Sunday, March 24, 2013

On the Lofty Potential of the Human Brain

Stephen Wiltshire draws a city from memory

Soaking in certain books and lecture materials (mainly revolving around the works of Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary) over the last few weeks has had me often floating in a deep, blissful and prolonged appreciation and consideration of the human brain, nature's astounding biocomputer.

Back when I lived in a house that had cable TV, the 2006 documentary miniseries called Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain captivated me to the point of having to record the entire series and take considerable written notes on it. The documentary told the stories of a number of savants, many of them autistic savants, and the possible scientific explanations for their incredible capabilities.

What so interested me about this phenomenon and what continues to keep it popping up in my mind years later is the important lesson this teaches about the potential of the human brain. I've been listening to lots of Timothy Leary lectures lately and the main running theme through his four full decades (60s, 70s, 80s, 90s) of challenging people's minds is the miracle that is the human brain and how little of it we are normally trained to use.

(This is my first attempt at embedding a book page from GoogleBooks. Hopefully it works.)

From Robert Anton Wilson's novel Masks of the Illuminati (which I've been reading with the reading group):
“Science had already revealed to them that 99.9% of the physical universe was invisible to their senses …” (pg. 125)
Reader Oz Fritz (who writes this excellent blog) had this to say about this part of the book:
A physicist once told me that if you stacked a sheet of papers from the Earth to the Moon and called that all the energy or 'information' out there, the part of the universe perceptible to humans would about equal the thickness of one sheet of paper. In light of that, the sentence that follows looks quite interesting... 
"but they were not capable of deducing from that that an equal part of the mental and spiritual universes was also unperceived by them as they robotically proceeded about their mammalian business of survival, reproduction and nurturing of their cubs." (pg. 125)
When you can somehow manage to give less dominance to the narrowly focused left-brain, you can open up unfathomable possibilities in the right brain. The Beautiful Minds documentary includes the story of an average Joe kinda guy who got plunked on the left side of his skull in a baseball game and could suddenly calculate, immediately and with perfect precision, what day of the week any date would fall on, far into the future or past (interestingly, that strange ability is a common one among savants). He also could now recall from memory what happened on any day in his life.

In light of the human brain information I've been soaking in most recently from Leary and RAW (and also with consideration of Richard Maurice Bucke's thesis in Cosmic Consciousness), I'm now beginning to see people like Stephen Wiltshire as personally representing quantum evolutionary leaps in the human species.

Stephen Wiltshire is my favorite savant from the TV series, mainly because his ability is so simple, so precise, and so fucking astounding. Mr. Wiltshire, a young man from London who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 3, can take a pen and draw a perfect and intricately detailed photographic representation of anything after looking at it just once. He frequently pulls the trick by going up in a helicopter, observing a city from above, and then drawing the entire cityscape on a massive panoramic panel.

There are no words for this. Perhaps "magic" would begin to grope at it.

Watch him draw Manhattan after observing it for 20 minutes in a helicopter ride. You can see him do the same thing for Rome, Tokyo, Madrid, Hong Kong.

And here, for your viewing and brain-tingling pleasure, is the Beautiful Minds TV series in its entirety:


  1. I'm pleased that the "Masks of the Illuminati" reading group helped inspire such an interesting blog post. Where do you get the Tim Leary lectures you have been listening to?

  2. Been listening to the Psychedelic Salon podcast which has dozens of Leary lectures/interviews:

    Also, the Timothy Leary Archives is a great source:

    1. The Psychedelic Salon is a great resource. I may have learned more from those McKenna, Leary, and RAW lectures than I did during my 4 years of university.

  3. It will probably take me awhile to get to those Beautiful Minds videos, but I'll definitely keep them in mind.

    I seem to be coming at this from the other end of the spectrum, as I'm currently taking an online course on world poverty and being made very aware of the fact of how many brains, even as we speak are almost totally engaged in survival decisions by necessity. And you have to wonder what all those brains could do if dire necessity eased up for them even a little. Meanwhile, I wonder what Leary thinks an ordinary Westerner with an ordinary amount of leisure should or could be doing with our brains.

    I don't know if this has come up before, but my friend and a leader of a discussion group I go to here, Paul Lee, was in the Harvard Psychedelic group with Leary. A book came out a couple of years ago here, and was written up here with a photo of the group. Paul Lee is the guy in the hat.

    The height of psychedelia was just a little before my time, and I think it's aftermath always left me a little skeptical of it. There is a self-indulgent aspect to the drug trip that has made it suspect for me. I believe the early Harvard experiments were pretty pure, but that they devolved. Of course, a lot else was going on at that time too that may have contributed to that.

  4. "Meanwhile, I wonder what Leary thinks an ordinary Westerner with an ordinary amount of leisure should or could be doing with our brains."

    I think you're doing exactly what he would urge us to do: educate yourself through the miraculous extension of our nervous system that is the internet and continually increase your intelligence.

    The poverty and starvation of so many humans always makes me think of Buckminster Fuller's frequent assertion that there are more than enough resources in the world to feed and clothe everybody, it's bureaucracy and greed that gets in the way.

    It's alarming that there is absolutely no ceiling for how rich someone could be, no limits imposed on how much wealth and opulence you can acquire, and yet there is a very real natural limit to how poor you can be (barely scraping enough crumbs together to keep your body operating).

    I enjoyed the Paul Lee piece, he sounds like a funny guy.

    Having gone on a binge of absorbing Leary lectures/interviews/videos/articles the last month or so, I'll have a lot more to say about him in a forthcoming post, but for now I'll mention that the whole early-60s Harvard LSD situation is one of the things I actually find least interesting about him, despite that being where his fame and notoriety sprung. Amid the four decades of material, it's the late 70s to early 90s Leary that I find has the most interesting stuff to say. Biography-wise, it's definitely the early to mid-70s Leary that has the most intriguing storyline ("B-movie adventures" as he self-deprecatingly described those years). Overall, though, I'm finding him to be one of the most incredible people of the 20th century, endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

  5. That's good to know, and I will try and approach him with a more open mind.

    I'm finding the global poverty class fascinating and partly because it challenges many assumptions. For one thing, it does not preach against overpopulation, and wonders if Malthus may be wrong. It's partly for a reason related to this post, which is that more brains mean more random possibilities for innovation.

    Paul is great, and perhaps has gotten in trouble a bit for his antic spirit. He has just come out with a book about the days of Alan Chadwick's time at UCSC, which you may find interesting now that you know the place, called There is a Garden in the Mind, which you can see a bit about here. I haven't read it yet, but of course I am very familiar with its stories.

  6. Great post! Thanks for mentioning my blog.

    Both Leary and Fuller inspire me a great deal.