But what is the source of such revelations? Such perfectly fitting, almost complete, solutions to long-pondered problems could not have come from nowhere. Some, even many, might insist that revelations could only come from a divine being. While this supposition cannot be entirely ruled out, it seems an unnecessarily complex explanation for the revelation experiences that have been reported by scientists and artists, and it simply obstructs further investigation when attempting to account for those of a religious nature. We should not accept the “divine origin” explanation too readily; there could be a more mundane source.
Once looked for, this source is not hard to find. The new-found solution, its organizing principle or purpose, and the accompanying Construct, all come from work done by subconscious second-level thinking. In other words, from the individual’s own mind. To fully appreciate just what happens to produce a revelation, we should first discuss a few non-religious (and therefore likely less controversial) examples of its more common occurrence.
We are all very familiar with third-level thinking, where we use words in our minds to think consciously about things. But, as noted earlier, this is not the full extent of our thought processes. Second-level thinking (when associations between memories, or between memories and related incoming information, are found and when more or less permanent links between memories may be formed) occurs subconsciously all the time. While not discussed in depth previously, other stimuli besides incoming information can instigate subconscious neural link-formation or thinking. One cause, important to our investigations, is stress—in particular, stress caused by constantly ruminating about the same, apparently insoluble, problem.
That dreaming is often related to stress is generally well-known. We have all probably experienced waking in the middle of the night, feeling anxious, and thinking that our problems are particularly serious. But, upon waking in the morning, following periods of REM (“rapid eye movement”) or dream sleep, we may feel that our predicament is not so bad after all. (We even have a saying, “you’ll feel much better in the morning,” that acknowledges this.) Occasionally, something marvellous happens: we awake with the answer we have been looking for, and know that our problem has been solved. Such occurrences illustrate a little of what our subconscious mind is capable; they also help to substantiate the fact that the mind is continuously working, even though we are not aware of it doing so. Dreams are secondary manifestations of this work; remembered portions of dreams provide fleeting glimpses of what has been happening at the subconscious second level during sleep.
Many people have recorded how long-elusive solutions sometimes arrive suddenly, quite unexpectedly, out of the blue. Henri Poincaré, a great mathematician, in an insightful essay Mathematical Creation, wrote that he discovered Fuchsian functions in a coffee-induced, semi-dreaming state, after spending fifteen days attempting to disprove their existence. In this essay, he explored how the subconscious must continue the search for a solution, then present the “good combination” to the conscious mind when found. He postulated that conscious thought liberated the elements of the problems, and that these might then fly about the subconscious mind like gnats or atoms of gas until a fortuitous encounter produced the sought-after “good combination.”
Many similar examples of second-level subconscious thought breaking through into second- and third-level conscious awareness have been described in the literature. One probably known by all organic chemists is Kekulé von Stradonitz’s 1865 realization that the benzene molecule is ring shaped. Kekulé reported thinking about possible structures while dozing in front of a fire, seeing long rows of carbon and hydrogen atoms dancing into different snake-like configurations in the flames, and eventually observing one snake seize hold of its own tail. He immediately awoke, recognizing instantly that this had to be the correct molecular arrangement.
Another example of this phenomenon was recently reported in the local press. The chairman of a company described how he was very surprised to find the answer to a problem he had been wrestling with for a week, written in his notebook when he opened it one morning at work. He remembered leaving the notebook downstairs when he went to bed the previous night, but nothing else. He then realized that he must have dreamed the answer, sleep-walked, written it down, and then gone back to bed, all without wakening. The answer in the notebook was perfect. It was immediately put into effect, and the company’s efficiency doubled.
Solutions so found are typically discovered upon wakening, but they can arrive, abruptly and unannounced, anytime. A recent book relates how a daytime breakthrough suddenly occurred to Dr. Folkman, a dedicated cancer researcher, while sitting in Boston’s Temple Israel. In another publication, it is reported that Charles Darwin remembered exactly where he was when he suddenly realized why offspring differed from their parents.
Returning to our main concern, it is now relatively clear what must be happening at the subconscious level before and during a revelation’s occurrence.
When awake, our conscious mind seeks solutions to problems by searching for relationships between memories, or between memories and incoming stimuli (recall the “drill-bit search” example given in Second-Level Thinking—Association). Using its knowledge of the properties of each element within the environment presenting the problem, the alert mind can determine when an appropriate solution has been found. Furthermore, both the conscious and subconscious are aware of ongoing searches and any resolutions. Similarly, when solutions cannot be found, this also is “known” both consciously and subconsciously.
However, unlike the conscious mind, the subconscious always addresses the same problem: stress. Any problem-related activity it undertakes is not aimed at finding a solution to a dilemma in mathematics, organic chemistry, cancer growth, or a reason to live, to use examples we have mentioned. The outcome sought by the subconscious is merely a path of lower bioelectrical resistance through the mental constructs continually being activated by the conscious mind. It seeks this because a path of lower resistance consumes less energy, and thus generates less stress.
The subconscious seeks routes of lower resistance when it can; that is, when its neural pathways are not occupied by incoming stimuli or pre-empted by demands from conscious-level activities. During this free time (obtained mostly when the body is sleeping), the subconscious seeks pathways of lower resistance (i.e., links that more directly join the involved memories) from within the mind’s museum of memories and constructs. In finding networks that reduce its energy consumption, the subconscious solves problems that interfere with its primary task of directing a healthy body, not those related to the world outside its realm. But, the subconscious does solve such problems, indirectly, and must do so relatively frequently.
Thus, simply by seeking a network that produces lower resistance and lessened stress, the subconscious finds routes which position formerly overlooked memories within new constructs. It does all of this, it must be emphasized, with absolutely no knowledge that the solution it has uncovered has any possible meaning in the real world.
Any time after a new neural network (construct) has been built in this manner, a revelation can occur. Revelations are simply sudden breakthroughs, from the subconscious to the conscious mind, of the new understandings that a revised neural network denotes.
Revelations of any kind, scientific, artistic, managerial, or otherwise (including those that set the stage for, and result in, a self-induced religious conversion) occur abruptly and quite unexpectedly. And because the solution presented has been tailor-made by the subconscious to relieve stress caused by the conscious mind’s incessant thinking about one particular problem, this solution solves that problem. It immediately feels right, there is a sudden release of tension, and a flood of emotion surges forth. The solution’s presentation, the instant it passes from subconscious to consciousness, may seem to be inexplicable, to artists, scientists and religionists. Some may see it as a divine act, and its nature may be such as to precipitate a self-induced religious conversion.
What had taken so long to discover, comes, seemingly, from the unknown. Most importantly, the solution appears flawless—all of the pieces fit perfectly and make a unified whole. While the solution may not yet contain answers to all the questions that will likely come later, the individual knows instinctively and emotionally, as well as rationally, that this new-found solution will be able to provide them. Every part of the experience is magnificent.
Unfortunately, the found solution may be completely wrong. While the discovered solution is often accurate (for it is the result of much prior thought, both conscious and subconscious, by individuals well versed in their discipline), it can be erroneous, even for such individuals. The intense feelings and instant conviction experienced bear no relation to the truth of what is newly thought to be the answer. The solution always feels right, and it is right for the particular mind-set of constructs that conceived it. And it is also right in that it reduces energy consumption and stress. But the answer may be entirely false, and always will be, if the individual has had only incorrect knowledge or false assumptions to work with. Kepler’s experiences can serve to illustrate the effect of working with unsound knowledge. Kepler (an extremely careful, sixteenth century mathematician and astronomer) deduced, via mathematical investigations into the properties of regular solid figures, that there could only be six planets. (Of course, there are more than six planets, but no one knew this at that time.) Kepler was immediately filled with “great joy,” because he believed that he had discovered one of God’s mysteries.
The experiences related above demonstrate that hours of conscious, troublesome, problem-solving attempts usually preceded revelations. Since this kind of activity induces accompanying hours of stress-relieving, subconscious, mental activity, the most logical explanation for revelations (and the religious conversions that sometimes follow) is that they stem from this work amid the memories stored within the brain.
- See later chapters (and Gödel’s Theorem, General Systems Theory, and The Conservation Laws) for reasons why it is not possible to prove either that a god exists or does not exist.
- I am indebted to Timothy Ferris for this insight. See “The Interpreter,” an essay in Ferris’s interesting book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).
- Animals also transfer mental activities performed consciously into the subconscious. Analysis of the neural firing patterns of Australian zebra finches when singing and when asleep indicate that the birds rehearse the song during their slumber. (See Daniel Margoliash in Science, 30 March, 2001.) Similarly, the neural firing patterns that rats produced while negotiating a maze were repeated exactly when these rats slept. (See Kenway Louie and Matthew A. Wilson, “Temporally Structured Replay of Awake Hippocampal Ensemble Activity during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep,” in Neuron, January 2001, 145-156.) These subconscious activities may occur as synaptic knob growth transforms temporary memory loops into permanent neural networks, or they may be the brain’s way of strengthening memories and constructs by repeatedly retracing mental routes taken earlier. Alternatively, the neural firing may be induced as the animal’s mind attempts to reduce some kind of stress-causing primitive fear—fear of the consequences that might arise should they forget what has been learned, perhaps.
- Stored emotions, with their accompanying tensions, anxieties and stresses, drive many of our dreams. By dreaming, the mind reduces the amount of energy it would otherwise have to expend when awake to handle the by-products of these anxiety-causing emotions. Dreaming achieves this by activating possible stress-relieving (although not necessarily logical) alternative networks to those creating the stressful emotions. In other words, to determine if a dream has any significance, its emotional content must be sought and explored.
Discussing dreams reminds me that my wife, every year or so, dreams that she has lost her purse. These dream experiences, although stressful when occurring, perhaps act cathartically to relieve pressures accumulating from a possibly continual minor worry about the safe whereabouts of her purse. (This happens to be an example where the context as well as the emotion is relevant; dreams are not usually this easy to interpret.)
- Stress-produced chemicals may be released into the blood-stream during attempts to solve difficult problems; if so, then these might be the cause of “psychologically upset stomachs.”
- To be read in a version edited by James R. Newman as a sidebar under the topic Creativity, in Microsoft Encarta, DVD-ROM Reference Suite 99 (Microsoft Corporation, 1999) originally printed in the August 1948 edition of Scientific American.
- The Ottawa Citizen, February 26, 2001, B4.
- Poincaré, in his essay Mathematical Creation, reports two daytime instances when (after days of prior thought) solutions suddenly presented themselves to him.
- Robert Cooke, Dr. Folkman’s War: Angiogenesis & the Struggle to Defeat Cancer (New York: Random House, 2001), 242-243.
- Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1991), 419-420.
- A similar, but entirely unrelated, process is used by “data-mining” computer software. In this practice, vast amounts of information (for instance, the data banks of an insurance company, large retail outlet, or DNA-sequencing enterprise) are searched to find any qualitative or quantitative co-relationships or commonalties that may exist. By this method, even software that has been given absolutely no instructions about attributes to look for, can find new and often significant connections between various data. These new associations can then be used by forward-thinking individuals to develop new opportunities, products or lines of research.
- A temporary but powerful surge in ion flow could occur when tortuous and resistant neural pathways are suddenly replaced by new, free-flowing ones. This sudden increase in ion flow could be the trigger that precipitates a break-through, from subconscious to consciousness, of the newly found solution. Such a surge could also cause a release of emotion-creating chemicals, as well as excite portions of the visual network generating lights and other images.
- Mystical experiences are only mystical because we do not understand how they might be produced. Our understanding of such phenomena is progressing, however. Experiments that induce oxygen starvation of the brain (i.e., a biochemical event) can replicate similar perceptions. Subjects reported seeing bright lights, colours, landscapes and people; hearing noises ranging from roaring to screaming; having out-of-body sensations; and feeling emotions of peace, detachment and pleasure—all of which made the subjects resist returning to consciousness, and all clearly fabricated within and by the brain or mind. (This investigation was carried out by doctors from the neurological department of the University Clinic Rudolf Virchow, Berlin, reported in 1994 in the British medical journal, The Lancet [and reviewed in The Ottawa Citizen on 24 September, 1994].)
M. A. Persinger and the Neuroscience Research Group at Laurentian University in Canada, have induced “near-death” and “mystical” experiences (with subjects reporting images of tunnels, lights, faces and figures) by subjecting volunteers to weak, transcerebral magnetic fields. As we learned in physics class, a changing magnetic field creates electrical currents in conductors, and neurons (which contain electrically charged chemical ions) act as electrical conductors. Thus, changing magnetic fields around the brain will induce random biochemical flows through neurons, activating stored memories but in distorted fashion. These are then interpreted by the mind to be the events as reported.
See also “A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors,” Resuscitation, Vol. 48 (2) (2001) 149-156, for a clinical discussion of experiences similar to those described above.
(“Out-of-body” and other sensations formerly considered to be mystical, can also be repeatedly induced by electrically stimulating the right angular gyrus; see Olaf Blanke, et al., “Stimulating own-body perceptions,” Nature, 419, 2002, 269-270.)
- The feeling of “being one with the universe,” such as reported by some mystics, artists, scientists, religious persons, and individuals after meditating, also suggests that first-level impressions can be accessed at the conscious third-level of thought under suitable conditions. Cassirer, in Language and Myth, provides the clue. Pre-linguistic awareness, or mythic understanding, occurs when the brain receives stimuli from our senses with no interpretation. The whole appears just as it is, to the best of our senses’ receiving capabilities. No pre-conceived, language-derived interpretations add to, or subtract from, the awareness. However, this un-analyzed impression hardly ever penetrates through to our consciousness, because we use words in third-level thinking, and words represent what we think to be true, not what is actually true (see Third-Level Thinking And Language). When we feel “united” with the universe, we are actually united with our brain’s impression of the universe (although even this is filtered through our senses and limited by their sensibilities). Feelings of grandeur, exultation, immense joy and certainty are all likely to accompany this uncommon and profound experience. The conscious mind cannot in retrospect explain what happened, but it does perceive its significance. (Emotionally strong experiences are often extremely important, particularly those that re-route significant construct linkages.)
- See Creativity, Free Will, And A Revelation.
- The cone, pyramid, sphere, cube, cylinder and prism analyzed in a branch of mathematics known as solid geometry.
- Max Caspar, translated and edited by C. Doris Hellman, Kepler (London and New York: Abelard-Schumann, 1959), 65.
- A solution to any problem clearly cannot come to a mind not prepared to receive it. A prepared mind knows something about the problem’s environment and is ready to notice that a problem exists. For example, a new scientific understanding can never be actualized by a non-scientific person, no matter how brilliant he or she may be, because, even if such a solution somehow did arise, the event would pass by unrecognized for what it was. For the same reason, an uninitiated member of an isolated tribe, for example, could never experience a conversion to a missionary’s religion: whenever conversions occur, they follow, never precede, indoctrination.