Winkelman, Michael (2010), Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, 2nd Ed. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, England: Praeger.
Carole regularly attends the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, AZ; most recently in 2020. 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 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 considered an Amazon Hot New Release in Neuropsychology and Poetry / Literary Criticism. She writes on literary and scientific themes at rightmindmatters.blogspot.com and new research on hemispheric differences, atypical lateralization and handedness on https://www.facebook.com/RightMindMatters/.
She is currently working on a book on female mystics and mediums, beginning with the story of Joan of Arc, and female poets who felt aligned with her. Her stand alone article on Joan of Arc is available for purchase here:
Winkelman, Michael (2010), Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, 2nd Ed. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, England: Praeger.
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!!
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
Yesterday, I started out composing an email to the PsyArt listserv about the intergenerational transmission of childhood trauma via epigenetic (gene/environment) interactions as well as new linguistic research that upends our notions about language functions contained in the classic areas of the frontal and temporal lobes of the left hemisphere, called Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas respectively. PsychCentral.com provided fodder with Douglas Eby's posting, "Brain Differences and Creativity."
From here, I started researching savant syndrome and read a long article about extremely unusual savants with incredible powers of mind, including Kim Peek, the real “Rain Man,” whom Dustin Hoffman brought to life so convincingly in the film.
In Coast-to-Coast's late-night radio interview, philosopher Stephen F. Braude was talking in learned terms about mediumistic contact with the dead: is it just telepathy with the living or do verifiable "drop ins" intrude sometimes, hoping to clear up mysteries about their deaths?
All of the above came together with my ongoing research into the special abilities of the right hemisphere, once erroneously known as "the silent" hemisphere.
Let's summarize these findings:
Childhood trauma, whether in utero, at birth, or in the early years of life, physically changes the brain. We’ve long known that child abuse is intergenerational: a traumatized child can become a traumatizing adult. What I didn’t know is that brain changes can alter genes that can then be transmitted to the next generation. Both nature (genes) and nurture (parental care, especially in the first two years) play important roles. Dr. Allan Schore has been my guiding light on attachment theory. He is a rare neuropsychologist who takes the time to answer emails and sends articles, book chapters, and suggested readings to further my understanding.
Christopher Taylor can also read upside down or sideways and is a hyperpolyglot. Although he lives in an institution for the mentally challenged, he has learned 20 languages from reading books and newspapers, as well as from real life experiences.
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.