Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D.

Carole regularly attends the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, AZ, except 2020, the year of the coronavirus. She has presented her research there, as well as at poetry events and other academic settings.

Her work was originally informed by Julian Jaynes's theory on the hallucinatory origins of poetry and prophecy in the right hemisphere of the brain.

She was an invited speaker at the Julian Jaynes Conference in Charleston, WV, in 2013, and, more recently, at a symposium on "Further Reaches of the Imagination II" at the Esalen Center for Research and Theory in Big Sur, CA, Nov 1-6, 2015. She was also invited to speak at the Poetry by the Sea global conference in Madison, CT, May 2016, but, unfortunately, was unable to attend.

On February 23, 2017, she presented her research at the Jung Center of Houston.

Her book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, brings together all of her literary and neuroscientific research and was an Amazon Hot New Release in Neuropsychology and Poetry / Literary Criticism.

Carole also provides research on hemispheric differences, atypical lateralization, and handedness at:

Carole is currently working on a book on female mystics and mediums, beginning with Joan of Arc, and female poets who felt aligned with Joan. Carole's popular stand alone article on Joan of Arc is available for purchase from her publisher:

What is Right for You, May not be Right for Others

In all of my blogs so far, I have been emphasizing the right hemisphere’s role in religious ideation, poetry, anomalous experiences, mental and developmental disorders and, especially, creativity. I think it is important at this point to make a caveat, which Iain McGilchrist, former Oxford literary scholar, now a doctor, psychiatrist and writer, stated so well in the introductory remarks to his exhaustive study of left and right-hemispheric differences:

". . . only 5 per cent of the population overall . . . are known not to lateralise for speech in the left hemisphere. Of these, some might have a simple inversion of the hemispheres, with everything that normally happens in the right hemisphere happening in the left, and vice versa; there is little significance in this, from the point of view of the book, except that throughout one would have to read 'right' for 'left', and 'left' for 'right'. It is only the third group, who it has been posited, may be truly different in their cerebral lateralisation: a subset of left-handers, as well as some people with other conditions, irrespective of handedness, such as, probably, schizophrenia and dyslexia, and possibly conditions such as schizotypy, some forms of autism, Asperger's syndrome and some 'savant' conditions, who may have a partial inversion of the standard pattern, leading to brain functions being lateralised in unconventional combinations. For them the normal partitioning of functions break down. This may confer special benefits, or lead to disadvantages, in the carrying out of different activities (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 12)."

So, yes, my interest lies in people with atypical lateralization, i.e. McGilchrist's "third group": those born with more symmetrical hemispheres, making the right more dominant than normal or those with unusual combinations of functions within a single hemisphere that should be constrained to only one. It is this small, but highly significant 5%, with their pronounced link to certain types of creativity, which is indeed my home base.

 McGilchrist further delineates why these genetic variations, potentially dangerous for an individual mind or for procreation, might continue to be passed on genetically in the general population: 

This may be the link between cerebral lateralisation and creativity, and it may account for the otherwise difficult to explain fact of the relatively constant conservation, throughout the world, of genes which, at least partly through their effects on lateralisation, result in major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis (now known as bipolar disorder), and developmental disorders, such as autism and Asperger's syndrome. It may also be associated with homosexuality, which is thought to involve a higher than usual incidence of abnormal lateralisation. Such genes may, particularly in the case of mental illness, be highly detrimental to individuals, and have an impact on fertility for the population at large – and would therefore have been bred out long ago, if it were not for some hugely important benefit that they must convey. If they also, through their effects on lateralisation, in some cases led to extraordinary talents, and if particularly they did so in relatives, who have some but not all of the genes responsible, then such genes would naturally be preserved, on purely Darwinian principles (Ibid., p. 13).

So, what I am saying, based on new research emerging in this fascinating field of atypical lateralization, is that while right- or some form of mixed-hemispheric functional lateralization for language can be detrimental to your health (mixed, more than extreme right), it can also push you to found a new religion, be a leader, write epic poetry, have a phenomenal photographic memory, artistic or musical talents; it can also make you believe in ghosts and spirits and have mediumistic powers of telepathy and prophecy. The atypical lateralization model helps explain so many of the unusual happenings in our species' past and helps us go forward into the future, with an understanding heart and an open mind, plus more appreciation for diverse brains and their potential for creativity.

All of the poets I study fit into the 5% by virtue of their genes and their traumatic experiences, which gave them their affinity to the occult, their actual paranormal experiences, their emotional disorders, and/or gay orientation. Like in the development of religions, which relied on the previous stories of their predecessors, so will the poets depend on theirs, while upping the ante with their own novelty in an effort to supplant them.

Previc (2006) makes an impressive argument for a neurochemical predisposition that links profound religious experience to the left hemisphere. But he does not mention poetry, so often intertwined with religious expression, which is right-hemispheric language (see Jaynes, 1976; Kane, 2004). Rather, he focuses on the difference between left-hemispheric visionary or auditory experience in extracorporeal (outside of the body) space vs. peripersonal (near the body) experiences mediated by the right hemisphere. The neurochemicals involved are respectively dopamine and acetylcholine on the left and noradrenalin and serotonin on the right. (In more ways than one, the left-hemisphere and the right can almost be said to house the male vs. the female inside us, making the Tao and Jungian psychology almost palpable.)

In contrast to Previc, I am writing about poetic geniuses who were highly verbally fluent and prone to right-hemispheric language and the occult through genetic predisposition and traumatic experiences (Platt, 2007). Except for Sylvia Plath, who did suffer from mania, especially in her final weeks, they did not suffer from the disorders Previc identified with excessive religiosity and the left hemisphere: mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and temporal-lobe epilepsy (TLE). Rather than gazing upward in a dopamine-mediated ecstatic vision of a mystic, my poets sat at their séances, stretching out their hands and lower their eyes toward their Ouija boards or tables. Connecting with a partner or other séance sitters, they disengaged the controlling prefrontal cortex, synchronized their hemispheres within themselves and with their partners, and waited for the dead or divine "spirits" to spell out their dissociative messages (Platt, 2009).

The same disengagement occurs in dreaming, allowing all sorts of unchecked creativity to occur, which definitely seems to be coming from "other" than the self. A recent article in Scientific American Mind says that:

Well over half of visual artists said that they had used dreams in their work. About half of fiction writers had. The numbers dropped off rapidly as the professions became more abstract. Within the sciences, inventors, engineers and others who benefit from visualizing problems in three dimensions were likelier to report helpful dreams. . . . Solutions frequently came from a dream character—one computer programmer got repeated nocturnal lessons from Albert Einstein—and people had trouble taking full credit for what their dreaming mind had done (Barrett, 2011, p. 32).

On the other hand, in lucid dreaming, the frontal cortex remains active as though awake. In fact, in this unusual dream state you are both awake and asleep at the same time, making it possible to consciously summon wise dream characters to provide instruction (Voss, 2011). In a previous post, "Hearing the Voice, Getting it Right," my guru, a madman on a psychiatrist's couch, came unheralded, stoked in the fire of a highly emotional reading before I went to bed. I don't know if anyone has studied this, but perhaps the atypically lateralized are more likely to be able to dream lucidly. (I have had a few lucid dreams myself; my sister, Janice, bathed in the same gene pool, is an expert lucid dreamer, as is her husband, and they have written a book together, The Conscious Exploration of Dreaming.)

Shamans receive wisdom from discarnate sources as well. They also have genetic atypical lateralization, along with a traumatic initiation into their profession. Their methods involve plants with psychotropic properties to attain altered states of consciousness with speaking entities. Their special powers of mind, which, from the evidence, seem to include great intuition, telepathy and prophecy, allow them to lead ritualistic ceremonies, bringing groups of initiates together. They may be wounded healers, but they are certainly not psychotic. EEG studies have shown synchronizing patterns in their frontal cortex. They may not be writers either, but they can be magnificent artists of their own visionary experiences and "may have been humanity’s first physicians, magicians, artists, storytellers, timekeepers and weather forecasters" (Kaplan, 2006, p. 1, citing Krippner 2002.) For a beautifully written, first-hand account of the Ayahuasca experience, read The Shaman and Ayahuasca; for an extremely thorough, thought-provoking look from a biological, psychological and social perspective read Michael Winkelman's book cited below.

Unfortunately, comprehensive studies on atypical right-hemisphere language dominant subjects are few and far between. Almost any time you start reading an abstract from a neuroimaging study, it starts: "Fifty right-handed subjects were tested . . ." Say no more. Nonetheless, I believe interest in anomalous minds is beginning to manifest. Simon McCrea’s work on "intuition, insight and the right hemisphere" is an example. He says that intuition is immediate and nonverbal, whereas insight requires voracious study, incubation, the "aha" moment, then conscious elaboration. Both are advantaged in right-hemisphere dominant individuals and women seem to be better at it. Being a left-handed, right-dominant female (judging by my anomalous experiences, my strengths and weaknesses and the way I hold a writing instrument), I offered up my brain to a local, highly regarded neuroscientist for imaging. I'd like to make a direct contribution to the field beyond my armchair analyses. Unfortunately, that email went unanswered.

Barrett, Deirdre, (2011), "Answers in your Dreams," Scientific American Mind, Nov-Dec: 27-33.

Brooks, Janice E. & Jay A. Vogelsang 1999/2000), The Conscious Exploration of Dreaming: Discovering How We Create and Control Our Dreams. Foreword J. Allan Hobson, M.D.

Campos, Don José, Ed. Geraldine Overton, (2011), The Shaman and Ayahuasca. Studio City, CA: Divine Arts.

Jaynes, Julian (1976), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kane, Julie (2004), "Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11 (5-6): 21-59.

Kaplan, Robert M. (2006), "The Neuropsychiatry of Shamanism." Before Farming, 4 (13): 1-14.

Krippner, Stanley (2002), "Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints." American Psychologist, 57 (11): 962-978.

McCrea, Simon M. (2010), "Intuition, insight, and the right hemisphere: Emergence of higher sociocognitive functions." Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 3: 1-39. 

McGilchrist, Iain (2009), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Mind and the Making of theWestern World. New Haven and London: Yale UP.

Platt, Carole Brooks (2007), "Presence, Poetry, and the Collaborative Right Hemisphere." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14 (3): 36-53.

Platt, Carole Brooks (2009), "The Medium and the Matrix: Unconscious Information and the Therapeutic Dyad." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16 (9): 55-76.

Previc, Fred H. (2006), "The role of extrapersonal brain system in religious activity." Consciousness and Cognition, 15: 500-539.

Voss, Ursula (2011), "Unlocking the Lucid Dream," Scientific American Mind, Nov-Dec: 33-35.

Winkelman, Michael (2010), Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, 2nd Ed. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, England: Praeger.

Disentangling the Voice from the Mind(s) that Created It.

Michael Conforti, a Jungian analyst and author, just published an excellent blog post on this subject. See “Sacred” Abuses in the Name of God, Self and Other – A Call for Clarity in Addressing Archetypal Truths. His prime example is Abraham binding his son, Isaac, preparing to kill him at God's command. Michael suggests that we question Abraham's own motives.

A friend of mine who recently went on a tour of sacred sites in Israel told me that, according to her guides, Abraham’s act was caught up in co-existing regional mythologies. In fact, children were routinely sacrificed in the pagan world, but many verses in the Bible defended against the practice. [Search "Moloch" on Wikipedia for some hair-raising accounts of how this was done.] Similarly, the stories of the Creation and the Flood were first recorded in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, serving as models for the accounts in the Bible.

Along with Julian Jaynes, who also cites Abraham's story, I believe that "divine" voices come from the right hemisphere where the visually and sensorially resonant language of poetry and the symbolic imagery of religion go hand in hand. The right hemisphere processes all of our senses and, whereas the left hemisphere is more responsible for encoding episodic memories, the right is more involved in retrieving them.

I maintain that anything that we have read, seen or heard in the past can be retrieved as fodder for the myth-making mill of the right hemisphere whose over-arching mission is to get the big picture, find solutions to difficult problems and make sense of everything. It seems logical that Abraham, at a stressful time, might have dissociatively adopted a rival's ritual practice, but for the staying hand of an “angel,” an agent of his better self.

The whole notion of mythic stories has long fascinated me. Mythmakers tell fabulous stories. Just like modern fiction, film, and nightly news reports, the ancient mythic stories rampantly portrayed sex and violence. Every culture seems to have needed these stories to explain the origins of the cosmos or of their land, to concretize and humanize their deities, to justify their rituals and to cultivate appropriate moral attitudes in the community. The gods and goddesses of myth are the play actors in eternal dramas, stretching back to the beginning of time and still recurring nightly in our dreams.

However, myths are neither eternal nor universal, only long lasting and widely diffused. Depending on the historical and geographic context, the language of myth can be constructed, reconstructed, or deconstructed to reflect newly emerging political, social and religious agenda. Karen Armstrong's A History of God traces the trajectory from the paleolithic Mother Goddesses, to the Babylonian gods and goddesses to the one God of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each relied on the prior religion's stories, but expanded or revised them to create their distinct vision. Poetry and religion remain inextricably entwined from the beginning of time. Muslim accounts of Muhammad's ascent to heaven, for instance, inspired Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante's Divine Comedy and Yeats's A Vision inspired James Merrill's epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover.

"Divine" commands are still operative in the modern world. It is particularly dangerous when political leaders, who can be both psychologically grandiose and have actual power, suggest as much. Both male and female politicians have made these claims. However, a command to sacrifice a child seems like a masculine construct to me. In Ancient Greece, the man-killing Medusa and the child-killing Medea were most likely male-constructed stories about mythic women. On the other hand, in most cases where voices have instructed individual women to kill their children, like Andrea Yates who drowned her five children in a bathtub, they were experiencing psychotic commands.

The simple fact is that we all adopt myths to guide or justify our actions, when we are actually defending against inner chaos or exploiting our path in the external world. One can only imagine, in a tribute to John Lennon, what a better world it would be if, instead of following the mythic marching orders, we routinely questioned our personal motives, then proceeded to do the right thing, not just for ourselves, our family, our political party, or even our country, but for the larger good beyond self interest. The results could be genuinely cosmic. Imagine!!

The Immortal Door: In the Maw of a Myth

While living in London in the early 90’s, I read an article by Charles Bremner about Jim Morrison’s “50th birthday party” at his grave site. Bremner is still the Paris correspondent for “The Times” of London, at the moment writing about Sarkozy and DSK, as the French call Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Morrison is famously buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, eternal home to the French creative élite and those who die in Paris, like Jim and Oscar Wilde. I am a Doors dévotée myself and lived in Paris from 1969-70, just missing the Lizard King’s fleeting presence in the city from March-July 3, 1971, the day he died, an initiator of the 27 Club. Due to serendipitous timing, both Morrison and I had witnessed the violent Spring awakenings that occurred in the aftermath of the student riots of May, 1968. But I missed him (and still do).

Listening to the revelers who had gathered around Morrison’s last resting place, the journalist Bremner mocked a young worshiper’s claim that Morrison was a god. Yet, this simple faith professed was shared by others. Oliver Stone, for one, superimposed an image of the god Dionysus over Morrison’s face in his film, “The Doors.” In the preface to No One Here Gets Out Alive, Doors’ aide Danny Sugarman termed his boss a “modern-day god.” Drummer John Densmore described Doors’ concerts as “rituals” in his book, Riders on the Storm.

Morrison himself seemed to believe the myth. His darkly divine image was both natural and cultivated. He resembled a Greek god and, according to Sugarman, had his hair styled to look like Alexander the Great. Like many ancient gods, Morrison embodied contradictions: virile, yet feminine-featured; human, yet animalistic in his black leather; frenetically sexual, yet aspiring to die. See videos here and here.

Reading Nietzsche had convinced Morrison of the Dionysian power of music to revive myth. Entranced by his beautiful face, his rebelliously erotic presence, and the primitive strains of his music, the fans agreed, whipping themselves into an ecstatic communal frenzy. Oliver Stone depicted these ever-burgeoning, increasingly chaotic, concert throngs in his film. Clearly, the role Morrison had assigned to himself was devouring him. He must have known that the end of the ritual was the death of the god: the Lizard King must die.

Morrison was not just a singer/songwriter, but a poet as well. Not surprisingly, given my research, since he had been traumatized at age four by the sight of dead Native Americans by the side of the road, victims of a car accident. His words are telling: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind,” an apt metaphor for the vulnerability of a young child’s mind. Also, his father was an authoritarian admiral who punished him by “dressing down,” a military-style berating. After his father said he had no talent for music, Jim wrote him off completely.

But there is more to Morrison than the paradigm of the wounded child who becomes a poet. His story has a mythic dimension. According to poet Robert Graves, the origins of all true poetry lie in a mythic devotion to the archetypal White Goddess who torments, inspires and destroys her victim, with immortality as his reward. The 19th-century Romantic poets often intoned their cruel mistress. This revolutionary group was bent on changing both poetry and society through a return to Nature and feminine values, while rejecting paternalistic, old régime authority. The rebellious climate of the 1960’s recycled this trend. Long hair, flowing garb, free love, social and political consciousness, feminism, the exalted inner self and the “back to earth” movement, all heralded the symbolic death of the Father. In psychological terms, in times of crisis there is a return to the Mother, both on a personal and a societal level.

In Morrison’s poetry, reference to wombs, tombs, caves—all maternal symbols—abound. The man who rejected his real mother in life (he had claimed both his parents were dead) valorized the mythic Mother in his poetic symbols: blood, lakes, sacred pools and forests. Assertive sorceresses, queens and goddesses inhabit his poetry. While others see the “Man in the Moon,” Morrison saw a woman’s face—-the Mother.

A product both of his time and his intellectual proclivities, Morrison verbalized his beliefs in his personal mantra, “kill the father, f____ the mother,” as cited in Densmore’s book. This Oedipal formula, according to Graves and Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, actually describes an ancient ritual of matriarchal religion: the murder of the old king by his younger replacement for the overall fertility of the community. By killing the Father, perpetual, authoritarian rule is rejected. Embracing the Mother liberates sexuality and creative self-expression. Breaking on through to the Other Side could be a metaphor for right-hemispheric, poetic consciousness.

It is understandable that Morrison, wearied by charges levied against him, fled to Paris to concentrate on his poetry, not rock stardom. Since his school days, he had been enamored of French writers who had helped construct his identity: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Céline and the existentialists. He had even modeled his stage presence on Artaud’s theory in Le Théâtre et son double.

Unfortunately, he was already too deeply entrenched in the maw of a myth to forego its tragic conclusion. Although the circumstances of his death are controversial, some claiming a heart attack, others an accidental drug overdose, it is generally agreed that he was found dead in his bathtub. This detail eerily conforms to a mythic theme. As Graves tells us, from the Cretan Sun-god Minos to the Mycenaean Agamemnon to the Celtic hero Llew Llaw, sacred kings often die in their bath, albeit at the hands of an assassin. Morrison’s “assassins” were drugs, alcohol, and an inescapable devotion to a myth. Judging by his world-wide fans (nearly 9,500,000 on Facebook alone), by closing the door on his life, he opened an immortal door, and will continue to entrance generations of music lovers for years to come.

Hearing the Voice, Getting it Right

 Once, in a frightening dream, a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch shouted at me: “Freud only got it half right!” Following this ambiguous remark, the Darth Vader-like voice bellowed a command: “Read the two Hyperion poems!” After twenty years of research, I am now attempting to explain the neurological and psychological origins of the dissociative knowledge that has entered some of history's greatest poetic minds.

Victor Hugo once heard a voice declare “Au travail, grand homme!” His mind, altered by loss of a loved one and political exile, had transformed the sound of the waves crashing around his island home into a command to get to work. He spent two and a half years attempting to contact the dead during his exile, writing the immortal Les Misérables and reams of poetry as well. Soliciting the advice of the dead poets and prophets he had long admired helped him dull the pain of his diminished, alienated universe. Other great poets were also impelled by traumas and losses to explore similar means of consolation.

American poet James Merrill spent 20 years contacting the dead using a Ouija board with his companion David Jackson. The dissociative words, spelled out in haste and often with humor, described the history and invisible functioning of the universe that would be molded into Merrill's brilliant and self-consoling 560-page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover.

William Butler Yeats accessed voices through his wife, Georgie. She either spoke the words while asleep, as Yeats wrote them down, or produced automatic handwriting. Like Merrill with Jackson, Yeats would construct a grand scheme to order the universe, where he held an important position. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s voice came to him like Hugo's, transformed in the rush of wind and waves. Highly poetic and personal language poured forth, combating loss and entraining truth and beauty in its wake.

Neither poet nor prophet, I am just a scribe trying to get it right. I wish I could get the words from a Ouija board (much more convenient than Hugo’s laborious table tapping in family séances) or from an inspired rush of wind or waves titillating my mind in a self-hushed trance. Outside of my original dream message, I have never received any other dissociative knowledge. I have read the scientific literature and analyzed other's creative voices to make sense of the phenomenon.

In my doctoral days, I had studied how the mythic mother ruled in early human history; how she was dethroned by patriarchal forces; but also how she inevitably returns in times of crisis in the mythic undercurrents of literature, especially in poetry. Matriarchal myth studies subsided in the wake of the crisis experience of a close friend of mine. After her mother’s death, she claimed to hear the voices of angels advising and consoling her, helping her deal with life and grief as well as to become an intuitive healer. Her experience led me to the poets, as my dream "mad" man pointed the way.

The first book that helped me make sense of her experience was Julian Jaynes's, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Here, he located the voices of the gods in the right temporal lobe of the brain.  Due to migrations, historical catastrophes, and, especially, the beginning of literacy, the voices fell silent and self-consciousness was born. Mental “breakdowns” can return one to a “bicameral” or dissociative mind. Jaynes’s theory was compelling, yet 
controversial, and needed updating with current scientific research.

Jung also experienced voices and visions and used these perceptions to construct his account of individual psychic life and the connections that bind us all. A line in his biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in fact, eerily replicated my dream message: “Freud was only considering half of the whole.” Freud’s "half" theorized the sexually desired birth mother, while Jung’s "half" longed for the mythical Great Mother. Could it be both were right?

Jung’s work is enormously helpful in understanding the voices. Yet, modern neuroscience reaffirms Freud in the sense that the infantile relation to the mother can alter the brain, not through sexual longing but through psychic wounding. Since many neuroscientists now agree that the wounding occurs in the right hemisphere, perhaps by adding Freud's maternal half to Jung's mythic half we find our way to a deeper truth.

Tallying the mythic mothers, the mother-mediated crises, the voices of female angels and the poetic muses, I felt that everything was constellating around the mother, the original other who we were until we developed a separate consciousness. The mother mirrored the child, who internalized her presence until he or she could regulate their own emotions. Dr. Allan N. Schore’s book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self,  identified and located this process in the right hemisphere. No longer a metaphorical construct, the feminine was literally hardwired into the child’s mind. Here, in the pre-verbal matrix of the emerging self, maternal wounds can scar a child. An abusive, neglectful, or lost mother, as well as a smothering one, could create problems of boundary loss or self-control issues so common in pathological disorders. Later crises, especially the death or loss of loved ones, can open old wounds.

Poetic words are an embodiment. Confronted with loss, abandonment, or fear of death, words may arise unbidden, seeking to construct a hierarchy to defend against that chaotic absence. The mind reels without an internal stabilizing principle. A void must be filled; order must be restored. An all-encompassing premise becomes a presence containing the grief and giving the injured self a larger, comforting space to inhabit—the one vacated by the mother.

The locus of that new ordering--the right temporal lobe--uses the raw materials of memory as well as snatches of bits from the natural world around it to create, much like in a dream. Its fears and preferred ways of making sense of the world will color its creations. The loss and the proclivities appeared again and again as I studied the minds of great poets who heard voices or used dissociative techniques to access them. Analyzing their ability to put their preoccupations into words tells us not only about the poetic process but also about ourselves—our common human psychology, our preoccupations and our ability to create.

This study sheds light on commonly observed phenomena, explained from the dual optic of neuropsychology and poetry. Why does a disordered sense of self so often result in conflicted impressions of gender? Why does the disordered self so often use religious or mythic imagery? Why does religion itself so often constellate around gender issues and death? Sorting through the evidence that neuroscience and the poets provide, my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, attempts to make sense of it all, while fully appreciating the great mystery and beauty of the creating mind.

Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life After Death

This may seem like a bizarre topic. Actually, it's the name of a book I just read by Stephen E. Braude, professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country. Ten years in the making, this is quite likely the most informed book you'll ever read on the subject from the perspective of a highly intelligent philosopher, not a New Age guru, and it makes connections to creativity you might not have otherwise suspected.

Braude supplies in-depth analyses of famous cases of trance mediumship (or channeling), possession, ghost hauntings, reincarnation claims and near death experiences (NDEs) before coming to a conclusion on the final page of the book. In the preface he describes his own scary experience with a table tipping out messages letter by letter (A=1 tip; B=2 tips,etc.) during a slow day in graduate school with friends, not knowing how frequently this very method had been used in the late 19th century. Yet, anyone who has ever used a Ouija Board under the right circumstances with the right people (for me it was childhood with family), knows you can get messages and predictions for the future.

What I find compelling about Braude's research is the accent on the incredible creativity of the mediums, resembling the output of savants who lack basic forms of knowledge, but have supernormal potential in others. (I discussed some of these in a previous blog (Right Brain News from an Incessant Reader). Pearl Curran / Patience Worth is a prime example. With little education or interest in literature, she was able to produce a huge body of dissociative texts, including poety, novels, short stories and plays, some written in an archaic Anglo-Saxon dialect of Patience, the person she claimed to be channeling. Pearl could even be self-aware, that is, co-conscious: while Patience Worth was dictating a poem she could simultaneously write a letter to a friend.

Braude considers the possibility of rare talents and phenomenal memory coming out in a dissociative state as well as "super-psi," i.e. telepathy among the living that might supply information about people from the past. He makes a further connection to the psychology of the living that would explain their need to make these connections. He does not doubt that telepathy and clairvoyance can occur, citing many examples. He also lingers long on the evidence for xenoglossy, i.e. the ability to speak a formerly unknown foreign language while in a trance.

While he doesn't address the neurology of dissociative states, his mediumistic case studies are a treasure trove of examples of unusually creative possibilites that allow me to speculate for him. A musical savant had the ability to improvise the styles of various composers at the piano, with the right hand playing in one style and the left hand playing in another. Similarly, Mozart could compose a piece by hand while composing a different one in his head. But, whereas Mozart had had intense training, the savant had reportedly never played music before, making it all the more incredible. Comparing the two, I would say that while both had exceptional talent, the savant had a very unusal brain organization, probably with right hemispheric superiority, that allowed her to process musical notes automatically and then replicate them on the keyboard. She was not creating new musical scores; Mozart certainly was.

I know about competence in learning a foreign language, having taught French for over twenty years. Not everyone has the same capacity to pick up a foreign language. Amongst adults, engineers are particularly pitiful, because of left hemisphere dominance that wants every piece of grammatical expression broken down into a hard and fast rule. Children learn the best because their young minds are still malleable to accommodate the new sounds into their spoken repertoire. Even amongst children, some have great difficulty, especially dyslexics who have enough trouble parsing their own language. If we're looking for unusual cases, I can supply a 12th grader who was learning French for the first time, while already competent in Spanish. I had never seen anyone so adept, so fast, in language learning. One day she got up in front of the class and wrote with both hands, simultaneously and backwards. This indicates to me a very unusal brain organization with strong linguistic facility in both hemispheres.

I can only surmise that mediums with unusal linguistic talents are working bi-hemispherically as well as bi-directionally. In another case of Braude's, a child was producing automatic scripts without having learned the alphabet. She had, however, observed her older sister producing automatic writing. She may then have been hyperlexic, with the supernormal ability to decode patterns in letters and words precociously. Telepathy can play a role too. Often when a foreign language is produced by a medium, one of the sitters present knows the language, as when Victor Hugo's seance group occasionally got messages in English.

Braude would like to think that all children have these kinds of capacities, but are stiffled by a dreary educational system. True, in part. But I would maintain that a dissociative capacity as well an unusal brain organization would play equal roles. The dissociative state would definitely play a role in releasing the creative hemisphere to invent away with fluency and agility. To exemplify the unusual brain organization argument, Nadia, an artistic savant, was autistic with little to no speaking ability (ten words at age 6), but could draw life-like pictures of moving horses and other animals at age three, comparable to prehistoric cave art of Chauvet and Lascaux, and even to Leonardo da Vinci, who was dyslexic and wrote backwards, by the way. Nadia's defective left brain allowed for hyperability of the visually artistic right to replicate animal imagery from pictorial memory. Furthermore, after intensive therapy in acquiring more language skills, Nadia lost her spontaneous ability to draw her animals. (See also Betty Edwards's book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which teaches you to access the kind of realistic perspective of someone like Nadia, rather than rely on what you think you see.)

Ah, we've peered into the unusal minds of savants and mediums, but we're far afield from the survival of death. I guess you'll have to read Braude's book!

Imaginary Friends and Imagining Writers

Imaginary friends exist for real in the minds of some children. My oldest sister shared two friends, Mike and Ike, with my brother. Both siblings saw them, talked to them and played with them. A folie à deux ("shared madness") as they say in French. An avid reader of fairy tales in my youth, I imagined a circle of elves dancing on my tummy when I was sick, healing me with Elvin needles. In retrospect, my bad diet (I stubbornly refused eating anything healthy), probably accounted for the pains that I interpreted in an upbeat, albeit fantasy-based way.

Imaginary friends are conjured when needed to combat loneliness, for consolation, for healing or for an excuse for wrongdoing. The Gorilla did it!

Creating imaginary friends is not that far afield from the creative process of exceptional writers, many of whom suffered tragic childhoods, but gained access to an imaginary realm that fed their fantasies and their notebooks. Charles Dickens said he could hear every word his characters said—a beneficent power showed it all to him and he just wrote it down. Robert Louis Stevenson said “the other fellow” inside his head commanded him and “little people” in his dreams suggested ideas for his novels and dictated many details of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Nineteenth-century French writer Chateaubriand conversed with an invisible female companion. In childhood, the novelist George Sand had visions and a dream character, Corambé, who spilled over into her waking life. (Think Chocolat and the daughter’s imaginary kangaroo.) Gustave Flaubert created a character who claimed he couldn’t distinguish dream from waking, a mental state which may well have resembled his own. He admitted that he always confused his artistic hallucinations with reality. When he wrote the passage in which Mme Bovary poisons herself, he could actually taste the arsenic in his mouth and threw up his dinner. Balzac, strongly stoked on coffee, also hallucinated, watching his creations develop on their own. He claimed to merge with people on the street and actually feel their sensations, making his characters seem so much more real as a result.

But poets, who use mellifluous sounds and metaphors, are particularly prone to hearing the dissociative words. Homer, Dante, Milton, Blake, Rilke all said they received “divine” dictation, even if the words were really self-generated. Others poets, along with spirit mediums, get the words through séances, automatic writing and Ouija boards with their friends and loved ones. The odysseys of Hugo, Yeats and Merrill took them to distant galaxies in the mind, and back and forward in time, with their feet still planted under the table.

If we consider that when we dream at night, we truly believe what’s happening is real, we can understand how delicate the membrane is between fantasy and reality, waking and dream. Dissociative states can come unheralded with information to take note of, like Rousseau walking along the road and “receiving” the Social Contract in one blinding flash; or they can be pursued with onerous techniques, like Hugo and Merrill spelling out their messages letter by letter with a tipping table or a Ouija board.

Lest you think you’ll receive your flash of inspiration in one delirious starburst, keep in mind that there must be input to have output: hard prior thought and practice, plus reading, reading, reading, produce the raw materials that the marvelous mind then constellates into its novel vision or poetic language, gracious messages from the inner self that must be meticulously wrought into final form.

The Anti-Romantic Child

Priscilla Gilman, a specialist in Romantic poetry, recently published this extraordinary book about coming to terms with her "anti-Romantic" child and the joys associated with getting to know and fully appreciate her high-functioning autistic son, Benj. Wordsworth's poetry is her mainstay, and it is artfully interwoven throughout the text to demonstrate the signposts along the way while raising her challenging, but adored son.

In the beginning, as both she and her husband were highly educated, well-read folk, she was not overly surprised when Benj started reading letters at one year old, read fluently after turning 2, and could even read her dissertation aloud with fluency and perfect intonation when he was 2 1/2. The obsession with letters is humorously depicted as he reads everything in sight, shouting out the words on all the billboards from his car seat, reading all the packaging on food products at the supermarket. He loves songs and insists on their being sung word and pitch perfectly.

On the other hand, he has trouble chewing, doesn't like playing with toys, only lining them up. He is obsessed with ritual, order and sequence, clear signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Priscilla learns that Benj's incredible talent with letters is actually a disorder--hyperlexia--which is a sign of autism. Hyperlexia is the exact opposite of dyslexia. Whereas dyslexics have trouble decoding words when reading, they have excellent overall comprehension. Hyperlexics have almost supernormal abilities in decoding patterns in language but have trouble with comprehension.  For all his talent in reading, Benj has trouble processing spoken language and getting the gist of a complex narrative. He can't initiate a conversation, but he can recite verbatim lines of the most difficult poetry, even Shakespeare!

Most of what Benj says is "echolalia," that is, repeating what he has heard his parents say. He does not know how to use the pronoun "I." But, he can repeat anything he has heard or read in the past in a context where it can make sense in the present and comfort him.

I was fascinated with this book because the author writes so well, telling her story with immediacy, intimacy, fluency, and empathy. There is both humor and moments so sad or touching that you can't help but cry.

But I was also fascinated with Benj's mind, which I tried to decode using my knowledge of left/right hemispheric differences. Here's what I found:

Benj's symptoms show to me a left hemisphere (LH) that is way overactive while his right hemisphere (RH) is underactive in some ways, over in others. While he can read at a highly advanced level, he is severely lacking in social skills as well as some motor skills, such as chewing and going up and down steps. He's fabulous with details, but doesn't get the overall context. He can recite facts with extraordinary recall but cannot relate to imaginative play. He insists on the literal at all times and cannot understand metaphor or make novel sentences. His sense of self cannot be expressed in language as there is no "I." But, he is so overly sensitive to the environment that loud sounds, textures, and tastes can overwhelm him and make him panic.

What is so beautiful about his story, though, is how his mother and father work so hard to intervene once they understand their son's problems. With a dedication beyond what you can imagine, they persevere in their own private work with him, therapies, the best schools to make him blossom. He makes incredible progress over the course of the book, finding his "I," making friends, playing the guitar, performing in school concerts, even to the point of creating his own poetry. You root for Benj all along the way and come to love this optimistic and buoyant boy, who expresses his love for his mother, his father, his brother and his grandmother with a depth and with words so moving they break your heart. Priscilla's joy becomes your own.

This is a story of maternal devotion that can serve as a model for all of us. 

The Incredible Lightness of Being and Its Dark Antecedents

I've been studying the neurobiology of mystical states for about 15 years, since a dear friend of mine believed she was channeling angels after her mother died. To get the background of all this, see my Web site It's been a very long and complicated quest since I had no background in science. I have studied language and literature all my life and have a Ph.D. in French.

Oddly, what seemed to pull it all together for me was the movie, "Amélie," that I saw for about the tenth time last night. The beginning of the movie is a long narration with clever, off-beat imagery about a strange little girl who will grow up to be the equally strange young woman in the movie.

The beginning of the movie shows her troubled childhood, a distant father (a doctor) who only touches her once a month to give her a physical examination. She's so excited by this rare contact that her heart beats furiously and he diagnoses a heart condition. Her mother, an obsessive compulsive, is struck down one day in front of a church by the falling body of a Canadian tourist who decides to end it all in her great leap.

Now we have a sad, angry, motherless child, with a distant father, who is friendless at school. Amélie lives under a dark cloud with sprinkles of fantasy that keep her alive and the most amazing visual imagination that carries through to adulthood.

One day, she takes a blind man by the arm and describes the everyday wonders of the Paris street where they walk and she leaves him off at the métro. As she walks away, she has an incredible sense of lightness, the air she breathes is freer, clearer, the flowers smell much sweeter and everything has a sense of wonder about it. After long suffering, she tips into the nirvana zone with open-hearted compassion and a mission to help others.

This awakening, this incredible lightness of being, this compensation for the trauma of her life up to that point made total sense to me after my years of research into mystical states of consciousness. But it was after sleeping on it and awakening that fresh ideas came to me this morning.

Andrew Newberg has used neuroimaging to see into the brains of Buddhist monks and praying nuns before and during their religious practices. Michael Persinger has used electromagnetic stimulation to the temporal lobes to produce a "God" experience and gave questionnaires to college students to find out what kinds of people are more likely to sense an invisible presence near them. Newberg ends up wondering if certain people are predisposed to have mystical experiences because of their brain circuitry or if their long practice makes it happen. Persinger believes it's an overaroused right hemisphere that does it, especially in people who are interested in creative writing or do it themselves.

I have come to believe that childhood trauma, like Amélie suffered, physically changes the brain, in line with the research of Allan Schore and others. Newberg doesn't take into account the deprivations that monks and nuns suffer as part of their vocation and Persinger doesn't take into account why certain people are more drawn in the first place to poetry and prose. His "God" helmet works best on people with either the circuitry or previously held beliefs that can allow it to happen. I suggest that a genetic predisposition to more right hemispheric dominance along with childhood trauma can lead to brain processing that favors both mysticism and the paranormal, along with novel, creative ideas, more visual imagery and poetic language.

The brain's complex, interconnecting networks, when synchronized, can confer great talents and insights, often feeling or sounding as though they come from someone or somewhere else. We are the authors of our ideas, our feelings, our creativity, but as a consequence of what precedes them, the combined resonances in the books we have read, the movies we've seen, the people we have talked to, all of which can recombine during the dark night, when our senses have shut down, then bursting into consciousness in the morning. The new thread of ideas is tenuous, though, likely to evaporate in the dream mist unless we write it down as quickly as possible.