Brain Storms: A Study of Human Spontaneity
Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality
The contrasting effect of these two books is surprising and ironic. Both do justice to their themes. Mr. Ferkiss’s materials are the stupendous scientific and technological advances that are now soberly foreseeable and likely to transform human existence. The panorama of almost miraculous but quite probable achievement he unfolds should be breathtaking, but it leaves one unmoved. Dr. Barker deals with the episodes of discontinuity in human lives, from epileptic fits to fumblings for words, sudden insights, and spasms of creative effort, and this material, drawn from everyday life at a rudimentary technological level, is exciting and stimulates further thought. He studies human spontaneity.
The wonders Mr. Ferkiss surveys (and the human consequences which he tries to guess at) depend, it must be supposed, on innumerable small creative steps, but they are steps in a vast impersonal march, anything but spontaneous, their timing no doubt reflecting financial priorities decided by committees but otherwise predictable, sequential, programmed: the moon, Venus, further progress in anti-gravitational techniques, interstellar travel with perhaps a new generation born en voyage and not knowing the earth, seabed mining, techniques for breathing water, submarine settlements and towns. Each advance when first achieved means a few television programs, exclamatory, thumping up the wonder, but by then, close at its heels, the next marvel is on the way. We are not amazed.
Something of this lies behind the wry amusement Mr. Ferkiss feels about the astronauts; for all their courage and the stupendous discipline and training that shape them into worthy occupants of their spacecraft, he is struck by their continuing ordinariness—“with their demi-chic wives and scrubbed children straight out of Better Homes and Gardens, with their football and their scuba-diving and their military-academy and engineering-school backgrounds; these thoroughly conventional and middle-class and essentially dull people, who would make such nice neighbors and such unlikely friends—could these be the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce?”
For all its confident vision of advance, western technological society betrays some anxiety about maintaining the supply of intelligent individuals on whom it depends. Educational psychologists and teachers announce the need for new techniques to ensure that originality, “divergent thinking,” and creative potential may be identified and encouraged. But it is not always clear what sort of original intelligence is wanted. Mr. Ferkiss, for example, after noting that too little higher education is available in most countries, goes on:
In the Soviet Union it is widespread but largely designed to produce conformist technicians…. In the United States the boom in higher education has done little to raise cultural levels among many attending classes, even when measured by the standards of previous centuries, much less the twenty-first in which those currently enrolled will spend part of their lives. The values and world view of today’s collegian, especially in the United States, may be nearer to that of his parents than most prophets of technological man think. The Berkeleys and MITs, the creative scientists and the Hippies, are the exception rather than the rule.
He goes no further in sorting this out; apart from the ambiguities of “cultural levels” there are obvious questions about the proportion of creative scientists to conformist technicians required by technology, and still more about the functions in such a society of the more general challenge represented, with whatever painful inadequacy, by the hippies. A very few creative scientists need armies of other scientists and technologists to develop any crucially new advance; but the other sorts of social questioning which would once have been associated with “cultural levels” may at any time, and unpredictably, challenge the scheme of values within which the scientists work. The original intelligence which an advanced society must have is also a potential threat to all that it takes for granted.
The double demand in science, not only for orderly, programmed work, more and more commonly team work, but also for the individual spontaneity which we still suspect may be the only source of major new ideas, creates a dilemma that is generally ignored or denied. One curious implicit denial of it appears in Professor Fritz Zwicky’s “morphological” approach to discovery.* A professor of astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, he made the first attempt, which failed for accidental reasons, to launch an object into interplanetary space. This failure occurred in 1946 with a V-2 rocket. He believes that his “morphological box,” a sort of multidimensional grid, enables every factor that might affect the solution of a problem to be inspected rapidly and economically.
This vision of creative work brought under control is in psychological line with Ramon Lull’s logical machine of the thirteenth century, the Ars Magna, in which a device of concentric circles brought all human knowledge to bear on any question you asked it. Mr. Zwicky offers.
the various methods most characteristic of the morphological approach and those that make possible the exhaustive analysis of problems in all fields of human endeavor, as well as the deduction, evaluation, and practical realization of entire complexes of possible solutions to these problems. In short, we shall attempt to show how the morphological approach inspires the imagination to ever new visions and advances, and how almost automatically the surest ways to discovery, invention, and new avenues of research reveal themselves.
With disappointing but understandable caution he adds the proviso that this approach cannot solve problems when essential pieces of knowledge are lacking, such as the causes of the common cold or cancer. Though Mr. Zwicky’s book contains touches of eccentricity, it serves to bring out sharply one not uncommon reaction to the double demand of science—that of hoping to make “creativeness” to order and to bring within the control of a system the acts of discovery and invention that defy control and disrupt that system.
“Spontaneous thought and action are orphans in the home of science,” remarks Dr. Barker. His concern is with the individual and the discontinuities that punctuate the harmonious life and its smooth interaction with the environment. We may see creative work mainly as achievement and advance; Barker puts the emphasis at least as much on the disorganization which often—he would perhaps say always—precedes it. Starting from epilepsy, in which he specializes as a physician, he has tried to gain a better and larger understanding of the convulsive seizure by relating it to behavior, and in turn to use his observations of epilepsy to illuminate both the more ordinary discontinuities of everyday living and the major discontinuities involved in a creative act. He may push his parallel between epileptic convulsion and creation too far, but the insights to which it leads him have an independent vitality.
Whatever the physical basis of epilepsy, an actual seizure is commonly triggered by a psychological state, as Barker shows with illustrations from his clinical studies. The occasion, he suggests, is a “dysjunctive” condition, in which elements of the “psychological context” can be neither combined conjunctively nor kept apart disjunctively. It is difficult to see this as more than a fancy name for “conflict” but it seems to be an important support to his thinking. His methods and focus of interest are illustrated in the case of an epileptic who, in discussing the onset of a convulsion, said he might have been thinking about getting his two boys back from their mother, from whom he was separated. His tone in referring to the younger boy led the psychiatrist to ask if there were any special problems about him.
His face went blank, and for about half a minute he mumbled to himself. I could make out only the phrase “six months, eight pounds.” Then abruptly he recovered from this psychomotor fit and said “What did you ask me just then?” I repeated the question. He denied having any special problem about the boy and asserted that he had been thinking only of how to get custody of both his sons.
However, with an intravenous injection of sodium amytal he had a burst of speech:
That day of the fit I wasn’t thinking about nothing…June 18th…that was the day the kid was born. That started me thinking…six months and eight pounds. Then I kept myself busy because I didn’t feel good…kinda stomach-ache. I was singing “To Each His Own.” …You want me to say I was thinking about my wife…to each his own means that, Doc. You start to get a headache and you stop because it makes it worse…my mood might have changed. She came once…she hadn’t been around for three months…you never saw anything like it…she was all over me. She said it was all different and it sure was…but then she got out of bed and left and hasn’t let me near her since. The kid came six months later…six months and eight pounds…I don’t want to hurt anybody, Doc, I never hurt anybody that didn’t hurt me first…. What would happen if I went ahead and then found it was my kid after all?
And Dr. Barker comments that we see in the earlier statement ” ‘six months and eight pounds,’ mumbled in a half-witted or ‘two-witted’ confusion, the two-sidedness of dysjunctive reactions that reach toward insight, wit, and acts of creation on one hand, and toward confusion, unconsciousness, and fits of convulsion on the other.”
In looking for a concept that may link epilepsy with more normal reactions Dr. Barker is following a lead given by Hughlings Jackson, the nineteenth-century London neurologist (born in 1835 and by the age of twenty-seven a senior physician at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square). He quotes Jackson’s aim as being “to study the relations of epilepsy or epileptiform seizures to simpler diseases of the nervous system, and through the latter to normal states…. We want positive information as to how a convulsion is a departure from health…and not how far it approaches our idea of the almost metaphysical conception of ‘genuine’ epilepsy.” Like Freud, though concentrating on physical instead of psychological symptoms, Jackson believed in the importance of small everyday deviations from normal functioning,
…episodes which occupied a no man’s land between slight symptoms and slight breaks in the continuity of seemingly normal activity…. And it is in their concern with the little psychopathologies of everyday life and “the slightest departures” from continuity of ordinary knowing, feeling, and doing that the interests of Freud and Jackson converge…. Both men believed that close observation and analysis of momentary derangements of bodily and personal functioning would reveal the processes generating both ordinary and extraordinary behavior and experience.
Claiming that “Jackson’s ‘slightest departures’ are identical, operationally at least, with Freudian slips of the mind, tongue, and hand,” he makes his key suggestion “that both are what might be called little fits, and that these little fits are produced by the brain-mind system to preserve and restore the continuity of its operations when that continuity is threatened by a sudden coming together of a momentarily ‘unthinkable’ complex of contending ideas, images, and impulses.”
At this point either I don’t follow or some discontinuity occurs in Dr. Barker’s own argument. One can readily accept his parallel between creative acts and the much smaller efforts that have to be made in initiating any departure from routine or communicating anything beyond ready-made thoughts and clichés of feeling—efforts commonly preceded by hesitations, fumblings, and pauses which are comparable to the “pregnant pause” often recorded as an antecedent to creative acts. He is convincing too when he shows the similarity in the psychological context which leads both to creative acts and to convulsions. But at some points he goes further and claims that the outcome too is comparable:
Upon analysis, fits of epilepsy, fits of neurotic behavior, and fits of conventional activity, as well as fits of insight and creation, are compressed fittings-together of the contending elements with which the person and his brain have been struggling. All fits, in short, seem to be products of the synthesizing processes seen in wit, humor, jokes, dreams, discovery, creation, and epileptic and other fittings-together.
The social value of the outcome, he rightly says, is not a decisive difference; but apart from social appraisal there does seem to be a crucial difference in the psychological meaning of the “fit” for the individual. For the epileptic the conflict results in disruption; processes in the brain take over, the person is lost, and when he recovers he has gained nothing but a respite and, though he may sometimes have the subjective experience of “re-birth,” he still has to pick up the threads without having made any progress. With luckier people in similarly dysjunctive circumstances a creative “fit” is possible instead: the person remains in being and advances to a new position from which ongoing interaction with his surroundings is possible, often in the form of working out sytematically the implications of a new insight or struggling to express the “inspiration.”
At other points Dr. Barker does greater justice both to the similarities and to the differences between convulsion and creation:
…shocking intrusions of thoughts, ideas, and images toward and into awareness may initiate creative activities as well as cellular discharging reactions. The circumstances facilitating the popping into mind of the ideas and images that trigger composition of poems and music, or which start the solution of scientific problems, are quite similar to those that trigger epilepsy. The processes that elaborate into a creative heightening of man’s awareness and improvement of his action, and those which degenerate into abolition of consciousness and convulsive discharge of neuromuscular energy in meaningless patterns both begin, very frequently, in moments of blocking produced by confrontation with the unthinkable and the unimaginable.
Much of Dr. Barker’s writing is frankly metaphorical, often rhetorical and repetitive, but still it draws attention to features of experience too important to be neglected merely because they are not yet within reach of exact analysis and statement. He recognizes that no full account can be given of what happens in the “flash of insight.” However we approach the mystery, he writes,
we sooner or later must come somewhere to “our wit’s end.” And the end, and beginning, of wit is in flickeringly kaleidoscopic rapid neuronal precogitational juggling of forms whose essential ambiguity occasionally resolves itself, at one time in sudden dramatic patterns that “shock” the fitting-together capacity into seeing them, and at another time in subtle suggestions from which the fitting-together capacity can build its own meaningful picture. Because our wit, rational or intuitive, cannot, any more than we can, envision its own conception very clearly, we can probably never know just how it is done.
The “fitting-together capacity” is the same as the “confluence” that Victoria Hazlitt, a forgotten psychologist, made into a key concept (in Ability, 1926), and it remains, of course, a metaphor. It is difficult to understand not only how relevant ideas are drawn (often from non-conscious sources) into the magnetic field of a task or of a problem, but also how the irrelevant ones are kept out. Moreover, the filtering-out process seems to fail in certain conditions where the fitting-together capacity runs riot, as in the over-inclusiveness of some schizophrenic thinking or the obsessive ingenuity with which numerologists assemble their “evidence.”
Nor does the idea of a fitting-together capacity appear to do justice to the creative originality that depends on separating previously associated ideas. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who overcame the unthinkability of his early rebellious ideas by receiving them as “openings” from the Lord, records for instance how
the Lord opened to me that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ, and I stranged at it because it was the common belief of people. But I saw it clearly as the Lord opened it to me, and was satisfied….
Daring in the early seventeenth century, this notion of separating true fitness for religious guidance from accepted social training for the role is an example of the “disassociation of ideas” that Remy de Gourmont saw as a prime factor in moral and cultural change. For him in the late nineteenth century it was exemplified in the increasingly clear recognition that sexuality and procreation need not go together. His mannered cynicism is a fin de siècle period piece, but the basic idea was sound:
There are two ways of thinking. One can either accept current ideas and associations of ideas, just as they are, or else undertake, on his own account, new associations or, what is rarer, original disassociations. The intelligence capable of such efforts is, more or less, according to the degree, or according to the abundance and variety of its other gifts, a creative intelligence. (1899)
De Gourmont speaks of “truths” (or firmly associated ideas) which it is as useless to expose as to combat: “old and venerable truths like: virtue-recompense, vice-punishment, God-goodness, crime-remorse, duty-happiness, authority-respect, unhappiness-punishment, future-progress, and thousands of others, some of which, though absurd, are useful to mankind.” (Decadence, trans. 1921.) For all his limitations, de Gourmont draws attention to the fact that asking a question can be as important a creative act as finding an answer.
Two opposite dangers face any account of creativity. One is a false isolation of the creative act, setting it totally apart from ordinary behavior. This Dr. Barker fully succeeds in avoiding; he stresses the imperceptible gradations by which creativity merges into everyday problem solving, gropings for words, flashes of wit, small insights. The opposite danger then rears up, that of not sufficiently distinguishing creative activity—and the creative person—from the relatively non-creative. Is this no more, perhaps, than distinguishing a hot from a cold shower, the one merging imperceptibly into the other? We should then place all behavior at some point on a neutral scale; it would have some degree of spontaneity or regimentation. But, against this, the non-creative often appears to be too positive a thing, especially in the antagonism of non-creative people toward creative ones, to be adequately described as a low degree of spontaneity. It may have to be thought of as commitment to a different positive aim—that of stability, reliability, repeatability, whether in the manufacture of a uniform product, the operation of a legal system, or the higher machine-minding of administration.
We must probably expect the two sorts of people and the two types of activity always to be in uneasy balance. In the thirteenth century, while Ramon Lull was designing his systematization of knowledge that would answer all our questions automatically, his contemporary, Meister Eckhart, was welcoming the unforeseeable; and Mr. Ferkiss, who concludes that “Technological man will create his own future, and it may contain some surprises even for him,” quotes Eckhart with approval: “There is no stopping place in this life—no, nor was there ever one for any man, no matter how far along his way he’d gone. This above all, then, be ready at all times for the gifts of God, and always for new ones.” Similarly in the twentieth century Mr. Zwicky rejoices to think that his approach “allows us to make discoveries and inventions methodically, and in some cases almost automatically,” and Dr. Barker is equally delighted in the flash of insight whose coming remains a mystery.
Discovery, Invention, Research: Through the Morphological Approach, Macmillan, 288 pp., $6.95.↩
Discovery, Invention, Research: Through the Morphological Approach, Macmillan, 288 pp., $6.95.↩