Reading notes: Extraordinary Knowing

I just read an interesting book. This isn’t a proper review; it consists of a few reading notes. The book’s borrowed from a distant library and (1) I need to return it and (2) I need to get on to other things.

The little rebellious exceptions of spooky action at a distance. . . .

Those phrases from this book blend an observation by William James with one by Albert Einstein, and they make me smile both as individal ideas and in the combination I’ve composed above.

The book: Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers
of the Human Mind
by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer (New York: Bantam, 2007). The paperback edition is due for release in February 2008.

The topic: unusual types of mental activity that may or may not exist (or exist as physically active forces), including clairvoyance, distant sensing, prayer, and the like.

I enjoyed reading it. Through it, the author, Elizabeth (Lisby) Mayer, has displayed an interesting mind. She was a psychologist who looked at inexplicable types of knowledge from a scientific perspective. Essentially, she talks about how we study ideas that are hard to study. She died of a chronic illness just after she had completed the manuscript; friends and colleagues pitched in and turned her notes on documentation into source notes.

The very good news is that she did complete the text. It’s beautifully organized and clearly written. She listened to kids’ observations and to experimental physicists’ (and a lot of other people’s) and gathered insights where she found them. She ranged comfortably between the simple and the complex. She asked more intelligent questions than she offered answers.

Here are a few snippets that I marked as I was reading, with a few contextual additions in brackets. The book itself is much more graceful to read than these excerpts may imply, although the thoughts they contain are some of the many that struck me as worth further contemplation.

  • "Ambrose [Worrall; a faith healer in the mid-twentieth century] himself was a devout Christian, but when asked whether the people he healed needed to have faith, he replied, ‘When I tell people faith matters, here’s what I mean by faith—lack of resistance to what you hope is possible.’ What’s intriguing about his definition is how it locates faith as a subjective quality of mental experience. His answer is about humans, not God." [Source note: "People have reported varying versions of Worrall’s definition of faith. My preference is for this one, though in The Gift of Healing he defines it as ‘lack of resistance to that which you hope to receive‘ (196)."] (pages 169 and 284)
  • "Models help us think. Without a conceptual home, observations that don’t fit our existing models may be intriguing and entertaining, but they have the ultimate impact of writing on water. Without a model to contain them, we have no place to put new and unfamiliar things while we try to figure them out. . . . [W]e have real trouble thinking clearly, creatively, or for more than five minutes about things our models inform us are permanently homeless. . . . Part of the problem with creating a new model, I think, is that it has to account for data we’re not used to considering data: feelings. . . . [Following an experience of anomalous cognition,] I had to doubt my existing models of reality or I had to doubt myself, the core sense of self that comes, [cognitive neuroscientist Antonio] Damasio tells us [in his book on consciousness, The Feeling of What Happens], when body, emotion, and idea merge to make consciousness." (page 214)
  • "The vast preponderance of our mental life proceeds outside conscious awareness. We’re perpetually and pervasively influenced by the prodigious force of unconscious mental processes. However, the distinction between conscious and unconscious is by no means absolute. . . . Over time, we’ve begun to mistake the content of the Freudian unconscious–repression of forbidden sexual impulses–for the insight itself. . . . By retaining that focus as the central truth of psychoanalysis, we’ve trivialized analysis as a clinical method but also as a theory of mind." (page 216)
  • "Over the past two decades, experiments in cognitive neuroscience have repeatedly demonstrated that the overwhelming proportion of human mental activity occurs unconsciously. While those experiments don’t let us directly observe mental activity that isn’t conscious, they let us infer its presence and observe its fruits. . . . This has cause a humbling reappraisal of consciousness." (pages 216-217)
  • "Soon Bob [Jahn] was giving me lessons in elementary post-Newtonian, post-Einsteinian physics. In return, I began telling him about current research on unconscious mental processes. . . . I’ll never be a quantum physicist. Bob will never be a psychoanalyst. We’re each deeply steeped in our own spheres of thinking, so deeply that we’re barely aware of how they color everything we see. We’re like fish unable to recognize water. But that means we each bring something unique and different to the other, something that geneticist Barbara McClintock called a ‘feeling for the organism.’ That kind of feeling, said McClintock, was what enabled her to win a Nobel Prize for her stunningly unexpected insights into the genetics of corn. As she explained to the flocks of reporters who asked how she’d done it, she knew corn so well that she could predict how each of her individual plants would differentially respond to a slight change in nighttime temperature. She had a profound feeling for her organism. . . . I’ll never have that kind of feeling for what happens in quantum physics. Nor will Bob Jahn for psychoanalysis. But because we do each have a feeling for our own particular organism, we also have a feeling for what is as opposed to what it isn’t. And that matters. New insight comes from knowing what something isn’t at least as much as knowing what it is."  (pages 245, 252)
  • Then there’s the mention of physical phenomena that "Einstein once dubbed spukhafte Fernwirkungen, "spooky action at a distance," now described as entanglement, which "may end up playing a large role in how quantum physicists reconcile the roles of relativity and quantum theory in their search for a ‘grand unified theory of everything.’" (page 257)
  • (about successful work with in psychoanalysis): "You’re perpetually reminded that trying hard doesn’t get you there, and that you both [therapist and client] get there best when you somehow manage a state of trying and not trying, knowing and not knowing, certainty and uncertainty all at once. Every time you think you’ve hit on a less paradoxical formula, you’re humbled again." (page 259)
  • "Nearly one hundred years ago, William James published an essay called ‘The Confidences of a "Psychical Researcher."’ . . . It . . . raises many questions that still lack definitive answers. . . . [including this one:] ‘But when was not the science of the future stirred to its conquering activities by the little rebellious exceptions to the science of the present?’" (oops, I’ve turned the book back in and forgot to grab the page number, but it’s between its above-and-below neighbors here)
  • "As I returned again and again to my notes on connectedness, one of Freud’s most famous pronouncements took on a new resonance for me. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he described a correspondence between himself and Romain Rolland, the French novelist and pacifist who’d won the Nobel Prize for literature. Rolland had taken issue with Freud’s attribution of all mystical and religious feeling to infantile illusion. Rolland held no brief for institutionalized religion or even for religious faith, but he believed that there existed a subjective human state that Freud’s analysis of religion dismissed too quickly. Freud’s respect for Rolland was great, but he simply could not recognize the experience Rolland described as basic to human existence. . . . It’s fascinating. Freud was ready to permit the boundaryless quality of love, but he extended it only to sexual love. Only in that state, he said, do we see a nonpathological version of unboundaried human experience. That might have been one of Freud’s most decisive articulations. It was certainly decisive for the future development of psychoanalytic theory. It led, among other things, to the irrevocable divergence of Jungian and Freudian thought." (pages 267-268)

2 Responses

  1. LynnH

    “You’re perpetually reminded that trying hard doesn’t get you there…”

    Wow. I have been pondering this very thing this week. It totally sums up my youth in one breath, and also periods of my current life (though thankfully not too often any more).


  2. Susan Gallacher-Turner

    So interesting…especially loved this quote:
    “lack of resistance to what you hope is possible”

    So key, really, and it doesn’t require religion, god, or meditation…just letting go into the flow of hope.
    Thanks for the insights!

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