rather be termed spiritual states of emergency better treated with compassionate listening than pharmaceuticals. Paranormal connections such as precognition and voices with important messages are frequently reported in these states.

***Daniel Paul Schreber was a German lawyer and judge who had experienced severe trauma as a child because of his father's onerous child-rearing practices. His brother, under the same regime, committed suicide. Paul passed through several phases of severe mental illness, hearing voices and developing strange views in a very God-driven narrative, leading to his institutionalization. He was eventually released because of his book, and lived peacefully with his wife for some time. But, when she fell victim to a stroke, he relapsed and spent the rest of his life in the asylum. Freud blamed Schreber's illness on repressed homosexual attraction to his own father. Jung disagreed, ascribing Schreber's case to an identification with female fecundity, as he and his wife had not been able to have children. Childhood trauma and current stresses were certainly behind his relapses. Cruel treatments by the director of the asylum and his wife's lack of visits only contributed to his gender dysphoria and delusions of grandiosity. Apparently, gender identity confusion is fairly common in schizophrenia as well as in dissociative identity disorder (see Colin Ross). The voices were, in effect, a way to "make sense" of what he was feeling. Similarly to Jung, Schreber described a left ear connection: "inimical souls always aspired towards my head, on which they wanted to inflict some damage, and sat particularly on my left ear in a highly disturbing manner. To his credit, Freud did say that Schreber's delusions were "an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction" (see Rosemary Dinnage's introduction to Schreber's book).

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!!