Richard G. Petty, MD

Eye Color

“The eye is the jewel of the body.”
–Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

In November we had a look at new data suggesting that eye color may have developed as a kind of “instant paternity test.”

Now scientists in Brisbane, Australia are reporting that they have uncovered the genetics of eye color, and that they are surprisingly simple. Which is just what we would expect if something were biologically important.

The research is published in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

After studying 3,839 individuals, it turns out that of the six billion or so “letters” that make up the human genetic code, a handful of “single nucleotide polymorphisms” (SNPs – pronounced “snips”) are largely responsible for the color of your eyes. These SNPs consist of a change in just one “letter” in the genetic sequence. All the SNPs are located near a gene called OCA2. This gene produces a protein that helps give hair, skin and eyes their color. And mutations in OCA2 cause the most common type of albinism. So these gene mutations modify the amount of pigment in the iris: people with brown eyes have more pigment than people with blue. The odd one out is people with green eyes. In them the changes in the genes seems to have produced a functional change in the pigmentation protein itself.

This is interesting for another reason. There are a small number of medicines and clinical conditions that are associated with changes in the color of the iris. But I have also seen some people whose eye color has changed very rapidly in response to changes in mood, attention or concentration. I have also sometimes seen it happen when people have achieved some altered state of consciousness through prayer or meditation. Yet there is hardly any scientific research into this odd but uncommon phenomenon.

I did find two studies from Korea that attempted to associate a gene for angiotensin converting enzyme and the apolipoprotein e gene with iris type. The trouble with these studies was that they were very small and started with the assumption that iridology could be used to diagnose a physical problem, even though the research (1. 2. 3. 4.) has shown that it cannot.

I had assumed that these rapid changes in eye color had something to do with changes in blood flow in the eye, and that does remain the most likely explanation. But the question now is whether the SNPs associated with eye color are themselves modulated by mood, cognition or spiritual insight.

If you have ever observed changes in iris color in yourself or other people, I would be very interested to hear from you.

“All our souls are written in our eyes.”

–Edmund Rostand (French Poet, 1868-1918)

Psilocybin and Mystical Experience

The Psilocybin Molecule

We have discussed mystical experiences a couple of times recently. They are important not only because of what they may teach us about altered states of consciousness, but because they may contain genuine revelations about the nature of reality and they are invariably profoundly meaningful to the person having them.

Earlier this year there was a paper that seemed to come in under some people’s radar, though several heavyweights in the world of psychopharmacology spoke approvingly of the research.

The paper was entitled, “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” There are also some superb commentaries on the original paper, all of which are available for free download if you click on the links above.

So what got everyone so excited?

Psilocybin is a psychedelic alkaloid that has been used for religious purposes for centuries. The researchers conducted a double-blind study on the acute and longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin. What was particularly important was that the 36 experimental subjects had no previous experience of hallucinogens but who were regularly participating in religious or spiritual activities.

It is also important that the experiments were performed in comfortable, supportive surroundings. The last thing that anyone wanted was for people to have a “Bad trip” and to be left without care and support.

They were given psilocybin and methylphenidate (Ritalin) in separate sessions, the methylphenidate sessions serving as a control and active placebo; the tests were double-blind, with neither the subject nor the administrator knowing which drug was being administered. The degree of mystical experience was measured using a questionnaire on mystical experience developed by Ralph W Hood.

61% of subjects reported a “complete mystical experience” after their psilocybin session, while only 13% reported such an outcome after their experience with methylphenidate. Two months after taking psilocybin, 79% of the participants reported moderately to greatly increased life satisfaction and sense of well-being.

About 36% of participants also had a strong to extreme “experience of fear” or dysphoria (eg, a “bad trip”) at some point during the psilocybin session (which was not reported by any subject during the methylphenidate session), with about one-third of these (13% of the total) reporting that this dysphoria dominated the entire session. These negative effects were reported to be easily managed by the researchers and did not have a lasting negative effect on the subject’s sense of well-being.

The observation that psilocybin reliably elicits a transcendent, mystical state tells us that investigations of these drugs may help us understand molecular alterations in the brain that underlie mystical religious experiences.

But the key point to be made is that finding a biochemical basis for mystical experiences does nothing to belittle them. The biochemical and neurological approaches have nothing to say about the personal meaning and the cultural and social components of the experience. To use Ken Wilber’s terminology, this research is only addressing the Upper Right Hand Quadrant.

Important work to be sure, but it would be a mistake to try to reduce mystical experiences to 5HT2A,C receptors alone.

“For what is Mysticism? It is not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’? Heaven is neither a place nor a time.”
Florence Nightingale (English Pioneer of Nursing Known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” 1820-1910)

“The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. …I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance – the revolt of the soul against the intellect.”

— William Butler Yeats (Irish Poet, Dramatist, Writer and, in 1923, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1865-1939)

The Vagal Path to Compassion

Students of biology or medicine will likely be familiar with one of the largest single nerves in the body, called the vagus or “wandering” nerve. The nerve emerges from the brainstem and is one of the most important contributors to the parasympathetic nervous system, having important effects on the heart, lungs and intestines. The vagus causes the heart to slow, the intestines and kidneys to become more active and the bronchi to constrict. The vagus also has profound effects on metabolism: it has been known for more than a century that stimulating the base of the brain with opiates can cause the release of glucose from the liver, an effect mediated by the vagus. The nerve is also involved in the interaction of the immune system and the brain.

In recent years a technique called vagus nerve stimulation has been found to help some people with intractable epilepsy or treatment resistant depression. Many of the techniques of yogic or Taoist breathing as well as some techniques for inducing altered states of consciousness by eye movements or stimulating specific points on the ears all revolve around vagal stimulation. Some of these techniques have been shown to produce a sustained reduction in blood pressure.

I would like to focus upon the effects of the vagus on the heart. The heart is a physical location of an aspect of our emotional functioning. In Chinese Medicine it is known as the repository of Shen or Spirit. The heart is more than just a pump. It is also an important endocrine gland, and there is some evidence that it is also a sensory organ, with a sophisticated system for receiving and processing information. The neural network within the heart enables it to learn and remember. The heart constantly communicates with the brain, influencing key areas involved in perception, cognition and emotional processing.

You or someone you know may have had a baby. In which case you or they will have had intrauterine cardiac monitoring. Normally the baby’s heart rate varies from minute to minute. Some forty years ago it was discovered that if that variation stopped, it could be a harbinger of doom. Obstetricians knew this, but the rest of medicine forgot about the observation until 1991. Since then there has been enormous interest in the phenomenon of heart rate variability (HRV), because if it is lost, it can be a potent predictor of health problems. HRV reflects the tone in the autonomic nervous system. If this system becomes unbalanced, it can have effects on most of the major organs.

In the Ageless Wisdom the vagus is called our psychic antenna. We all have one, but not all of us have relearned how to use it. Many psychic stressors can produce physical effects via the vagus nerve. When doing acupuncture or energy healing it is very common for the patient to get a slowing of their heart rate and abdominal rumblings, which are sure signs of vagal activity. Psychics often get problems with their intestines while working with people, not from upset, but because they are exercising their skills.

There has been some interesting speculations about the role of the vagus in social behavior. Researchers have found
that children with high levels of vagal activity are more resilient,
can better handle stress, and get along better with peers than children
with lower vagal tone.

There is a project underway at the University of California at Berkeley to see whether the vagus nerve might be the seat of compassion. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology and coeditor of Greater Good, a magazine about prosocial behaviors such as compassion and forgiveness. He has been examining the novel hypothesis that the vagus nerve is related to prosocial behavior such as caring for others and connecting with other people.

In his laboratory, Keltner has found that the level of activity in people’s vagus nerve correlates with how warm and friendly they are to other people. Interestingly, it also correlates with how likely they are to report having had a spiritual experience during a six-month follow-up period. Vagal tone is correlated with how much compassion people feel when they are presented with slides showing people in distress, such as starving children or people who are wincing or have a look of suffering on their faces.

Perhaps a key to compassion is to be found in the heart and the face.

Compassion is crucial to our survival. But compassion leavened with wisdom.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
–The 14th Dalai Llama (a.k.a. Tenzin Gyatso, Tibetan Religious and Political Leader, 1935-)

“Out of compassion I destroy the darkness of their ignorance. From within them I light the lamp of wisdom and dispel all darkness from their lives."
–Bhagavad Gita

Mystical Experience

I recently wrote a little bit about mystical experiences and mentioned the most widely used “definition,” the Stace Criteria:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

There are many ways of inducing the mystical state: –

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Control of breathing: e.g. Pranayama
  • Chanting: e.g. Zoroastrian priests
  • Dance and movement: for example the whirling Dervishes or Morihei Ueshiba who reportedly achieved a state of mystical union after performing kata
  • Light, as happened with the mystic Jacob Boehme
  • Biofeedback
  • Mantra
  • Drugs

Although many people deliberately seek mystical experiences, some come out of a clear blue sky: the French writer, philosopher and Marxist materialist, Simone Weil, reported how reciting a devotional-metaphysical poem by the English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633) while highly concentrated and emotional, turned her from an agnostic into a mystic. She was not looking for it to happen: it was unsought as it was unexpected. What was interesting was that after that first time, particularly in the last year of her life, she had mystical insights several times a week. Despite – or perhaps because – she was suffering from tuberculosis and was first in a hospital and then in a sanatorium during most of that time.

Some children have had a mystical glimpse before the age of ten, more during adolescence and still more during their thirties or forties. Richard Maurice Bucke in his classic book, Cosmic Consciousness, thought that the peak time was in the early thirties, but it can still happen in people in their seventies.

Many people need a dramatic shock – some form of enforced awakening – that subjugates the ego. Only then do they come alive spiritually. This enforced awakening is effective only if it breaks down old habits, trends, and beliefs. It may come about through working with or reading a teacher like Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff, or through major life events like a life threatening illness or unexpected bereavement. There is also little doubt that people become more interested in spiritual matters and more receptive to them at key points in their lives. Sometimes the experiences may occur as part of the process of individuation described by Carl Jung.

Some years ago I wrote a speculative piece suggesting that some mystical experiences may be triggered by a neurological mechanism involving the reticular activating system of the brain. The popular idea that mysticism is somehow related to the right hemisphere of the brain is probably not accurate. With the passage of time, it begins to look as if those speculations were accurate. Though one of the points that I made at the time, is that although we might be able to find a neurological substrate for mystical experiences that provide the form of the experience, that still left us with the problem of the content of the experience and therefore of its meaning for the individual.

At the beginning, the content of the mystical experience is culture bound and tends to be a product of a person’s belief system, which is why some mystics contradict each other. The Indian spiritual teacher Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) said that joy was both evidence of spiritual fulfillment and an ingredient of spiritual practice, while Simone Weil took an exactly opposite view and substituted unhappiness and suffering for joy: each proposed that a personal experience reflected a broadly universal truth. This is has been a common error for many spiritual teachers and their followers.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, a.k.a. St. Teresa de Jesus, the Spanish nun, mystic and author (1515-1582) was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, and her mystical revelations fit into classical Catholic dogma. In contrast a modern Christian mystic – Holden Edward Sampson – who was brought up in the Protestant Evangelical Church, thought that his personal experiences proved that Saint Teresa’s writings were false.

These differences of opinion, even amongst the most advanced mystics, are striking but not often discussed. As an example, it amused me to see Ramana Maharshi make gentle fun of Sri Aurobindo’s doctrine of spiritual planes. I love and rever the workds of both of these sages. Simone Weil staunchly promoted the spirituality of Greek culture while the French-born writer René Guénon a.k.a. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya thought that there was nothing much
to it. As people progress, there is usually more of a confluence:
mystics tend to report similar experiences, but they are often still
colored by their past lives.

Many people have mystical and spiritual experiences without knowing what is happening to them: they have never studied or been taught anything about them. I have seen quite a number of people who were supposed to be suffering from a psychotic episode, but who were actually having a profound spiritual experience. I have seen many thousands of psychotic people in almost fifty countries, and it is normally not that difficult to differentiate a breakdown from a breakthrough. Though even the most experienced of people sometimes find it difficult to be 100% certain what is going on.

It is essential for health care providers and for anyone who comes into contact with an individual who is having strange experiences, not simple to label them as mentally ill, but to remain alert to the possibility that there may be something yet more profound and meaningful going on in their lives.

Though for some people medicines, psychotherapy and the rest may be very helpful, others need spiritual support and guidance as they grow through a process of spiritual growth.

Hypnagogia: The Waking Dream

Most of us have experienced the brief transition between wakefulness and sleep as we fall asleep. This is the hypnagogic state, though it has been known by many names: “the borderland state," the “half-dream state,” the “pre-dream condition.” The name for these strange hallucinations is “hypnagogia.”

Although there are innumerable books about dreams, there is to my knowledge only one book in English that is dedicated to hypnagogia, by the psychologist Andreas Mavromatis. There are also not that many good websites dealing with the phenomenon, though I’ve found one or two really good ones. This is a little surprising, for the hypnagogic state is one of the most fascinating altered states of consciousness that we can experience without the use of drugs, and there are dozens of spiritual schools that encourage their students to work with these hypnagogic hallucinations. They are different form the hallucinations that may occur in neurological problems: those tend to occupy only one sense at a time, while the hypnagogic hallucinations, though sometimes no more that flashes of light or odd shapes, can be highly complex and involve multiple sensory modalities: what we call multi-modal hallucinations. Some people may feel as if they are floating, and it is not uncommon for people to kick out or grasp as they feel as if they are falling from a great height.

The term “hypnagogic” was coined by the 19th-century French psychologist Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, and is derived from two Greek words, Hypnos (Sleep) and agogeus (A guide, or leader). Some years later, the English poet, essayist and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers coined the term, “hypnapompic,” to describe similar phenomena that may occur as we wake from sleep.

Long before Maury, many writers commented on these odd experiences. Here are just a few that I’ve heard about:

  1. Aristotle spoke of the “affections we experience when sinking into slumber, and the images which present themselves to us in sleep.”
  2. Iamblichus of Chalcis, the third century Neo-Platonic philosopher, wrote of the “voices” and “bright and tranquil lights” that came to him in the condition between sleeping and waking, that he believed were a form experience sent by God.
  3. There is some evidence that the alchemists of the Middle Ages made use of a form of hypnagogia during their meditations, preparations and distillations. I’ve seen it suggested that the weird characters and eerie landscapes that seem to fill alchemical illustrations might have been the fruits of focusing on hypnagogic hallucinations, though they could just as easily have come from dreams or drugs.
  4. In 1600, the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist Simon Forman wrote of his apocalyptic visions. He saw mountains and hills that came rolling against him on the point of sleep and beyond which he could see vast boiling waters.
  5. Thomas Hobbes spoke of images of lines and angles seen on the edge of sleep accompanied by an “odd kind of fancy” to which he could give no particular name.
  6. Emmanuel Swedenborg the 18th century philosopher, scientist and visionary developed a method of inducing and exploring hypnagogic states, during which he claimed to have traveled to Heaven, Hell and other planets. He recorded several other techniques that he used to gain his insights, including a particular type of hyperventilation.
  7. The theosophical writer Oliver Fox used the hypnagogic hallucinations as a “doorway” through which he was able to go astral traveling.
  8. Rudolf Steiner, advised that the best time for communicating with the dead was in the period between waking and sleep. He claimed that if you asked the dead a question as you fell asleep, they would answer you the next morning His records look very much like hypnagogic hallucinations.
  9. The Russian writer and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky is someone else who made a detailed study of hypnagogia. Like many of the others that I’ve mentioned, he made a number of interesting discoveries about the Universe while in this state. It is these insights, and their similarities across cultures that suggest that there’s more to hypnagogia than random neuronal firing.

It is interesting that although hypnagogia can produce millions of different experiences. When people start using them for exploration, they seem to generate many similar insights. This is rather different from the mystical experience. In which peoples’ experiences have similar form, but different content.

The most widely used criteria of the mystical experience were assembled by the English philosopher W.T. Stace, who taught at Princeton for many years:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

I shall have more to say about mystical experiences in another posting.

For now, if you are interested in doing some self-exploration, and you are not using either medications or alcohol, the hypnagogic state is a great place to start. Occasionally people find the exploration scary, so only do this if you are up to it, and don’t if you are given to nervous or psychological problems. When I’m working with people I always ensure that they are in tip top condition before trying ANY kind of psychological exploration.

Try becoming aware of the transition between wakefulness and sleep. At first you will fall asleep, but with a small amount of practice, most people can quickly begin to keep themselves in the state, and then start exploring. Many people find that they get some profound intuitions while in the hypnagogic state, and unlike the kinds of “insights” that people get while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they make sense in the morning. Relax, keep a diary, take it in easy stages, and see what you can discover for yourself. If you come across anything unpleasant, stop, and we can try some different exercises.

Body Posture and Memory

“Memory moderates prosperity, decreases adversity, controls youth and delights old age.” –Lactantius Firmianus (Roman Rhetorician often known as the "Christian Cicero,” A.D. 260-340)

The Ancients had many methods for remembering factual details: the best known were methods for associating memories with physical places, the columns in a theater, part of the body or body positions.

There a very interesting new study form Florida State University in Tallahassee that examined the impact on autobiographical memory of assuming the same (congruent) or different (incongruent) postures that the person held during the original event.

Response times were shorter when the subjects’ body positions during memory retrieval of  were similar to the body positions in the original events than when the body position was incongruent. Free recall of the autobiographical events two weeks later was also better for congruent-posture than for incongruent-posture memories. This has theoretical implications for the idea of embodied cognition: that the environment plays a role in the formation of cognition, and perhaps also for the two other ideas:

1. That the body can hold memories and

2. Antonio Damasio’s concept of the "somatic marker mechanism" that may provide the neurological mechanism for a crucial psychological concept: theory of mind.

Theory of mind refers to our ability to understand that other people have minds that have desires, beliefs and intentions that are separate form our own. Some experts believe that an inability to fully form a theory of mind underlies some of the problems in autism and schizophrenia.

The fact that specific body postures can be used to improve autobiographic memory may also be one of the mechanisms by which mudras, or symbolic gestures may activate memories and their associated feelings and states of consciousness.

This research follows a study that indicated something that you might already have noticed: positive thoughts are more easily recalled in the upright posture. Slouching tends to make you feel negative and to generate and recall negative thoughts. You may also have noticed how you, or the people around you become more still when they are concentrating on something. Research has shown that when people are successfully engaged in complex cognitive tasks, the normal swaying of their bodies is reduced.

So what are we to make of all this?

If you are trying to recall something that happened to you, adopting the same sort of posture may help your recall. Conversely, some body work to stop you getting into that same position may perhaps lessen recall. And physical stillness may help you focus if you have to engage in a complex cognitive task.

“To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
–Chuang Tzu (Chinese Philosopher, c.369-286 B.C.E.)

Child Prodigies

I’ve recently had cause to look at the published literature on child prodigies and there’s not much there. It is very surprising that such an interesting subject has been so little researched.

First a definition from a paper by David Feldman: A “prodigy was a child (typically younger than 10 years old) who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavor.” There are three fields in which high-level creative results have been produced before the age of 10: Chess, Mathematics and Music. There are other fields such as art and writing in which young people may be precocious imitators. Pablo Picasso exactly mimicked his father’s drawings. There is an impressive list of child prodigies in other fields as well, but it seems that only in chess, mathematics and music have profound, original insights been contributed by preadolescent children.

There is an interesting association between mathematics and chess: many top chess players are also extremely good at mathematics. In a previous post I mentioned the English Grandmaster John Nunn, and there are many other examples. Men dominate both fields, but that does not necessarily mean that there is a natural gender difference. There’s a very interesting book entitled Breaking Through, by the chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar who was herself a prodigy, as were both of her sisters. Girls have been excluded from many of these events, or they’ve been forced to play only against girls or women. I know a young person who as a pre-teenager wanted to join the school chess club, but only went once, after discovering that all the other members were boys. A shame: she was already quite a strong player.

Both chess and mathematics involve highly developed non-verbal and visuospatial skills. The writer and critic George Steiner had this to say: “The solution of a mathematical problem, the resolution of a musical discord or conclusion of a contrapuntal development, the generation of a winning chess position can be envisaged as spatial regroupings, that have their own internal logic.” He went on to speculate, “All three fields involve enormously powerful but narrowly specialized areas of the cortex. These areas can somehow be triggered into life in a very young child and can develop in isolation form the rest of his psyche. Sexually and socially unformed, very possibly backward in every general respect, the child virtuoso or pre-teenage chess master draws on formidable but wholly localized synapses in the brain.”

In the book The Exceptional Brain, Lee Cranberg and Marty Albert suggested that these “localized synapses” lie in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is primarily involved in non-verbal visuospatial skills and pattern recognition. They also suggested that gender differences in proficiency in chess support the right hemisphere idea. But after reading Susan Polgar’s book, and spending a great deal of time analyzing the world literature on gender differences in cognition, that last point doesn’t convince me.

It is striking that three of the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the second World War, were outstanding international chess players Stuart Milner-Barry, Harry Golombek and Hugh Alexander. These code breakers who helped win the War also utilized similar skills to those needed to master a chess position or to calculate a mathematical problem.

The child prodigies seem to have some things in common:

  1. An unusually strong talent in a single area
  2. Reasonably high but not necessarily exceptionally high IQ: some people with astronomically high levels of intelligence have had problems with interpersonal adjustment, unless very carefully nurtured as children.
  3. Focused energy.
  4. Sustained effort to achieve the highest levels in their field: even chess prodigies need thousands of hours of practice, and mathematical prodigies need to work at their field.
  5. Unusual self-confidence.

Adults who want to improve in chess are constantly told to practice as much as possible, and to work on pattern recognition and problem solving. It is just the same in music and mathematics.

Although child prodigies may simply have better neurological equipment, usually coupled with extraordinary encouragement by their parents, I am left with a question that I posed in an earlier post. Mozart often said that when he was composing he felt as if he was taking dictation from God. That he was not the one composing, but that he was in effect picking something up from the Universe. I’ve seen countless highly gifted people tell me that their greatest insights in science, music philosophy or chess just “came to them.” The former chess World Champion Tigran Petrosian once said that he could tell when he was out of form when his calculations did not confirm the validity of his first impressions. All this implies unconscious processing to be sure, but I am not sure that it is all in the brain.

Because there is another phenomenon that has also not been much researched, and that is the phenomenon of simultaneous breakthroughs: two or more people in different parts of the world coming up with new creative solutions at the same time and without any personal contact. I shall have more to say about this in another post, but it speaks to the fundamental interconnectedness of all of us.

Maybe the child prodigies not only have special brains and special parents, but they also have access to a store of information not available to everyone.

At least not yet: We already have training methods that help people access accurate information that they did not know consciously. A story for another day.

“Genius is characterized just by the fact that it escapes classification.”
–Leopold Infeld (Polish Physicist, 1898-1968)

Intuitive Knowing and the Real Rainman

In 1988 the Dustin Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbit in the movie Rainman.

The character was actually inspired by a real person named Kim Peek. Now in his mid-fifties, Kim has memorized more than 11,000 books, and can read a page of any book in about ten seconds. It has recently been discovered that each of his eyes can read a separate page simultaneously, absorbing every word. He can also do instant calculations on things related to the calendar and several other very specialized topics.

He and his brain has been studied in great detail by a Dr. Darold Treffert at University of Wisconsin Medical School. It is quite different from the rest of the population. He does not have the great bridge – the corpus callosum  – that connects the two hemispheres in most people. Instead he just has one solid hemisphere. The right cerebellum is in several pieces. None of this really explains his abilities, though perhaps having no corpus callosum means that the right side of his brain is freed from dominance by the left. Darold Treffert makes a good point when ha says that Kim’s father is partly responsible for his brilliance: his belief in his son and his unconditional love for him may have more to do with bringing forth his remarkable skills than the wiring of his brain.

There have been many other cases of savants who had remarkable and seemingly effortless abilities. For years now I’ve collected reports about some of them. Srinivasa Ramanujan who complied over 3000 mathematical theorems in less than four years. Vito Magniamele who at the age of 10 could compute almost instantly the square root of any large number. Then there was a six-year-old child named Benjamin Blythe, who while out walking with his father in 1826, asked, “What time is it?” After being told, he gave – accurately – the exact number of seconds that he had been alive, including the two leap years. In one of his books, Oliver Sachs, describes a pair of twins in a psychiatric hospital who are said to have below “normal” intelligence, but who amuse themselves by swapping enormous prime numbers. Even the English chess grandmaster John Nunn reported how, as a child, he could do instant calculations in his head. And, at the age of fifteen, he became the youngest undergraduate at Oxford University in 300 years. Most strong chess masters will "know" where to put the pieces, but then come up with the logical reasons later on.

These abilities: to read and memorize, to do instant calculations and to have instant deep knowledge of topics is remarkably interesting and important for all of us. If complex mathematics can be done by people who have no training or intellectual sophistication, what other gifts and talents may we have lying undiscovered within us?

These observations lead to the questions; first, can anyone do the same feats as Kim Peek? Second, where does instant mathematical information come from? Third, can anyone access it? And fourth, is this similar to the way that shamans and Babylonian mathematicians obtained their information?

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose we learn that there is powerful evidence to suggest that we do have access to a whole seam of knowledge about the world around us. The anthropologist Jeremy Narby studied shamans in the Amazonian rainforest who have found safe and effective herbal treatments among the 80,000 plants available to them. They are usually used in combinations, and to have tested all the plants and all the possible combinations would have taken hundreds of thousands of years. So it cannot have been done by trial and error. I have seen something similar in traditional Chinese herbal medicine, where combinations are invariably used, and once again, if the effective ones had been discovered by trial and error, it would have taken armies of physicians working for countless thousands of years.

I don’t expect everyone to be able to become lightning calculators. Neither would most us want to be. But there are a number of ways of getting much better at tapping this intuitive knowing. It is important to tap your intuition and to use it as the ally of your reasoning.

  1. Relaxation, meditation or prayer are all excellent for starting the process. Meditation to explore your inner nature may take hours a day for many years, but when we use it to improve our inner knowing, a few minutes a day is all that you need. Just long enough slightly to alter your state of consciousness
  2. Visualize a place that you really like that you can return to at will. I learned this trick from a shaman, and it’s immensely useful. You might remember, visualize or create a space for yourself. For instance you might like to imagine going to a beach that you like.
  3. Ask a question: remember that the quality of your answers is dependent on the quality of your questions. So be precise and be calm when you ask you question.
  4. Agree with yourself that you will take action on what you learn. And that leads me to the last point for today:
  5. I just got an email question about how to differentiate between an impulse and an intuition. The answer to that is your response: an impulse impels you to immediate action, an intuition gives you time to reflect and to thank the Universe for what you’ve just been told.

“At every moment there is in us an infinity of perceptions, unaccompanied by awareness or reflection. That is, of alterations in the soul itself, of which we are unaware because the impressions are either too minute or too numerous.”
–Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (German Philosopher and Mathematician, 1646-1716)


Over the last three decades researchers at a number of universities have studied meditators and people in prayer, or experiencing mystical experiences, and tried to pinpoint the region of the brain responsible for these experiences. Some researchers went as far as to suggest that there’s a specific region of the brain that’s responsible for direct communication with God, while others have been far more skeptical. One of my early teachers was convinced that mystical experiences were simply forms of temporal lobe epilepsy. I was just as convinced that he was wrong. But back then I was the student, and he the master. So I was put firmly in my place. Neuropsychologist Michael Persinger and his group at Laurentian University in Canada has reported that he can very precise magnetic fields to artificially stimulate regions within the temporal lobes to induce a state of “sensed presence.”

A new study conducted by Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette from Montreal has just been published in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

The investigators used functional MRI (fMRI) scanning in 15 Carmelite nuns to try to examine the brain processes underlying the Unio Mystica: the Christian notion of mystical union with God. This is the latest episode in a field that is becoming known as neurotheology.

The nuns were asked to relive a mystical experience rather than actually trying to achieve one. Rather than reveal a spiritual center in the brain – a “God spot,” as the popular press called it – the researchers found a dozen different regions of the brain were activated during the recall of the mystical experience. The experience was mediated by brain systems and regions that are normally implicated in emotion, self-awareness and body representation.

It is important to note that despite the title of the study – “Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns” – this was actually an experiment on memory, and there were some technical objections to the study. There is a fine critique here.

There is also a point that I have brought up before: can we really try to reduce complex psychological and spiritual experiences to a groups or systems of neurons? My own view is that we are seeing necessary neurological correlates of an experience, but that these measurements tell us nothing at all about the key aspects of what the nuns remember: the sense of meaning, value and purpose that flow from the mystical experience.

Science, Quantum Mechanics and Mystical Experience

I’ve had a very long standing interest in altered states of consciousness.

For me this has never been an academic exercise. Though I grew up at a time when meditation and mysticism was all the rage, I was actually trying to make sense of some of my own experiences. Since early childhood I’d had all manner of odd experiences that in later life I learned were the norm. It’s just that most people ignore or forget their experiences or are "trained" not to talk about them. In the mid-1980s I lectured on the subject of mystical experiences at the Society for Psychical Research and the College of Psychic Studies in London. (I recently discovered that there are still tapes of those talks available after all these years!)

As part of another project, I recently analyzed most of the world literature on altered state of consciousness in all the languages that I can read, and found over 2,800 valuable papers. There is a huge amount of research going on.

I’ve also come across a number of short but very interesting interviews with a number of original thinkers in the field of consciousness, including Huston Smith, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and a number of other thinkers. If you have any interest in consciousness you will probably find something to interest you here.


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