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Psychic Shit Happens All The Time
snooping around libraries, finding moments of a different order
I experience psychic things. I’d never say I am psychic. It’s a thing that happens. As an artist, I use my eyeballs to make art, but I don’t call myself an eyeballer. I’m not saying I have psychic eyeballs either. It’s more like, sometimes information appears. Out of nowhere, casually. I never asked for it. I don’t know how it got there, in my mind, but it did. I can do something about it, or not.
It would be the height of mediocre hubris to assume that all seven-point-three billion other individuals on the planet have the exact same faculties of perception as you do, wouldn’t it.
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You know those YouTube videos where someone gets a cochlear implant, then for the first time in life hears a voice and streams tears of joy? That’s the same basic audio you’re getting on a Tuesday. It feels like a big deal when it’s new, but once you’re sensitized it’s just a form of perception. This or that faculty is merely one of many senses, with constraints, which you might choose to put to use in pursuit of a greater goal. Some edge-case folks marry their perception and life purpose, but how many of us are bomb-sniffing dogs or the Oracle of Delphi. If you are, thank you, knock it out of the park.
I’m bringing this up because, a) I’m sick of pretending that psychic stuff doesn’t exist, and, b) materialism is bullshit. This office-park-version-of-reality charade has gone on long enough.
When I was twenty-three, I lived in a cramped, medieval English city while doing a PhD in sculpture. My studio bordered a canal, and after working as late into the evening as the security guard would allow, I’d sit under the stars on a rock and peer into the sunken, dark water as it slithered past creaky, many-hundred-year-old pubs and the remains of a Bronze Age encampment on a hillock. One night I went home and dreamed. I stood in an unassuming living room, except that an entire wall was perfect glass looking out onto a cold, otherworldly, rocky terrain with no life as far as the eye could see. Suddenly, through the glass I saw my grandmother. She was blue in the face, agitated, obviously unable to breathe, hypoxic, and gesturing to me in complete desperation. Immediately, I opened a sliding door and she came rushing inside. She thanked me, then went upstairs to warm up and recover with my grandpa.
Never before or since have I had such a dream.
The next day my mother called to tell me that out of the blue, her mother, my grandmother, had a serious stroke, had died, had been resuscitated, and was recovering. I hadn’t spoken with nor messaged my mom in about three weeks, hadn’t been in touch with my grandma in months. We were on different continents.
Reproduce that, science, I dare you.
Oh hold up, you can’t reproduce what truly matters in my heart and mind.
Something’s not right here, ser.
I’m not saying material life isn’t a thing. I drink H20 and shit entropy like the rest of the species. I’m saying it’s a lot weirder than we’ve dreamt of in any of these peer-reviewed philosophies. Physics is great. I love satellites and semiconductor chips. But we are, um, aware it’s incomplete, and we can’t begin to describe more if we don’t even admit the phenomena exists. As Jay-Z says, gimmie that sweet, that nasty, that gushy stuff.
Materialism is flawed from the start. It can’t “explain” actual lived human experience, because the premise excludes our messy af experience. Such a gigantic cultural blind spot makes me curious, and there’s good company. Melissa Riva-Tez wrote an insightful and daring piece on the topic. She led with her experience of having a panic attack at the same time as her cousin’s death, and later her aunt’s. Of course she knew—she tapped that slice of the absolutely fascinating range of human perceptual experience.
As an artist, I’ve done research in all sorts of libraries, large and small. Whenever I hit a new one, I search the catalog for personal diaries, the more raw and homespun the better. We’re talking spiral-bound, the one-of-ones, the loose-leaf sheets typed up by a great-uncle tucked away in Special Collections that haven’t been touched in decades. Way back when, I started doing this as a method for turning up unexpected information about places of interest for my work. Which it does.
Over time, I’ve noticed patterns. When you read personal, first-hand accounts of real lives, stuff the author remembers vividly and wants to pass on, you find uncanny moments. A vision here, a dream there, the woman a hundred years ago on a farm who suddenly knew her sister, miles away, had gone into premature labor and rushed to help. A diary skims along events, then a moment of a different order appears, recounted with special care. Not all of them. Who knows what’s held back. But if you look at enough, there they are, clustering around births, deaths, love and moments of peril. And these moments are so consistently prompted by real need that it seems obvious, whether we care to admit it or not, that we have evolved such capabilities for a reason. Many reasons.
The very idea of psychic shit annoys some people. Yet this is, nonetheless, a distinct class of phenomena. Riva-Tez, myself, and a zillion diarists don’t need neuroscientists to tell us it’s real, and if they go around saying it isn’t, fine, that’s gaslighting. What could possibly be at work here? What if we sincerely poked around?
I’m not woo. In fact, I enjoy measuring measurable things. While valleywags twiddle their Fitbits, I’ve been out here optimizing shit that really moves the needle, i.e. my EEG. What’s that, you say? Papi Elon hasn’t tweeted about that? Well, EEG stands for electroencephalogram, and your brain is making a hot one right now. As it happens, the EEG is the most complex signal we’ve come across in the universe. Might be something there, dunno.
Bluntly, there’s two things going on in your brain, chemistry and electricity. Whilst pharma sells the chemistry angle, the dark horse you’ve never heard of is electrical. If we place electrodes at the surface of your scalp, we can measure the electrical activity from pools of millions of your neurons firing together. That’s your EEG.
The EEG was first discovered in 1924 by the German psychiatrist Hans Berger, and this finding—which profoundly altered our understanding of the brain—just so happens to have been prompted by non-reproducible psychic shit. While serving in the cavalry, the young Berger was thrown from his horse and landed in the path of a horse-drawn cannon, which nearly ran him over, and he escaped death by a hairs-breadth. Spontaneously, at home miles away, out of nowhere his elder sister sensed he was in grave danger and urged their father to send dear Hans a telegram, which the fam had never done before. This incident of his sister’s inexplicable knowing-at-a-distance stuck with Berger for decades, and motivated his subsequent research into the electrical activity of the brain. In other words, the pivotal discovery that would revolutionize all of neurology and neurosurgery to follow, sprang from a psychic experience that, coming on a hundred years later, we still have no clue how it occurred.
Your EEG is an ocean. Separating this signal out into different waveforms can tell us a bunch about what you’re experiencing. We might look at your beta waves, from 15-30 Hz, which are associated with your experience of active conscious processing. Or theta, from 4-7 Hz, which you make lots of in REM sleep, as well as flow, hypnagogic, and creative states. There’s others, but less relevant to our topic du jour. Do neurons firing in observable pools “explain” consciousness? No. Why on earth would we ever assume consciousness is so dumbass simple as that. Let’s let go of the idea of “explanations” in this realm, after all, we’re humbly chatting about the most complex signal in the known universe. We’re just measuring measurable things, and learning what we can as we hopefully fumble toward a deeper understanding of the phenomena. And if we care to take a peek, we see that a healthy adult brain makes a symphony of wavelengths at all times, how well the orchestra plays together is another question.
Your experience of consciousness will vary based on how much of what your brain is generating, and where. Generally, your bog-standard rationalist’s brain is making a lot of beta, and possibly too much as we observe in the glassy stares, rumination, and fetish for accelerated speech of the typical Silicon Valley tech tweeter—all symptoms of high prefrontal beta. Which is why psychedelic substances, which tend to induce high theta and delta states with reduced beta, may be novel and appealing to such afflicted persons. But these are only the most general of observations.
I’ve had my EEG quantitatively mapped many times, and for whatever reason, at rest my brain makes up to three standard deviations more theta than average. Over a few years of on-and-off neuro-training, much has changed on my maps, while far more has changed in my experience that can’t be quantified—yeah, it’s been low-key the most astonishingly transformative thing I’ve ever done. My theta persists. That’s a feature for making art and confers a native ability to literally think in images, but it’s less optimal for recalling where I parked my car. Am I “neurodivergent?” When the bleeding edge neurotech wizard I’ve been working with took a look at my map, he said, yours will never look normal. I do not need any psychedelics.
Here’s the deal with theta: it’s a different kind of knowing than beta. Beta is a crisp, oh-I-just-cogitated-this-thought. But experience in theta is knowing. Theta hits you in a total, murky, deep-but-diffuse way. When Hans’ sis said “I just knew” she was talking theta. Your everyday beta knowing feels like, hey here’s a knowledge I found, let us rotate and consider this sparkling, clearly-defined concept. Theta’s not like that. Theta knowing extends with no clear edge, even implicating you, whether you want it or not you’re part of the knowledge like some inseparable field and wave. In hypnagogic states, images have autonomy, and information arrives as if from a source independent of your consciousness. There’s a kinship with flow, where even the most complex actions unfurl with ease of their own accord, although flow has a more integrated conscious intent. Certain information you can only know in theta, which is why people pay a lot to go puke in Peru.
One is not better than the other. All adult humans do both, some more than others. Problem is, some types of experiences broadly occur in theta—and these forms of knowledge and information have been utterly shunned by the dominant materialistic perspective. Which makes one wonder. It was pretty terrifying to imagine the earth orbiting the sun in 1543, and how are we similarly blind today.
If I were going to study psychic shit, my money would be on theta providing access to a buffet of non-local information. Like weird, action-at-a-distance, outside of conventional time and space info. This is a different kind of knowledge, and you can’t approach it like regular, daylight, yes-no questions, because it’s not structured that way. For example, you don’t get to pick just anything from the buffet, it chooses you. In these moments, especially ones charged by a real-life storm of dire need, information sloshes around like lightning, looking for a target, and for unknown reasons some people are more receptive than others.
How does that information appear? Messy, subjective images and experiences that require the observer’s interpretation. Unfortunately, there’s no dictionary for images, no convenient one-to-one translations for experiences. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, like when a big sister suddenly gut-knew her bro was in mortal danger. But there’s always a level of interpretation going on, because received information is being filtered through a unique nervous system with its own history and codes. Regular humans figure this stuff out just fine, especially when someone’s life is on the line. And we have been for millennia. Hope science gets around to it eventually.
In some domains we have a great deal of objectivity. In others, we can’t possibly separate observer and information, it’s all entangled. I’m saying that’s a natural feature of how our brains work. God only knows what else is going on in there. Trying to isolate or explain a psychic experience is like trying to isolate or interpret an artwork. Good luck. You won’t get much from such a misguided attempt, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t transmitting information right underneath your nose. Art, dreams, psychic shit—they’re a more similar language than not, which tracks back to what images are and do in our consciousness.
This sketch is a gross simplification, but I suspect we need more cross-disciplinary anarchy. I’m not here to change minds. Dear materialists, do continue trying to poke reality to death with a laser pointer so you can drag it further into your platonic cave. It’ll keep you busy. Though if you really are going after the wtf-is-consciousness question, seems like a promising start (for empiricists) would be to take what happens to people seriously.
Our contemporary theories of consciousness map roughly to the waking experience of beta. This isn’t the only way to do it—when Aboriginal Australian peoples map space non-linearly in dream time, they’re advancing a theory of the world that’s much more theta-based. Eastern philosophies and yogic systems have developed incredibly sophisticated, broad-spectrum models of consciousness. Western science, on the other hand, has managed to construct an edifice of physics and neuroscience while thinking in 15-30 Hz that pretty much exclusively describes phenomena we experience in 15-30 Hz, relegating everything else going on to the pathological, or at least inferior. That is, if it even deigns to admit it exists. My own lived experience, from making art to psychic shit and my EEG, expands way off-road from that norm, and it’s terribly boring to be pathologized by myopia. This is a narrow band—an essential one, to be sure—but it dismisses entire continents of the human experience. If we identify consciousness only with a part, we’ll never see the whole.
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