The Meeting of Mind and Matter?

This is from a reader, Don Salmon:

In 1994, neurophysiologist Jacobo Grinberg-Zylberbaum published the results of more than 50 experiments which suggested the possibility of one person’s mind having an effect on another person’s body. In these experiments Grinberg-Zylberbaum had subjects meditate together for 20 minutes. They were then placed in separate rooms known as “Faraday cages,” which are both soundproof and electro-magnetic radiation proof. One of the subjects (“Subject A”) was presented at random intervals with a series of 100 stimuli including flashes of sound and light. The other subject (“ Subject B”) received no stimuli. He was instructed to stay relaxed, to try to feel the presence of the other, and to signal the experimenter when he was relaxed and believed he was able to feel the other’s presence.

When the experiment was completed, the EEG brain wave records of the two subjects were examined and compared. The brain wave patterns of Subject A showed the expected responses to the stimuli of light and sound. What is remarkable is that the brain waves of Subject B showed responses corresponding in time to the responses of Subject A, even though Subject B had not been presented with any stimuli. One of the most interesting outcomes occurred in the brain wave patterns of a young couple who reported “feeling deep oneness… Their EEG patterns remained closely synchronized throughout the experiment.”

The Meeting of Mind and Matter?

Most scientists agree that the results of parapsychological research are difficult to understand in the context of our current notions regarding the relationship between mind and matter. Some parapsychologists suggest that the idea of “nonlocality,” derived from quantum physics, might help us better understand psi phenomena. “Nonlocality” refers to findings in quantum physics which seem to conflict with our conventional understanding of how things work. According to the laws of classical physics, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. “Nonlocality” refers to the idea that “objects that are apparently separate are actually connected instantaneously through space-time.”

In the early 1960s, physicist John Stewart Bell worked out mathematical calculations showing that nonlocality was an unavoidable implication of quantum theory. According to Larry Dossey, Bell showed that:

if two particles that have once been in contact are separated, a change in one results in a change in the other – immediately and to the same degree. The degree of separation between the particles is immaterial; they could theoretically be placed at opposite ends of the universe.

Apparently no energetic signal passes between them, telling one particle that a change has taken place in the other, because the changes are instantaneous; there is no time for signaling. The distant particles behave as though they were united as a single entity – paradoxically, separate but one.

Physicists were hesitant to accept Bell’s findings, but in 1982, Alain Aspect performed an experiment which definitively showed nonlocality to be an aspect of the workings of matter. His experiment was replicated in 1997 by Nicolas Gusin.

The discovery of nonlocal connections is leading scientists to a radically new understanding of matter. Biologist Mae Wan-Ho claims to have found many examples of nonlocal effects in biological organisms as well. She uses the term “quantum coherence” to describe a process by which all components of the organism are in instant and continuous communication. According to Ervin Laszlo, this instantaneous, system-wide correlation cannot be explained according to the laws of classical, non-quantum physics.

Parapsychologists and other scientists believe that ideas like nonlocality and quantum coherence suggest that matter is more mind-like than we have previously thought. For example, earlier we mentioned Freeman Dyson’s characterization of atoms as behaving “like active agents rather than inert substances,” making “unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics.”

Some parapsychologists – observing that nonlocality challenges the classical understanding of time and space – suggest it might be used to explain psi findings which seem to imply that consciousness is capable of transcending time and space. By transforming our understanding of how matter works, quantum physics has presented us with a view of the universe more compatible with psi phenomena than that of classical physics. But physical theories – quantum or otherwise – can give us, at best, only an indirect understanding of the nature of consciousness. Dyson himself is careful to say that he is not claiming that his view “is supported or proved by scientific evidence… [but] only… that it is consistent with scientific evidence.” And, as physicist Arthur Zajonc points out, the objective approach of physics “remains silent on… the experience of a perceiving subject.”

If neither psychology nor the findings of physics provide us with any fundamental understanding of consciousness, where might we look – and how should we look – to gain a new view? We can start by looking directly at the subjective experience of the individuals engaged in parapsychology experiments.

For many years, psi researchers have noticed that subjects who are passionately involved in an experiment tend to be the most successful. We saw in the Grinberg-Zylberbaum experiments that the young couple in love showed the highest level of brain wave synchronization. While this may not be so surprising with regard to communication between humans, experiments show this to be the case even in the relationship between a human being and a machine.

Robert G. Jahn, as director of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory (PEAR), observed hundreds of trials in which individuals successfully influenced the workings of highly sensitive electronic instruments. As described on the PEAR website:

In these studies human operators attempt to bias the output of a variety of mechanical, electronic, optical, acoustical, and fluid devices to conform to pre-stated intentions, without recourse to any known physical influences. In unattended calibrations all of these sophisticated machines produce strictly random data, yet the experimental results display increases in information content that can only be attributed to the consciousness of their human operators.

Jahn, explaining these results, writes, “The most common subjective report of our most successful human/machine experimental operators is some sense of ‘resonance’ with the devices – some sacrifice of personal identity in the interaction – a ‘merging,’ or bonding with the apparatus.” Larry Dossey adds, “The highest scores are seen when emotionally bonded couples, who share unusually deep love and empathy, interact together with the electronic devices. They achieve scores up to eight times higher than those of individuals who try to influence the devices alone.”

In a rather radical departure from the typically impersonal stance of the view from nowhere, Dossey suggests there may be an extremely close relationship between the nonlocal connections of subatomic particles and the feelings of empathy described above. “Nonlocal connectedness… is manifested between subatomic particles, mechanical systems, humans and machines, humans and animals, and humans themselves. When this nonlocal bond operates between people, we call it love. When it unites distant subatomic particles, what should we call this manifestation? Should we choose a safe, aseptic term such as nonlocally correlated behavior, or bite the bullet and call it a rudimentary form of love?” Dossey is not claiming that human beings and subatomic particles have the same experience of love. Rather, he suggests that what manifests as a purely impersonal connection at the level of matter may be, in essence, the same phenomenon as that which occurs between loving human beings.

Perhaps this is what William James was hinting at when he wrote:

We with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and pine may whisper to each other with their leaves…but the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands hang together through the oceans’ bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother sea…

Baldwin again…

Am on my third Baldwin novel now… Another Country. So powerful. And so wonderful to read, because he is such a truly great novelist. This is literature, folks.

But it is also social commentary that partakes of the sharpest insight, the most unflinching eye, the truth most clearly spoken. This exchange between Vivaldo, the best friend of jazz musician Rufus, and another friend, an older white woman, is – especially for 1962 – profound:

[Vivaldo] “I know I failed him, but I loved him, too, and nobody there wanted to know that. I kept thinking, They’re colored and I’m white but the same things have happened, really the same things, and how can I make them know that?”

“But they didn’t,” she said, “happen to you because you were white. They just happened. But what happens up here [Harlem] happens because they are colored. And that makes a difference.”

The story reveals much about the social sources of the demons that plague “mixed-race” relationships of all kinds, but it is of such fierce artistry, such depth of understanding, that it reveals much of what is in our hearts that plagues all our relationships. This is Rufus and Vivaldo talking:

[Rufus] “What do you want — when you get together with a girl?”

“What do I want?”

“Yeah, what do you want?”

“Well,” said Vivaldo, fighting panic, trying to smile, “I just want to get laid, man.” But he stared a Rufus, feeling terrible things stir inside him.

“Yeah?” and Rufus looked at him curiously, as though he were thinking, So that’s the way white boys make it. “Is that all?”

“Well,” — he looked down– “I want the chick to love me. I want to make her love me. I want to be loved.”

There was silence. Then Rufus asked, “Has it ever happened?”

“No,” said Vivaldo, thinking of Catholic girls and whores. “I guess not.”

It is violent, dark and sometimes painful to read, for it grabs you by the heart and shakes! But it is a deep and beautiful story of the human condition.

Baldwin is at times prescient, as in these sentences early in the story:

The great buildings, unlit, blunt like the phallus or sharp like the spear, guarded the city which never sleeps. Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen — for the weight of this city was murderous — one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.

I’m only about a third of the way through it, but I will finish soon. I can hardly stop reading.

Giovanni’s Room was also  intense and poignant, the story of a young American in Paris running from his American-ness, his oppressive father, his own nature, his love of boys… hiding in a loveless relationship and destroying everyone around him in the process.

Though fully the realism that Baldwin excels at writing, the Giovanni’s Room also has elements of existentialism, especially in his descriptions of the room itself, of the emotional and physical space it becomes, as well as in descriptions of the city and its people.

I highly recommend reading Baldwin for enjoyment, for broadening one’s vision of American literature, and for his deep insights into humanity and society.