Category Archives: Psychology & Consciousness
In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):
For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”
That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):
“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”
That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.
. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.
When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.
Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better“
(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all the people who work in it?)
Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these: Read the rest of this entry
From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:
I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).
Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.
What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).
To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.
Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.
Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?
Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently I’ve been in contact with Patrick Harpur, author of, among other excellent books, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (which long-time readers of The Teeming Brain, and also readers of my A Course in Daemonic Creativity, will recognize as a canonical title around here). For reasons that I’ll probably explain at some future point, I’m presently poring back over my extensively marked-up copy of this book in search of powerful passages that work well in stand-alone fashion. And a moment ago I accidentally constructed a kind of mental step-stone pathway through the text that consists of three separate passages, one from Chapter 7 (“Seeing Things”), another from the epilogue (“The Golden Chain”), and the final one from Chapter 20 (“Approaching the Otherworld”).
For me, these passages, presented below as three separate paragraphs connected by ellipses, present a complete and coherent message of profound power and importance. If you ponder them slowly, they may do the same for you.
Our trouble is that we have been brought up with a literal-minded worldview. We demand that objects have only a single identity or meaning. We are educated to see with the eye only, in single vision. When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something sacred, amazing, we are unequipped for it. Instead of seizing on the vision, reflecting on it — writing poetry, if necessary — we react with fright and panic. Instead of countering like with like — that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us — we feebly telephone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only “seeing things” and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different, daimonic order of reality which lies behind the merely literal.
. . . The tradition which forms the background to this book is hard to describe, because it has no name. We might tentatively call it, for convenience, the daimonic tradition. Although it appears in many disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, psychology, aesthetic theory, and so on, it is not itself a discipline. It is not a body of knowledge or a system of thought. Rather it is a way of knowing and thinking, a way of seeing the world, which poets and visionaries have always possessed but which even they cannot stand outside of or formulate. Thus one cannot be taught the tradition, for example, as part of a university curriculum; one can only be initiated into it. Simply finding it out for oneself can be, like a quest, an act of self-initiation.
. . . Initiation can be thought of as a general term for any daimonic event which realigns our conscious viewpoint of the world, and introduces it to the Otherworld. If we identify ourselves with the rational ego, then the initiation will be — has to be — correspondingly fierce in order to introduce the whole notion of an otherworldly, daimonic reality. Alienated, we have to be — forcibly, if necessary, it seems — alienized. For, from the daimonic standpoint, we as rational egos are aliens while the aliens, the daimons, are part of ourselves. Alienizing means daimonizing: the rational ego is replaced by a daimonic ego which can slip into different shapes, different perspectives — all daimonic but all defining, and being defined by, soul in multifarious ways. Alienizing means being at ease with the aliens because one is an alien oneself.
For reflections on and specific illustrations of this theme in a variety of contexts, I recommend the following items by various Teeming Brain contributors, some of whom offer quite personal accounts of the type of thing Patrick writes about above:
- “Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality” by Matt Cardin
- “Horror, Meaning, and Madness: Dangers of Lifting the Cosmic Veil” by Matt Cardin
- “Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous” by Matt Cardin
- “Nightmares: Dark Roads of Creativity and Vulnerability” by Ryan Hurd
- “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another: On the Meanings and Uses of Horror” by Richard Gavin
- “‘Till immersed in that mighty ocean’: Perils of Awakening in a Universe of Hungry Ghosts” by David Metcalfe
- “Learned Psi: Training to Be Psychic” by Dr. Barry Taff
Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.
Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.
. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.
. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.
MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student“
In the meantime, Disinfo.com has published a partial transcript of a panel that David moderated at the convention. The title is “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth.” The other two panelists are transmedia artist James Curcio and comics scholar and college philosophy instructor Damien Williams. The subject is the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, fact and myth, art and reality, as it runs through the act of storytelling in the modern media milieu. The conversation involves many references to specific cultural texts and prominent people (e.g., comics in general, Firefly, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore).
And the fascination-quotient is high, as indicated by these three represenative quotes from each participant. Note that they are here excerpted piecemeal from different parts of the conversation. In other words, they don’t represent a sequential exchange of ideas, but rather a cherry-picked selection of highlights.
DAVID METCALFE: In experiencing something like DragonCon, from the vantage point of covering it for the media, I find it really interesting that often the fantasy elements overtake any real life connections. It’s been rather surreal to be sitting at the hotel bar watching coverage of Syria, while people are eagerly searching for cosplayers to snap pictures of. To be honest it’s a bit eerie, as there is a great opportunity to use the energy garnered from these kinds of events to really speak to our current social conditions, with the interactive storytelling being a place where alternate solutions and dialogues can occur as vibrant thought experiments. I’m not sure how often this happens, however.
DAMIEN WILLIAMS: One of the things I try to teach my students, every semester, is that their perception is manipulated by narrative framing techniques, and to get them to recognize, understand, and utilize them, so that they won’t ever unwittingly fall prey to someone else’s myths. That includes teachers and politicians, alike, because the whole experience of politics — and by that I mean American politics, because I just don’t know enough about any other country — is a story sold to people to get them to buy into a system that then continues to sell them stories. Whether these stories bear any resemblance to “reality” doesn’t really matter; what matters, instead, is whether the stories motivate, animate, and compel the populace to believe in the narrator.
JAMES CURCIO: I think the very ideas of ‘fiction’ vs ‘nonfiction,’ or myth as untruth are major barriers in creating honest mythic work. Myths don’t begin as “myths”. They begin as something that genuinely speaks to us. Narratives directly affect our nervous system. . . .
The myth, as media, is alchemy. In simple terms, alchemy was supposedly about turning lead to gold, right? Or, in general, the transmutation of matter. So people often look at it as a sort of rudimentary, or ill-conceived attempt at chemistry. But instead, the “matter” is the self. I think one of Jung’s biggest contributions was this one insight: that alchemy — and the occult as well — pertains to the psyche. So if you look at it that way, you can immediately see two sides: as a creator, you conduct alchemy through media and transmute your personal experience, both psychologically and by turning it from private to public experience. On the flip side, as a so-called audience member, when you engage with media, it’s not nearly as passive as it seems on the surface. When you look at two frames of a sequential story — a comic — your brain is inventing the motion, and on a larger scale, the narrative. When you read a story, you are transmuting symbols into life. Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, said something like, “Books break the shackles of time — proof that humans can work magic.” I think that’s true in a very real way.
The first appears at Pacific Standard and comes from the pen of independent journalist Brandon Sneed. Its title gets right to the point: “The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?” It was published on August 23, and its accompanying teaser states the writer’s conclusion in a nutshell: “Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.” The article itself shows Mr. Sneed summarizing the concept of the muse in its ancient and modern guises, with references to and quotations from Homer, Ray Bradbury, and Steven Pressfield, and then observing that there is a running disagreement among many modern-day writers, some of whom subscribe to something like a belief in a real muse and others of whom dismiss such an idea in favor of an approach based on hard work and professional discipline.
In the end, Mr. Sneed comes down on the side of the too-simplistic and too-hasty conclusion summarized at the outset. Don’t misunderstand me: the article itself is interesting and worth reading, and it attempts some minor nuance by giving a pro forma acknowledgement that the “real muse” idea can’t be absolutely ruled out in principle. But Mr. Sneed comes down too easily, automatically, and unquestioningly on the side of a reductionist brain-based theory of creativity (and also consciousness itself) for my taste. This position always begs an infinite number of questions and drains away the power — not to mention the reality — of the mystery inherent in the fact of being alive and awake.
The second such article — meaning the second one that I encountered; it was actually published two days earlier, on August 21 — comes from literary author Laura Valeri, from her self-titled blog. The article’s title is “The Biology of Writing (Or Not Writing) Creatively,” and the subject is this very same disagreement between two different creative-theoretical camps. She terms them (quite effectively, in my view) “Behaviorists” and “Daemonicists,” and then uses this distinction as preface to a succinct and able exploration of the biology of creativity, with brief comments on the “flow” state, aphasia (the inability to write), epilepsy, depression, the structure of the brain, neuroscience, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s now-legendary TED Talk on the “classical” experience of creative inspiration by a muse or genius. Read the rest of this entry
(Click the cover or the linked title below to download the PDF)
Where does creativity come from? Why do ideas and inspiration feel as if they come from “outside,” from an external source that’s separate from us but able to whisper directly into the mind? Why have so many writers throughout history — and also composers, painters, philosophers, mystics, and scientists — spoken of being guided, accompanied, and even haunted by a force or presence that not only serves as the deep source of their creative work but that exerts a kind of profound and inexorable gravitational pull on the shape of their lives?
These are all questions addressed by A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius. The book’s starting point is the proposition that we all possess a higher or deeper intelligence than the everyday mind, and that learning to live and work harmoniously and energetically with this intelligence is the irreducible core of a successful artistic life. We can call this inner force the unconscious mind or the silent partner. We can call it the id or the secret self. But muse, daimon, and genius are so much more effective at conveying its subversive and electrifying emotional charge, and also its experiential reality.
Your unconscious mind truly is your genius in the ancient sense of the word, the sense that was universal before it was fatefully altered several centuries ago by historical-cultural forces. Befriending it as such, and interacting with it as if it really is a separate, collaborating presence in your psyche, puts you in a position to receive its gifts, and it in the position to give them to you.
A brief note about the history of this book
In 2009 I founded the blog Demon Muse, devoted to the subject of inspired creativity. A Course in Demonic Creativity was developed from material that I published there from 2009 to 2011. I shut the site down permanently in 2013 after repeated hacks (in the form of bot attacks, I assume) had finally tried my patience and technical skills to their limit. But that left no home for this book, so I decided to make it available here at The Teeming Brain due to people’s continued interest in it.
When I closed Demon Muse, downloads of the book were nearing four thousand. It has gained several thousand more readers here at The Teeming Brain. Additionally, various people have taken advantage of the Creative Commons license under which I published it to make it available elsewhere. I’ve been gratified and humbled to read people’s praise for A Course in Demonic Creativity over the years, and to witness how it keeps finding its way to individuals who grasp, appreciate, and resonate with its viewpoint and message.
Richard’s theme and thesis will be of pointed interest to Teeming Brain readers:
[What I call] Nightmare Horror is any work so steeped in the uncanny and the darksome that it manages to pierce through our logical safeguards, providing us with an experience akin to our most intense nightmares.
. . . If most horror truly is the literary equivalent of a roller coaster ride that ends with us being delivered to the same platform we departed from, Nightmare Horror is an elevator to Hades. Its creators offer no upward return. They simply seduce you inside, and once the doors are shut they cut the cable.
. . . In these stories even the most banal of objects radiate a numinous energy, and all the gauges we use to test a story’s believability (convincing dialogue, real-world locations, plausible character motivations, etc.) are insidiously turned against the reader. Everything sweats menace. We also find no moral-of-the-story. Nightmare Horror offers neither consolation nor closure. The normality we perpetuate has irretrievably sluiced through the sewer grates at the edges of sanity, washed away by a high tide of resurgent atavisms from a cellar of consciousness.
Perhaps one of the main distinguishing traits of Nightmare Horror is its willingness to meet the monstrous on its own terms, rather than employing the monstrous as a convenient metaphor for some all-too-human purpose. The armchair Freudian analyst sheds precious little light here. Any post-reading autopsies will not decipher the “meaning” behind the terrors. Some of our nightmares truly are nothing more than encrypted messages that, once decoded, provide personal insights that can make us better citizens. Other nightmares are simply . . . horrors. No point in trying to shoehorn one of these latter specimens into your self-improvement plan. Its teratisms have no regard for your ambitions. Their true value is simply the experience they offer: that rarefied state of shock and awe when the snug walls soften and the water spins the wrong way down the drain.
MORE: “Nightmare Horror” by Richard Gavin