What could any Other know of the up-and-out? What Other could look at the biting acid beauty of the stars in open space? What could they tell of the great pain, which started quietly in the marrow, like an ache, and proceeded by the fatigue and nausea of each separate nerve cell, brain cell, touchpoint in the body, until life itself became a terrible aching hunger for silence and for death? – Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain”
Central to Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic/literary revisionism is the precarious artistic ego, which feels threatened by a brilliant predecessor. But even though the Freudian paradigm it is based on (and pretty much all of Western culture) insists that good health means maintaining intact ego boundaries, the ego is actually something many souls are capable of setting aside in experiences of higher union or cosmic consciousness. These ruptures are central in the history of religions, so why not other domains like writing (and reading)? When the ego ruptures, the negative aspects of the Real and the pain of jouissance flip or transform over into a kind of bliss and inspiration that may feel like (and may indeed be—we should remain open-minded) the channeling or downloading of information from some alien source. I described this for instance in the case of Allen Ginsberg, who experienced his ecstatic experience in college as a transmission directly from the mystical artist/poet William Blake.
The creative and the mystical or paranormal (or some indeterminate category where it is hard to tell what is really going on) is some kind of universal nexus in the domain of cultural creativity.
Jeffrey Kripal’s work (especially Mutants and Mystics) provides a good starting place for thinking about this kind of paranormal/mystical transmission in the world of literature, especially imaginative literature. Kripal uses the term “imaginal”—a word introduced by Victorian paranormal researcher Frederic Myers but made more famous by Islamist Henri Corbin—to talk about this nexus. In an a lecture that I can no longer locate on YouTube, Kripal describes a daisy chain of influence in which sci-fi and comic book writers draw on culturally-framed anomalous experiences for their art, which then shapes the anomalous experiences of their readers, which feeds back into art and re-shapes cultural framings of the paranormal, and so on—what he calls “the fantastic loop between consciousness and culture.”
I can think of no better example of such a fantastic loop than the famous case study “Kirk Allen” in Robert M. Lindner’s 1955 pop-psychiatry memoir The Fifty Minute Hour. This young man, described as a brilliant scientist working on a secret government project during the war (implicitly the Manhattan Project, which was surely a misdirection to disguise the subject’s true identity), was referred to Lindner in Baltimore because he was spending less and less time in actual reality and more and more time in an imaginary world that, it turned out, was based on an unnamed multi-volume pulp sci-fi epic popular at the time. Lindner describes how Mr. Allen, out of his obsession with this alien world and his confused belief that it was actually about him, had, after he got to the end of his “biography,” continued writing “his” story and (to do the necessary research) habitually visited this other planet in a sort of dissociative state.
The doctor was stymied at first, because there seemed to be no reason for his clearly bonkers subject to stay in the real world—there were so many fascinating rewards in that other one, where he was a heroic ruler, married to a beautiful princess, etc. Thus there was nothing to induce him to see real reality for what it was. Lindner finally hit upon a novel therapeutic strategy: By entering the subject’s fantasy himself, taking an equally obsessive interest in it and, in the process, holding an uncomfortable mirror up to his patient’s behavior, perhaps he could gradually loosen its hold over the young man.
So he did … and it worked. And in what is surely one of the most interesting instances of psychotherapeutic countertransferrence ever documented, the doctor successfully got his patient to abandon his alternate reality, seeing it as false and pointless, but in the process developed his own deepening fascination and near-obsession with the interplanetary empire where his patient had been spending so much time. In the end, Allen breaks the spell for Lindner by admitting he made the whole thing up, although it’s unclear what he really believed earlier on.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan used this episode as a touchstone for thinking about supposed alien abductions as a kind of folie-a-deux between abductee and researcher: The abductee seduces the researcher into an alternate (and in Sagan’s mind, clearly deluded) reality or belief system, but the researcher then takes the ball and elaborates and deepens this new reality. Sagan thinks that Allen did Lindner a huge favor in the end, effectively rescuing the psychiatrist (who interestingly was an honorary fellow of the Fortean Society before his early death in 1956) from the fate of John Mack, whose reputation was damaged by credulity in a phenomenon some of his subjects too admitted to making up.
Based on the disguised description Lindner provides, it has been generally assumed that the sci-fi saga that obsessed and literally captivated his patient were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories about the Martian kingdom of Barsoom, which were first published in the pulps in 1912 and have remained popular to this day. But considerably adding to the interest and significance of Kirk Allen’s Martian adventures is his likely (although never conclusively proved) real identity. He is widely believed to have been, in actuality, the young Paul Linebarger, better known to generations of science fiction fans as Cordwainer Smith—one of the most interesting voices of mid-century sci-fi and a profound inspiration on younger writers like Ursula K. LeGuin. (And if his pictures are anything to go by, he was also about the least John Carter-ish person I could possibly imagine.)
At the probable time of the therapeutic relationship described by Lindner, Lineberger’s day job was as a prominent government scientist, a specialist in psychological warfare working for the Pentagon; he had had an unusual upbringing in the Far East with somewhat close correspondences to what Lindner described for Kirk Allen. A psychologist named Alan C. Elms has written numerous blog posts and articles on Linebarger and evidently has done extensive research toward a definitive biography, and he has concluded that Linebarger indeed was probably Allen. It may make some sense of the truly far-out imagination of the writer known for his elegaic future histories of The Instrumentality of Mankind that he could have cut his chops writing excessive notes elaborating Burroughs’ elaborately envisioned alien empire.
Assuming Kirk Allen was indeed Paul Linebarger/Cordwainer Smith, what makes the case triply interesting to me is the method of his fugue travels to this imagined/embellished alternate reality and how they matched the mode of travel used by his fictional alter ego.
At the beginning of Burroughs’ Mars saga, in what was eventually published in book form in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, we are introduced to the series’ hero John Carter. In that first novel, Carter begins as a Civil War veteran prospecting with a compatriot in Arizona; after his companion is killed by Indians, Carter takes refuge in a cave, where he falls asleep and experiences the classic symptoms of sleep paralysis: He awakens but finds his body frozen, hearing a noisy presence behind him that he cannot see. Eventually he gains use of his body, but finds that it is merely his astral body—his physical body is still lying on the cave floor.
In his astral body, Carter goes to the front of the cave, where he sees Mars on the horizon—as a warrior, it is his personal star—and he focuses his attention and will upon it: “I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.” Through many adventures over ten years while his Earth body slumbers in the Arizona cave, the Martian avatar of John Carter, after awakening in Barsoom, marries a princess and eventually becomes its ruler.
According to Chris Knowles (in Our Gods Wear Spandex), this detail of astral projection (as well as numerous other motifs in Burroughs’ work) betray a likely familiarity with Theosophy, which made a big deal of this exact mode of locomotion across space. Writers on the subject frequently noted astral projection’s continuity with what was then called “catalepsy”—i.e., waking up paralyzed, experiencing vibrations and frightening noises, and only with difficulty separating the astral body from the physical, just as Burroughs describes. Otherwise, Burroughs would have had to have a direct personal experience with journeying out of his body, as his account of the experience is highly “realistic,” as anyone who has suffered sleep paralysis and its occasional out-of-body sequelae knows. Also, traveling etherically or astrally is described in all the literature on the subject as a simple matter of willing one’s astral body to the location desired.
Crucially, this same method is followed by Lindner’s patient Kirk Allen in the dissociative states that led him to be referred for psychiatric help. Allen describes to the doctor how, when he got to the end of the series of novels—which had essentially (he thought) been describing his own life—he went ahead and began writing the continuation of his interplanetary life story. It started as a vivid anamnesis, a method he says he developed of distinguishing imagination and recall—literally “remembering” facts of his alter-ego’s ongoing biography as though they were his own memories. But at one point, while working on a map of the distant empire he ruled, he found himself unable to remember a significant detail from a photograph taken on one of his adventures but filed away (he knew) in a locked room inside his palace on the distant planet. He felt a sense of frustration that he couldn’t remember it accurately.
“I thought of those blasted photographs stuck away there in a place no one but I could get to. I wracked my brains trying to recall the landscape I had flown over, and the pictures I had glanced at casually before putting them away. No use. I was furious. I cursed myself for not looking at them more closely when I had them. And then I thought: ‘If only … if only I were there, right now, I would go directly to those files and get those pictures!”
“No sooner had I given voice to this thought than my whole being seemed to respond with a resounding ‘Why not?’—and in that same moment I was there.”
He describes how, finding himself fully within the body of his alter ego, he rose and went to the secret room in his palace and looked at the pictures he had been remembering.
“It was over in a matter of minutes, and I was again at the drawing board—the self you see here. But I knew the experience was real; and to prove it I now had a vivid recollection of the photographs, could see them as clearly as if they were still in my hands, and had no trouble at all completing the map.
“You can imagine how this experience affected me. I was stunned by it, shaken to the core, but excited as I had never been. In some way I could not comprehend, by merely desiring to do so, I had crossed the immensities of Space, broken out of Time, and merged with—literally become—that distant and future self whose life I had until now been remembering. Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t, although God knows I’ve tried! Have I discovered the secret of teleportation? Do I have some special psychic equipment? Some unique organ or what Charles Fort called a ‘wild talent’? Damned if I know!”
Note that “immensity of space” is the phrase used by Burroughs too to describe the psychic crossing. Here again, the method as well as the strong emotions coming with it strongly resemble accounts from psychic research of astral travel/OOBEs—specifically the astonished excitement—as well as the sense of “verification” that it brought him. In this case, of course, there is little possible or plausible objectivity to this verification, since he was traveling to a place we are to assume never existed but in the pages of Burroughs’ novels. Or did his obsession create a kind of tulpa of Barsoom?
The Fractal Geometry of Paul Linebarger
If we are not enough dizzied by the spirals of alter-egos and pseudonyms in Paul Linebarger’s (probable) life story—Linebarger believing himself to be John Carter of Mars and disguised by his therapist as Kirk Allen, ultimately to adopt the pen name Cordwainer Smith—there is also here a dizzying recursiveness of the mode of travel between real and imaginal and fictive worlds that is layer- or onion-like: a fractal geometry of reading and writing, imagination and anamnesis, influences and inspirations and revision and re/unnaming. What (the f***) are we to make of this? Is something trying to hide? Or is something trying to be born?
It does seem like Linebarger/Smith/Allen had a lot he felt he needed to hide. Besides his constant astral projecting into a fictional universe, he also appears to have had sexual hangups and gender quirks that his era was not ready for. According to Elms (in an interesting article in the journal Science Fiction Studies called “Building Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”), Linebarger alienated his first wife by assuming a female alter-ego in some of his early writing and by cross-dressing in her presence. Nothing like this appears in Lindner’s chapter on Kirk Allen, but Lindner does interpret his divorce from reality as a defense against normative sexuality in the aftermath of an adolescent semi-trauma of being used sexually by an older woman. Lindner reports that his patient had had no further sexual experiences since adolescence and that on one occasion he astrally projected to his distant planet to avoid a sexual encounter with a female scientist colleague he had been platonically dating.
Linebarger’s fiction does seem to me to be the work of a misfit very like the young Kirk Allen, comfortable with ideas and books and cats and alien cultures … and talking cats … but totally ill at ease in his own skin. For instance, his 1945 story “Scanners Live in Vain” (which would have been written not too many years after his therapy with Lindner, if he was indeed Kirk Allen) is about star pilots who endure the agony of space by severing all contact with their bodies, living like numb automata:
“The brain is cut from the heart, the lungs. The brain is cut from the ears, the nose. The brain is cut from the mouth, the belly. The brain is cut from desire, and pain. The brain is cut from the world. Save for the eyes.”
The button-down era when Kirk Allen visited Lindner was light years distant from our world of SF fandom, with its exuberant embrace of creative rewriting in the form of fanfic, as well as various forms of online and real-world role-play. At the time, the young man’s active fantasy life and lifestyle could only have been seen as full-on nuts, and Lindner is not at all embarrassed to use terms like “insane” and “mad” when describing him. The lack of any accepted cultural form or idiom for expressing his identification with a fictional (super)hero ensured that his ecstasies or reveries (or whatever we want to call them) remained an embarrassing private pathology whose intrusion on his professional or romantic/sexual life could only be damaging. Perhaps some future Foucault of the mystical could tell us whether this medicalized repression of Linebarger’s creative relationship to Burroughs’ fiction was actually ‘productive’ of something in the way of sexual desire, creative verve, or even psychical ability. Might the non-social-acceptability of his obsessions have facilitated some kind of psychic or mystical wild talent that today’s slightly more liberal atmosphere would have the effect of neutralizing?
Fitting in to one’s society is an important part of happiness, so Kirk Allen’s astral traveling to the self-created tulpa of Barsoom was certainly an impediment to his life. In Lacanian terms, his literary-imaginative jouissance had to be curtailed, subjected to the sociable logic of the pleasure principle, to restore him to health. But while we do get the sense that something in him was indeed cured, freed to progress in a more “normative” (in I suppose a good way) direction—which would enable him to thrive, have a family, pursue a writing career, etc.—one cannot read Lindner’s account nowadays and not feel that something extraordinary may have been killed in the process. We’ll never know if Lindner’s unorthodox treatment enabled the subsequent brilliant (but still too-obscure) career of Linebarger/Smith or inhibited it, and what other possibilities (or wild talents) it may have curtailed or redirected, for better or worse. Had Linebarger/Smith been able to consult a priest or a shaman instead of being referred to a psychiatrist for his habit of astral traveling to Barsoom, his life and his creativity may have turned out very differently.
I do think it may be significant that Linebarger’s stories (as Cordwainer Smith) are set during or in the immediate aftermath of a milliennia-long period of Galactic peace—really, crushing bland conformity and a despiriting absence of danger and illness—under the “benevolent” totalitarian control of “The Instrumentality of Mankind.” I wonder if, like many creative spirits, Linebarger linked his muse to his psychic pain or ‘abnormality’ and thus had an ambivalent attitude to the psychotherapeutic cure(s) that had rectified and normalized his existence.
Whatever the case, the story of Linebarger/Allen is a complex maze of hidden and deferred identities, transferrences and countertransferrences, and redirected/sublimated sexuality. There is something powerful at work here, some model of the intersections of psychosexual exploration and creativity and mysticism and popular culture that relates to but also goes way beyond Bloom’s Gnostic/Freudian theory of misreading. All I know is, there is so much more I want to know about Paul Linebarger. On his blog, Elms promises he is writing a biography, although it appears it has been imminent for over a decade. I know too well how those types of projects go…
The Martian Imaginal
We can fit the curious case of Kirk Allen/Paul Linebarger within a long, fascinating, bizarre history of psychic engagement with the Red Planet (or the “Martian imaginal”). Books have been written on Mars’s place in our collective fantasies and in popular culture. A few key points include Helene Smith’s mediumistic communication with that planet in the late 19th century, described in Pierre Flournoy’s book From India to the Planet Mars. In turn-of-the-century sci-fi, there was, apart from Burroughs’ novels, also obviously H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which later intruded on everyday reality through Orson Welles famously realistic radio adaptation.
Then after Kirk Allen, there was comic artist Jack Kirby’s eerily prophetic anticipation of the “face on Mars” in a 1959 comic book, 17 years before the Viking probe photographed such an object. Later, thanks to Sagan, Mars played an arguably decisive role in galvanizing public attitudes toward nuclear weapons in the last decade of the Cold War, as its dust storms provided the astronomer with his idea and model of “nuclear winter.” Anomalists continue to speculate about the existence of an ancient civilization that destroyed itself or was destroyed in Mars’s watery past. Among the planets of our solar system, Mars is uniquely not only a mirror but, arguably, a psychic player in our culture and history.
But more to my point, rather than trying to erase and rewrite his predecessor Burroughs’ engagement with that planet, the young Linebarger seems to have been happy inhabiting it, and evidently was only driven to creatively elaborate or embellish it because it ended too soon, before his “biography” was complete. Thus, to what extent does “anxiety of influence” really apply here? There is no way of answering that for certain without seeing the notes he created (and that Lindner himself got lost in). But Kripal’s picture of “fantastic loops” seems more apt: It is not simply the anxious creative genius that is wrestling with and distorting his/her predecessors; it is cultural forms, created (imperfectly) out of remarkable personal experiences—and also shaped and constrained by countless other cultural forces and semiotic systems—that distort or twist some pure current, which a budding artist was really trying to do justice to and honor even though he was an imperfect vessel in an imperfect world.
In other words, I see Kirk Allen/Paul Linebarger as genuinely trying to channel something that does not belong to him, and to actually get it right, and attempting in various ways to actually efface his ego in the process. Kripal has noted that mystical and psychic phenomena like clairvoyance and precognition are intimately connected to writing. The case of Kirk Allen, like that of Allen Ginsberg, suggests it’s clearly also connected to “spirit possession” in some, perhaps not completely literal, sense.
The creative and the mystical or paranormal (or some indeterminate category where it is hard to tell what is really going on) is some kind of universal nexus in the domain of cultural creativity, and Bloom’s “revisionism” maps just one small segment of a much wider and more interesting spectrum of creative (to put it mildly) reader response.
A year ago I wrote at length about out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) in the context of alchemy and the hermetic tradition. I confessed that I was a fence-sitter on the question of what they are—lucid dreams that just feel more real than most (i.e., corresponding to real physical environments) or actually what they feel like, some kind of dislocation of consciousness from the physical body in a “subtle” state. The latter is the doctrine and assumption of the Theosophical tradition and its modern heirs, including Robert Monroe and numerous other writers: Consciousness really leaves the body, they say, in some kind of etheric or astral envelope composed of a “fine” substance in between matter and energy. It’s a belief with ancient roots in Egyptian and Greek mysticism and European folklore, in the form of the detachable feminine spirit double.
Subsequent experiences have deepened my perplexity and raised further doubts for me about whether they really represent a detachment from the physical body. I have been led to think more about their connection to my favorite topic, precognition, as well as to psychokinesis (PK).
I have been particularly scratching my head over an OOBE I had a year and a half ago and that received “confirmation” of its veridicality almost exactly a year later, last August. It is thus far my only deliberately induced OOBE … and maddeningly, it opens itself up to multiple interpretations. Superficially, it does seem to confirm the “precognitive hypothesis” that I have been advancing in these posts. But it would be easy to read it in standard Jungian terms too, and in fact none of the readings can fully encompass the strangeness. It also has a possible mind-over-matter dimension.
It feels like a good opportunity to solicit the opinions and insight of my readers—crowdsourcing a “read” on my experience. So … readers, have at it!
I had been studying the literature on astral projection for the better part of a year by the time I achieved my first success at intentionally inducing one in late August, 2014. My favorite book on the subject is Sylvan Muldoon and Hereward Carrington’s 1929 classic The Projection of the Astral Body, an excellent collaboration between a frequent experiencer (Muldoon) and a psychical researcher (Carrington) who was able to put the young man’s numerous astral adventures in a theoretical and scientific context. (There are other fruitful collaborations between practitioners and theorists in the paranormal studies, the latest being Whitley Strieber’s collaboration with Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Normal, which I hope to discuss in a future post.) Other fascinating books have been written on the subject, particularly from the early and mid 20th Century. A few modern guides are also useful: I find Robert Bruce’s updated Theosophical metaphysics a bit iffy, but his guidebooks like Astral Dynamics have a lot of original and effective tips and tricks that show he knows what he is talking about from a practical point of view.
Precognition’s lack of familiar context would be the basis for the “uncanny” or “unhomely” that has always been associated with the paranormal: The future is the one source of information that really has no “home” for us.
My success in August 2014 was not my first OOBE—I had had one spontaneously 16 years earlier, before I was really even aware of the concept, although I did record it in detail in my dream journal (more on it below). I also had at least two OOBEs in my late teens or early twenties that were unfortunately unrecorded and I think were less detailed—just (amazingly and bafflingly) flying around the ceiling in my bedroom. Bruce would say, however, that we’re having these experiences nightly but just don’t remember them—and I think he’s probably correct.
Although I’ve consciously logged only a minute or two total of astral flight time in my life, I am no stranger to sleep paralysis, the universal precursor to OOBEs. I experienced sleep paralysis episodes frequently (and terrifyingly) as a young adult and periodically over the years since. My year of attempts at bringing on an OOBE produced several such episodes and also, on a couple occasions, pleasurable energetic or even “Kundalini”-type sensations traversing my body. Those alone confirmed that the guidebooks were not leading me astray. Typically these experiences led into standard lucid dreams, often in astonishing environments but without any veridical content that I could detect afterwards.
There is clearly something special about the OOBE state, and about sleep paralysis as its doorway; all the sources concur on the latter. The universally fearful aspects of sleep paralysis, or what used to be called “astral catalepsy,” only abate with experience and especially with reading experience, the ability to say “OK this is just sleep paralysis and nothing is really going to harm me.” The fear becomes a doorway to be pushed through, either into a lucid dream or, evidently when the stars align just right, something more.
A Heavy Cat
My OOBE in August 2014 was preceded by a sleep paralysis episode, but it did not follow the typical pattern. Usually in such episodes it seems very much like my eyes are open (even though they usually really aren’t) and I am in my bed or the couch, or wherever I have fallen asleep, and cannot move. In this case, although I was in fact in bed, “I awoke” to find myself (or at least, my point of view) fixed down near the floor in a small closet next to the bedroom where my wife and I keep our vitamins, medicine, and miscellaneous toiletries, and where my wife stows several pairs of shoes. My gaze was facing a bunch of those shoes, of all things, and I felt I was being weighed down by a heavy cat that was on my back and that I could not see. I could not move or do anything, but felt initially immense fear that only gradually abated.
Feeling like you’re being weighed down by an unseen presence is very typical in sleep paralysis experiences—in some cultures, there is the belief that an “old hag” is sitting on your chest—but I had never actually interpreted my immobility as being “sat on” before, and never by a cat. It also felt like this weird and undignified situation was summoning some scary ESP power, some dark energy; I wrote in my journal afterward that it felt like the “other side” or like “black magic to complement my white, Zen practice.” I will come back to this weird and scary little prelude to the main show later. Actually, while I thought it was a prelude, it turned out to have much more significance in hindsight.
The sleep paralysis phase abated, replaced by what I considered to be the OOBE proper: I suddenly was hovering, very lucidly and clearly, without fear, up near the ceiling of my study, about ten or twelve feet down the hall from the medicine closet. The scene was totally realistic: It was dark, only illuminated by the streetlights outside, and I was gazing down over my desk through the window, past some tree branches, at the cars parked on the quiet street below. I was immediately aware that this was what I had been attempting for months—an actual full-on OOBE—and I felt jubilant. Following the instructions of Robert Bruce, I “kept my flight short” to ensure remembering it after I awoke, and thus turned and started to “fly” back toward the bedroom. As I turned away from the window, the visual experience faded and froze, almost like a glitchy videotape coming to an end (a strange peculiarity I have also noted when waking from lucid dreams) and then my wife shook me awake because, she said, I was “snorting” loudly.
That detail of “snorting” is significant, because my last, spontaneous OOBE, in 1998, also ended with my then-wife awakening me because I was, as she said (and as I recorded in my journal), “snorting like a pig.”
The 1998 OOBE too—although I did not at the time really know about OOBEs and just thought it was a strange nightmare—was set in the study of the house I then lived in in Atlanta. In that experience, I or my “astral body” was “sitting” in front of the study window, at night, able to see the trees outside, and I was holding in my left and right hand respectively a red and a white grease pencil. Somehow because I knew it would summon a dark, sorcerous power, I touched (I think) the tip of the white pencil to the tip of the red one, which seemingly caused an energetic short circuit that opened up a doorway to some kind of malevolent, possessing presence. The vibrations of it terrified me and that is what woke me up. The detail of the grease pencils (albeit not their terrible power to summon dark forces) was correct: I did have such grease pencils on or near my desk. In hindsight, this was clearly also an OOBE, as every other detail was totally realistic, which never occurs with standard dreams or even lucid dreams.
On the more recent astral trip into my study in 2014, just one detail seemed odd: Outside the window, somehow hovering in empty space between the window and the cars below, were two green points of light, right together, almost like eyes but stacked vertically or at an angle. I immediately had the sense of being watched by some kind of surveillance camera, but could see no box or device the lights were attached to. I thought there was a slightly ominous quality to these lights, almost like something disembodied and alien peering in at me. On waking, I recorded this feeling, along with a description of the whole experience, in my journal, and noted that the green lights cast a shadow of doubt over the veridicality of the experience, because they did not correspond to anything that was there in reality. The next night I looked out the window at the cars on the street to see if there was some dashboard light that I could have misinterpreted, or some electrical box affixed to a light pole or the tree, but saw nothing of the sort.
So, while excited to have finally achieved success at deliberate “astral projection,” and intrigued by the similarities to my experience in 1998, it didn’t answer any questions in my mind. It certainly “felt” real, felt like my consciousness had separated from my body and I was hovering in my study, but there was no way to prove this to myself, and the detail of those green lights lent a slightly dreamlike quality to the otherwise realistic scene. As for the prelude, the sleep paralysis episode-slash-lucid dream “set” in the medicine closet, I interpreted that as merely symbolic of the fact that, just before bed, I had consumed a cocktail of over-the-counter nootropic supplements that I frequently took to aid in bringing on lucid dreams. I thought no more of that part, because it didn’t seem significant at the time.
The true significance of this episode did not become apparent until a year—almost to the day—after the fact.
One night in late August, 2015, I found myself standing on a chair in my study, changing the light bulb in the late evening. I happened to look down toward the window, over my desk, and saw … a double green light. It was a reflection of my laptop power cord, which has a diode that glows green when plugged into the computer and charging. The reflection would have been invisible from any lower angle; it was doubled because of the double panes of glass. My point of view, high up on the chair, was identical to where my “astral eyes” had been positioned a year before in my OOBE.
This was stunning: I immediately recognized this as “verification” of my OOBE. I had to check my journal to find the date, and was stunned, again, at the fact that it was just three days shy of a year since that experience.
But immediately I also knew that there was a second possible interpretation: Was this really a confirmation of an OOBE or was the OOBE in fact “just” a precognitive experience of standing on a chair in my study and looking down at the green diodes reflected in my study window? If I had been a worthy paranormal researcher, of course, I might have photographed the scene initially after the OOBE, and that would have been able to confirm whether my laptop was charging on my desk that night a year earlier, potentially clearing up the ambiguity. Of course, no such luck—it never would have occurred to me.
Out of parsimony, but also admittedly partly because of vanity (I like my precognition hypothesis), I opted to side with what I consider to be the simpler of the two interpretations: The OOBE was indeed purely a vivid precognitive experience, not an actual journey out of my body. It raised the question for me whether many reportedly veridical OOBEs and near-death experiences are not in fact vivid (but misinterpreted) precognitive dreams of a later “scene of confirmation” in which the person happens to duplicate in real life the physical situation or scenario in the dream—perhaps precisely in the process of confirming their experience (in other words, the time-loop feedback effect I have discussed in several articles). Even with the 1998 case in Atlanta, I remember sitting down at my desk the next day and idly touching two grease pencils together, mimicking what I’d done in the dream, just out of curiosity … so that “OOBE” also could be interpreted in these terms.
Astral travel, in other words, seems to me more likely a form of time travel, not space travel.
But there are more layers to the weirdness, which add to its ambiguity.
A Very Bad Weekend
The weekend in 2015 when I happened to be changing the light bulb in my study was an emotionally very eventful one for my wife and me. A couple days previous, I had groggily awoken in the night to pop a couple of Advil, which we keep in the aforementioned closet down the hall from the study. In the process, I dropped one, and then couldn’t locate it amid my wife’s shoes.
I became increasingly desperate to find the pill, because one of my two cats will eat anything she finds, including medicines. She has done so before, resulting in expensive calls to the poison hotline. Unfortunately, she was indeed hanging out right behind the open door to the closet, and since I couldn’t locate the Advil in the closet, my immediate thought was that it had gone under the door and my cat had promptly swallowed it. A quick trip to my computer in the study, googling “advil” and “cats” confirmed that the former is poisonous to the latter. Increasingly frantic, I searched every inch of carpet in the hall outside the closet, but finally gave up.
Long story short, I threw on some clothes and drove her to the 24-hour veterinary hospital and they admitted her. Unable to get her to vomit anything up, they put her on IV fluids to flush her system and try and prevent kidney or liver failure if she had indeed swallowed the pain reliever. The next two days, her condition was stable, but on her second night in the hospital, she had multiple life-threatening seizures. My wife and I were miserable—especially I was miserable, because I thought my carelessness had put my beloved cat’s life in jeopardy and she was now having to stay in a bedlam-like vet hospital with a lot of other screaming cats and dogs. Not to mention the fact that this fiasco was hemorrhaging our savings.
Here’s the thing: On the Monday morning I spoke to the vet and learned of our cat’s seizures and their decision that she couldn’t yet be discharged, I had a funny feeling about that Advil. It prompted me to return to the medicine closet and look one more time for the missing pill.
You guessed it. Unbelievably, there it was: not on the floor or in any one of my wife’s shoes, as it should have been, but sitting up on a narrow black binder or case standing against the wall of the closet. Its position made it look like a button on the case itself, and thus it would have been easy to overlook in my nocturnal panic two nights earlier. Somehow, it had bounced, probably off my shirt, and landed in a nearly impossible spot.
My first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was “Just don’t tell anyone.” Really, I felt bad enough already, and now it was clear that my cat had been hospitalized for nothing, and I felt like a fool. That thought passed in seconds, and I called the vet and told her frantically that I had found the Advil. The vet was silent for a second—she possibly thought I was crazy—and calmly reiterated that my cat would need to remain in the hospital and be monitored at least for another day, as she had had seizures. If she hadn’t actually swallowed something, then it meant she would need to go on anti-seizure drugs as she was clearly epileptic.
We brought our cat home the next day, I defied the various doctors and tapered her off the anti-seizure pills, and she’s been fine ever since. I don’t know what happened to her at the vet hospital, and I hope my carelessness with over-the-counter drugs never again results in such an awful and (for me) expensive misadventure.
It wasn’t until a few months later that the Advil episode and its possible connection to my sleep paralysis episode a year before dawned on me. Like I said, that part had been overshadowed by my successful OOBE, and I had written the “closet sleep paralysis” off as a prelude, “symbolic” of my having taken some supplements beforehand. But in hindsight, it proved to be the more significant of the experiences that night. Thank goodness for dated journals. I had clearly—there is no way of avoiding this interpretation—precognized the Advil affair: In the sleep-paralysis episode, my head was down by the floor, looking at my wife’s shoes, which is exactly what I did in fact do a year later, on the night I dropped the pain reliever. Moreover I had felt like “a heavy cat” was weighing me down; the cat in question, as it happens, is a bit plump (unlike our other cat). Feeling “weighed down” by her would certainly also correspond both to my anxiety over her possibly having eaten the pill and to my guilt that my negligence resulted in her miserable and seizure-inducing hospital stay.
That this part of the experience was clearly, unmistakeably precognitive supported the precognitive interpretation of the OOBE too. Other dream/visions in the context of sleep paralysis have confirmed for me quite strongly that sleep paralysis is a powerfully precognitive state. The terrifying mood or sense of an evil presence must be dissociated from the actual content of what you are seeing, doing, or trying to do in the dream. (Another more recent sleep paralysis experience also proved precisely veridical, although of a situation about 30 seconds after the dream, not a full year.)
After working with dream precognition for a few years, the precognitive nature of sleep paralysis and OOBEs surprises me not at all. But additional details lend this episode—or these linked episodes—a further paranormal twist, specifically opening the door to a topic I have avoided so far on this blog because my knowledge of the literature is admittedly much more limited. In my focus on precognition over the past couple years, I have mostly put off dealing with psychokinesis or PK phenomena, including poltergeist phenomena as a subset of those. But there may be a PK dimension to this “OOBE.”
The terror/feeling of “evil” in sleep paralysis phenomena may be the sleeping brain’s erroneous attempt to interpret information arriving from the future.
The shelves in my study contain numerous crystals and other rocks, not because I attach conventional mystical significance to them but simply because I like them and can’t help buying interesting items at rock shops whenever I return home to Colorado. A month before my OOBE, I had purchased a small slab of specularite (AKA specular hematite) in Estes Park, CO, and set it on a bookshelf in my study. Two days after the OOBE, I happened to discover that it had a crack running through it. I asked my wife about this, and she explained she had actually found it one morning on the floor at the base of the bookshelf, where it had evidently fallen in the night. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember exactly which morning it was, but it had to be either the morning after my OOBE or the subsequent morning.
The only non-paranormal way that slab of specularite could have fallen on the floor is if one of my cats had knocked it off. But my mind obviously went to the stranger possibility that perhaps my “astral body” had dislocated it, perhaps when I whirled around to head back to the bedroom in my hurry to record my successful deliberate OOBE. I would have “flown” right past it on my journey. But of course, not knowing for sure which night it had fallen, I was again unable to come to any firm conclusions. But if my OOBE was “really” a vivid precognitive experience, as I later came to believe and as the more unmistakably precognitive experience with the Advil affirmed, then any involvement of the specularite at the time of the OOBE would be senseless. Right?
But … there is also the Advil itself, almost a year to the day later. Although I’m a PK believer, my skeptical side kicks in big time around certain phenomena such as “apports,” or objects that mysteriously just appear or change their location, as though teleported. Yet I am forced to admit, the mysteriously disappearing-and-reappearing Advil is awfully suggestive as an apport. I would like to think I just didn’t see it when I searched among my wife’s shoes, where I thought it must have landed (according to all laws of physics I know). Instead it landed somehow on a the spine of a narrow nylon binder, exactly in the middle, where it could easily look like a button or rivet.*
Or else, it vanished completely when I dropped it and it reappeared on that binder two days later. As with the specularite, there is no way to know for certain.
“Come play with us, Danny”
Here’s where the final baffling piece of this mystery comes in. I don’t even want to admit this part, because it points exactly to the Jungian stuff I keep doing my best to challenge on this blog. But here goes.
On the weekend in question, while my cat was in the hospital and the day before I found the Advil I had wrongly thought she had swallowed, my wife and I had some good friends over to watch The Shining. My friend is an astrologer and writer, and since both our wives were pregnant, we thought it would be fun to watch this movie about the supernatural horrors of writing and fatherhood.
It’s one of my favorite films, and I’ve always been struck by Kubrick’s sophistication around the topic of the paranormal and possession. The most interesting scene, I think, is Jack Torrance’s terrible nightmare, from which Wendy has to rouse him. In the dream, he says, he was attacking and trying to kill their boy, Danny, and then her. Just then, Danny, in a kind of fugue or daze, his sweater ripped, wanders into the room where Wendy is consoling Jack. Wendy rushes to him, sees bruises on his neck, and then blames the bewildered Jack for attacking him. Later it turns out that the mysterious woman in room 237 had attacked the boy—presumably, exactly during the time Jack was having his dream.
Whether deliberately or not, this scene reflects the European folkloric belief I discussed in my earlier post: that our feminine spirit double can detach from our body when sleeping and perform actions and even make mischief on our behalf. Implicitly, it is Jack’s spirit double (the “old hag” in room 237) that attacked Danny, unbeknownst to either of them. Yet at the same time, Jack’s dream is also precognitive of what he will attempt to do to his family later in the film.
The detail that I uncannily keyed in on during this viewing was what immediately precedes this scene: Danny is playing on the carpet in the hallway, when from nowhere a tennis ball rolls toward him. It seems to come from room 237, the door of which is ajar, inviting him in. But the alert viewer will note that this is the same tennis ball that Jack hurled down the hall and out of sight days earlier, after working out his aggression by tossing it against the wall in the Overlook hotel lobby. In other words, it’s an apport. I had been thinking of this scene the next morning, and it is partly what prompted me to go look for the Advil again. The pill seemed to duplicate that tennis ball: disappearing and then reappearing, significantly.
Our decision to watch The Shining that weekend was not spontaneous—we had prearranged this movie date weeks in advance—thus I cannot chalk it up to a “precognitive inspiration” on my part. The connection between the movie and the real-life emotional events of that weekend felt unmistakeably synchronistic in the standard, Jungian way. I’ve discussed synchronicities with my friend on several occasions and he would certainly have felt comfortable with the Jungian reading, whereas I think these experiences reflect misdiagnosed precognition—but admittedly, this one strained such an account. Even if I had indeed simply missed the Advil the first time, we could just say it was the tennis ball in the movie that inspired me to take a second look … but in that case, still, the fact that I had overlooked the pill days earlier again links weirdly to the movie.
And then there’s the specularite. I had purchased it on one of my regular visits to the Ore Cart Rock Shop in Estes Park, CO, about a half mile from the Stanley Hotel, which inspired the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
I am left with many questions, obviously. Was the Advil an apport or did I just miss it on my first look? What about the specularite—did it just fall from the shelf or was it pushed … by a clumsy cat, or by my clumsy astral foot as I excitedly whirled around to head back to my sleeping body? Why do I always snort like a pig when waking from these experiences?** Does sleep apnea (which I do suffer from) help elicit them?
What about the “fat cat” weighing me down in the context of summoning evil power; was this just a sort of symbolic elaboration of my future guilt at putting my cat unnecessarily in the hospital because of a stray pain reliever, or was there a more precise significance: Was it actually my cat’s “spirit double” attacking me in the past (in pre-taliation, you might say, for putting her in the hospital), sort of the way Jack’s feminine spirit double attacks his son?
What does not seem to be in doubt is the precognitive nature of these experiences. Whatever else is going on, the sleep paralysis episode was like countless other precognitive dreams I have experienced, except it was unusually vivid visually and its target was a full year in the future, not a day or two as is typically the case. It also targeted a more emotionally vivid episode in my life. If the target episode was specifically my finding of the Advil (versus my frantic search for it two nights earlier), then there was a distinct emotional trope or turning, a gradient from frustration to relief (but overlaid with other complex emotions), which is nearly always the case with precognitive dreams: They seem to be about not just strong emotions, but strong emotional turnings (usually, frustration or guilt to relief or excitement, or vice versa).
This experience left me with the suspicion that sleep paralysis and OOBEs are the “big guns” of precognitive dream phenomena. If most precognitive dreams about the sink backing up, the smoke alarm going off, or some piece of news on Twitter the next morning are like little insignificant Derringers, a sleep paralysis episode or a full-on OOBE is like a Howitzer, with much longer range and relating to events with bigger emotional impact. That the most gifted psychics (Pat Price, Joe McMoneagle, etc.) have traced their abilities to facility with OOBEs is no accident.
I think there is something important about the terror/feeling of “evil” in sleep paralysis phenomena: I suspect it may be the sleeping brain’s erroneous attempt to interpret information arriving from the future. Such information would lack the context and reassuring signal of past-ness and familiarity that our memories carry with them. Their lack of familiar context would be the basis for the “uncanny” or “unhomely” that has always been associated with the paranormal: The future is the one source of information that really has no “home” for us—it lacks any place in our life experience because it hasn’t happened yet. The semi-awake or sleeping brain may naturally interpret this real unfamiliarity as an evil or sinister presence. (The association of sleep-paralysis-type experiences and undeniable precognition in Whitley Strieber’s massively documented accounts of his experiences also leads me to this conclusion—more on this in a later post.)
Going forward, I am going to operate on the assumption that any feeling of fright/terror in a dream or similar experience may be a “tracer” or signal of incoming precognitive information. We’ll see where that leads.
* Oh yeah, one more odd, probably not significant detail: That black binder that the Advil magically landed on, at the side of the closet behind my wife’s shoes? It’s a binder that contains my wife’s extensive, near-complete collection of David Bowie CDs (including many rarities, imports, etc.). The entire past year, for both of us, was weirdly Bowie-themed, including some odd precognitive experiences around his death. (For instance he appeared to me in a dream a week before he died, staring significantly at me, like he was trying to tell me something, but he wouldn’t open his mouth.) Was Bowie’s spirit double somehow involved in relocating my Advil?
** After my 1998 OOBE, when I awoke in terror and “snorting like a pig,” my initial thought was that this episode reflected some attempt at spirit possession or witchcraft, possibly instigated by a healer/shaman I had met in Papua New Guinea several years before. The “pig” connection, and the possible symbolism of “grease” (the grease pencils) and the anthropologically significant idea of mixing red and white, blood and milk, somehow all pointed to this admittedly farfetched possibility of Melanesian sorcery. Pigs are a big, big deal in Papua New Guinea, and for mundane but personal reasons I’d rather not elaborate, I suspect I was not a particularly popular character in the village I’d stayed in for a few months.
Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, in his essay “Self-Reliance,” about the failure of most people to notice and follow their inner light or spark: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.” In other words, we don’t pay attention to our own unique genius simply because it is our own—belonging to little old me, some dumb schlub.
The result of this self-denial is a particularly disappointing reading experience that is all-too-common if you have any kind of aspiration to express yourself originally: “In every work of genius,” Emerson writes, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” We are, when that happens, “forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
This frustrating experience of being scooped by some other writer is the kernel from which Harold Bloom spun a whole Gnostic-Freudian theory of literary criticism: Forget that the book we are reading may have been written years or centuries before we were even born; the unconscious has no sense of time. A strong or worthy writer (Bloom argues) feels deeply threatened by the texts that resonate most strongly with what he himself has to say, and those texts thus radiate with fascinating/horrifying sublimity, an “alienated majesty” (as Emerson put it), that must be resisted at all costs. Out of this feeling, what Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence,” the truly original creative genius feels driven by a competetive-destructive spirit that is another version of the son’s Oedipal wish to kill his father and replace him.
The energy of literary creation, in other words, is competetiveness arising from a desperate refusal of the writer’s own belatedness. This need to be original also distorts the writer’s reading of his predecessors; in the course of several books, Bloom applied this to the world of poetry and created what he called a “map of misreading”—a start toward a kind of literary genealogy of influence and its anxious defenses from literary fathers to their sons down through the centuries. When broadened beyond the narrow sphere of poetry, Bloom’s theory of literary revisionism offers a useful Freudian theory of cultural innovation that can be applied to many domains. I even suspect this precise anxiety may fuel precognitive experiences among writers who are unconsciously trying to scoop each other, as I have discussed in previous installments.
Bloom’s theory makes great sense of poetic and cultural creativity in the world of what might be called alpha creatives, who are generally male and who are universally obsessed with their own reputation and legacy—and this applies a bit to everyone insofar as we are humans and have egos and try to protect them. But I think it also may cause us to overlook more outrageous and even mystical altered states of reading in which the reader/writer’s ego is more permeable and receptive to “transmission” from literary forebears.
If I could take any one piece of mystical writing and thrust it people’s hands and urge them to read it with all my pleading force, it would not be any of the spiritual classics or Zen writings piled in my study but, of all things, Allen Ginsberg’s 1966 interview in the Paris Review, in which the poet describes at great length a profound mystical state he experienced in 1945 while a student at Columbia University. I’ve read lots of accounts of ecstatic experiences, but this one gets me the most—it’s a touchstone I’ve returned to again and again since I first read it two and a half decades ago, not only for the beauty of Ginsberg’s insights but also for the simple humor and humanity with which he depicts the transfigured reality he experienced during a few ecstatic days as a young man.
Ginsberg is disarmingly blunt in his description: It began, he said, just after he had masturbated while idly reading the poetry of William Blake in his room. I quote at length:
And just after I came, on this occasion, with a Blake book on my lap—I wasn’t even reading, my eye was idling over the page of The Sunflower, and it suddenly appeared—the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers—and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me. “Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the Sun; / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveler’s journey is done.” Now, I began understanding it, the poem while looking at it, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earth graven voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice … But the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son. “Where the Youth pined away with desire, / And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow / Arise from their graves, and aspire / Where my Sunflower wishes to go.” … [L]ooking out at the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place that he was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about—in other words that this was the moment that I was born for. This initiation.
It is an experience and an insight that has been described countless times in spiritual literature, but what is unique in Ginsberg’s account are the particulars, the humor and specificity of it, and his linking it specifically to the act of reading and the mundane economy of books and learning, which lend it an authenticity and immediateness that more culturally or historically distanced accounts may lack.
Ginsberg goes on to describe visiting the campus while in his transcendent frame of mind and his realization, upon leafing through another Blake book in the university bookstore, that this cosmic awareness is actually shared by everyone but that we hide it from ourselves and each other through the masks we wear. Again I quote at length:
I was in the eternal place once more, and I looked around at everybody’s faces, and I saw all these wild animals! Because there was a bookstore clerk there who I hadn’t paid much attention to, he was just a familiar fixture in the bookstore scene … But anyway I looked in his face and I suddenly saw like a great tormented soul—and he had just been somebody whom I’d regarded as perhaps a not particularly beautiful or sexy character, or lovely face, but you know someone familiar, and perhaps a pleading cousin in the universe. But all of a sudden I realized that he knew also, just like I knew. And that everybody in the bookstore knew, and that they were all hiding it! They all had the consciousness, it was like a great unconscious that was running between all of us that everybody was completely conscious, but that the fixed expressions that people have, the habitual expressions, the manners, the mode of talk, are all masks hiding this consciousness. Because almost at that moment it seemed that it would be too terrible if we communicated to each other on a level of total consciousness and awareness each of the other—like it would be too terrible, it would be the end of the bookstore … in other words the position that everybody was in was ridiculous, everybody running around peddling books to each other. Here in the universe! Passing money over the counter, wrapping books in bags and guarding the door, you know, stealing books, and the people sitting up making accountings on the upper floor there, and people worrying about their exams walking through the bookstore, and all the millions of thoughts the people had—you know, that I’m worrying about—whether they’re going to get laid or whether anybody loves them, about their mothers dying of cancer or, you know, the complete death awareness that everybody has continuously with them all the time—all of a sudden revealed to me at once in the faces of the people, and they all looked like horrible grotesque masks, grotesque because hiding the knowledge from each other. Having a habitual conduct and forms to prescribe, forms to fulfill. Roles to play. But the main insight I had at that time was that everybody knew. Everybody knew completely everything. Knew completely everything in the terms that I was talking about.
The Interhuman Church
Ginsberg’s ecstatic realization in the bookstore reminds me a lot of my favorite Polish writer, novelist and diarist Witold Gombrowicz, who throughout his work described masks as a way of managing the danger of human contact. (The most hilarious and memorable scene in his debut novel Ferdydurke, for instance, is a “grimace war” between two schoolkids.) Gombrowicz elevated the power and danger of other people into a kind of fetishistic religion, what he called the “interhuman church.” Throughout his writing he focused on the perverse ways people try to extract the energy of contact from others without paying their social dues, and how the forms through which we express ourselves are always these dishonest bottlings of our latent energy. (His stories and novels are weirdly like Seinfeld episodes from a different, much more uptight era.)
As I’ve written elsewhere on Gombrowicz: “Humanity has devised a billion ways of not contacting each other. Everything you look at, everything we’ve done or accomplished, can be seen as a way of avoiding contact. The Hebrews of the Old Testament kept God behind a curtain because to be in his presence, they thought, was fatal. I think really being in the presence of the human is fatal, so we create structures, channels, protocols, machines, to redirect the energy, redirect ourselves, and protect ourselves.”
An interesting thing happens when you bottle the interhuman Real: It evolves a Form, just as an influx of energy does in any physical system. Forms—cultural forms, biological forms, behaviors, you name it—become possibilized, rationalized, rechanneled into acceptable constructs or formations that are, when you really peer in close (like peering into the grass in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet) seething with instability and danger. Cultural forms like art and poetry (and science and politics) are temporary unstable solutions, just as the individual ego is. We utterly depend on these constructs to contain the outrageous energies that are in us and that precede and surround us. Sometimes in the midst of visionary experiences, as in Ginsberg’s case, we have an insight into this fact, and see the human pathos behind the masks we wear and the systems we erect to protect us from the jouissance of the human Real.
Ecstasy is another possible translation for jouissance: a feeling so excessive that it actually takes us out of our bodies (ecstasy comes from ek-stasis, to stand out or aside). The way language and social rules, including manners and structures of social interaction, function as a Symbolic screen against the interhuman Real is seen clearly in situations when those structures and rules are surgically removed.
Performance artist Marina Abramovic’s 2009 installation at MOMA, “The Artist Is Present” is probably the best example. For three months, gallery visitors could sit silently across from the artist in the gallery and gaze into her eyes. As shown in the film documenting this piece, many visitors were overwhelmed with emotion at this unmediated presence of another person; the experience eems to have been a religious one for many. It is essentially identical to the experience of receiving darshan (or “auspicious sight”) in the Hindu tradition: a gaze or a hug by a great guru or holy person that can provoke an ecstatic experience in the recipient. For a few months “The Artist Is Present” became the thing to experience in New York.
It may not matter that the giver of darshan is a guru or famous artist. L. Ron Hubbard clearly understood the power latent in interhuman contact for liberating our untapped potential. There is an early exercise in Scientology training in which participants sit across from each other without speaking (it is even depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie The Master). According to John L. Wilhelm (The Search for Superman), SRI psychic extraordinaire Pat Price traced his unique psi gifts to an out-of-body experience provoked by precisely this exercise. Jason Beghe reports in Alex Gibney’s Scientology documentary Going Clear that it had the same effect on him (even if without the psychic sequelae). So explosive is another human being’s mere presence, in other words, that just facing one without the usual social mores that structure our social encounters has the potential of actually liberating us from our bodies.*
Humanity is strong stuff.
Reading, Psi, and the Body
I have never had a full-on religious experience like Ginsberg’s while reading a book or wandering around a bookstore, but I’m no stranger to less extreme altered states of reading. The “intellectual high” is a real thing, for example: In the excitement of reading a particularly mind-blowing passage in a book I have often experienced semi-out-of-body experiences, where I feel myself to be drawn toward the text in front of me, hovering in the space between my face and the page—an odd body-dysmorphic feeling of being italicized. I assume other readers experience this slight dissociation. The joy of uniquely mind-bending writers like Phil Dick or Slavoj Žižek is not unlike that of Zen koans: to force a conceptual rupture and a mild ek-stasis.
Even if a text does not seem literally about me, I also know the experience of hearing the words spoken in my head as though by the author; I’m surely not unusual in this, either. There is some way in which, in a state of intellectual excitement, the book in front of you—or the screen you’re reading on, or whatever the medium through which you engage with a text—is not enough; you want to pass into and through it, or you believe some direct communion with the author is possible. That frustration may in fact widen the aperture of psi.
Jacques Vallee observed ESP effects in experiments he set up in the 1970s using computer networks. The sense of frustration at communicating through narrow channels of electronic mail and chat systems, on a keyboard and screen, produced what looked to him like real telepathy (although I’d suggest, without knowing the details, that it could really have been precognition of imminent confluences/coincidences of thoughts as manifested on the participants’ screens). Psi particularly seems to manifest when there is particular urgency and when ordinary modes of communication are unavailable or felt to be too-limiting. For me, precognition manifests routinely, almost daily, around Twitter, email, and the specific mild frustrations of following unfolding news events online.
I suspect mildly anomalous experiences of aesthetic or intellectual excitement that distort our psychic spacetime, as well as feelings of psychic connection to an author, are quite common yet are seldom discussed or described, simply because we lack a vocabulary for them. These small experiences are just one end of a continuum that includes the powerful sublime ecstasies that interest religion scholars like Jeffrey Kripal—a spectrum of energetic distortion of the powerfully enthralled or engaged bodymind that is conducive to psi.
A Time Machine
How many college students must experience similar things to what Ginsberg did: ecstatic states inspired by something profound they have read during that reading-intense four or so years of their lives—and perhaps even wandered through their campuses in an inspired haze, ending up in the bookstore—but lack sufficient cultural/spiritual/literary coordinates to triangulate the experience and articulate it to themselves, let alone others? How many such experiences are thus completely or mostly forgotten?
Fortunately for Ginsberg, he did have the necessary coordinates, thanks to his education and upbringing and interesting friends, as well as an ambition to become one of those people sharing their cosmic insights. “[M]y first thought,” Ginsberg says, “was this was what I was born for, and second thought, never forget—never forget, never renege, never deny. Never deny the voice no, never forget it, don’t get lost mentally wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds or advertising worlds or war worlds or earth worlds. But the spirit of the universe was what I was born to realize.”
For the young poet, the experience of finding himself addressed and described in a text by Blake, lying on his bed with his fly unzipped, was nothing less than a transmission across time and space from the English mystic, bestowing an inheritance and a mission that he explicitly compared to the Zen fifth patriarch giving the begging bowl symbolic of his status to his successor Hui-Neng. He says:
The thing I understood from Blake was that it was possible to transmit a message through time that could reach the enlightened, that poetry had a definite effect, it wasn’t just pretty, or just beautiful, as I had understood pretty beauty before—it was something basic to human existence, or it reached something, it reached the bottom of human existence. But anyway the impression I got was that it was like a kind of time machine through which he could transmit—Blake could transmit—his basic consciousness and communicate it to somebody else after he was dead …
This “time machine” experience of literary transmission bestowed upon a lonely young student/poet in his little New York apartment a whole destiny to be the ecstatic American poet-prophet of the Self in the tradition of Whitman. It is a destiny that he went on to fulfill brilliantly.
I am not enough of a literary scholar to be able to tell whether the Bloomian features of misreading (of Blake, of Whitman) are evident in Ginsberg’s poetry, and Ginsberg was oddly overlooked by Bloom despite wide critical consensus that he belongs firmly in the “Western Canon.” But I have to think the emphasis on Freudian father-killing obscures a less “agonistic” channel of poetic-spiritual transmission. When I read Ginsberg’s exuberant, ecstatic poetry or even just his transcribed conversation, I detect a spring flowing unimpeded from somewhere else. It could be a universal cosmic inheritance that is being channeled by a particularly unhindered soul. It could simply be his own future, bigger, smarter, wiser self—which I have argued is the true identity of the Freudian unconscious and the real source of all our creativity.**
*It may be possible to extract some of this power just from staring at ourselves. The exercise of gazing into a mirror for a prolonged period, something I have always avoided because it feels unlucky, seems to produce interesting paranormal phenomena, as Chris Savia explored in this article.
**The scene of Ginsberg’s “transmission,” masturbating in his apartment, is appropriate. Slavoj Žižek often expresses the cynical-sounding Lacanian idea that sex is really masturbation with a partner. My argument that psi phenomena like telepathy may really be precognition with a partner probably sounds similarly cynical; but while it may ‘queer’ the Frederic Myers-Jeffrey Kripal idea that psi is fundamentally about human connection, I think this theory opens all kinds of new ways of enhancing the power of psi to enhance our imminent and future human connections IRL, in the flesh (or at least, in the text).
I have been arguing that present experience contains associative traces of emotional events ahead of us in time; we are detecting (faintly) the future—the real future, not just some imaginatively forecast future—at all moments, mostly beneath the level of conscious awareness. But because the retrocausality implied in this model is so “hard to think” (and culturally taboo), we prefer to interpret our future-sniffing faculty in all kinds of other, classically causal ways. We reframe precognitive visions as telepathy or clairvoyance or spirit mediumship or “past lives“; we reframe precognitive psychosomatic symptoms as manifestations of an off-stage unconscious; and we reframe the surprising, seemingly coincidental outcomes of our precognitive orientation as “synchronicities” stage-managed by a meaningful universe or higher intelligence.
My dream is that the psi ranger of tomorrow will learn to detect and recognize the bent twigs of her own passage ahead of herself in time and understand them for what they are.
Even many parapsychologists dislike the idea of precognition. This results in a funny effect of reserving precognition only for phenomena that absolutely cannot be accounted for through one of the other classical psi channels. My favorite psi guide, psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbud, fell prey to this reasoning: Although he brilliantly analyzed numerous instances of unmistakable “paranormal foreknowledge” displayed by his patients (and himself), he always assumed that if a patient dreamed merely about the contents of the next morning’s paper, for instance, it had to be a case of clairvoyance and not precognition as long as the paper had already been printed at the time of the dream.
I call this the “impossible by degrees” fallacy: If something is hard to think, we assume that nature likewise must find it strenuous to achieve. But if we grant the existence of precognition at all, there is no reason not to think that it is an ubiquitous operating principle in our lives. The problem is we have never had a theory that made it believable or palatable to mainstream scientific thinking.
Nonlocality, commonly invoked in parapsychology since the 1980s, sounds like it ought to fit the bill, but it cannot. All things in space and time may indeed be connected, but that fact doesn’t explain how the psi eyes of a remote viewer like Joe McMoneagle can home in on a Russian Typhoon submarine under construction, amid all possible pieces of information in the universe; he doesn’t know what he is looking for or even where (or when) the coded target is located—and thus has no basis from which to recognize the “right answer.” And quantum entanglement, the basis of nonlocality, cannot explain why a mother might have a vision of her own son dying on a battlefield; the particles that ever linked the two individuals would, as far as we know, have long since broken their special bonds due to the quantum promiscuity called decoherence.
Although some psychics and psychical researchers have been tempted to see the mind as limitless or omniscient, or as somehow extensions of a higher (or deeper) collective (un)consciousness, I think this kind of explanation is a bit of a cop-out. It removes psi from the scientific pale, and it doesn’t really fit the data very well. Much evidence suggests ESP trades in intimate, idiosyncratic meanings that resonate across an individual’s unique timeline, not on something shared or exchanged across space and among people. “Extraordinary knowing” (to use Elizabeth Mayer‘s term) often can be shown to consist of knowledge that a psychic lacks direct access to currently but will acquire at some point thereafter, often imminently. Other paranormal phenomena like meaningful coincidences have a similarly personal, intimate character, and this should be the needed clue that these phenomena are fundamentally precognitive and likely linked to our own brain processes. It simplifies things considerably to think of them as phenomena related to memory. In fact, McMoneagle himself (in his book Mind Trek) came to exactly the conclusion I have been arguing: that somehow the psychic is sending him/herself information from a future point when the correct answer is learned. (Not surprisingly, the star remote viewer also reports a lifetime of extraordinary memory abilities.)
Thus despite my strong affinity with some aspects of New Age thinking, the scientist side of me is increasingly “anti” one of the strongest currents in that metaphysics, the idea of a transpersonal matrix of meaning connecting humans to each other and to objects, some oceanic amnion of significance in which we are all swimming, or a universal “field” of consciousness whose ripples somehow carry meaningful information across both time and space. This turns out to be a very hot-button issue, as shown in the reactions I sometimes get to these posts and in the forum discussion following my recent Skeptiko appearance. Many psi believers very much want to believe that we are ensconced in an intrinsically meaningful universe and that it is not simply, as I argue, our own meaning-making brains creating the meaning we seem to find in the world ready-made, such as in synchronicities.
In the Out Door
The matrix of meaning goes back, in the Western philosophical tradition, to Plato, who saw the real world imperfectly reflecting the perfect world of ideal forms. This basic idea is reflected in astrology and the hermetic tradition (“as above, so below”) and in the late Medieval theory of similitudes described by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things—a system of correspondences that maps nearly identically onto the tropes used by the dreaming brain in building our associative memory search system. That right there should be a big hint that when we think we see evidence of a meaningful universe, we are encountering our own cortical processes in reflection, a confusion of the subjective and objective.
As an inherently material phenomenon, meaning is really a false friend of any idealist wishing to unseat the dominant materialist paradigm.
The Platonic matrix of meaning has tempted an increasing number of modern theorists of consciousness, psi, and related anomalies. Ervin Laszlo’s “Akashic fields” idea and Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of “morphic fields” owe a great deal to Platonic (meta)physics. And many parapsychologists too adopt an implicitly or explicitly Platonic, matrix-of-meaning model, assuming that such a model is somehow the only possible explanation for psi. For example, in an essay in this past December’s EdgeScience, James Carpenter argues that psi implies
a universe of meaning that exists ‘out’ as well as ‘in.’ As Plato thought, meanings exist beyond the person and are not simply constructed by the person or by groups of people. In psi, we engage meanings that supersede any physical connection to the self. Yet we engage them, we are affected by them, we express implicit references to them. It seems that we find them much more than we make them, and we find them far beyond the normal bounds of the body and the current moment.
I love Carpenter’s “first sight” theory of psi, and agree with his basic argument that psi is not some extraordinary add-on to normal perception but reflects a fundamental substrate of sensation and awareness, basic to our survival. But as an anthropologist, I must challenge him on the idea of meanings existing beyond the person other than in materially instantiated symbols. Meaning is a semiotic phenomenon that is encoded culturally but is made by individual minds/brains; although codes can be transmitted in material form, meaning as such could not exist “outside the head” … and psi does not necessarily imply such an outside-the-head structure of meaning, even if it seems to at first glance.
All data from ethnography, psychology, human development, etc., point to meaning as particular and physically embodied, not transpersonal or reflective of an underlying unus mundus, as Jung phrased it (however appealing we may find such a notion). Cultural systems of meaning are particular to cultures and incommensurable across cultures—there is always something lost in translation. The very notion of a transpersonal or universal matrix of meaning runs counter to how meaning works and how it has to work: Just as there is no “language” as such but only specific languages, meaning is only, ultimately, when you zoom in, a plurality of meanings, which are semiotic in nature, resting ultimately on arbitrary (that is, artificial, made-and-not-found) distinctions within a larger symbolic system that has to be culturally transmitted.
Making meaning requires imposing arbitrary divisions on otherwise smooth reality. Every meaning-bearing signifier reduces to an arbitrary attachment of a consensus value to some “cut” or distinction in a flow of matter or energy—for instance, a certain gesture in opposition to other possible gestures (or to no gesture), a certain sound in opposition to other possible sounds (or to silence), a certain shape in opposition to other possible shapes (or to emptiness), and so on. The ability of the cortex to pair such “distinctive features” (as they are known in linguistics) with associated values and link them to personal experience in memory is what imbues the world with meaning in the semiotic sense of the term. Meaning is information relative to a context and, most importantly, to a recipient who can use that context to decode and make sense of it, give it value.
As an inherently material phenomenon, meaning is really a false friend of any idealist wishing to unseat the dominant materialist paradigm. It is a human creation, encoded in culture, made and re-made endlessly in the individual mind/brain. It is also necessarily subjective, dependent upon a particular point of view. As such, it cannot really be collective, other than in the sense of roughly (culturally) shared.
When the World Was Jung
The updated modern version of Plato is Jung, who is of course a sacred and nigh untouchable figure in New Age metaphysics. He also persistently creeps into parapsychological theorizing because his concepts seem to offer at least a useful vocabulary for talking about psi phenomena; his concept of the “collective unconscious” is, like the world of forms, a transpersonal matrix of meaning somehow uniting humans to each other and even to the physical environment. People love the idea of a universal field of energy and insight where basic symbolic motifs exist ready-made and shared, like a central library we all draw from. But what does it really help explain? And how could immaterial ideas “reach in” and shape our lives all on their own, for instance in synchronicities? He was unable to answer this—indeed as Arthur Koestler argued in his essential book, The Roots of Coincidence, he essentially resorted to a causal model but simply called it something different.
The idea of archetypes fast-forwarded past the really meaty questions of meanings and how they are fashioned, negotiated, and transformed in ritual and social action.
Hypostatizing “archetypes” was Jung’s biggest mistake, and it is the main reason that Jung, unlike Freud or Lacan, has zero relevance for today’s social sciences. Even at the time Jung wrote, the sublime complexity of cultural meaning systems as studied by anthropologists and linguists, coupled with the sublime ingenuity of the individual unconscious as mapped by Freud, could already easily explain the commonalities of symbolism that Jung detected in his patients’ lives and dreams and regularities across the mythologies of different cultures. The idea of archetypes fast-forwarded past the really meaty questions of meanings and how they are fashioned, negotiated, and transformed in ritual and social action, and how these processes might produce forms that recur from society to society despite no history of contact.
Meaning is ultimately personal; it takes social action to make it collective, and that making-collective must be renewed again and again in ritual. Meaning is something built up within us over the course of life and perpetually renewed in cultural experience; again, there is no universal language giving meaning to human thoughts prior to learning a language and the other meaning systems constitutive of culture. This is why anthropologists have long looked to Freud and the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition for a basic theory of symbolic motivation, or how culturally encoded symbols become meaningful to the person by linking to our instincts, needs, and drives, and how personal/private symbols conversely become public. Nobody in anthropology reads Jung (except maybe for pleasure), because he unfortunately put the cart of meaning before the horse of embodied cognition.
If many cultural symbolic motifs are similar all over the world, it is because they reflect human existential universals. Sexual reproduction is basic and universal, thus all cultures symbolize and personify various functions central to sex, motherhood, fatherhood, etc.; conflict and war are universal, so cultures tend to have similar martial symbologies; ironic unconscious processes always trip us up, thus all cultures have a “Trickster”; and so on.
It is nevertheless a human need to deep down believe in a larger guarantor of the arbitrary cultural meanings we were enculturated into. Jacques Lacan called it the “Big Other.” He assured us that the Big Other does not in fact exist, yet it may be a necessary illusion for users of culture to retain their faith in the symbolic currency of language and symbols—sort of the way a central bank declares and supports the value of its bank notes even if there’s nothing actually in the coffers. Jung’s “collective unconscious” is kind of a transcultural version of the Big Other.
Much confusion arises, I think, from the failure to draw the proper distinction between meaning and information, which is increasingly becoming the dominant conceptual lens through which physical scientists view complex ordered systems at all scales.
The scandalous irony is that causality as such, the object of scientific inquiry prior to our outside of meaning, is thus outside the known and can only be an article of faith.
Information is really a way to quantify causality. For instance in Seth Lloyd‘s definition, any measurable state of a particle (its spin, charge, etc.) is a “bit” of information. The amount of information in a system is the number of bits needed to describe it, and as chaos/entropy increases in the universe, so (thus) does the amount of information—leading to Lloyd’s argument that the universe can be thought of as a big quantum computer, each of whose physical interactions amounts to “computation,” the processing of information. The Information is not intrinsically meaningful, however, and this is where his metaphor fails a little—unless we imagine that God is sitting at his laptop awaiting some output of all this computation, because it was designed to answer some question in his mind. Computers are generally programmed to produce a desired output, not crunch numbers for no reason; meaning is what expresses this sense of purpose, the value somebody gives to information gained in measurement or computation, the value of information for and to someone. Thus information is a concept that conveys the virtual or potential meaning in causality; but information as such—that is, cause—has no intrinsic meaning, and meaning as such cannot be causal, except via our own actions.
But (I hear you protest) quantum physics insists that measurement—the giving of meaning to information—has a real physical effect through collapsing wavefunctions, etc. Many things could be said here: First, there is no consensus in physics about what measurement means or what the consciousness of the observer doing the measuring might mean. This is going to be debated for a very long time and may prove unanswerable. And anyway the “observer” that physicists are talking about, by virtue of being injected into the experimental context, has ceased being the subjective, philosophical, “I am here, this is me” consciousness centralized in anti-materialist metaphysics; it could mean just the capability to make a choice … but a computer could do that. The question is whether a computer could experience the answer to its own question—and whether that subjective experience matters somehow in measurement. It may be impossible to answer these questions, because it pushes knowledge and knowability to its limit (the Lacanian Real).
This is really what Heisenberg showed back at the birth of quantum physics: Measurement, which imparts a human-given meaning to a physical object like a particle, diverts what might otherwise be a “pure cause” into a flow of symbolic meanings usable by the mind-brain but at the cost that it is now useless for doing other work; we cannot know what a particle might have done if we had not measured it. For causality to flow unimpeded, it cannot be interfered with in the process of giving it meaning—that is to say, making it communicable—through measurement. Thus the indeterminacy principle showed not the role of meaning in nature (as some interpret it) but rather the incommensurability of meaning and cause, and thus the limits of human knowing, and the noncollapsible gap between subjective and objective. There is no traversing this gap. The scandalous irony of course is that causality as such, the object of scientific inquiry prior to our outside of meaning, is thus outside the known and can only be an article of faith.
The Sandbox of Confusion
As Robert Plant famously put it, “sometimes words have two meanings.” This is no more true than of the word meaning itself. I’ve discussed meaning is the semiotic sense, significance as signification; it can only be this sense of meaning that the universe could be thought to consist objectively of a matrix of correspondences that could be invoked to account for phenomena like meaningful coincidences or psi. But when anti-materialists decry the “meaningless” universe described and even created by materialist science, they also partly mean meaning in the larger “meaning of life” sense: A higher significance, a sense of connection, and so on, as well as just the sense of life’s potential and richness, its beauty and grandeur. Science (it is argued) wants to evacuate the world of these things, replacing any sense of God or higher purpose with the impersonal, cold interactions of objects and energy (i.e., information).
Good luck colonizing Mars, developing new antibiotics, or feeding the starving masses with a mindset that meaning has to be part of our scientific picture.
This other meaning of meaning is partly a sense of life being worth living because it interests and excites us—that is, it is a synonym for enjoyment. This kind of meaning can in fact be found in and enhanced by scientific inquiry, but it is certainly not (nor should it be) the point of that inquiry; the point of science is to expand our ability to manipulate the world, expand our instrumentality, and that is achieved via reduction and measurement—which entails setting aside personal preferences about the way the world is (which we call “bias”) and, as much as possible, dispassionately subjecting objects to an impersonal system of theory and measurement. Measurement, in turn, necessarily implies materialism as an operating assumption. Thus meaning not only is inherently material, it demands materiality, and thus is no friend of true idealists.
Some in the psi community think it is a futile enterprise to even use science to investigate or theorize psi phenomena, since such efforts have, after a century and a half, yielded little in the way of a theory. Remote viewer Paul Smith argues that the attempt to scientifically theorize psi reflects a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” adopting a framing that is inherently hostile and unhelpful to the real point of exercising psi abilities. It’s an understandable position, and there may even be a way in which understanding psi mechanisms inhibits the actual doing (a common ironic principle in life and art that Lacan summarized with his phrase “how the non-duped err”). But I cling (perhaps naively) to my belief that although the scientific framework has historically been hostile to parapsychology, it is not inherently so. Future scientific understanding could be an essential part of exploring and enhancing psi abilities in new ways. We just need to have faith in that future science … and perhaps give the obstructionist skeptics time to die off.
Science, as social construct, isn’t perfect, but as long as we play by its rules (and don’t oversell its ability to address philosophical questions), it is a valuable, necessary tool. None of us, it is safe to say, would even be here, alive (let alone able to debate these ideas) if it wasn’t for the technologies that reductive, materialist science has made possible, starting with the “concrete science” of myth that (per anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss) gave us tools and agriculture and animal husbandry. The “meaningless” world that science is sometimes accused of creating comes from the way humans use their crude as well as more refined tools to inflict pain and suffering on themselves and each other—that is, rob the world of spirit or enjoyment—but this is not science’s fault, per se, and it’s hardly a new thing. You can’t gaze at a megalithic site or a pyramid and not realize that the ancients had their own profound issues with and around materialism.
All this is to say, I’m not a fan of making science and spirit play together in the same sandbox. Since meaning is always meaning-to or -for someone, injecting meaning into science, despairing of causal explanations (as Jung did with his theory of synchronicity, for instance), would entail returning science to the pre-Copernican, Medieval world, where our personal wishes/biases (or, the wishes of the priesthood) dictated scientific truth. Good luck colonizing Mars, developing new antibiotics, or feeding the starving masses with a mindset that meaning has to be part of our scientific picture. Though we often confusedly call upon science to weigh in on philosophical or ethical or poetic questions, those exist on a completely different layer of discourse and experience. To think that these conceptually separate layers causally interact, or that the answers to existing scientific anomalies like psi are to be found in blurring the distinction between subjective (meaning) and objective (information), is to create a sandbox of confusion.
If the world comes to seem acquainted with our thoughts (as Jung very aptly put it), it is neither because we live suspended in an amnion of cosmic meaning nor because we are simply deluded about the probabilities of coincidence (as psychologists never tire of insisting), but because our brain is somehow predigesting, pre-metabolizing our future in some way we have yet to fully understand. My dream is that the psi ranger of tomorrow will learn to detect and recognize the bent twigs of her own passage ahead of herself in time and understand them for what they are. The first step toward such a future is casting aside the cultural models of time and causality that currently shackle our imaginations—which includes not only the rigid, unidirectional classical causality of the skeptics but also “matrix of meaning” models that inhibit our scientific inquiry into how the human organism inhabits time.
Postscript: The Spirit of Parallax
To argue against a matrix of cosmic or universal meaning is not a spirit-free stance. It accords quite well with Buddhism, in fact, which would say that enlightenment comes not from departing the material world for some world of meaning but from transcending both of these limited frameworks. The great beauty of the cosmos is in its meaninglessness, its transcendence of the symbolic order as well as material instrumentality.
We really need to get over the fear of dualism, a fear shared by both materialist and idealist extremists.
This higher transcendent dimension of awareness and bliss, the rarified sense of “consciousness” that mystics have always united with, and that I think is really synonymous with enjoyment as the Lacanian tradition describes it, surpasses all symbolic cuts and measures and forms. Those who have not united with it but admire it from afar wrongly suppose it to be a place rich in meanings, a “mind” in the everyday sense, as somehow a plenitude of thoughts and ideas and information. But bliss-awareness, at its root, precedes any structuration; there is no information or meanings there.* There is only meaning in that other sense of the word, as fulfillment and reward and a sense of connection.
We really need to get over the fear of dualism, a fear shared by both materialist and idealist extremists. The triumphal voices in both camps somehow think the only pure way to be is to be a monist, and thus they all, on whichever side of the divide, commit the sin of reduction, reducing or assimilating the opposite viewpoint to their own. Hardcore eliminative materialists try to destroy and assimilate meaning to the objective—a stupid, pointless position that only makes them feel better, less threatened by mystery and uncertainty and subjectivity. Hardcore idealists, on the other hand, equally falsely claim the scientific enterprise is bankrupt or a lie because it doesn’t make a place for meaning and spirit. They claim that, since the material world is “within consciousness” (a true-enough statement) then meaning ought to somehow be a causal term in scientific explanations (an unsupported and confused statement, not logically flowing from the first).
The fact is, humans are dual creatures; we need both points of view, subjective and objective, idealist and materialist, spiritual and instrumental, and these opposites do not add up or complement each other or form any harmonious unity. This is the uncomfortable condition of “parallax” described by Slavoj Žižek, identical to the “no self” of the Buddhist tradition. I am thus unashamed to be an anamorphic dualist, flickering between these viewpoints. I highly recommend such a position for stress relief: You no longer get angry at the arrogant reductive materialists or impatient with the fuzzy-headed New Agers (God bless ‘em). Both positions are expressions of monist extremism, fearful of impurity, wanting things to balance and harmonize. Instead, embrace impurity and meaninglessness and non-closure. Embrace parallax. That impossible no-space in-between is where Zen is.
* … Which is why it is important to always question the spiritual value of information-dense visions reported by Gnostic and psychedelic explorers. Gnosticism is an intellectual and critical path, but not a spiritual one. Terrence McKenna the entheogen prophet and Phil Dick the Gnostic prophet were among the smartest people I’ve ever had the joy to read, but neither strike me as anything like enlightened. And while they both reported back about plenitudes of “alien” information (McKenna’s solidified language in DMT-land, Dick’s hypnagogic galley proofs and data-dense milk cartons, etc.), with sparse exceptions they were never quite able to report the content of the information they had seen or glimpsed, just its form—as though it had the fleetingness and insubstantiality of a dream.
What neither could quite discern was that that alien information they saw was their own future writings (and talkings, in McKenna’s case). The invisible landscape of information, the robot satellites beaming Dick information, were just figurations for the information they would themselves produce through their brilliant inspired discourse; it was their own future products they were seeing. The insubstantiality of our precognitive visions reflects the fact that they can only be sketches until we ourselves have done the work of coloring them in.
It is because we are lost, decentered by the ego and conceptual symbolic thought, that many mystical or religious experiences involve a sudden amazement of what Ram Dass famously called “being here now,” or simply presence. What is really the most obvious fact, our simple existence somewhere, our conscious awareness, suddenly comes alive as something new and fascinating: “I am here.” Every term in that sentence takes on a numinous quality or becomes a sublime mystery: I, me, what is that? What is it to be? What is here? Where is here? Where was I before and why didn’t I feel so strongly like I was anywhere? How did my being-here-now suddenly feel so amazing?
Space itself contains psychotropic properties that can be extracted, distilled, and delivered to users.
And then, just as quickly as we became aware of it, clear presence fades, and we are clouded again in muddy thoughts of small-s self (the imaginal-symbolic murk I have called the “Solaris mind”).
Mystics and meditators get addicted to these transient clear moments of presence outside and beyond imagination and language, trying to reclaim, prolong, and intensify them. It can become an active daily project. Besides meditation and yoga, peak or flow experiences in sport may strip away mental and behavioral barriers to being in the present moment, temporarily dissolving the obstructing ego. Sex and war can do it, or, I imagine, a life-or-death duel where “it was either him or me.” And of course, some use drugs to strip away the ego and attempt to be in the Now.
In his excellent book On Deep History and the Brain, historian Daniel Lord Smail recommends viewing all of human history through the lens of psychotropy. He doesn’t mean literally that drug-taking made us what we are—the argument sometimes made by entheogen enthusiasts—but rather that nearly everything we do alters our brain chemistry, either restoring balance to, or deliberately un-balancing, the inner neuroendocrine ensemble.
Being efficient on the job, listening to music, watching an event unfold on the news, getting in an argument or a fight, or gossiping with neighbors (not to mention the basics like sex and eating and sleeping) are all “psychotropic” in the sense that they modulate our internal mixing-board console with its dopamine and serotonin and norepinephrine and endorphin and endocannabinoid (and many, many other) sliders, like a sound technician in a recording studio. And most of the things we say or do to other people are similarly meant to operate on their internal mixing boards. Among a handful of random examples, Smail mentions the rise of the novel in the 18th century, which introduced a new and troubling “solitary pleasure” that worried cultural authorities in ways not too different from the “reefer madness” fears around marijuana in the 1930s.
Although Smail doesn’t mention this, people throughout history and even prehistory have devised countless innovations in art and architecture and even landscaping to recruit and deploy the Kantian frameworks of Space and Time in ways that can induce the profound or even numinous feeling of “being here now.” These innovations were full-on psychotropic, and they were decisive turnings in our cultural and spiritual evolution.
The Timothy Leary of Perspective
I can’t forget the day in art class in fourth grade, when Mrs. Este taught us how to draw a building in perspective. She had each of us place a dot in the center of the paper and then use a ruler to draw a vertical rectangle to the right of the dot, which would become the front of the building. For the oblique side wall of the building, she had us extend the ruler from the top and bottom corners of the building toward the vanishing point, drawing short lines “receding” in space toward it. We then finished our building with another shorter vertical line connecting these two lines at the back. We then drew a horizontal line through that vanishing point and “behind” the building, representing the distant horizon, and finished the building off with rows of windows—the oblique ones likewise receding toward the vanishing point using a ruler.
Perspective turned seeing into an intensely individualistic and solitary form of enjoyment. What viewers were enjoying was not “the view” that paintings gave them, but a new kind of awareness of themselves as individuals.
That day in art class was unforgettable because it was an astonishing revelation, a paradigm shift in my understanding of myself in relation to the world, not to mention my self-confidence as a creator of culture. Just by making parallel lines converge on a central vanishing point, even I, a mere fourth-grader, could make a pretty decently “realistic” drawing of a building. Little did I know that this lesson, and the profound “aha” feeling that came with it, was reliving one of the most storied discoveries-slash-inventions in the history of art.
The first full-on perspectival illusion was created by Filippo Brunelleschi, a brilliant young sculptor, and later architect, who sometime around 1413 painted two pictures of buildings in his town, Florence, that were in perfect, mathematically precise perspective. These panels, which unfortunately no longer exist, are reported to have had a mind-blowing effect on his contemporaries. Other than Louis Lumiere’s 1895 Arrival of the Train—which is rumored, possibly inaccurately, to have caused audiences to panic in fright—I am not aware of any other unveiling in the history of art that so resembles the delivery of a hallucinogen.
The first of Brunelleschi’s panels was a piece of wood about the size of a record album, depicting the octagonal Baptistery of Florence Cathedral. It was more a contraption than a mere painting: It had a tiny hole drilled through the exact center of the panel (corresponding to the vanishing point). The viewer was made to hold the panel up to his face, almost like a mask, and look through the peephole from the back, at a mirror held out in front of the panel at arm’s length. Instead of painting the sky above the baptistery, Brunelleschi applied a reflective silver foil to reflect the real sky.
The panel no longer exists, and we have only various written recollections by Brunelleschi’s contemporaries, attesting to its awe-inspiring, even life-altering impact on them. The most detailed account is that of his biographer, Antonio Manetti, who wrote that seeing the Baptistery this way was something truly special, an experience to be repeated: “To look at it, under the various specified circumstances … it seemed that one was seeing truth itself; and I held it in my hands and saw it several times in my own day, and so can testify to it.”
Brunelleschi was thus like the Timothy Leary of perspective—getting friends and fellow intellectuals and artists in Florence to try it, savoring their amazement, and acting as kind of a prophet of this new technique that, when done right, could move viewers’ minds toward introspection in not only a delightful but also a spiritual way.
One at a Time
Brunelleschi wasn’t simply showing his friends a new scientific principle of art; he was actually connecting them to their presence. And since the intensely private experience he gave them was witnessed by eager, amused onlookers, there was an important confusion about which aspects of this psychotropic experience were more important, the public or the private.
Perspective, with its power to make one end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, was the intellectual opiate of its day.
Early work in perceptual psychology showed that seeing things through peepholes does something special to the viewing experience, tricking the mental and visual system into believing in the “truth” of the viewed scene in a much more powerful way than if we saw it in more typical, unrestrained conditions. Simultaneously, a peephole enforces a sense of privacy or solitude—only one person can look through a peephole at a given time, giving you the feeling that the view you are seeing is intended only for you—kind of like the “door in the law” in Kafka’s famous Gnostic parable.
During the first decades of perspective’s existence, people believed that to see the 3-D illusion accurately it wasn’t enough to just stand in front of it; your eye had to occupy a very precise point in space directly opposite the picture’s vanishing point—called the “station point”—and if you didn’t, all you would see, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, was “confusion.” This notion is probably why Brunelleschi designed his demonstration to be viewed the way he did. It took a while for artists to figure out that the imagination can compensate for being off-center with respect to a perspectival rendering, as we now intuitively know from our experience not having the exact center seats in a movie theater; even if we have to sit all the way on the aisle, the movie’s still “in perspective.”
In fact, what Brunelleschi’s contraption really did was enforce and reinforce the idea that perspective demands being right in one exact spot, and thus (by extension) that the viewer is alone in his experience of the world—a singular, solitary experiencer. It’s kind of the implicit corollary of “being here now”: Only a single person, you, can be right here, right now, in this exact spot, seeing what you’re seeing. By awakening the viewer to that amazing fact, perspective turned seeing into an intensely individualistic and solitary form of enjoyment. What viewers were enjoying was not “the view” that paintings gave them, but a new kind of awareness of themselves as individuals.
The invention-slash-discovery of perspective in the 1400s was the biggest-ever paradigm shift in visual representation, defining the way we see the world, and ourselves, ever since. It turned what used to be a taken-for-granted public experience (seeing) into an intensified solitary pleasure, as well as creating a whole new visual code or language where oppositions like near/far or flat/deep space carried specific meanings. The perspective code actually required the implicit “unitary seeing subject” (in the words of philosopher Brian Rotman) the same way a spoken utterance always carries an implied “you” as its addressee.
The Capitalist Subject
It is no coincidence that perspective and the individual and individualistic culture-consumer it helped create was born right when capitalism was emerging in Europe. Perspective’s implicit conceptual model—light rays entering a private brain-space via the eyes—informed modern European ego-bound psychology and philosophy and the “centering of the subject.” Paintings at the time displayed valuable commodities, and the virtual 3-D space in those paintings was described by John Berger as like a safe set into a wall.
It is surely also no coincidence that the most popular subject matter for paintings at the time was the Annunciation to Mary, because this is a scene in which an individual is singled out and addressed by something not of this world—in other words, exactly what a perspective picture is. Whenever you see a Renaissance painting of that scene from the Gospel of Luke, you’ll see a powerfully receding space, a pyramid of parallel lines receding to an actual or implied vanishing point in the center, with the angel Gabriel on the left addressing Mary on the right, forming a kind of implicit cross structure.
Mary herself is always shown in one of a few subtly distinct postures reflecting her unfolding reaction to what the angel is telling her—surprise, bewilderment, inquiry, finally humble acceptance of her mandate to bear God’s son. With perspective, a picture had to implicitly show a single “now,” a single instant in time, even if the moments of the story were implicitly just a few brief seconds apart (as in the Gospel narrative). No longer did paintings depict cartoon-like series of moments or a vague spread-out timespan, as Medieval paintings had done.
The intensified feeling of presence that perspective awakened to viewers is equivalent to awakening to what we would now call “consciousness,” as consciousness is tantamount to being aware that you exist in a particular place and have a (unique) point of view. The Renaissance viewer may have unconsciously identified with Mary during the Annunciation, feeling uniquely “addressed” and, in some peculiar way, divinely favored, by this perspectival awakening.
In other words, space itself contains psychotropic properties that can be extracted, distilled, and delivered to users through procedures like perspective paintings. This raises the question: Can space be abused? The answer is, unfortunately, yes. The 16th-century art historian Georgio Vasari records the case of at least one “addict” who was destroyed by the perspective fad that had swept through the artistic community of the 15th century.
“The most captivating and imaginative painter to have lived since Giotto,” Vasari wrote, “would certainly have been Paolo Uccello, if only he had spent as much time on human figures and animals as he spent, and wasted, on the finer points of perspective.” Among Uccello’s sketches and notebooks are astonishing studies of circular and polygonal objects, many of which look exactly like nothing else but solids that have been wire-modeled on modern animation or design software. He liked to focus on solid objects such as hats much more than on the people wearing them, and it is a woodenness in some of his paintings that prompted Vasari to criticize the painter for his overriding interest in this special effect.
Vasari actually blamed Uccello’s excessive interest in perspective for his failure in life and for various unhappy tendencies in his disposition. He writes: “Artists who devote more attention to perspective than to figures develop a dry and angular style because of their anxiety to examine things too minutely; and, moreover, they usually end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as indeed did Paolo Uccello himself.” If Brunelleschi was perspective’s inventor, then without a doubt Uccello would have to be considered its first casualty. When he died, Vasari writes, he left behind “a wife who told people that Paolo used to stay up all night in his study, trying to work out the vanishing points of his perspective, and that when she called him to come to bed he would [ignore her, saying]: ‘Oh, what a lovely thing this perspective is!’”
So perspective, with its power to make one end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, was the intellectual opiate of its day. To suggest that the condition of melancholia was brought on by the loss of sleep and conjugal pleasures that befell the artist or theoretician in their excitement over perspective would not actually be so far from the truth—the inherent paradoxes of perspective (being-there yet not being there, seeing alone yet among others, etc.), and the inability of the mind to get around them, became something of a metaphor for insoluble paradox in general, the sort of thing that plagued students, scholars, and monks who spent too much time alone with their books.
To this day, in photography and film, extreme or forced perspective using a fisheye (extreme wide-angle) lens is part of our standard visual symbolism for isolation, depression, anxiety, and even madness. Stanley Kubrick’s films, for example, provide endless good examples of this.
To the Oculus Rift
Every revolution in visual experience has repeated the pattern of perspective: initially providing a new and amazing or inspiring experience (of “truth itself,” as Manetti put it), opening us to a new way of seeing the world, before gradually becoming taken for granted. We develop tolerance to special effects when we see them every day.
Any two things can be joined by a line; when three things are all joined by that same line, there is a coincidence; when that coincidence seems to address you individually, it is, effectively, a “synchronicity.”
The natural outgrowth of perspective, for example, was the refinement of optical theories that led quickly to the development of lenses for microscopes and astronomy and, ultimately, the camera. Viewers of the first daguerrotypes had similar mind-expanded reactions to those that accompanied the first perspective paintings, and anthropologists have reported interesting responses among indigenous peoples unfamiliar to photographs when first shown them: They may not know what they are looking at, but if and when it suddenly clicks for them that “this is how it would appear if I were standing in a specific spot looking at X,” it does so with a kind of euphoria—the psychological effect of a conceptual paradigm shift.
Subsequently, movies and television combined the psychotropy of photographic reproduction with the ancient powerful psychotropies of story and music to produce a highly compelling and addictive drug cocktail. The next phase in the historical unfoldment of presence and the technologies for producing it is virtual reality, of course. Although immersive VR goggles have been around for over two decades in rudimentary form, there has been an “uncanny valley” quality to them that has tended to make the VR experience somewhat aversive, even nauseating. But according to all the advance hype, the next generation is poised to surpass these difficulties and represents a milestone in eliciting a truly euphoric feeling of presence. This is surely going to be the next techno-drug … at least, before we become tolerant to it.
Countless culture critics have pointed out the drug-like nature of electronic and visual media, and that’s not solely a function of the constant dopamine stimulation caused by motion and fast-cutting. Even acting is a kind of ancient shamanic “special effect”: A living, known person assuming a persona of someone else, such as a hero or a spirit or a god (even just dad in a Santa Claus suit), is a transformation that to a child is still amazing; it is even a bit amazing to adults when we see a movie or TV personality in real life—a mildly pleasurable cognitive dissonance that surely accounts partly for our fascination with celebrities (i.e., mentally juxtaposing the fake and real, savoring the “aura” that Walter Benjamin famously observed surrounds an “original” that has been widely reproduced).
And harvesting spacetime to induce a drug-like sense of presence probably goes back to the very origins of religion.
The Druid Inside
Consider the range of druidic psychotropies afforded by megalithic observatories. Although the individual standing stones that dot the British and Continental European landscape were probably wayfinding tools for neolithic travelers and traders, the large stone complexes like Stonehenge or Callanish on the Scottish Isle of Lewis certainly had an astronomical function: Depending on the particular observatory, on significant days like solstices and equinoxes, the sun might be seen, to the observer standing at the exact center of the circle, to rise or set directly past a specific feature on the horizon beyond a specific stone or through a specific gap. An imaginary line was thus created that connected the viewer to the heavenly body, via a significant landmark, right at a particular significant moment in time.
Synchronicity, in a sense, is the ultimate solitary pleasure
In the modern world, we have become mostly tolerant of holiday sunrises and sunsets, so it is natural for today’s ethnoastronomers to focus on the mundane practical uses of reckoning solar and lunar events for timekeeping—that is, maintaining the ritual calendar and knowing when to plant crops—or else they chalk ancient astronomy up to beliefs about the spirit world. Timekeeping and astrological or shamanic practices were no doubt real payoffs of attention to the night sky and to the rising and setting of heavenly bodies, but those explanations pass over the crucial viewing experience of the ancient astronomer, the “awakening to presence” aroused by experiencing significant spacetime alignments, not to mention the rewards of delivering such experiences to a mystified laity.
Any two things can be joined by a line; when three things are all joined by that same line, there is a coincidence; when that coincidence seems to address you individually (like Gabriel addressing Mary), it is, effectively, a “synchronicity.” You might even call a stone circle a synchronicity machine: a material apparatus for creating a significant coincidence between an observer and a geo-cosmic conjunction. We must not forget its contrivance, however—the “coincidence” wouldn’t exist but for that apparatus. This is exactly like Brunelleschi’s demonstration, with its imaginary connection between the eye and the vanishing point (symbolically associated with God), via the peephole. Coincidences and synchronicities feel both uncanny and reassuring to us, and that must have been true for ancients observing the solstices in their temple complexes—observing, both in the sense of watching and in the sense of celebrating or commemorating.
At the center of observatories were living people—perhaps just the druidic elite and nobility, or perhaps everyone, one at a time—viewing and experiencing those alignments at precise moments on specific days of the year, and thus feeling their consciousness acutely and sublimely. Prehistoric astronomy would have generated a personal experience in living human beings that translated directly into perennial philosophical and spiritual terms of cosmic communion and simple presence.
These ancient synchronicity machines were every bit as ideological as Renaissance paintings or photography or cinema: They were material (and materialistic) contrivances that capitalized on the brain’s susceptibility to illusion, especially the illusion of having or being a “self,” to mystify and amaze. There were always men behind the curtain who had created this expensive experience as an instrument of material, social, and religious power as well as an expression of scientific and technical mastery.
Humbler everyday experiences of meaningful coincidence also draw power from the way they single us out as individuals. As I’ve been arguing in this blog, in such experiences, the man behind the curtain is simply ourselves, displaced in time. The meaning-making, precognitive brain is the ultimate synchronicity machine, the real “acausal connecting principle.” We mystify ourselves by playing hide and seek with our presence, facilitated by our culturally-imposed non-belief in precognition. And there is always lone experiencer at the center, enjoying its perplexity at being addressed by the cosmos or fate. Synchronicity, in some sense, is the ultimate solitary pleasure.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. — Carl Jung
The future is more coherent than the present, more animate and purposeful, and in a real sense, wiser. It knows more, and some of this knowledge gets transmitted back to us by what seems to be a purely natural phenomenon. We are being talked to, by a very informed Entity: that of all creation as it lies ahead of us in time. — Phil Dick
Ever since Freud formulated his theory of the unconscious, it has troubled philosophers, because it seems self-contradictory. Thinking is closely allied to consciousness, after all, so how can we have thoughts that we do not know we’re thinking? For Sartre, this conceptual impossibility revealed the falsity of Freud’s theory; in Being and Nothingness, he questioned the possibility of a “censor” in the mind which both was aware of what it was censoring but somehow alien or other than our ordinary consciousness.
The unconscious may be nothing but future consciousness as it informs present thought and action. Precognition and the unconscious may really be the same thing.
He cites as an example the “resistance” seen in analysis—”the patient shows defiance, refuses to speak, gives fantastic accounts of his dreams, sometimes even removes himself completely from the psychoanalytic treatment. It is a fair question to ask what part of himself can resist.” To Sartre, it was absurd to speak of an unconscious part of the self that nevertheless knows what it is resisting, which implies consciousness. Thus he argued that any supposed determinism by an ‘unconscious’ formation in the psyche is really a red flag of “bad faith,” the failure to take responsibility for our actions. There is no unconscious, just the avoidance of responsibility.
Something like this view prevailed also in scientific psychology through most of the 20th Century. But despite their continued hatred of Freud, researchers in the brain and behavior sciences have been forced over the past couple decades to concede the existence of massive amounts of processing in the brain that is truly unconscious. We now know lots of stuff occurs in our heads that we are unaware of, much of it similar to what Freud originally described. There is thinking, sensing, and feeling that is not thought, sensed, or felt, and our non-experience of this huge domain is much more than a matter of bad faith (although there is that also).
Much of the parapsychological literature points to this same, enigmatic dimension of “unthought knowns” (to misappropriate a term by Christopher Bollas) that seem to carry information not only about our embarrassing or forbidden desires but also about our own immediate or more distant future. Precognition is a fundamentally unconscious phenomenon, and when it manifests consciously it tends to do so through the very same oblique, associative and somatized pathways that the classical “repressed” stuff of psychoanalysis does, as well as memory more generally.
The argument that many parapsychologists are making lately is that the source of psi material is “outside the head” in some transpersonal, collective, or otherwise nonlocal and immaterial conscious medium. I make a different proposal: The unconscious and psi are in our head, but not in our head at this moment.
The entire phenomenon of the unconscious, along with many if not all psychic phenomena, point to the brain as a fully four-dimensional processor of information. Elsewhere I’ve proposed how this may work given recent advances in quantum computing and quantum biology. The unconscious may be nothing but future consciousness as it informs present thought and action; manifestations of psi provide direct evidence that this is the case. Precognition and the unconscious may really be the same thing.
The More Informed Future
Part of our difficulty imagining such a possibility comes from the spatial metaphors we use to imagine mental processes. We think of layers of consciousness as vertically piled strata: The unconscious is a substrate, something underneath us, buried under the earth or submerged in murky water … or perhaps it is over our heads, up in the sky, obscured by clouds. Thinking of the unconscious as another ‘simultaneous’ layer of thought assumes, although without basis, that it is “there already” but just unseen. It is probably impossible not to construe temporal relationships via spatial metaphors, but a better place to situate the unconscious would be ahead of us, in front of us. In other words, consciousness and the unconscious may be displaced from each other in time, not in space.
We can’t find the origins of our thoughts because those origins haven’t happened yet. We haven’t yet gotten to where we (will have) thought them in the first place.
Jacques Lacan almost sorta hit on this with his understanding that “repressed” material derives its meaning from (or at least in) the future. He writes in his last Seminar, “what we see in the return of the repressed is the effaced signal of something which only takes on its value in the future, through its symbolic realization, its integration into the history of the subject.” But he didn’t go quite far enough. I would add that what defines a repressed or unconscious thought is not simply that you are not thinking it consciously, but that you are not thinking it yet. You can never prove it was there until it is there … for exactly the same reason that we cannot prove the veridicality of a supposed telepathic or clairvoyant experience until the future moment of feedback or confirmation. Instead of the unconscious being something happening on another, obscured layer of cognitive processing, it is something that is destined to become conscious in a future moment, such as a moment of therapeutic insight or an accidental revelation like a slip of the tongue, or perhaps just an “aha” moment. More generally, the unconscious could be described as what hasn’t been consciously thought yet but that somehow shapes or perturbs our behavior anyway.
Psi (as I have been arguing in recent posts) suggests that the brain is an organ that reaches forward across our timeline, pulling thoughts and insights from the “more informed” future. Animals are so good at living, miraculously effective at moving through their environment, because of this relation to a future self that knows just a little bit more than the present self does. If this is the case, and abundant presentiment research supports it, then it provides answers not only to psi but to the nature of the unconscious in its relation to consciousness. The brain (and who knows, maybe even smaller cellular units or cells themselves) thinks across its history, not just in the instant.
Your consciousness thought processes right now (and most likely, along with a fan of multiple other conscious moments) are the unconscious of you a few seconds ago, a few minutes ago, or a few hours ago, and even a few weeks or years ago. Stated differently, your future consciousness is the unconscious of your present moment, quietly animating and informing your thoughts and actions, maybe causing a slip of the tongue or (if you are sleeping) a dream, or giving you some intuition or hunch of where to go and how to proceed, or perhaps even generating an uncanny “synchronicity.”
What Goes Around, Comes Around
This ongoing cycling of information through time, the way present thought and action alter our future potentials and the way future brain states “reflux” into the past, is very close to the Eastern concept of Karma.
The future is literally where the “karmic seeds” are planted and, thus, whence they arise in the form of our thoughts and inspiration for action, through the retrocausal logic of psi.
Buddhist meditators have studied consciousness for thousands of years, and Buddhist psychology (specifically the Yogacara school) makes a central place for alaya-vijnana, usually translated as “store consciousness” or “substrate consciousness.” When you trace back the origins of thought through your associative mental thought-stream in meditation, the trail eventually goes cold and you hit a brick wall: Thoughts literally arise from nowhere, and it is a bit of a surprise when you confront this. How can a thought have no visible cause or origin? Yet in spite of this, new thoughts that emerge after an interval of mental stillness are not random. They bear unmistakable traces of our concerns and our past thoughts and actions—it is like our old thoughts just went underground for a while before reemerging nearby, like some garden worm. They seem to have an underground life that we do not and cannot see.
Store consciousness is thus very similar to the Freudian unconscious, a place where our thoughts hide out before manifesting in some new thought or action (including unpredictable and possibly surprising thoughts, symptoms, and dreams). Like the implicit Freudian spatial-conceptual metaphoric map of mind, Buddhist psychology also places store consciousness underneath us, imagining it as a ground that we traverse. It is metaphorically seen as a kind of soil, and our actions are likened to seeds that, after a period of hidden germination, sprout onto the surface as new thoughts and actions. Karma is the planting of these seeds and reaping them as the ongoing cyclical horticulture of mind. (The work of meditation is sometimes described as “burning” these seeds so they lose their power to germinate or generate new thoughts.)
But I think this new, psi-based conception of four-dimensional mind can really transform how we think of “store consciousness” as well. We just need to up-end the planter, stand it vertically: The fallow store consciousness is nothing but the future in front of us, and Karma is our two-way interrelationship to this future unfolding of mind. In other words, the future is literally where the “karmic seeds” are planted and, thus, whence they arise in the form of our thoughts and inspiration for action, through the retrocausal logic of psi, the refluxing of future experience into the past.
Again, the future not only informs the present in the form of rare psychic visions and premonitory dreams; it is actually (I am suggesting) the very source and origin of present thoughts and imagination. The wall meditators hit when trying to peel back the layers of consciousness is the wall of time itself, the wall of the Not Yet. We can’t find the origins of our thoughts because those origins haven’t happened yet. We haven’t yet gotten to where we (will have) thought them in the first place.
A Game of Charades
This forces us to confront some basic philosophical fundamentals, such as the nonexistence of the past. We can know intellectually that the past doesn’t exist, but it is very hard to really accept or confront that there is no solid record “behind” or “below” us. All there is, really, is change, and the possibility of imaginatively reconstructing a “past moment” that is different from the present moment, by forensically interpreting the present in such and such a way. But the past is always an image or construct in the present. Thus the things we “leave behind,” the traces we leave, including the moral traces of our actions in Karma, or the traumas that serve as the seeds of our neurotic symptoms, have nowhere to go in the past—they go into the future.
We only “see” the future when something we are seeing in the present, or something from our past in memory, stands out more vividly because it happens to match or resemble that not-yet-materialized thing.
The neurological description is that they do this by altering the strength of synaptic connections. Every time you have a thought, it is reinforcing certain synapses, and the longer you go not having other thoughts, those associated synapses weaken. There are no “memory traces” as such in the brain, hidden in the folds of tissue like fossils in the earth; there is just an unfolding neverending weather pattern of cortical firing across a hundred billion neurons and trillions of synaptic junctions. Thus every thought and action leaves its “karmic” traces in the subtly altered propensity (or potentiation) of future action. If I’m right, quantum entanglement in many of those hundred billion neurons is causing future information to be fed back into the past, also in the form of altered potentiation—a kind of bending or skewing of present perception toward stimuli that have associative links to something coming down the pike.
Precognitive information is almost never clear or unambiguous, because it lacks context; and in a way, this may be the whole difference between the past and the future. Present consciousness has no way of knowing what the future is or recognizing thoughts from the future because there are no sensory experiences already associated with them in memory; those experiences are what provide the context for autobiographical events, enabling us to situate them in our history … making future information a bit like letters with no return address. Information from the future, lacking a context of lived sensory experience, can only emerge in consciousness by perturbing present experience or drawing forth past memories that resemble it.
When something seen now rhymes with or matches a future idea or experience, the present stimulus is noticed with greater force than it otherwise would. We pay attention to it, it may even have a slightly luminous or numinous quality, and it may generate an odd train of thought whose significance only becomes apparent once the future experience occurs.* Thus our future is constantly playing a game of charades with us. The charades-like quality is not intentional game-playing, the “trickster”-like behavior of our “higher self” teaching us lessons. It is just the associative nature of the links that connect information in the brain through time, the altering of the potentials of our thought, and the fact that the future lacks the lived biographical context that the past possesses.
This accounts for why coincidence really plays an important role in psi, even though synchronicity per se (as Jung defined it) is a fiction: We only “see” the future when something we are seeing in the present, or something from our past in memory, stands out more vividly because it happens to match or resemble that not-yet-materialized thing. Something in the past or present that is like something in the future acts as a seed of psi. We see this again and again in precognitive dreams, visions, etc.: They crystalize around something in memory, or some thought arising naturally through immediate experience, that will be seen to resemble the future event or thought or feeling.
Phil Dick Boulevard
So if I am right, the unconscious is just ordinary waking consciousness at other moments in time, or more likely a range or fan of multiple other moments, that contributes to shaping present perception. It is not so much that the future “communicates” with us in the present as that it subtly biases or skews our present thought and perception by altering our cortical potentials.
Future physics and neuroscience will be able to crack the nut of how psi works, but we need to give it time—including time for many of the current anxiously “classical” generation of skeptics to die off.
Yes, this is a reductive, materialist argument, and thus I’m being super naughty. Bad, bad me. But it is a testable hypothesis, and also a parsimonious one, that makes sense of a lot of otherwise wildly disparate anomalies.** It also suggests that it is our age-old spatial metaphors of mind that trip us up when trying to solve the psi conundrum. Shifting to the language of “nonlocality” doesn’t help; that just implies broad connection across space and time, without offering any explanation for how we become connected to specific certain things that personally matter to us, that we want to know and indeed will know in our future (the key piece of evidence that is so often ignored—that is, the role of feedback).
Future physics and neuroscience will be able to crack the nut of how it works, but we need to give it time—including time for many of the current anxiously “classical” generation of skeptics to die off and make way for the fully quantum future in which informational time travel is not so unthinkably radical or scary.
We can start now by resisting (as much as possible) unhelpful mental models of mind, like the submerged icebergs or subterranean regions that implicitly constrain our thinking about the unconscious. The unconscious is not sequestered beneath consciousness, some “other” hiding out of sight, thinking without our awareness and permission, or walled off behind barricades. Nor is it a “higher self” hovering over us and stage managing our affairs like a big teacher or parent in the sky. And the store consciousness that gives rise to Karma isn’t a fertile ground we walk over and leave seeds in. It is the landscape that unfolds before us as we walk down the road. That figure up ahead is you. It’s Phil Dick Boulevard, and we’re all traversing it.
*This is why meditation is so crucial to getting more in tune with our precognitive nature, and why Zen is a particularly useful path. The more the mind is placid, the more we can focus on small perturbations of thought, and detect oddities in our train of thought. In my experience, precognition manifests in waking life most often in odd trains of thought sparked by random everyday events.
A valuable tool created in the field of ecological psychology is a method called “experience sampling”: Participants are prodded at random times throughout the day using a pager to pause and reflect on and record what they were just thinking at that moment. It is a surprisingly difficult task for some people who are unused to observing their thought-stream, but they invariably find it not only surprising but really rewarding. The basic idea is to get in the habit of noticing what you were just thinking a second or a few seconds ago. It is in those innocuous thoughts just before you decided to notice your thoughts that the answer to not-yet-formulated questions can often be found.
Synchromystics, take note here: The practice of experience sampling greatly increases the number of synchronicities in your day. But it may persuade you that synchronicity is nothing but your own precognitive nature that you have until now failed to recognize.
**The Fortean sense of an “unseen world” or multidimensional parallel realities all around us, intruding on or intersecting our reality, could be part of this same misunderstanding or misdiagnosis of our precognitive nature. We mentally picture frequencies of a “superspectrum” (a la John Keel) as simultaneously coexisting bands on reality’s radio dial, layered over or next to each other, the same way shamanic cosmologies imagine vertically layered spirit worlds. But what looks like an “already existing” parallel reality could instead be other-temporal (past or future) perceptions or thoughts or experiences drawn into present conscious awareness through the associative logic I’ve described. How might this idea help illuminate UFOs, ghosts, and abduction experiences?
When Bowie’s Blackstar album came out last Friday, and the title track was finally heard in context with the other six (mostly, equally stunning) songs, there was something truly weird about it all. This was no mere album, and no mere concept album. The last two hauntingly beautiful tracks, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” felt very much like a goodbye. The whole thing was creepy and ominous, like Bowie had something really big up his sleeve. My wife and I listened to the album three times over three days, spellbound by its depth and sadness, and could not stop talking about it. It put us in a very strange, very sad mood. And when I rose from bed Monday morning, the line “something happened on the day he died” was on repeat in my head:
Something happened on the day he died.
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
And someone else took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar!
Sure enough, Bowie, who spells his name on the cover using fragments of a five-pointed star, did have something big up his sleeve. When I sat down at my computer and read the awful news, I was shocked but not surprised. We now know from the producer, Tony Visconti, that he’d indeed been planning Blackstar as a deathbed gift to his fans since he learned he had incurable cancer 18 months ago, and that the songs were recorded in early 2015, when he was obviously in much better health. (There is no hint of weakness in his singing voice, although he allows his breaths to be heard on a couple tracks, which, along with every other detail, now becomes highly significant.) Has an artist … or anyone … ever gone out with such masterful control, grace, wit, and mystery? Bowie, as many remarked on Twitter, managed to stare death in the face and use it.
When the “Blackstar” video (bottom of this post) was first released in late November, there were rumors that it was somehow about or related to ISIS … which seemed a bit too narrowly geopolitical a subject matter for Bowie. Yet there was an unmistakeable whiff of the imagery that had become associated with that group’s adolescent atrocities. There was the blindfold worn by Bowie himself and then the three scarecrows at the end. There was the theme of death and, specifically, execution (“On the day of execution, only women kneeled and smiled,” etc.), in a vaguely Middle Eastern setting. And most significantly, the video opens with the retrieval of a jeweled skull from inside a spacesuit, while later we see a headless skeleton floating in orbit. Death, executions, beheadings. It seemed like Major Tom had been martyred in a particularly distressing way.
Knowing that this album was written and recorded a full year ago, the ISIS link makes much more sense: From the time Bowie found out he had cancer in mid 2014 until he recorded these songs, the world was transfixed by the ISIS spectacle, specifically their videos of decapitations. Bowie, unparalleled master of fame and stardom, must have recognized their savvy method: using extremity and transgression to transfix the attention of the world, capitalizing on the total whorish complicity of the media. In his own much more benevolent way, Bowie had pioneered this M.O. in his own career. Like all of us, he must have been saddened and appalled at what was happening, while at the same time reeling from his own diagnosis. His associative mind would have drawn a link between the black-clad executioners marching through Syria and Iraq and the illness spreading in his body. It now turns out that “black star” is medical jargon for a certain type of cancer lesion.
I think Bowie saw here an opportunity to commit a last heroic act: Reappropriate ISIS’s symbolic language (ritualistic executions, decapitation, blindfolds, etc.) and subvert it, utilizing his own death to draw the necessary attentional energy to a final magical intervention against the extremist violence eating away at the world. In the video, he waves a black spell book, and indeed the gorgeously designed book accompanying the LP is very like a grimoire. “BOWIE” spelled on the cover in star fragments literalizes that he is using the shattering/destruction of his self to cast a “spell” at evil, or the forces of evil. Blackstar is not about ISIS so much as a kind of magic(k)al “working” (a la Crowley) against ISIS (and what they represent). It remixes their own symbolism into a dark and beautiful summoning of female power to defeat the forces that enable that kind of base violence to flourish.
Symbolic working and re-working (or in an academic and political context, “reframing”) uses the fact that all symbols have multiple meanings. Bowie’s death two days after the album’s release provided the final bit of needed meaning to understand the “Blackstar” video: A blackstar is obviously much more than a cancer lesion; it is also a black hole, the remnant left when a very big star dies, absorbing all light (the cover of the single, right, showing a gravity well, confirms this intended meaning).
Such a heavy hole in spacetime, I think Bowie knew and hoped, could supply the necessary power for his spell against the terrestrial darkness blighting our world. What indeed did the entire world do when it found out about his brilliantly timed death, but attend ever more closely to Blackstar‘s tracks “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” and to his whole life and works? He would have counted on that black-hole-like sucking-in of all attention and meaning.
The women are the “heroes” of “Blackstar.” When the sly animal-tailed woman at the beginning of the video retrieves Major Tom’s jeweled skull and the relic is then incorporated into the circle of female power “in the Villa of Ormen” (i.e., “____ or men”), it seems to summon a spirit that punishes and destroys the initially smug blindfolded scarecrows. Bowie seems to be saying to women, and to the feminine (i.e. receptivity) in all of us: Take the power back from those stupid children. Bowie saw clearly what somehow few people want to talk about in our insane times: All violence in the world, be it ISIS, school shooters, gun nuts of all stripes, is committed by men. Terror and violence are not about religion and politics; they are about testosterone. Perpetrators are often young and confused, flooded with adolescent and young-adult male anger—precisely the raw material that older, powerful men have always summoned and channeled for wars. If women of the world stopped being impressed by male audacity—both the audacity to kill and the audacity to command death—how might that change the world?
It would thus be a mistake to read the “women kneeling and smiling on the day of execution” as women complicit and supportive of the horrors being perpetrated by their atrocious menfolk; the knowing smile on the face of the tailed woman as she appropriates Major Tom’s skull and bears it through the village toward its destination is how I take that smile—a calm “you just wait and see what’s coming” smile.
Bowie repeatedly insists that the place where the action is, the “center of it all,” is “your eyes.” Another thing a blackstar is is the pupil of the eye, which is a candidate for the materia prima in alchemy—the black raw material (i.e., what is in your field of vision) from which anything can be made. You are not a slave of ISIS, or of their media servants, or of anything or anybody doing outrageous things to capture your attention. Instead of filling your vessel-like gaze with stupidity and atrocity, look up instead, he says—look to the skies, to the stars—don’t look at all this shit being spewed on your TVs and your computer screens.
I don’t know if Bowie read Giordano Bruno, but throughout the “grimoire” accompanying the album, the lyrics to several songs are printed as stars arranged in constellations. Bowie’s “working” reminds me very much of Bruno’s 1584 attempt to reform the heavens in his book The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast: Because worldly institutions were so full of corruption and people’s values had sunk to such dismal lows in his time, Bruno felt that the constellations themselves by which humans orient their lives needed to be reformed and reshaped, their images given new meaning, and his lengthy book in dialogue form attempted precisely this. That is exactly what Bowie, that emissary from the stars, seems to be attempting in a perhaps more modest way.
The way Bowie takes and redefines “execution” is his boldest stroke. The decapitated skeleton isn’t just a martyr to ISIS; it is also someone who has followed the advice of a book that we do know Bowie had read and counted among his favorites, D.E. Harding’s Zen classic On Having No Head. Really pay attention to what you actually see in front of you, not to what you imagine or think is there. The headless skeleton floats in space in front of a pupil-like black hole, and this is precisely what the eye actually sees of the self in Harding’s vividly described satori vision: everything but a head. That’s because there is no head; only other people have such an appendage—you don’t. Recognizing this truth, in all its senselessness, is the true path to liberation.
Much of the skepticism surrounding quantum neuroscience is that its aim is generally to explain consciousness—a tall, confused, and some would say impossibly misguided order. Quantum explanations for consciousness invariably require large-scale coherence—that is, entanglement—across the whole brain or at least between large populations of neurons. Quantum wet blankets point out that this can only be hand-waving and magic. And anti-materialists would say that no scientific account, no matter how quantum-y, is going to explain the subjective experience of being alive and aware.
I’d bet money that select neurons deep within specific circuits of the brain are going to turn out to be finely tuned time machines that fire before they are stimulated.
But as I’ve already argued, even if we know they are chasing a red herring, we should actively encourage Roger Penrose and others who are hunting for elusive consciousness in the quantum behavior of neurons and neural circuits. This is because a beneficial side-effect of that effort is that it is going to bring an explanation of the more philosophically humble but also more exciting phenomenon, psi.
Psi is exciting because it means precognition, time-traveling information. That should make people poop their pants with wonder and forget about boring old consciousness. Precognition is mind-bending, and it is not some vague airy effect of “nonlocality.” If I’m right, it is specifically sensitivity to our own responses to future stimuli, which means it is extremely local, in the sense of personal, like memory, and thus certainly involves brain processes. We now know that information can be sent back in time, and Seth Lloyd has shown how to do it (theoretically anyway). It involves entanglement, but not the long-distance entanglement between neurons that most offends quantum critics. If it can happen, nature will find a way, and those microtubules inside neurons that fascinate Penrose et al appear to be the best place in nature for it to occur.*
I’d bet money that select, as-yet undiscovered neurons deep within specific circuits of the brain are going to turn out to be finely tuned time machines that fire before they are stimulated. Serial entanglement of particles within or between the neuron’s microtubules over a short span of time would be involved. Particles traveling up and down a neuron’s axon through those tubes “just” need to break their prior entanglements and be re-entangled (sending information back in time), and this “just” needs to perturb the neuron’s behavior by even a tiny amount. I trust there are people working on the nitty gritty of this problem.
When you string multiple time-displaced neurons together, you can multiply the time-displacement effect. For instance, even if the net result of the various quantum shenanigans in a given neuron’s microstructures is that it fires off neurotransmitters to the next neuron just a hundredth of a second before it receives an input via its dendrites—a modest request—a string of twenty such neurons would produce an “output” (e.g., a motor or autonomic response) a fifth of a second before the stimulus. That’s enough to account for the delay Benjamin Libet famously noted between the neural readiness potential and the feeling of conscious will, which some wet blanket types like to wave before our eyes as proof that consciousness in an illusion.
Fifty such neurons would give you a whole half-second “pre-sponse”—enough to account for the subjective timing discrepancy between seeing your foot hit the ground and feeling it hit the ground, noticed by Libet back in the late 1970s. A hundred such neurons in a circuit would give you a full second advance warning of events, useful on the highway, the battlefield, or the racquetball court. Three hundred would be sufficient for effects seen in many presentiment experiments conducted by Dean Radin and Daryl Bem.
There are a hundred billion neurons in the brain, and thus there could be any number of precognitive circuits or clusters of neurons in there, “tuned” to specific temporal distances that are sweet spots for certain adaptive responses or functions like subjective timing, conscious will, and James Carpenter’s “first sight,” not to mention premonitions of more remote events. I hope they name a particularly long one the Phil Dick Circuit, because such a neural mechanism would go a long way to explain the world he described in his writings.
The Skynet Is (Not) the Limit
So here’s a business model for a forward-thinking biotech company: Isolate the most precognitive neuron you can find in the animal kingdom, perhaps from an elephant or whale—something involved in synchronizing a large animal’s sense of self—and find a way to sustain a group of such neurons in culture. You could create a nice little precognitive alarm by chaining such neurons together. A chain of 1000 neurons, each of which fire, say, 20 milliseconds before they are stimulated, would produce a device that triggers about 20 seconds before a designated input. (This may be an easier and faster route than trying to build a mechanical quantum computer from scratch, given the extreme refrigeration requirements, etc.)
The challenge of precognitive technology is working within the narrow margin where information tends not to be self-cancelling.
Then, assemble several of these devices in a petri dish, and set the first neuron in each chain to respond to a downward change in the value of one of your stocks, triggering a “sell” as the output of the chain. I don’t have much of a head for such things, but you get the picture. Do it quietly, though, and amass your fortune quickly, because sooner or later a branch of the SEC will be established to prevent precognitive trading. (No doubt there will be telltale signs of such stunts, such as a tendency of company or an individual mad-scientist investor to drop shares in a stock just seconds before a downturn in value.)
Or you could just buy shares in a quantum computing company like D-Wave, because they are surely going to do something like this once it occurs to them … or it probably already has occurred to them. Such a scheme could, for all I know, be a big secret dream in the emerging quantum tech biz.
I’m not completely kidding. I’m not an engineer, so I admittedly don’t have a sense of the technical hurdles, but as far as I can tell it “just” needs to be scaled up from what has already been accomplished at very micro scales in laboratories … or, again, from what select undiscovered neurons are doing right now in your own head. I imagine precognitive tech could be huge in the mid-21st century; the possibilities would be mind-blowing, not to mention highly destabilizing. The very first obvious application would be in financial trading, but a natural next step would be pairing artificial precognition with AI, which could be beyond scary. (FYI, just last month, D-Wave announced a multi-year contract with Lockheed-Martin. Skynet, anyone?) But precognitive chips could also have wide beneficial applications and revolutionize safety features in vehicles and security systems, not to mention healthcare. They might also provide the needed failsafes against those scary precognitive AIs.
Although it may seem like it, the sky is not the limit with precognition, synthetic or natural. The challenge of precognitive technology is working within the narrow margin where information tends not to be self-cancelling—this is the parameter of “post-selection” that is required by a Seth-Lloyd-style quantum time machine: You can’t build a system whose (prior) output leads to a chain of events that prevents its (subsequent) input. Fiction about time travel has failed to incorporate this crucial parameter, and as a result has given rise to all the comedy of grandfather paradoxes, etc. In reality, there wouldn’t be such problems because of the constraints within which information sent back in time can actually be readable and not noise. Quantum computers are actually analog computers, not digital; reality is analog too. Quantum computers and quantum time travel operate, if I understand correctly, on a signal-to-noise ratio—just as I have argued human precognition operates.
The vagaries of the analog universe are what forever prevent us from using the existence of precognition to answer questions about free will versus determinism. There is always wiggle room and uncertainty. These vagaries also set interesting constraints on the precognitive chips that might one day be at the heart of our devices and computers. They can only give us advance warning of certainties we can do nothing to prevent.
As a thought experiment, imagine a precognitive computer chip inside your security system, tripped when unauthorized entry is detected. How much pre-warning could it give of a home intrusion?
Causality in an analog universe never contradicts the possible, but information is buried deeply in noise; we can never know for certain what information actually comes from the future
For any given application of precognitive tech, there would probably be a sweet spot—an optimal temporal distance between output and input within which the system tends to work reliably without noise exceeding signal. So for instance, an alarm system set to notify the police station 15 minutes before a break-in would not be viable and would literally not provide useful information; the reason is that 15 minutes is too much time, and would theoretically allow the police to be on the scene in advance and scare off anyone with malicious intent; in reality, the alarm would never go off except in cases when there was a break-in and the police were for some reason unable or unwilling to respond in time to prevent it. False alarms would tend to increase the more the alarms were ignored—too much noise to signal, resulting in a feedback loop, because they would be taken less and less seriously…
It would be a highly dysfunctional chip, in other words. But the alarm manufacturer would never make such an alarm in the first place. (Makes you wonder if car alarms use such chips, since it seems the more we ignore them, the more they are tripped.)
For a home security system, I can imagine that a three-minute pre-lay might be more in the right ballpark. This might be enough time for the police to be en route to the scene and nab the burglar but not enough time for them to prevent the break-in that trips the alarm. In that case, the alarm would work more reliably; just after the burglar got in and tripped the alarm, he’d hear sirens approaching.
The same principle could be applied to vehicle safety devices: You could not have a precognitive system in a car that reliably warned you five seconds before a collision, because you or the car’s computer driver could avoid the collision with that kind of warning, nullifying the chip’s effectiveness. You could however have a precognitive system that responded to a non-avoidable collision half a second into the future. This could be useful, for instance, in pre-triggering airbags and other safety features to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Or, in a jet fighter—if there are still human pilots in jet fighters when this becomes possible—you could have an ejector seat triggered by a precognitive sensor half a second before a missile strike (but, again, not one that gave the pilot sufficient time to evade or destroy the threat with a countermeasure).
And there’s medical devices: For instance, medical sensors to detect an imminent heart attack. Again, a bio-chip could not alert you to an adverse event that was preventable through your actions (like popping an aspirin), but it could trigger an emergency response and perhaps pre-initiate measures to mitigate the harm or tissue damage and prevent death.
Those are just a few ideas that come to mind. The applications in cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, of course, are intimidating (and bewildering) to think about. But again, they wouldn’t enable anyone (or even any AI) to fully manipulate reality, just game it or leverage it in interesting ways.
The Safety Zone
To me, this narrow band within which precognition’s effects are actionable and useful is the really interesting thing about it. Most precognitive effects, especially when they enter consciousness at all, such as in dreams, are only visible after the fact. It needs to be that way, because enhanced consciousness of future events would result in us taking “evasive action,” even inadvertently, so the farther out in the future a precognitively portended event, the more we will tend to encounter the information obliquely, associatively, “synchronistically,” or otherwise in a way that facilitates our misinterpreting or ignoring it until too late.
Precognition is built around reward and enjoyment, not trauma and pain. Post-selection explains why positive signals of reward are preferentially “pre-ceived.”
In the comments to my last post, a reader asked an excellent question, which goes to the heart of this problem: What if you have a dream that you’re going to die in a car accident so you take a bus instead, and nothing happens? From what future could the idea “you’re going to die in a car accident” have been sent? The answer is going to seem evasive: How do you know it was ever a premonition? How do you know that information was sent from the future? You have no way of reliably saying so until it “comes true.” So it’s wrong to say it was a premonition; it may have felt premonitory, but we have hunches all the time that prove wrong. Our metacognition—knowledge of where a piece of information comes from—is often distorted or imperfect. This is as true of precognition as it is of memory (and they will both probably turn out to be the same thing).
Causality in an analog universe never contradicts the possible, but information is buried deeply in noise; we can never know for certain what information actually comes from the future, or even its “accuracy” (i.e., correspondence to future events) beforehand. The confirmation scene, when some prior hunch matches a real event, is a crucial part of the process, and this must happen in the ordinary workaday flow of linear time.
Hacking the system is possible, but within narrow parameters. An elaborate associative remote viewing setup, for example, can be used to play the stock market, as Russell Targ proved in 1982 with his successful adventure in silver futures trading. But you can’t just, by yourself, rub your temples and see straight-on what’s going to happen in the future; it just doesn’t work that way, because it can’t. There are good reasons evolution hasn’t made us all massively precognitive supermen and -women; even apart from the peculiarities of post-selection, there would be adaptive reasons for a biological system to keep precognition within strict limits and mostly unconscious.
Fire, Walk With Me
Precognition is built around reward and enjoyment, not trauma and pain. Post-selection explains why positive signals of reward are preferentially “pre-ceived”: Reward circuits would be precognitive, because we will orient toward future pleasures, and thus tend to produce the action that results in the pleasure that sends a signal back in time. This is the primary reason why I think dopamine and the brain’s reward circuitry will turn out to have an important connection to those precognitive neuronal ensembles. This is the system that keeps us focused on “the next thing,” drawing our interest to pleasure as well as survival-relevant information.
There is nothing particularly “moral” about psi. Instead of binding us to other people across space, psi binds us to ourselves in the future, and to our own relief or pleasure within the larger context of threat and danger.
Pain traveling into the past, on the other hand, would lead the organism to take a course of action that leads to the avoidance of the stimulus that caused it, thus such a circuit would not be reliable, would violate the rules of post-selection, and would be selected against. Even as a survival tool, precognition will be oriented toward relief from threat or punishment, not the threat or punishment itself. I have noticed in my own case, for example, that precognitive dreams occur most around changes in emotion, from frustration to gratification.
Why then is the precognitive signal so strong around other people’s pain and suffering—the observation that led Fredric Myers to believe that trauma “powered” psychic phenomena? The answer is jouissance, the binding of pleasure to pain, including the intense sublime awe at surviving disasters that befall other people. Precognition may in fact be the very reason for jouissance, the very reason we get excited about destruction, fire, and death, especially when these things happen to others. Jouissance was Jacques Lacan’s answer to Freud’s concept of the “death drive,” which seemed paradoxical because Freud couldn’t see how it would be adaptive to be drawn to death. We’re not really drawn to death, but we are necessarily fascinated by death and pain as long as we can extract some personal reward from it.
When I think of jouissance in the context of psi, I think of “Bob” and his demon-spirit friends in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge, who seem to personify our necessary and terrifying dark side, the hunger for others’ pain and suffering, or “Garmonbozia.” David Lynch is deeply keyed into this nexus of psi and occult forces, which probably has its roots in our most basic and ancient survival needs.
So psi (as precognition) is a system that orients us to threats by making threat-vigillance and the threat response rewarding. Here’s where I disagree slightly with Myers, or Jeffrey Kripal: There is nothing particularly “moral” about psi, at least not directly. Instead of binding us to other people across space, psi binds us to ourselves across time, specifically to our own relief or pleasure within the larger context of life’s perils and pains. Yet I think a major positive byproduct of psi is that it orients us, unconsciously, to rewarding (or relieving) future scenes of connection to other people IRL, in real life. Unconsciously, it pulls us toward eros and the good. This is because it is with and among others that our more mundane, linear-in-time, classical brains take conventional pleasure and respite from those perils and pains.
* Here’s a fun microtubule fact: The ancestors of the microtubules in your cells were spirochetes back in the primordial soup days of the early Earth. They were eventually engulfed as endosymbiotes within other bacteria, to make the more complex cells that build the macro-sized beings of our world. So in other words, the billions of mini time machines in your brain right now share a common ancestor with syphilis.** You’re welcome.
FRACTAL NOTE WITHIN A NOTE (added 12/5/15)
** A reader has helpfully alerted me that, despite decades of searching, Lynn Margulis has been unable to support her hypothesis that microtubules descended from engulfed spirochetes. So that idea, however cool, is probably not true. We can’t have everything.
Near the end of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, astronaut “Coop” is able to communicate with his younger self (as well as his daughter) decades in the past using a tesseract, a theoretical multidimensional portal created by our descendents thousands or millions of years in the future. Coop’s messages are oblique—he can’t address his younger self directly but has to send symbolic messages using the books on his bookshelf. His younger self, before his planned mission to a black hole, realizes there something significant occurring but misses the precise meaning of these messages: a warning not to go.
The character of the brain’s self-relating across time is allusive and indirect: We don’t just appear to ourselves bearing explicit messages from the future; messages from our future self are oblique, more like a game of charades.
If the brain is a quantum computer, the possibility I discussed in the last post, it could work by creating coherent systems of entangled particles that are isolated enough, for long enough, that they are able to manipulate information in ways far beyond what conventional computers can achieve, including sending coherent information into the past and extracting information arriving from the future. Whether or not the mechanism is precisely the one I proposed, based on Seth Lloyd’s theory of time travel via quantum teleportation, I predict that some form of trading and extracting of coherent information across time may turn out to be a basic function of the cortex, a picture that could provide a radically new understanding not only of psi but also of memory and other basic cognitive functions. The brain may be precisely something like Nolan’s tesseract, an organ that is genuinely a tunnel through time, extending across our whole lifespan.
So at the risk of sounding like a reductive materialist bad-guy (which, honest, I’m not), I do think the answer to psi (not necessarily consciousness) is going to be found in neuroscience. All the evidence points to this. No energy transmission or reception has ever been found to account for psi. The physics of information that governs psi and synchronicity has nothing to do with “thoughts through space,” the airy mental image most of us probably have when we think of psychic phenomena. We need to get rid of that mental model of waves radiating from or toward a head. The brain may not create consciousness, but it certainly gives shape to our conscious experience, in the form of memory, thoughts, symbol use, sense of self, and so on. Our experience is processed and shaped by the brain, so our future experiences are mediated by our brain in the future.
I see a brain-based theory of psi as a more compelling alternative to “nonlocality” theories commonly invoked by parapsychologists. Even if it is true that all points in space and time are connected, that gets us no closer to explaining how psi works—for example, how a remote viewer given an arbitrary code word can home in on and describe a specific geographical target that the code word represents, among all possible targets in the universe (and that she hasn’t seen before and couldn’t possibly “recognize”); or how a mother could have a vision of her own dying son on a battlefield (and not all dying people everywhere); or why people have premonitions not of major disasters but specifically of their own reading of those disasters in the news (J.W. Dunne’s major discovery in his 1927 book An Experiment With Time). None of this has anything to do with nonlocality; it’s a matter of information search and retrieval, and it reveals how intimately personal psi information is—we are “recollecting” information from a future point in our own timeline when we will learn something we don’t yet know and don’t yet even know we want to know.
Psi is thus fundamentally memory-like in the way it behaves. Just as we can only remember our own past and not other people’s pasts, we can only remember our own future. And besides being personal, psi is also associative—again, just like memory.
As in Nolan’s tesseract, the character of the brain’s self-relating across time is allusive and indirect: We don’t just appear to ourselves bearing explicit messages from the future; messages from our future self are oblique, more like a game of charades. They may need to be, to conform to the rules that govern memory, and to conform to the demands of “post-selection”—that is, not allowing an action that would foreclose the message from being sent. It’s not like there’s a “precognition police” enforcing this; it’s more like informational Darwinism: the only precognitive messages that “survive” are the ones that lead to their being sent back in time in the first place. Among the parameters of such a tesseract would be a tendency for the clearest examples of precognition to be only consciously recognizable after the fact, unless there is no possibility of preventing the future outcome in which information was sent to the present.
The fact that so much precognitive dream material comes to light when using free association suggests that precognitive dreaming occurs far more frequently than even its advocates typically assert.
Precognitive dreams illustrate this principle marvelously. The basic function of dreaming appears to be the updating of the brain’s associative search system that catalogs and files daily autobiographical events by linking them to other events (and themes) in our long-term memory. Although isolated elements may be immediately recognizable as “day residues,” dream episodes never literalistically represent events, but are tableaux assembled from memories and images those events remind the unconscious of—exactly the kinds of distortions and displacements that Freud mis-took as symbolic disguises for repressed wishes. But even if dreaming’s function is basically mnemonic and not wish-fulfillment, mnemonic associations are formed through precisely the types of puns and other substitutions that Freud identified. Precognitive dreams obey the same principles, and this is why free-association is invaluable in uncovering the true extent of our our nightly precognizing.
Standard Freudian dream interpreters, being entirely past-looking—and biased to search for disguised wishes—are liable to completely miss the large number of precognitive dreams we have on a nightly basis. I now suspect that a sizable portion, maybe even half, of our dreams actually encode events of the subsequent day or farther out, but this is inevitably missed if we do not return to our dreams at later intervals (especially the following afternoon or evening) with an eye to searching for this material.
You don’t need to contort or “twist” a dream to find precognitive referents. Contrary to what Freud-bashers always assert, free-association is not (when it is done right) straining to come up with “meanings” that will lead to a desired conclusion. You do have to play by the rules though: Only the first thing that comes to mind for a noticed dream element is a valid connection. If the first things that come to mind for various dream elements don’t suggestively illuminate a dream episode, just leave it. Many dreams are smarter than we are, and we have to concede defeat; others may refer to events that haven’t happened yet, so we can never assume that the right answer is findable. But when done in good faith, free association reveals abundant precognitive material in dreams that would otherwise go unnoticed.
A particularly clear example from my dream journal from this past April will serve to illustrate the process. (Apologies in advance—I hate reading other people’s dreams, and I know you do to…)
On my way up a mountain, I had stopped at a roadside tourist attraction, a cave with ancient Indian petroglyphs on the ceiling, the most prominent being an enormous elongated/tall rectangular ‘man’ or headless being of some sort, reminding me of one of those elongated tall shaman figures in Southwest rock art [like the middle figure in the picture below], and then a smaller object higher above that figure that I found less interesting. I didn’t have my camera with me (specifically, my old Pentax, which I knew was loaded with black and white film), but I thought I could get it somewhere farther up (the mountain); so I resolved to stop on my way back down so I could take black and white pictures of the petroglyph.
The scene changed: I realized I had my iphone in the car so I retrieved it and attempted to take color pictures in the cave. No matter what I did, however, the screen kept “repelling” my attempt to photograph the largest (tall, vertical) petroglyph that interested me. I turned the camera around to use the front-facing camera, but it still only showed my face on the screen, as though there were a force field preventing any image of the actual petroglyph. Then I dropped the phone and damaged the side, where a button is.
The scene shifted again: I was inside a visitor’s center at the “top” of the mountain, but associated with the cave. It was circular in plan, and around the outer ring were various vestibules with stuff for sale, including snacks. I found a coffee-flavored drink to buy. I thought there might be something else interesting in one of the other rooms, so I went searching, and circled the whole visitor’s center and came back to where I’d started, disappointed.
On writing down the dream initially, the only association that immediately came to mind was the “unphotographable petroglyph”: Two decades ago, when living and working in Eastern Europe, I had a coworker friend named Petra who refused to be photographed; my only picture of her shows her with her face turned away and her hand held up to block the camera. Thus “petroglyph” seemed to be a kind of dream representation of Petra, a “Petra picture.” There was no reason in my current life to be thinking of this old coworker, however. It was later that afternoon that the primary event-referent of the dream became clear.
I had taken time away from my work to watch the live web coverage of a SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral, which would be delivering a cargo module to the International Space Station. It was somewhat exciting, as all rocket launches are, but my main reason for watching this launch was my expectation—based on some Twitter postings earlier that day—that SpaceX might also broadcast the attempted landing of the first stage of the rocket on a barge in the Atlantic; this retrieval method had failed the previous two attempts, but there were high hopes for success in this case. After the launch the cameras on board the rocket showed the first stage separation, but the only views subsequently shown were shots of the exterior and interior of the orbital Dragon module; several minutes passed, and I became increasingly frustrated when the cameras didn’t cut away to show the first-stage retrieval I had been excited to see. It became apparent that, despite the misleading publicity on this launch, the SpaceX broadcast was not going to show the landing, no doubt because of the uncertainty of the outcome.
In the aftermath of my frustration at being unable to view the first-stage landing/retrieval, I realized that my petroglyph dream had been about this minor emotional salience in my otherwise uneventful workday, and thus my frustration turned to excitement. The shape of the bottom/main petroglyph I was interested in, in the dream, was exactly like a tall first stage of the rocket with a flat top. In the dream, the object of my interest resisted being photographed/viewed, like my friend Petra many years before, and thus the dream concocted an amalgam of these two ideas: a “Petra picture,” placed overhead on the roof of a dark cave (like the sky), which my iPhone (a small computer/camera) was unable to capture in its screen. (Remember that there was also a smaller object up above the tall “man” that I found less interesting.) One of Freud’s key insights was that the unconscious cannot represent or conceive an absence; it must put an object in its place—in this case a cave roof for the empty sky, narratively consistent with the “petroglyph” idea that was itself required by the pun on Petra picture, perfectly fit the bill.
That the petroglyph dream element referred to the first stage of the SpaceX rocket is clinched by my desire/intention in the dream of getting my old Pentax camera and photograph it in black and white. This was a very specific memory reference to watching a space shuttle launch in Orlando Florida in the late 1990s, which I had photographed with my Pentax, not remembering it was loaded with black and white film—producing very disappointing lackluster photographs of what was a colorful and spectacular sight. (I have not used that Pentax camera in many years, and that frustrating event was my strongest “free association” with that camera.) In the dream, I specifically wanted to get my Pentax to photograph it “on the way back down”—displacing the rocket’s “way back down” with my own way back down the mountain.
Although the first-stage retrieval was not televised, news tidbits trickled in via Twitter that the barge landing had failed; one person on Twitter said they “broke the rocket.” It was revealed that the rocket had hit hard, with too much lateral momentum, and fallen over on its side. In the dream, I dropped my phone and broke it, specifically the button on its side. (A few days later, video was made available showing the interesting and highly entropic outcome of the failed landing attempt: the rocket descending onto the barge but falling over and exploding.)
The last part of my dream, about traversing a circular gift shop “at the top of the mountain” and finding a coffee drink, is also directly significant. The main media-worthy fact about this SpaceX mission, which was part of the chatter during the launch coverage, was that it was going to be delivering an espresso machine to the International Space Station. During the coverage, at the point of my maximal frustration (i.e., when I hoped it would cut away to show the barge retrieval), what was shown instead was a boring, somewhat ambiguous viewpoint inside the circular cargo module, along its visibly curved edge (i.e., my frustration and disappointment at circling the circular gift shop and finding nothing but a coffee drink).
Thus, as is typical with dreams, various old memory fragments with resonances to an emotionally salient autobiographical situation (inability to see/photograph a friend; failure to satisfyingly photograph a rocket launch) were woven together by the unconscious to create an associative symbolic tableau, rather like a game of charades hinting strongly at a core autobiographical event that is not directly represented; but in this case the event was a few hours in my future, not the previous day or two as is the somewhat more familiar and typical pattern.
Psi has always been noted to involve emotional upheavals of various kinds, and to especially express itself when ordinary communication channels prove limiting or frustrating—both of these characterized the autobiographical episode this dream seemed to be pre-encoding. (The connection between new communications technology and psi is a whole topic in itself, of course; in the early days of the ARPAnet, Jacques Vallee noted telepathy occurring among networked chat users.) Also, there is a distinct connection between precognitive information and highly “entropic” events like rocket launches and explosions, as Edwin May has shown. Many (although not all) of my own precognitive dreams involve entropy gradients in one way or another—often an entropic event on the news, or indeed on Twitter—although I believe this has less to do with our “psi eyes” and more to do with the kinds of information we as humans find interesting and survival-relevant, whatever the sensory channel. True to form, this dream managed to draw together multiple lines of association to express the idea of a disappointing or frustrating failure to fully see what I wanted to see—a camera being a standard representation of “seeing”—precisely in connection with a rocket launch and landing.
Note that there is nothing immediately obvious in the above dream that would connect it with what I am asserting was its future referent; like most precognitive dreams, it would have gone completely unnoticed had I not been in a habit of (a) recording my dreams, (b) unpacking my dreams via free-associative Freudian methods, and (c) revisiting them later in the day in search of possible precognitive references. Again, a dream is not a literal replay of an event (past or future), but the firing of neural circuits that in one way or another closely associate to that memory (or its themes)—wiring these associations together by firing them together. Dreaming is the experience of neural rewiring, the updating of the search system, and thus the actual autobiographical episode they relate to is generally not represented and thus not obvious at first glance; the dream is a kind of associative halo around the event, and the event is a kind of blank space at its heart.
Unacceptable emotions about 9/11 may have been sacrificed to the past, retroactively giving rise to the countless premonitory and precognitive dreams and visions experienced by Americans during the previous days and weeks.
Dreams in which you can discern the precognitive referent without any kind of free-associative unpacking are infrequent, but even those are common enough that a casual dream-recorder can occasionally discover them. J.W. Dunne gave no thought to Freudian methods of dream interpretation, for instance, yet recorded several plainly precognitive dreams that had very little symbolic/associative ‘disguise.’ Dale Graff, who was a director and remote viewer in the Star Gate program, has written extensively of dream precognition and precognitive remote viewing using dreams in his excellent memoirs Tracks in the Psychic Wilderness and River Dreams, and he also describes several examples in which the target is plain without the use of free association.
The fact that so much precognitive dream material comes to light when using free association suggests that precognitive dreaming occurs far more frequently than even its advocates typically assert. In my case, not a week goes by when I do not record at least a few dreams like the above, that clearly refer (once unpacked) to an event the following day. Typically these events are trivial, not the sort of thing you’d imagine warranted a warning or alert, and certainly lacking the “numinous” quality commonly associated with premonitory dreams. Even the most assiduous dream recorder only remembers and records a small handful of his/her dreams each night. We may dream for a few hours each night but, in my case, I suspect my recorded dreams amount to only a tiny fraction of that total—perhaps a few minutes worth of narrative. Thus I suspect strongly that we are, all of us, probably precognitively dreaming (in addition to retrocognitively dreaming) in abundance. It’s probably a basic function. The trouble is that dreams are very hard to remember and are otherwise highly recalcitrant to study, for a host of reasons.
For one thing, the dreamer is an n of 1, and his/her associative language is unique, and thus it can take years of working with one’s own dreams to get a sense of their character. And critics will always be able to accuse you of making your interpretations up. The “n of 1” problem is what makes Freudian dream interpretation—as well as its variant, mnemonic dream interpretation—inherently untestable. No dream can be replicated, and multiple dreamers will dream about the same experience in totally unique and idiosyncratic ways. The most basic support for the mnemonic theory, however, is in its consistency: If one dream element associates to a particular event in daily life, the remainder of the elements in the same dream episode almost always refer to that same episode or to the same narrow window of time. Again, this is because they are not wish-fulfillments but bundled episodic memories being processed and accessioned by the hippocampus. The hippocampus is like our autobiographical librarian; dreaming is like that librarian taking a new book/event, stamping it with a bar code and scanning it into the system, before placing it on the appropriate shelf; our dreams are those bar codes.
Also, dreams are hard to fully unpack in public or outside a therapeutic context because they touch on very personal, private symbolism that is just too difficult to explain to others to make it worth the trouble. I chose the “Petroglyph” dream not because it is the most stand-out example but because the symbolism in it doesn’t happen to be that embarrassing or personal (although it still strains the “TMI” limits that make another person’s dream-interpretations always annoying or embarrassing to hear). Most are much worse from the sharability standpoint. This is why the psychoanalytic literature is such an important augmentation to Dunne and the rest of the parapsychological literature bearing on precognition. Jule Eisenbud’s books Psi and Psychoanalysis and Paranormal Foreknowledge are full of compelling examples taken from his own case files.
The bottom line is that precognition is normal and constant, but is highly personal, like memory, and manifests indirectly and unconsciously. We are undoubtedly also receiving precognitive information across the course of the day that never gets expressed in any conscious form but primes us for action and thought in numerous invisible ways. This is the “first sight” logic described by James Carpenter, which is supported by numerous presentiment studies such as those by Daryl Bem, Dean Radin, and Julia Mossbridge. So-called synchronicities, of course, are misrecognized precognition’s main, most visible symptom.
Precognition and Repression
This is more speculative, but I have a hunch that those associative rules that govern memory and precognition may have a specifically “quantum” rationale in information theory. On the quantum level, in a closed, coherent system such as a quantum computer, information cannot be lost or destroyed, but only “traded” back and forth through time, and thus post-selected information would specifically transfer back in time and disappear from the present. The ongoing fluidity and flux of memory could be a product of information obeying quantum (or quantum-like) rules, even if association itself really involves macro-scale, classical dynamics.
Precognition may even be the flip side of repression: Repression would be a process of trading unwanted data into the past, and precognition would be the corresponding process of receiving that repressed information from the future.
The brain’s ongoing process of time-binding may thus involve acquiring information from the future at the price of loss of information in the present and losing information in the present to the past when new information is acquired—such as an emotionally salient (i.e., memorable) autobiographical event. If some function of attention is able to make determinations about what part of that new information to keep in the present, then precognition would be linked with this preference system. This would give us reason to link the Freudian concept of “repression” to this process of making choices about the dispersal of information in time.
It may even be that precognition is the flip side of repression: Repression would be a process of trading unwanted data into the past, and precognition would be the corresponding process of receiving that repressed (and hard to interpret) information from the future. Or you could say, precognition is the appearance of new information without knowing the cause, whereas repression is a cause that seems to somehow lose its effect by losing part of its affect.
If this is so, we would be especially precognitive for events that are too “explosive” (in multiple senses) and that we do not want to fully confront or face right when they happen. As I discussed in my “Trauma Displaced in Time” article, the splitting of our reaction to traumatic events like disasters may cause any positive emotion connected with them to “travel” into the past and emerge as premonitory or precognitive information before the traumatic event occurs. A range of positive feelings like excitement, thrill, and arousal were stimulated by news coverage of the terror attacks on 9/11, for instance, particularly for those who didn’t have loved ones possibly affected by the disaster. These unacceptable emotions may have been partially or wholly sacrificed to the past, retroactively giving rise to the countless premonitory and precognitive dreams and visions experienced by Americans during the previous days and weeks.
If there were any way to test it, I would bet money that 99 percent of Americans dreamed of the terror attacks on the night of 9/10/2001; the thousands who actually reported their premonitory dreams of the event were just a fraction of those that noticed such dreams and didn’t report them, which would itself be a tiny fraction of those who had dreams associatively linked to the themes of the day without ever noticing the link … and that would be a tiny fraction of those who had such dreams but didn’t remember them at all, and so on. (There should a be Drake Equation for precognitive dreaming.)
In fact, in keeping with my current obsession with “Twitter dreams” (which I seem to have a few times a week), I think part of that unacceptable emotional energy around disasters might be the frenetic, dopamine-induced excitement we feel when they are unfolding, particularly stoked by TV and new media like Twitter. Although we outwardly express grief and shock, it is the savage (but really, highly adaptive) eagerness to “find out more” that keeps us engaged with unfolding tragedies like terror attacks. That excitement, if my hunch is right, may be a lot of what gets shunted to the past.
Straightforward excitement at a reward or achievement in the process of skilled engagement can also be traded into the past for another reason. Anyone who does a martial art or writes creatively or performs any high-stakes skill (flying a plane, performing brain surgery, etc.) knows that requirement of successful skill-engagement is “curbing your enthusiasm”—not allowing yourself the luxury of celebrating small successes in the moment but staying coldly focused. Thus, just like with traumas but for different reasons, rewards may pass excitement back into the past or future, accounting for the greater emergence of highly adaptive precognition in these flow states, consistent with the “first sight” idea. Just a hunch.
POSTSCRIPT: Does Longevity = Processing Power?
I realize it is highly out of fashion to liken the brain to a computer, but quantum computing may breathe new and interesting life into that metaphor. If the brain can reach across its own timeline, accessing information in its future and past, then it could be characterized as a fully four-dimensional information processor, able to utilize all its computing power over its whole lifespan, not to mention capitalize on all the other fantastical abilities of “qubits.” If the brain is a quantum computer (or more likely, an assemblage of billions of quantum computers linked classically)—and if it thus can, at any given moment, utilize all of its states across time, as well as all possible paths to obtaining the answer to a search query in memory—then not only its precognitive capabilities but its computing abilities in general would be formidable indeed.
Mentally, we are in the after-life, displaced (milliseconds, seconds, hours, even years sometimes) from the classical billiard-ball unfolding of our physical bodies.
It is already well known that, in humans, intelligence correlates with longevity; although obvious commonsensical explanations, such as smarter individuals being better able to avoid dangers, are no doubt operative, some research has found a common genetic factor uniting them. The notion that brain could be a quantum computer “calculating” across its whole history raises a further possibility: that longer lifespan causes higher intelligence by increasing the four-dimensional computing resources of the individual’s brain. This could perhaps provide an alternative explanation for the genetic correlation.
I am opposed to frivolous animal experiments, but purely as an animal-thought-experiment, you could test this idea by assessing the intelligence or problem-solving ability of a group of identical animals (cloned mice, for instance), and then sacrifice a randomly selected half of the group immediately after the assessment, letting the remainder live a full life. If their brains are making computations drawing on the computing power of a whole mouse lifetime, the long-lived mice would be hypothesized to perform better than the short-lived ones. A more ethical variant of this type of experiment would be to randomly expose half the mice to a condition of more learning and a more enriched environment following the test. Essentially, some of Bem’s experiments with college students in his famous “Feeling the Future” research program have shown such benefits of subsequent learning on prior performance.
In keeping with my “Libet’s Golem” speculation, perhaps we ought to think of baseline cognition as displaced into the future. Maybe instead of pre-cognition we should talk about post-activity. Mentally, we are in the after-life, displaced (milliseconds, seconds, hours, even years sometimes) from the classical billiard-ball unfolding of our physical bodies. Yet we are never directly aware of that because all the physical data from our senses, which could be used to fix us in time, belongs to that “past” body locked in its classical time zone, it’s singular moment of “now,” which provides all of our reference points (unless we are in an altered or meditative state). This narrow sensory window misleads and confuses us about what we are, and when we are.
In other words, the present moment refers to the coordination of our senses, not to the “when” of our subjectivity and thought. Yet our only window onto the physical world is at one time, the conventional social “now,” the singular cursor in our life’s video-editing timeline. Yet the place of thought may be that whole world-line of the brain, from start to finish. We have no way of seeing that, except indirectly, in oblique paranormal phenomena where the other times of our mind push through into conscious awareness because our defenses against psi have momentarily broken down.
For decades, parapsychologists have been looking to quantum physics as the cavalry that might rescue them from their scientific exile by providing a theoretical justification for psi phenomena. Particles in quantum systems can teleport, become entangled so they behave in unison (no matter how far apart they are), and exist in multiple states simultaneously; also their interactions are identical going backward as going forward. Naturally, the fact that such interactions verifiably exist in nature has held out hope that quantum principles might one day explain stuff like telepathy, remote viewing, and precognition, as well as psychokinetic effects.
If the brain turns out to have quantum computing properties, this could even open the door to a realistic physical explanation for the most causally outrageous form of psi, precognition.
The problem, and the reason skeptical critics have been justified in dismissing any link between claimed psi phenomena and quantum physics, is that Alice-in-Wonderland quantum principles describe the very microscopic world of particles, not the world of people. They have mainly been known to “scale up” only in very special conditions, when very small groups of entangled particles can be strictly isolated from interaction with their environment and thus protected from what is known as “decoherence”: Entanglement washes out very quickly once particles interact with other particles—making it hard to see how it could really be used to explain things like telepathy or remote viewing. In a laboratory, sustaining quantum-coherent systems has proved difficult to achieve other than at very low temperatures (approaching absolute zero) and generally only for very small (still microscopic) objects, for very brief lengths of time.
Over the past two decades, however, a growing number of findings in biology are revising this picture: Quantum processes do occur at a macro scale, and even in warm, wet, and messy biological systems; they are even essential to life as we know it. Quantum tunneling—the ability of a particle to pass through a barrier by becoming a wave, taking multiple paths simultaneously—is essential to photosynthesis, for example, leading the discoverer of this phenomenon (Graham Fleming) to suggest that plants are, in some sense, quantum computers. Quantum tunneling is also essential to the catalytic action of enzymes, and quantum entanglement may be involved in magnetoreception (navigation by magnetic fields), for instance in birds.
The suspicion that the brain may also have quantum properties and that this may provide some kind of explanation for consciousness goes back three decades, to Roger Penrose’s idea that microtubules in neurons may be sites of quantum effects enabling entanglement both within and between brain cells. Penrose teamed with anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to formulate the controversial “orchestrated objective-reduction” (Orch-OR) theory, positing that neurons themselves act as quantum computers and are the real locus of computation in the brain. Other researchers have focused on narrow ion channels in neuronal walls, which control the movement of neurotransmitters into the cell and thus their voltage, as possible sites of quantum effects. In their recent book on the emerging field of quantum biology, Life on the Edge, Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili propose that the brain’s electromagnetic field may couple to quantum-coherent (entangled) ions moving through these channels and synchronize them, enabling the “binding” of multiple cortical processes, and that consciousness may be tantamount to this system-wide orchestration of neural activity.
There’s no proof for any of this as yet, but clearly the race is on to discover quantum processes in the brain, and thus we are at the dawn of a new era of quantum neuroscience to go along with quantum biology. It certainly makes sense that if any biological system capitalizes on quantum principles and scales them up—including their spookier and more baffling properties—it might be the brain, famously the most complex structure known to exist in the universe.
Like many people, I’m skeptical of the effort to explain consciousness per se as an effect of brain processes, even quantum brain processes. Invoking quantum physics doesn’t make the endeavor any less philosophically unsound (quantum or not, the brain will always be demonstrably “within consciousness” no matter how much we assert the reverse). Mainly, though, I think it is a bit of a red herring and represents a semantic confusion, since the real operative term that we mystics and mysterians ought to be interested in is something more like “enjoyment,” whose properties are very different from what we ordinarily think of when we hear the word “consciousness.” (Some of the functions associated with consciousness—including any sense of self and memory—I feel surely are mediated by the brain.) Nevertheless, I am cheered by the exercise of searching for consciousness (whatever it means) in the quantum-friendly microstructures of neurons because I think the unintended byproduct of this confused effort is likely to be precisely the physical explanation for psi that parapsychology has always dreamed of but could never specify.
That is to say, even if consciousness is a basic mystery, I don’t think psi is, and I think we can do better than invoke vague ideas of “nonlocality” and the “holographic universe.” If the brain turns out either to be a quantum computer or, more realistically, to have quantum computing properties in tandem with its better-understood classical properties, this could even open the door eventually to a realistic—and most importantly, testable—physical explanation for the most causally outrageous form of psi, precognition.
Dropping the Bohm
In some recent articles, Jon Taylor has proposed a very interesting theory of precognition as memory of one’s future experiences, based on a “resonance” between similar brain states at different points in time. He bases this idea on David Bohm’s argument that similar spatial configurations are somehow naturally linked across space and time. The similarity of configurations of cortical firing at different time points could, Taylor proposes, enable such a resonance between different points in the brain’s timeline and thus produce precognitive effects. These would preferentially favor precognition of events closer rather than more distant in time, due to ongoing plasticity (creation of new synaptic connections) that gradually changes our neuronal architecture. Limited telepathy is also potentially supported by Taylor’s model, although it would be less common given the relative dissimilarity of different people’s brains (the similarity of siblings and twins, between whom telepathic experiences are commonly reported, being the exception proving the rule). Taylor’s hypothesis resembles Rupert Sheldrake’s argument about “morphic resonance” as the basis of memory; precognition would be essentially a future-resonating mirror of memory’s resonance with past brain states.
Picture Jeff Bridges being digitized by the laser, as in Tron, but instead materializing ten years earlier inside an old Pong console.
I lean strongly to the view that psi is mostly, or possibly even only, precognition, given the difficulty of excluding this source of information even in studies of purported telepathy and remote viewing (and even spirit mediumship). Some form of feedback or confirmation has been present in most experimental and real-world demonstrations of these abilities, it seems, and ‘forensic’ examination of individual cases suggests that psychic subjects often are receiving information from “scenes of confirmation” in their own future even when they think they are getting it from other minds or distant points in space. It’s a suspicion that has hovered over ESP research from early on, and has led researcher Edwin May to argue that all psi is basically precognition. I also agree with Taylor that precognition is inextricably connected to associative memory processes (more on this in the next post).
But as a physical explanation for how this could work, I’m not very persuaded by the Bohmian resonance argument that similar spatial configurations somehow share a special affinity. This is what bugs me about Sheldrake’s arguments as well: The idea that forms “resonate” seems to require someone somewhere to decide what counts as a form in the first place, and how to measure a form’s similitude to another form. It’s a Platonic model, and as such I think it puts the cart of form before the horse of embodied human conscious or unconscious agency … for instance in the form of psi. (Jung’s theory of synchronicity suffers the same problem, as I argued in my anti-synchronicity diatribe this past spring.)
An interesting alternative avenue for thinking about how precognition of one’s own future experiences could occur comes from recent developments in quantum computing and research in the transmission of information via quantum teleportation. In 2010, Seth Lloyd and colleagues proposed that teleportation can be used to send information back in time, not just across space; they then tested this idea in 2011. Lloyd’s idea is monumental, because it has shown for the first time how a real kind of time travel can be achieved non-relativistically, without massively bending space as in a black hole or Kardashev III-style wormhole (for instance as depicted in the movie Interstellar). Lloyd’s method rests on parapsychologists’ favorite quantum concept, entanglement … but not in the usual way it is typically invoked to explain telepathy and remote viewing.
Entanglement of two particles causes one particle to affect the other instantaneously; they do not “communicate” in any way that must obey the speed of light. In 1993, Charles Bennett proposed that this could be used to teleport information across space. Say you have a pair of entangled particles A and B, separated by some distance; you can compare particle B to another, third particle C to determine their relative properties (destroying the properties of C in the process). Once this is done, you can relay the information about B and C’s relationship to someone at the distant location, who can measure A and, from the knowledge about how B and C related, infer or reconstruct information about C. It sounds like a convoluted Rube Goldberg contraption, but it is cool because it amounts to the destruction of information in one place and the replication or reconstitution of that information in another place—basically, a transporter beam.
If the vague transporter effects of Star Trek don’t help you visualize this, picture video-gamer “Flynn” (Jeff Bridges) accidentally digitizing himself with a laser and being beamed into the world of Tron—that’s exactly how it works. This principle has since been demonstrated experimentally many times, over distances of as much as 89 miles (I believe the current record), using lasers to send one of a pair of entangled photons through open air.
What Lloyd showed was that this setup can be modified to send information back in time instead of (or as well as) through space, if one of the two entangled particles is allowed to become fully entangled with that third particle C, breaking its entanglement to the first. As before, as long as particle A and B are entangled, information associated with them is shared; if particle B then an hour later becomes entangled with particle C, the original entanglement between B and A is broken, and information originally associated with the new particle C becomes lost by C but associated with the other “divorced” particle A in the original pair, and in the past—effectively, that “associated” information travels back in time. If I understand this correctly (and I invite more quantum-savvy readers to correct me here), you’d find that that “lost” information from C already was associated with A—you just didn’t notice it or have any way of interpreting it until you performed the operation of entangling B with C, within a setup where the outcome was pre-determined through a process known as “post-selection”—more on that below. (A good, clear explanation of Lloyd’s idea can be found here.)
Lloyd considers this a way that information and potentially even matter could be teleported into the past. For this, you could perhaps picture Jeff Bridges being digitized by the laser, same as before, but this time materializing ten years earlier inside an old Pong console. (We’d later come to find he’d become ruler of a dull virtual table tennis scenario, and gone mad from the boredom.)
I think the informational possibilities of this teleportation method are even more exciting than the possibility of beaming physical objects or people into the past, given the concurrent effort to understand the quantum-computer-like properties of the brain. If the brain or its constituent cells can scale up quantum effects by creating systems of entangled particles that are kept coherent over spans of time (that is, protected from jostling with other particles and used to perform calculations, even just over milliseconds or seconds), then information could be sent into the past and extracted by observation/measurement. Precognition, in other words.
The Death of Randomness
Lloyd’s theory takes advantage of the principle that, at a quantum level, information is never lost, but only traded back and forth among particles as a result of their entanglements; future entanglements thus can influence the past.
This is where, to understand Lloyd’s breakthrough, you need to appreciate a possibly even bigger deal in quantum science, the slow death of the old doctrine that particles behave randomly—the “God playing dice” idea that so offended Einstein. Turns out, a lot of physicists think Einstein was probably right. According to the “two-state vector formalism,” the apparent random behavior of particles is only an effect of our inability to take into account the influences of their future measurements (i.e., interactions with other particles). In other words, particles’ future histories determine how they behave in the present as much as their past histories. “Randomness” is really “noise” from which no signal can be extracted, because we don’t know the properties of the particles that a given measured particle will be associated with in its future.
The future is right here, right now, a whole backwards-facing tidal wave of causality that is just as important for dictating nature’s unfolding as its billiard-ball past is; it is just far more obscure.
The special conditions stipulated in Lloyd’s scenario—that is, a quantum computer in which sequestered entangled particles can be carefully re-entangled while subjected to the constraint of post-selection—is the exception to this rule. In such a circumstance, since the endpoint or output of the computation is restricted to a particular result, the meaning of particles’ prior behavior—that is, the information associated with them that was the “result” of a future entanglement—can be extracted in the past, and thus the “future cause” known in advance.
Post-selection means that outcomes must fall within the range of possibility to be allowed; this is what prevents Lloyd’s quantum computer/teleportation scenario from committing the paradoxes associated with time-travel, such as the “grandfather paradox.” The only states that can emerge as outcomes are ones that do not prevent that outcome from occurring, yet a range of paths are permitted to get to that outcome. (One “spooky” feature of particles is their ability to take multiple paths simultaneously to a destination in space, known as a quantum walk; post-selection seems to be sort of a temporal version of this idea, although I have not seen it explained that way.) Some accounts of Lloyd’s theory of time travel even suggest that outrageous twists of fate would arise in some cases to prevent future-cancelling outcomes.
Although post-selection is used in a quantum computing context as a kind of programming choice, Its implications for how we think about reality itself are profound. In a sense, post-selection is just a special application of the larger principle that we live in a possible universe. When applied to the problem of precognition, all post-selection means is that informational time travel must produce a possible outcome and not a contradiction. But we are looking at it wrong in thinking that outrageous measures would be taken by the universe as prophylaxis against paradox; the point is, the information would not have traveled in time in the first place if it caused a contradiction, not because some deus ex machina intervened, but because it wouldn’t be information, just noise whose origin couldn’t be pinpointed.
We are really forced to resort to circular reasoning to describe reality: Things that happened happened, things that didn’t didn’t. The only way to make this seem non-tautological is to parse it out and walk around the loop on foot, seeing only part of the whole at a time. Logic (and perhaps the limits of human understanding, or at least left-hemisphere understanding) requires we we play this game of pretend, which is essentially what mechanistic causality always was. But the basic structure of reality is a “cell” formed by backward-in-time data informing action that either leads to some event which generates the data or is noise, in which case the information we suspected came from a future event didn’t actually emanate from that event or was misinterpreted. It is only precognition if and to the extent that it comes true. This can give you a headache to think about, but it really points to the insufficiency of causality: It’s a social model used to assign responsibility and “blame” for events, but zoom out too far and its fictitiousness becomes apparent.
If all this sounds like an argument for total determinism (or at least, for precognition as precognition of what must occur), it is not. We are really no closer to settling the determinism vs. free will question, because “particle randomness” was never the savior of free will anyway, even when back when we thought God played dice. It seems to me that an essential characteristic of precognition is its non-total, imperfect nature: Psi information is only information to the extent that it can be matched against reality—that is, confirmed—and this probably falls in a gradation or range (or “smear”). There’s no absolutely correct or total psi information because then there wouldn’t be an “outside” to the information, and no way of knowing it even existed; on the other extreme, totally wrong information wouldn’t be information, only noise, and no one would have acted upon it.
This is what I meant several months ago (in my attack on Jung) by the strange attractor; the strange attractor is between psi information and noise. It is noise to the extent that our knowledge (potential or suspected psi) does not match the future. Noise is one wing of the butterfly. The other wing is when our knowledge (potential psi) does match. In this case, we call it psi. But the point is, there is always a backflow or backwash of proto-information traveling into the past; only within a coherent structure like a quantum computer may it be usable and actionable as information per se, yet precisely the energy invested in heeding the information or using it to orient toward the right answer in the future deviates the right answer, altering the status of the information the psychic received. Frank Herbert keyed in on this when describing Paul Muad’Dib’s precognitive abilities in Dune:
The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed—at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.
Psi, as Rhine Center parapsychologist James Carpenter argues, is basic to our thinking and functioning, not some superficial add-on “ability” (or as some would have it, “superpower”). Precognition may be a basic function whereby the brain sends information into its own past—or more likely, billions of miniature quantum computers within the brain are sending information into their pasts. Hypothetically, a statistical perturbation in particle behavior (for instance, in those microtubules or the ion channels of synapses) would produce a perturbation in the system at a macro level that stimulates certain associations and not others, in a way that can be minimally trusted by the (classical) associative system as carrying usable information. That minimal trust in one’s future neural architecture is a function of repetition and habit—we must establish habits or rituals of confirmation (these may be totally unconscious), which build up the psi-system’s trust in future information, which our psi guidance system can then home in on. In other words, habit and expectation create a kind of minimal “post-selection.” (On a conscious level, ritual can serve this purpose in any project of working with psi, such as in precognitive dreamwork.)
Our conscious intent could be unknowingly pulling our meat puppet’s strings from a position dislocated slightly into the future, where the results of the action are already more or less known.
If this is the case, it could be that infant cognitive development amounts to learning to sort out psi signal from noise, and that this involves building up the basic self-trust of “me in a half second,” “me in a few seconds,” and so on that enables precognitive information to be reliably used for basic motor tasks. During our development, we gradually home in on the minimally useful short-term psi signal that enables planning but doesn’t screw things up for us socially, again by building up that structure of self-knowledge and trust in our associative and cognitive habits. Meanwhile, social learning imposes strict limits on overt, conscious expression of precognition, for a wide range of cultural reasons.
Rubbing my temples, I foretell that a future neuroscience of psi will find that something like this interaction between quantum computation involving “closed timelike curves” within neurons and the system- or circuit-level architecture of association will turn out to be the basic function of the cortex, although it will also depend crucially on subcortical reward regions, as I suggested in a previous post, as these are crucial in reward and the development of habits.
I also wonder whether our behavior might turn out to have relatively little to do with using information from memory to fashion mental representations and action plans—that that whole story (i.e., cognition as occurring “in the past,” prior to action) may be an inadequate or incomplete picture that needs psi to supplement it. Effective (i.e., skilled, Zen-like) motor action might occur from a place after action, a place that already knows the outcome.
I think of this possibility as “Libet’s golem,” because it would be like an ironic, science-fictional perversion of Benjamin Libet’s troubling/awesome discovery that conscious intent follows motor actions by a half second. It could be this is true because our conscious intent is unknowingly pulling our meat puppet’s strings from a position dislocated slightly (e.g., a half second) into the future, where the results of the action are already more or less known. This would be especially the case when engaged in a skilled activity, and would account for the slightly dissociated feeling that accompanies intuition and creative or athletic flow states. (Gives a whole new meaning to “be here now.”)
This all remains highly speculative … obviously. But regardless of whether Lloyd’s setup or something like it characterizes computing operations in the brain, the significance of the new developments in quantum theory for understanding time and causality itself cannot be overstated, because they provide the necessary context within which precognition will eventually be rendered palatable to the scientific mainstream.
Particles behave like little rock stars or college students in a sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll haze, sleeping with a new partner or two each night, swapping clothes, prescriptions, playlists, and cold sores.
For at least a century, scientists have sought to understand the emergence of order within a universe governed by the entropy, our best proxy for time’s arrow, and it has never quite seemed to add up. Again and again, keen thinkers have resorted to invoking some sort of as-yet-unidentified form of retrocausality. In 1919, Paul Kammerer argued for “seriality” as a kind of determination from the future, a convergence on future order. His theory was highly influential on Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which tried to replace causality with meaning as the glue connecting events. Then, within the field of general systems theory, some theorists proposed some sort of countervailing force to entropy that would make sense of the emergence of complex and intricate forms despite the supposedly inexorable tendency toward chaos. Various theories under the umbrella of what Luigi Fantappie called “syntropy,” have proposed that systems gravitate toward future attractors (I highly recommend DiCorpo and Vannini’s recent book Syntropy on this).
The reconsideration of randomness as the omnipresent but impossibly noisy effect of the future on the present comes alongside a major realization about what causes entropy in the first place. The second law of thermodynamics had always been understood and explained as a statistical product of randomness—almost as if math, the law of large numbers, could magically exert a causal effect on a system. Random behavior of particles leads any ordered system to move inexorably toward disorder, an averaging out of differences and thus a loss of information, but randomness does not by itself explain how heat dissipates through a medium and why order tends toward chaos. This is something that Arthur Koestler intuited in his excellent 1972 book on ESP, The Roots of Coincidence: The law of large numbers cannot explain anything—it is a statistical tendency, but math alone is not determinative; statistics don’t cause things to average out. Resorting to tricks of statistics has really been one of science’s fig leafs, when it comes to some of the most basic phenomena in nature at a macro scale.
The reason for entropy, it now turns out—once again, because of Seth Lloyd’s work—is our old friend entanglement: Particles, when they come into contact with each other, take on the properties of their new mates, and simultaneously lose their previous, more distinctive properties. I like to think of this as quantum promiscuity—particles behave like little rock stars or college students in a sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll haze, sleeping with a new partner or two each night, swapping clothes, prescriptions, playlists, and cold sores. These attributes diffuse through a community of interacting individuals, resulting in their becoming more and more similar. By the end of their freshman year, all college students are alike—the same clothes, diseases, musical tastes, etc. Same with particles, given enough time. Entropy is just the promiscuity of particles tending to share each others’ attributes.
Entropy, in other words, is not a loss of information but a sharing and homogenizing of information in the present, sending more distinct information into the past; it is the increasingly complicated nature of particles’ entanglements that produces the “averaging out” behavior seen in thermodynamic systems, making the information purely virtual (or noise). “The arrow of time is an arrow of increasing correlations,” Lloyd says.
So another way of looking at it is this: Lloyd’s model of time-traveling information is an idealized model of what all particles are doing all the time, but in such a haphazard, rapid, out-of-control way that no meaningful information can be extracted from the way they behave when measured, because those future entanglements are unknown to us and there is no known-in-advance endpoint to work back from. Randomness is an illusion caused by particles’ unrestrained future promiscuity and the open-endedness of future time.
The retrocausal effects of quantum entanglement provide an alternative, and most importantly empirically supported mechanism to theories like syntropy and seriality, as well as a more coherent and specific answer to vague “resonance” theories a la Sheldrake and Bohm. Astrobiologist Paul Davies has even argued that this influence of the future behavior of particles, and specifically the principle of post-selection, help explain the arising of life in the universe.
The take-home is this: The future is exerting an omnipresent influence on us, at the most intimate level of the matter and energy constituting us and our world. It is right here, right now, a whole backwards-facing tidal wave of causality that is just as important for dictating nature’s unfolding as its billiard-ball past is; it is just far more obscure. And nature does allow—and Seth Lloyd proved it—for special situations in which little pieces of that massive backwards wave of influence can be used to inform us of events still to come. Since Lloyd’s system requires “perfect” replication of information in the past, on the model of a transporter beam or an error-free computer circuit, the ability to fix the end parameters must be absolute. But human precognition need not be total and perfect, any more than any sensory information is total and perfect. It just needs to be “good enough for government work,” as they say.
In other words, it’s okay if any given Jeff Bridges isn’t replicated perfectly within his boring Pong game, but looks odd or has three arms or two heads. With billions of cells performing similar precognitive calculations, the brain could arrive at an adequate approximation, a “majority report” that is good enough to guide its behavior.