cognitive psychology

Neurodiversity: The theory, movement, issues and controversies

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.”– Shakespeare 

Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions as natural neurological variations. 

There is a wide variety of views and approaches to the topic, including within the medical field and amongst the mentally ill and their advocates.  As is the case with many social movements and theories, there are areas of controversy and strong disagreement. This article looks at neurodiversity, and key issues and different perspectives around it.

You are welcome and encouraged to think about the topic, perhaps research it more, and form your own opinions. Many questions don’t have objective, simple or single answers. 


Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions, or at least many and some degrees of them, not as mental illness or medical conditions, but as natural neurological variations. The supporters see legitimate human thinking as a broad spectrum of variations. They say that many of what are currently called medical conditions or mental illness are natural and legitimate variations that fall outside the parameters of normalcy.

This movement has traditionally been associated with autism but has been broadened to include many other ‘different ways of thinking’ including dyslexia, ADHD or attention deficit syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome, and schizophrenia.

People who think differently, such a autistic and bipolar, are called neurodiverse.

The term was coined by Australian social scientist and autism advocate Sally Singer, and was first published in a 1998 The Atlantic article by journalist Harvey Blume.

There is a variety of reasons and thinking behind the theory. The key reason is the genuine belief that many ways of thinking that are now pathologized– meaning categorized and treated as abnormal and unhealthy– are just different legitimate ways of thinking.  

Psychiatry and psychology have traditionally treated, say, autism as a disease or disorder that must be fixed or cured.  However, neurodiversity advocates disagree with this approach. They say the different ways of thinking are perfectly natural not something to be cured.

And, while autism, bipolar disorder and other conditions often involve various mild to severe side effects, functional issues and troubles, the neurodiversity idea that there are different than normal but legitimate ways of thinking is correct.  


Many mental conditions and illnesses involve both functional deficits and unique, positive, practical skills. All forms of thinking, including normal ways accepted by society and tradition, have trade-offs, good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, strengths and weaknesses. And what are good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, is subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and in part dependant on the situation, context and culture.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a range of neurological disorders that has many functional disabilities that range in intensity. Symptoms include difficulties in communication and understanding language, learning disabilities, lack of empathy and understanding of social cues, social withdrawal, repetitive movements, inappropriate social actions and self-abusive.

However, autistic people can have great skills, including at mathematics, memory, focus  and pattern recognition. The great physicists and mathematicians Paul Dirac and Issac Newton were autistic, and their autistic way of thinking was integral to their academic success.  


Isaac Newton was autistic

When the autustic’s special needs are accommodated, tech businesses have discovered that the autistic have unusual skills, such as processing data and pattern recognition.  Some autistic tech workers have said that their technology co-workers are the impaired ones as they cannot focus and work with data and numbers as well as the autistic.

“Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear,” — Dr. Laurent Mottron, psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal (link). 

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects areas of the brain that process language. Symptoms include difficulty in reading, poor spelling, mispronouncing words, difficulty in memorization and doing math. 

However, dyslexia involves unusual skills. These include creativity, big picture and holistic thinking, high reasoning skills and understanding complexity, independent thinking and seeing things others do not.  Dyslexics have better peripheral vision, meaning they literally get wider views of scenes.

Famed for their creative, original, outside the box thinking, dyslexics have included Leonardo da Vinco, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Picasso. Leonardo was a horrific speller and Einstein was slow to speak as a child, both common signs of dyslexia.

Albert-Einstein jpg

Albert Einstein was dyslexic, had mystical experiences and a schizophrenic son

My father was dyslexic and an engineering professor.  He had to be careful when writing down numbers, including on the classroom chalkboard. However, he was known by his colleagues for his ability to see the big picture. He said that being dyslexic growing up, he had to learn how to do things in different ways which aided his intellectual development.

“You can’t overcome it (dyslexia); you can work around it and make it work for you, but it never goes away. That’s probably a good thing, because if dyslexia went away, then the other gifts would go away too.”– Beryl Benacarraf MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

Schizophrenia is a serious and sometimes debilitating mental disorder where people interpret reality abnormally. Symptoms include hallucinations and delusions, disordered thinking and speech, and behavior and social disabilities that impair daily life.  Many schizophrenics appear to be out of touch with reality.

However, schizophrenia is associated with creativity and original thinking.  Famous schizophrenic artists include Syd Barret, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, Jack Kerouac, Brian Wilson and Veronica Lake.

The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s schizophrenia caused him great social and functioning troubles, including dropping out of society, hallucinations, delusions and being involuntarily hospitalized. However, he said when the bad effects and delusions were under control, his unique way of thinking contributed to his mathematical discoveries.

According to Oxford University psychiatrist Neel Burton, as schizophrenia is genetic it is also related to having mentally healthy relatives who are creative, different thinkers. Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and James Joyce who had schizophrenic children. Burton wrote that research has shown that “healthy siblings of people with schizophrenia are overrepresented in creative professions.” (link)

Mystical experiences

Mystical experiences are temporary neurological events where the functioning of the brain normal cognitive structures of the brain are suppressed and the brain processes sensory information using the emotional parts of the brain.  During mystical experiences, people experience and perceive the world and themselves in radically different ways and often feel they gain profound intuitive knowledge about reality and the physical world. Though temporary and happening with mentally healthy people, the instances are similar to schizophrenia.

Many famous scientists, academics, artists and thinkers have had mystical experiences that influenced their work and world views, including Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Huston Smith, Walt Whitman and Wassily Kandinski.

University of Pennsylvania medical professor Andrew Newberg said that many of our “Aha!” epiphany moments are mini mystical experiences or changes in the brain’s perception where we see things from a new perspective.

Physics Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes said that many of his scientific ideas, including that led to the invention of the laser and maser, came to him in mystical experience-like epiphanies. 

Bipolar disorder is a serious disorder that at its extremes involves psychosis, delusions and hallucinations.  However, it is also genetically associated with high intelligence and creativity.

A University of Lancaster (UK) study showed that bipolar participants “described a wide range of internal states that they believe are experienced at far greater intensity than those without the condition, including increased perceptual sensitivity, creativity, focus and clarity of thought.” (link)

 Great artists who were dipolar include Van Gogh, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain and Edvard Munch. 

Edvard Munch said, “I can not get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them.”


Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Along with being autistic, I am type 1 bipolar and have been since I was a young child.  While it has posed numerous challenges that have had to be addressed and overcome, I like the way I think. I say that it doesn’t involve perceiving this more or less accurate than others, just differently. However, being able to see things differently has been a great advantage to me academically.

When I was young, my engineering-professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

Artists Vladimir Nabakov, Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, Charles Baudelaire, Vasily Kandinsky, Arther Rimnad and had synesthesia.  Synesthesia is an unusual and curious condition where one’s sense is simultaneously perceived but another, often multiple, sensest. For example, a person with synesthesia may experience sounds or letters or numbers as a color, smell or flavor.  It is often associated with artists and creatifity

Franz Kafka is called the Patron Saint of Schizoids, a mental disorder genetically related to schizophrenia. The person is interpersonally aloof and cold in the extreme but has imaginative and often elaborate inner lives. Along with his obviously highly creative novels and stories influenced by the disorder, he wrote extensive letters to his longtime fiance but rarely, and only for very short periods, would meet her in person


What is interesting from the several examples I’ve given is that not all of the examples are pathologized.  While schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism are pathologized as mental disorders, synthesis and mystical experiences are not.  Synthesis and mystical experiences are considered unusual but harmless ways of thinking. 

Thus, the question of what should be pathologized and what should be considered perfectly natural and fine, has long been a topic.

“Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born. In other times and other places, there have been different disability/ability diagnosis depending upon cultural values. . . .  We should not regard diagnostic labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of their existence relative to a particular social setting.”– Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., American Institute for Learning and Human Development (reference)

I am certainly not at all saying that someone people with illness or conditions are all geniuses or advanced thinkers. The neurodiverse can be as dumb or silly as normal people, and mental illness and conditions often involve serious symptoms, deficits and problems.  Paranoid schizophrenics and people in bipolar manic phases can have clearly delusional thinking.

However, people who advocate for neurodiversity say that thinking differently isn’t, or is necessary, a deficit.  It may involve problems and issues and side effects that must be addressed, but the different ways of thinking should be respected and appreciated.  


Including not wanting mental illnesses and conditions pathologies, the neurodiversity movement wants to remove the social and personal stigma of having conditions.

It often is framed as a human rights or social justice issue, where the mentally ill should be considered whole people with normal human rights and considerations.  They often consider it important for a mentally impaired child to grow up with self-confidence and feelings of self-worth, rather than being cataloged as damaged or not whole humans.

No matter who or what they are or what condition they have or don’t have, I often say the best thing you can do for a child is teach them self-confidence 

An important aspect of the neurodiversity movement is about the treatment of the mentally ill, and how to organize schools, business and social organizations to cater to their needs and help them flourish.

Many feel treatment of many conditions should not be about eradicating the condition or disease– which may be impossible anyway–, but a look for more humane, accommodating ways.  Working to alleviate bad symptoms, while preserving and embracing the different way of thinking.  They believe standardized and intelligence testing should take into context the different ways people think and express themselves.

Rather than trying to persecute and fix conditions, if students and employees with conditions are treated as different or unique people with potential great skills it is better for learning and the world, makes for better people and more productive companies, schools and societies.  

As we all know, normal people have different ways of learning and working, and making everyone work and learn the same exact way is problematic for everyone.

I have worked with museums, and know that museums intentionally design exhibits and educational problems to cater to people of different ways of learning, people with different abilities and disabilities, and people with different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.  They know that people learn and experience in different ways, and museums want to be inclusive.


Much of what I have said so far may seem reasonable to you and you may wonder where the controversy is.  However, there are various controversies involving at times dichotomous ways of looking at the issue

The key controversy is about the very idea and debate of whether conditions should be treated pathologically as illnesses or mental deficits, or, instead, natural and fine ways of thinking.  People disagree about this, often strongly. You likely have your own opinions about this.

Some believe that autism, for one example, is genuine mental illness and a deficiency and should be treated as such.  These people search for cures, hoping eradicated it as one would want to eradicate cancer. In extreme cases, kids with the condition are depicted as kidnapped and unwhole human beings.

Many neurodiversity advocates say the autistic and are not mentally ill and there is nothing to cure, Many go as far as to say there should be no research into a cure and chastise parents of autistic children who search for a cure.  They believe that curing a mental illness is equivalent to eugenics. Some advocates and autistics in this camp can be zealous and treat people who believe differently derogatory.

Especially when zealous about their beliefs, these two come into conflict. However, for the majority of people interested in this topic, there is much common ground.

Whether they label autism a disease or mental illness or strongly disagree with that labeling, many agree that the autistic should be treated well, be accommodated, given education and work situations that cater to their disabilities and help them thrive.  

Most people also say there is no one size fits all theory or rules. The mentally ill are individuals and cases different from person to person.

There are high functioning autistic people, people who do well in school, hold fulfilling jobs and have satisfying social lives.  However, there are autistic people who have severe issues, including the inability to communicate, function normally and have great social troubles that cause them unhappiness. Most from both camps believe in addressing and fixing many of these issues.  A neurodiversity advocate would have to be a true zealot to say those issues shouldn’t be addressed and medical fixes research.


A key area to understanding the neurodiversity issues, and a source of much philosophical and political conflict, is about the human brain, functioning and society. 

Despite common sentiment, the human brain has evolved not to identify truths and facts, but to function and survive as a species. Humans have evolved as a species to think in a particular and convoluted way in order to function and survive as a species in their particular physical and social environment. 

Part of this functioning and species survival is about social groups and working as groups,  relationships and societies. Humans are social animals, and their brains have evolved to think and act in a social environment.  

People who think abnormally often have issues with fitting into society and functioning.  This can range from ‘being weird’ and being isolated to people who have serious functional issues, unable to hold a job or stay in school to being unable to communicate and even function in their day to day lives.

Famous mentally ill and neurodiverse people often have functional and social issues. 

Physics Nobel Prize winner and autistic Paul Dirac required his wife to take care of the details of his daily life so he could not focus on his work.  He was one of the great scientific and mathematical intellects of his era– widely acknowledged as an academic genius– but needed assistance to live his life. He was well known for his social and communication deficits and eccentricities.


Physics Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac

Many unique thinkers and artists– Van Gogh to Jean Genet — were outsiders to society.  Van Gogh was unable to fit in with society and art communities and committed suicide. The great French novelist and playwright Jean Genet had longtime troubles with the society, including being imprisoned and living a “deviant” life as defined by society.

This also points out that societies and cultural norms are about functioning as a social group, about functioning and not about many other things such as knowledge and new information.  And, in fact, the powers that be are often scared of and suppress new knowledge and information that might cause troubles with the social norms.  

Scientists with new ideas, inventors and original artists almost by definition are people who think outside the social norms and traditions.  Great scientists, thinkers and artists have long gotten into conflict with society. From Galileo to Socrates to Caravaggio. 

A revolutionary religious painter lauded during his lifetime, Caravaggio was mentally troubled and called “extremely crazy” even by his close friend. He had a long list of arrests, disputes and physical fights, killed a man in a barroom brawl, and spent his last years on the run from the law, continuing to paint his famously visceral paintings all along the way. 


Caravaggio’s ‘The Arrest of Jesus’ (1602)

In fact, some visionary artists, such as Marquis de Sade, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Paul Gauguin, have aspects that lay outside of today’s accepted social norms and rules.

So functioning, and fitting in with society, is a constant issue, a  real issue and one to be considered. These issues here are a big source of conflict in debates. It can often be political, and how one views the individual versus the society.  The function of society versus the rights of the individual.


Neurodiversity is a theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illness as natural and fine ways of thinking.  And, in fact, different ways of thinking– all ways of thinking– involve both positives and negatives, deficits and unique skills.  

 How to consider and define mental illnesses and disorders, what language to use to describe conditions, how to treat conditions, how to organize society, workplaces and educations systems. make up an ongoing debate and will be for a long time. Your opinion and input are welcome.

It is also important to note that, as with any demographic, there is a wide variety of opinions, views and philosophies amongst the mentally ill and neurodiverse  There is no single voice. Part of respecting and understanding any demographic is to know and appreciate that there is a wide variety of views, opinions, political persuasions and philosophies.  

A saying about the autistic people is, “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.”

 And, whatever one’s stance on the topic, part of the neurodiversity movement is understanding and welcoming that people have different ways of thinking, and thus different ideas, viewpoints and perspectives– which I think most of us agree is a good thing.


Mysticism has long been an attempt to expand the mind and understanding beyond normal boundaries, and mystical experiences were the genesis of religion. Mystical experiences are neurological events where parts of the brain are suppressed in order to more fully utilize other parts. The metaphysical meaning of these experiences has long been debated by theologians, philosophers and scientists.

This is a chapter reprinted from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.  



Mystical experiences are altered states of consciousness that seem to the person in the state to take him beyond the normal consciousness and give him a union or experience with a transcendent reality. Mysticism is the area of trying to reach mystical states. 

All religions have their mystical traditions or subdivisions. These include the Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufis and Christian mystics. Some religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and some aboriginal religions, can be considered essentially, or largely, mystical. 

Though commonly associated with religion, mystical experiences involve genuine neurological events that are also experienced by non-religious believers, including agnostics and atheists. It is that the experiences are often interpreted by the experiencer as being transcendental reality that it is associated with religion. Mystical experiences are the genesis of religions.

Mystical experiences have been experienced throughout human history, and many people today have them, whether in religious or secular life. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 49% of respondents said that they had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” Those who said they experienced them included the young and old, religious and non-religious. (Reference: ‘Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences’ religiousnaturalism.orgr).

During mystical experiences, people feel connected to a transcendent reality and often describe gaining profound knowledge and insights. The experiences involve changes in perception or sense of time, space and reality. Time seems to slow or cease to exist, the sense of self and ego dissolves, and the person feel one with the universe. 

According to Andrew Newberg MD, professor of medicine and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the experiencers perceive the physical world in a much more vivid and intense way, as if their senses are heightened ( reference: 

The following is famed primatologist Jane Goodall description of her mystical experience:

“Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness…It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself…Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. It was almost overpowering.” (reference:

In his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Harvard University philosopher and psychologist William James said that the experiences are beyond words. They cannot be fully explained or communicated to others, just experienced. James was only interested in these experiences, and not the human-made dogmas and structures religions used to explain them.

German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto similarly said that the mystical experience is a-rational, meaning it is a direct experience and not to be explained with reason. (Reference: Mystical Experience/ Rudolf Otto )


The following is an audio discussion about the nature of the mystical experience from British philosopher Alan Watts : Alan Watts – The mystical experience

The following is an interview with people who have had mystical experiences: “Enlightened Beings Share Their Awakening, Mystical Experiences”



Mystical experiences can happen spontaneously and without intention for both the religious and secular. However, there have also been intentional efforts to produce them, including via religious and secular practices. 

Religious mystical ceremonies often involve meditation, music, chants, shamanic drumming, dance or such to achieve a trance-like state. 

For believers, these ceremonies are typically coupled with a way of life, including good living, morality, discipline, freeing oneself from lust and greed and anger, having feelings and actions of kindness and charity. Meditations, reciting mantras, focusing the mind on the higher power are supposed to be a part of daily life. For Jews, the daily life, every event, is supposed to be treated as holy. For many aboriginal tribes, living in harmony and reverence with nature, which they consider holy, is a part of their life. Having a practiced, undistracted, meditative mindset is important to achieving mystical experiences, even for the non-religious. For example, serious non-religious people meditate daily, often multiple times daily, while also being mindful throughout their day.

The following are just a few examples of religious mystical practices and ceremonies.

The Mevlevi Sema ceremony is a Muslim Sufi ceremony with music, singing, dancing, poetry and other rituals. The participants try to purify the soul and connect with Allah. They can enter different physical and mental states, in particular during the dancing. 

A famous Mevlevi dance involves the Whirling Dervishes, who whirl to get into a mystical state.


Whirling Dervishes

Video: Whirling Dervishes dancing

Video: Whirling Explanation by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani

Hindu Yoga involves mental, physical and spiritual practices. Coupled with a proper lifestyle, they are designed to get the person to the mystical state of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the religion.

There are four methods of Yoga, each designed for different personalities and ways of learning. Hinduism is psychologically modern in that it appreciates that people learn and experience things differently.

Catholic mystical prayer is meditative prayer that Catholics say they use to expand the mind and commune with God:

“Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase My God and my all’ as his theme of contemplation for a whole night. . . . In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.” — ‘The Art of Contemplative & Mystical Prayer’ by Father Romano Guardini ( )

The Jewish Kabbalah is a mystical sect of Judaism that does many things to try to personally/experientially get closer to God. Judaism teaches the contradiction that God is both beyond humans, yet humans can have a connection to Him via mystical experience.

Video: Sacred Practice: Kabbalah Practice with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

The Sun Dance is a ceremony of some American Indian tribes of the United States and Canada, primarily the Plains tribes. The ceremonies include ancient songs, prayers, drumming and dances, fasting and the ceremonial piercing of the skin during a trial of endurance.


Lakota Sun Dance

Video: The Sundance Ceremony 

Taoism is a mystical religion that uses mystical practices, such as Tai Chi, to connect to the perceived flow of the universe. Taoists believe that physical movement, even in how one walks across the room, is important to becoming connected with ‘the way’ of the universe.

Interfaith religions, and many other religious leaders and theologians acknowledge that there are many different personal paths to achieve mystical experiences and enlightenment, based on the person’s personality, background, language and culture. Though one must focus in the specific method, whether it is secular meditation or Christian prayer. The human requires focus, and one cannot obtain enlightenment through proverbial multitasking.

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that their path is wrong”– Hindu proverb


Meditation is commonly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, but is used in all religions and also by the non-religious. Mediation works to calm the conscious mind, to remove the daily conscious chatter and idle thoughts that enter human minds. 

The meditator uses various possible methods to clear quiet. One is to focus on a single thing– a mantra, one’s breath. A common Hindu meditation is to not focus on anything but remove external thoughts as they enter. With the mind quieted, and the conscious thoughts removed, there can be a mental awakening. Buddha and Mohammed achieved enlightenment after lengthy periods of medication. 

“Emptiness meditation — to sit quietly and empty oneself of all mental images (thoughts, feelings, and so on), to ‘forget about everything’, in order to experience inner quiet and emptiness. In this state, vital force and “spirit” is collected and replenished.”– Taoist meditation (

All religious mystical practices involve meditation in some form or other. It can involve the meditative practice of focusing on a mantra, focused scripture reading, drumming, ceremonies, music, art, dance, even walking or eating. The counting of the Catholic rosaries is a meditative task. Any singular repeated or focused task, even playing chess or knitting, can be meditiative if it involves singular focus and removal of other thoughts.

Nearly all sacred religious scripture alludes to meditation:

“Commune with your heart upon your bed, and be silent”– Hebrew Bible

“Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes”– Buddhism, Dhammapada 282

“He is revealed only to those who keep their minds one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, From the world of words to the world of thoughts, Then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.” — The Upanishads (Hinduism)


Mystical experiences happen not only in religious settings, but secular. Many atheists and agnostics have such experiences when meditating, focusing on work, study, when in nature, and experiencing art, athletics, fasting. Some say the runner’s high, or the athlete being in the zone is a form of mystical state.

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature . If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”–Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Feynman on the spiritual experience of doing math

“A chess player (said) that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’ Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to affect something of grace and beauty.’”– Psychologist Steve Taylor, Spirituality: The Hidden Side of Sports (



“Bach is Bach, as God is God” — Hector Berlioz


The Fox Hunt’ (1893) by Winslow Homer

Art is a common source and device to achieve mystical experiences. 

“It is inevitable that inspired art and illumined writing should arouse the beginning of mystical feelings in the hearts of those prepared and sensitive enough to appreciate mysticism. But even in hearts not so ready, the dim echoes of such feelings are often aroused. This is particularly true of music. If he can lay himself open to the power of beauty in art or nature, letting it get deep inside him, he may receive an intuition or attain an experience as mystical as the meditator’s.”– Paul Bruton, British theosophist and spiritualist, ‘Art Experience and Mysticism’, Notebooks of Paul Brunton (paul

The perception of art is dealt within chapters 23 and 28-34 of Understanding Human Minds in their Limits

By definition, art produces a sublime experience that is more than the sum of its parts. What is telling is that art produces the experience through fiction, artificial devices and the subjectivity of the audience. It expresses things that cannot be directly expressed in reality and literalness. This is a commentary on the human mind and understanding.

“Art is a lie that takes us closer to the truth”– Picasso

University College London neurobiology professor Semir Zeki said that, though they didn’t realize it, great artists were neuroscientists in that they used angles, symbols, colors and other qualities to influence the audience’s minds. 


Composition VI (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. One of the first non-representational abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky was an academic who carefully studied and theorized how colors, shapes and other qualities resonated with the viewer. He was also a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who aspired to make his paintings a spiritual experience for both himself and the audience.

It is also telling that the artistic experience is subjective to the person. People may get similar sublime experiences, but through different artworks. As the old saying goes, art is in the eye of the beholder. This is a commentary on other religious practices that are psychologically interpreted by the individual.


Certain drugs have been shown to lead to mystical states. These include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote and marijuana. Peyote is used in some American Indian ceremonies, and marijuana is sometimes used by Hindus and Rastafarians. 

These drugs work by suppressing the parts of the brain that create geographic and time categories and labels, and allow the intuitive, emotional perception of sensory information that is the mystical experience.

Video: Harvard psychologist and Hindu spiritual teacher Ram Dass on drugs and mysticism

Video: University of Toronto Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson on Mystical Experiences through Psychedelics

Article: Harvard Psychiatrist and Minister Walter Pahke on drugs and mysticism

Some mental conditions have been associated with mystical experiences. These include some forms of epileptic seizures, schizophrenia and bipolarism. 

Video: Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience after having a stroke

“Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and ‘enhanced self-awareness.’ They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients.” — Markus Gschwind and Fabienne Picard, Neurology Department at the University Hospital of Geneva (

Link to Article on psychiatric medicine and spiritual states by psychologist Lynn Vanderpot 

 Link to Paper on Schizophrenia and mysticism by Joseph Parmas and Gram Henrickson of the University of Copenhagen (Mysticism and schizophrenia: A phenomenological exploration of the structure of consciousness in the schizophrenia spectrum disorders)

Link to Article on epilepsy and mystical experiences by University of South Carolina-Aiken philosophy professor D. B. Dillard-Wright 



While there is no debate that they involve genuine neurological experiences, there is an ongoing and ultimately unanswerable debate over what are the musical experiences and what if any metaphysical/spiritual meaning they have: if they are authentic views of transcendent reality, merely delusory/hallucinatory states of the mind, or some combination.



Many religious believers believe that mystical states are authentic, direct looks into a transcendent reality and even God. They believe either that these states and knowledge are given to them by God, or the altered state involves a cleared mind that allows them to see truth.

“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.”– Oregon State University Professor of Religion Marcus Borg (

“The same dynamic takes place when God reveals Godself to women and men. At certain times in our lives, God’s gracious presence becomes manifest in our lives as God communicates God subjectivity through subjectivity. Through concrete events in our lives, or particular words– very ordinary things– God becomes present and palpable to us in God’s incomprehensible, inexpressible, mysterious reality. This is the pattern of divine revelations: the finite reveals the infinite, the objective reveals the subjective, what is ordinary reveals what is Mystery.”– Stephen B. Bevans. Jesuit Priest and Professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, in An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Orbis Books).

In non-theistic religions- such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and some traditional aboriginal religions– there is no god but an enlightenment or higher state of awareness. These can be considered constant mystical states. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad were said to be enlightened individuals, or people living in mystical states. 

In the interview, ‘‘Can We Trust Religious Experiences?” (link ) Christian professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, William Lane Craig, said that, even using normal logic, the religious mystical experiences could be argued to be authentic. His argument is that there are many unprovable things that humans all accept as true, due to experience and innate thought. These include that the external world humans perceive is real, that the past was real, that humans aren’t computers run by a mad scientist, that they weren’t born five minutes ago with an implanted false memory of the past. He said human’s shared beliefs about these things are unprovable, yet humans accept them as self evidently true. He said people come to these conclusions using what is widely considered to be good reason and logic. He said that, along these rational lines, someone’s perceived personal experience connecting with God, coupled with that many people have these shared experiences, can just as reasonably be considered real. These mystical experiences with God probably being called real is as reasonable as the average person probably saying the external world he perceives as being real. 

Of course, it could be argued that neither perception was correct, and both involve delusion and biased answers to some degree. Both views could be delusory, and all human perception and judgment involves delusion and subjectivity.



Skeptics, including some scientists, say that mystical experiences are strictly in the mind and are on the order of delusions or hallucinations. That drugs and mental illnesses can lead to them have is seen to them as proof of this. Many of these people accept the humanistic, rational point of view of the world, and accept the normal human perception of the world as accurate. Many of these people use science as arbiter, and don’t buy anything that hasn’t been, or the can’t be, proven by science. 

Article: “Turns out near-death experiences are psychedelic, not religious” 



These people say that the experiences are the result of changes to the brain, but that the experiences are not hallucinations or psychoses, but different than normal sensory experiences. 

Neuroscience studies of the brain support this contention that mystical experiences are different experiences of sensory information. 

During mystical experiences, the parts of the brain that are associated with filtering and translating sensory information, categorization, language, creating ideas of self, separation of self from other, perception and categorizing of time and space are reduced. The person receives the sensory information unfiltered and untranslated (or at least to a much lesser degree) by these parts of the brain. Thus, the sense of self seems to dissolve, normal categorizations and perceptions of time and space disappear, and there is a rush of sensory information. 

Additionally, there is often a rush of dopamine that makes the person feel bliss. Thus, people not only get a different rush of sensory information, but an associated sense of beauty, happiness and love. Aesthetics and emotions are an integral part of humans accepting facts and ideas. (“To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.”– Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology).

“The frontal lobes are the most evolved areas of the human brain, and help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. When the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a door of perception can open, increasing the chances of mystical experiences.”– Jordan Grafman, Professor and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Medical School ( reference:

“When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe, which is a structure slightly above and behind our ears] or our prefrontal cortex [the section of the frontal cortex that lies at the very front of the brain] increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change. These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to. . . . At the same time, midbrain dopaminergic pathways — key circuits in the brain that create and release the neurotransmitter dopamine — are activated to release dopamine in networks of the forebrain,” — James Giordano. Professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center 

“Andrew Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space. A meditator may experience a sense of oneness with all living things or unity because the reduced activity blurs the perceived lines between the meditator and other objects . . . When the parietal lobes are damaged, patients have distorted beliefs about their own bodies and are sometimes confused about their spatial orientation to outside objects. In an example from Why We Believe What We Believe, patients think one of their own legs is not theirs, and have been found trying to throw this other leg out of their bed. In his new book, Newberg cites a study led by Dr. Brick Johnstone that found that damage to the right parietal lobe caused patients’ self-transcendent experiences to increase.” ( Reference: )

“This suggests that these spots may be linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, and a suppression of these functions, which typically help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences, appears to open up a ‘door of perception’, exposing people to more mystical experiences.” Dr. Irene Cristofori from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and French National Centre for Scientific Research ( reference )

The psychedelic drugs can do this. American Indians practitioners say that the peyote is not the source of the vision or mystical knowledge, but used to cleanse the mind for them to have the experience.

“Sometimes we ask the peyote to help us cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being, And we believe that’s what peyote does, too. That’s why we call it a sacrament, a sacred herb.” — Navajo High Priest Fred Harvey ( reference: npr.og )

“The Peyote Sacrament and Its Way is part of the Great Mystery. Its focused agenda is for the maturing of the soul. Peyote unique abilities can cut through any resistance, whispering to the inquisitive heart a fundamental question at the core of every soul’s experience, “What are we? . . . . Indigenous people of North and South America have a long, rich tradition of experiencing themselves as part of all that we see. There is no separation between our surroundings and us. Intelligence is experienced to be in and through all things…birds, bees, rocks, trees, plants and water…the list includes all of Creation.”– Kevin ‘He Who Has Know Name’ Towt, President of Oklevueha Native American Church of Orderville and Toquerville (references:

In his book Waking From Sleep (Penguin Random House, 2010) Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor writes that schizophrenics have unfiltered sensory information– heightened senses, more information–, but without the normal conscious cognitive functions that organize it. In the book, a woman with schizophrenia said that schizophrenia is great for painting and writing poetry, but she can’t drive a car because she notices all the details in and to the side of the road (the crack in the road, a leaf, etc).



This all points to that the standard human perceptions of time, space, categories, labels, linguistic explanations, rationality are artificial constructs of their mind. The mystical experiences are unfiltered, or less filtered by these. There is no separation of things, language and categories and labels don’t apply. Mysticism is a method to try and free one of these artificial constructs of the normal mind.

The conscious structures, arbitrariness and labels are required for function and survival of the species, but should not be confused for reality or objective truth. In fact, function requires false beliefs, arbitrary rules and distorting information (See chapter 18). This is is only in part because the human mind needs attention to function and function requires rules and focus, even if delusory or arbitrary. So the conscious mind is in part designed to fool and lie and hide facts from the mind and make artificial rules and constructs. And mystical experiences remove or suppress these, and people who have had mystical experiences suddenly see the falseness of these traditional perceptions.

In Awakening from Sleep, Steve Taylor writes that mystical experiences contradict ordinary consciousness in three ways:

“As we see, the experiences tell us that our normal view is false. This strong ego structure has given us some massive benefits, such as greater powers of abstract thought (when we analyse, deliberate and plan) and greater conceptual knowledge (e.g., knowledge of the laws of nature, of the structure of matter and of the universe self. It has also given us more personal autonomy, leading to more control over our life. But in a sense the ego has become overdeveloped. Its boundaries have become too strong and its self-reflective ability has muted into the chaotic thought-chatter that runs through our mind whenever our attention isn’t occupied.“

Many ancient mystical religions, such as Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism, discuss the cleansing of the mind, ridding oneself of normal mind chatter and categorization and labels in order to perceive reality. Buddhist meditation attempts to move beyond symbolic human language. This was before science learned what was going on in the mind. 

American religious philosopher Huston Smith said that humans are divine within, as there is divinity without, but that they can be like a dirty lantern with caked on soil that masks the light. He said it is an endless quest to keep the surface of the lantern clean. (Reference: Huston Smith: Psychology of Religious Experience )

University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg says that human epiphanies, the small ‘Aha!’ moments, are moments of mystical clarity. The person is suddenly seeing things from a different picture, seeing the big picture, and things fall into place in the mind.



Even if the mystical experiences of people are very similar, the individual interpretations and explanations are influenced by the individual’s background, culture and beliefs. 

In his book Religious Experiences (University of California Press, 1985), Columbia University philosophy of religion professor Wayne Proudfoot writes that mystical experiences are explained in a religious framework, and that the framework is unconscious. A Christian may say she saw the Christian God, a Muslim Allah, and an atheist a secular vision.

In his book Mysticism and Philosophy, Princeton University philosopher Walter Terence Stace says that mysticism is perception not interpretation, and that only after the mystical experience is the interpretation made. 

Psychologist Carl Jung discussed how much of human’s cognitive ordering, how they feel and react to a situation is, is evolutionarily ingrained in us. He said that the mythical archetypal visions of hero, tree of life, mother, birth, death, wise old man, are ingrained in their minds, shared by most humans, and thus theoretically appear in mystical visions across many cultures. 

With his theory of Pluralism, influential religious philosopher and Presbyterian Minister John Hick believed that if different religions have genuine views into transcendent reality (and he believed that they have), these views are filtered through each religion’s/people’s culture, time and place in history, political happenings, language, sentiments and artistic traditions. 

“In the late 1960s, Hick had (a) set of experiences that dramatically affected his life and work. While working on civil rights issues in Birmingham, he found himself working and worshiping alongside people of other faiths. During this time he began to believe that sincere adherents of other faiths experience the Transcendent just as Christians do, though with variances due to cultural, historical, and doctrinal factors. These experiences led him to develop his pluralistic hypothesis, which, relying heavily on Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction, states that adherents of the major religious faiths experience the ineffable Real through their varying culturally shaped lenses. ” — David Cramer, Religious Studies Dept., Baylor University (reference) 

Hick knew how human minds work, and that the broader reality and universe are beyond human conception and senses and had to be translated for humans to grasp. The translation is via language, culture, aesthetic norms, sentiments and social standards. The sacred texts are composed by people for people and their understanding and learning, written in human language and cultural sensibilities. Jesus and Buddha used instructional parables humans could understand and relate to. Hindu texts and art uses symbols and deities to represent higher reality. Organized religions and their scriptures are human products and artifacts, and are inherently human-centric with all the associate issues that come with human-centrism and human methods of sensing and thinking.

And, as is apt to happen, some will interpret the particular path they took to achieve the mystical state (ceremony, religion, artwork, other) to be the ‘correct’ if not ‘only true’ path to enlightenment. It is like people who try to ‘objectively’ identify the best art, when the artistic experience is personally subjective.



Even though these experiences point to human’s normal views of realism being artificial and arbitrary constructs, that does not mean the mystical experiences are ‘truth’ or ‘reality’– though many claim they are. 

The experiences are experiences. They may be less formed by the normal artificial cognitive constructs of the mind, but they are still formed by the limits of human senses, their biology. They are still a limited sensory view. There is no way to know this heightened sensory experience is ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ 

In the beginning and in the end, they are experiences. Trying to interpret them, assign meaning, translate them into language, communicate what they are to others, are at odds of what the are. It is fine to have an opinion about what is this experience– but realize that it is just that, an opinion. Humans want explanations for events, but not only cannot that be done here, the rational or intuitive translation itself is opposed to the experiential nature. 

It is interesting to note that theologians say that God or higher reality is both beyond human comprehension and not. An oxymoron. They discuss how God and transcendent reality is beyond human language, logic, conception and human constructs, but that one can have a personal relationship or experience with it (mysticism). They also talk how God or transcendental reality cannot be understood intellectually but can be through the personal mystical experience. They say the mystical experience is a matter of being viscerally/experientially aware of it. They see the mystical experiences as truth, which is debatable, but are sharply aware of the dual nature of the mind and thinking. Look at the competing quotes from the Koran:

“No vision can grasp Him. He is above all comprehension.”– Quran

“Allah as close to a man as the vein in his neck.”– Quran

Mystical experiences are good as they offer a different mental viewpoint that demonstrates that the normal human view is arbitrary and false, and that there are different ways to look at things. This itself is mind expanding. However, in the end they are just experiences and there is no proof or real reason to think of them as ‘true.’ 



Whether or not they are truthful looks at reality, the mystical events can change people’s lives and help their lives. Even if they are not insights into objective truth, they can give people new perspectives on things, new perspectives on their lives. They can make one reflect on the artifice of one’s life and society, put things into different perspective. 

“Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment. They can also help us ‘on the way out’; we exit them ‘transformed,”meaning that the insights into our personal life or our very sense of being are deeper and sharper after them.” — Andrew Newberg MD, University of Pennsylvania. 

One should also not merely try to expand one’s mind through the rare mystical experience, but through daily work. This includes meditation or helpful spiritual practices, and paying attention to the world. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ may not induce a mystical state, but it is a daily practice that opens the mind and keeps things in perspective. 

“There are two mistakes you can make. One is that you’re too afraid of them, so you don’t allow them at all in your life, you’re terrified of letting go of control. The other mistake is that you’re really attached to them, so you’re constantly searching for a high. It’s about finding a place for these experiences in your life.”– Jules Evans, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Human Emotions


Mystical experiences are altered from normal states of consciousness where it seems to the experiencer that one has an expansive view or experience of the universe. The normal perception of time, categorization and space dissolve, and the senses seem more heightened. People often think they receive great insight and sublime knowledge.

Mystical experiences can happen unintentionally, and happen to both the religious and non-religious. There are many ceremonial and other methods to try to achieve them. These include religious art, music, meditation, drugs. Meditation, or meditative states, is a common strain.

Mystical experiences involve genuine neurological changes in the brain. During the experiences, the normal cognitive filters are lowered that allowed a heightened, relatively unfiltered experience of sensory information. This is often coupled with a dopamine rush that gives a good feeling and association.

There are debates about the authenticity and what the experiences mean. True believers believe them a genuine look into reality, transcends reality and even God. Skeptics say they are are just delusions on the order of hallucinations. Those in between say they are genuine sensory experiences when the filters are removed, but assign no special or ‘higher’ meaning to them.

These experiences show that the normal human concepts of labels, categories, self and time are artificial constructs of the mind. 

To the human, the mystical experiences are just sensory experiences. They cannot be explained or interpreted accurately– because that is at odds with the sensory experience. The ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ cannot be known. Plus, the sensory information is still filtered and formed by human sensory capabilities and biological methods.

These experiences can expand the mind, by giving new experiences, by showing the shallowness of human normal thought and ways of thinking. However, they are still channeled by the mind and senses and are unverifiable.



Article: “How does neuroscience explain spiritual experiences”

Stephen Hawking’s Views on Mysticism and Science

Article: “Brain origins of mysticism found”

Article on runner’s high

Article: “Neurotheology: Where religion and science collide”

Article: Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences?



  • Have you had a mystical experience? If so, explain it. How did it/does it affect you?
  • What are your opinions about mystical experiences? What is your opinion about their authenticity? Are there any points in this chapter with which you disagree?
  • Do you think mystical experiences are important? Is honing them important for expanding the mind?
  • How do you think mystical experiences relate to the topic of this book? Do they serve to expand the mind? If so, how?
  • Do you believe in a transcendent reality beyond humans?


While identifying facts and making accurate perceptions are important parts of the human function and survival, the human mind is not entirely about this or perhaps even mostly about this.

To survive and function, the human must do other things such as act and guess in ambiguous and mysterious situations. Many of these functions are not about identifying facts and assessing truth, but making speedy and practical decisions. In fact, humans are in part hard wired to make speedy intuitive decisions in the face of lack of knowledge.

As an example I use way too often, avoiding instant danger is often about how to react to the unknown and unknowable. If a mysterious large shape is moving quickly at you, taking the time to accurately identify the shape (‘gathering the facts’) is the opposite of what you need to do. Get out of the way right now, then worry about identification later. If it turns out to be nothing harmful, say just a shadow, no big deal other than you might look a bit foolish. If it turns out to be a boulder or falling board, you’ve saved yourself from harm or worse. And this is the natural and automatic subconscious self-preservation instinct of humans.

This is just one example of how truth finding is not always the priority of the mind and in fact can get inhibit function. Survival is commonly said to be about erring on the side of safety– as it takes only one time being hit by a speeding car or falling off a cliff to be dead. The key word there being ‘erring.’ In this case, the mind is designed to err.

The human mind has limited capacity and capabilities, and human function can be inhibited by too much information including facts and truths (see How Humans Use False Information and Made Up Beliefs to Produce Personal Achievement). If your task is to move across a room, trying to identify and learn the history and “truth” of everything and everyone in the would lead to you dying of old age before you reached the other side. Humans must actually block out and distort information in order to function. In order to read a complicated passage or do math, people cover their ears to block out noise or tell others around them to quit talking.

And don’t forget that humans are social animals and functioning, thriving and surviving involves interaction with people and other animals that are full of cognitive biases, delusions, limited information and viewpoints, emotions, selfish motives, social politics and order, subjective tastes and irrational drives. Humans survived and thrived as a species because they work as social groups.

Early economists made the fatal mistake of basing their models on the assumption that humans act entirely rationally when making economic decisions. Later economists realized the models had to be thrown out, because they learned that humans do not act entirely rationally when purchasing, selling, investing, valuating and saving.

In short, the commonly voiced sentiment that the human is by nature a truth seeker, and that is its key function, is highly debatable.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI


Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists to make completely abstract paintings.  His 1913 oil painting on canvas Composition VI is an example of his non-representational works.  

Kandinsky is another step in the progression from the previous artists Constable, Renoir and Boccioni.  Constable, Renoir and Boccioni used recognizable figures and scenes, but used new and often abstract techniques to express perception, feelings and ideas.  Kandinsky took it to the next level, dropping recognizable things and trying to express his ideas and feelings entirely through pure colors, shapes, lines, marks and composition. Not only did he want to express his ideas in non-representational art, he felt that was the only way to do it.  

Kandinsky was a devout Orthodox Russian and felt colors and other qualities not only affected the emotions and aesthetic experience but resonated with the soul.  He aspired to have a communion between art, artist and audience, and the act of painting was an emotional and spiritual experience for him.

Europe was in a time of turmoil, of industrial, artistic and philosophical change, and the upcoming World War I.  This affected many artists, including Boccioni, who saw the world as changing and saw the world in a new light.  They tried to express and address the changes in new aesthetic languages.  The old languages were outmoded, artifacts of a world that no longer existed.  A new world needed new languages.  Many artists were as much philosophers and theorists as artists.  As a deeply religious person who saw things differently that the average person, Kandinsky felt he was a prophet bringing people to a new art, language and era. He felt that today’s avant garde understood by few was tomorrow’s common knowledge, and he was a leader bringing a new knowledge and rebirth out of the day’s turmoil.

In previous painting essays I have discussed how neurobiologists believe humans naturally and neurologically react to basic sensory qualities, including colors, symmetry (or lack thereof), shapes, angles, etc., and this is a major part of our aesthetic and artistic experience, along with how we perceive the natural world.  These are the things that Kandinsky worked in.  He was trying to communicate entirely this way, using what he felt were natural inborn reactions to basic qualities,  He wanted to make an art that communicated beyond culture and historical perspectives.  

While Kandinsky was concerned with resonating on an emotional, aesthetic level, he was a theorist and academic and his works involved much academic study, research and planning.  He was a law professor before turning to art, taught art design courses and was a theorist who wrote extensively on how colors, shapes etc created meaning.  He experimented with and tested how colors and other basic qualities resonated with him and, he hoped, resonated with others (Though this shows how his theories and color rules were in part subjective to him.  Whether or not they apply to everyone’s mind and eyes is debatable.).  Composition VI involved six months planning.  It also was finished with him repeating a mantra (‘flood’) to get over a mental block and free his subconscious.  This illustrates how his work was both academic and intuitive.

He compared visual art to music and wanted his art to be like music.  He said music is abstract yet evokes specific ideas and emotions.  And this is true.  Combinations of notes and instruments can communicate ideas such as speed, physical landscape, danger, drama, evil, happiness, joy.  Music can be sad and it can be funny.  And much of this reaction to sounds in inborn in humans. Our reactions to thunder and songbirds, loud low notes and soft high ones are natural.  This is what Kandinsky was trying to achieve through colors, shapes and visual composition.

Kandinsky had synesthesia, where people see or strongly associate colors with musical notes, tastes, other.  He saw colors when he heard notes and heard notes when he painted color.  In fact he associated specific colors with specific notes.  This clearly was an influence on his art and theories, and other artists have had synesthesia including Duke Elliott, Vladimir Nabokov and Frank List.   

Beyond just emotions, he was trying to express complex ideas and stories. Composition VI is about the apocalypse, a giant flood and rebirth– depicted all at once! As with Boccioni, he was trying to show many, often conflicting and juxtaposing ideas and qualities in one work.  The apocalypse and rebirth are conflicting– one is about turmoil, violence and terror, while the other is about peace and happiness.  His work is like trying to depict the “calm before the storm,” but with the calm and storm happening at the same time.  In writing about Composition VI, Kandinsky said how there were many different feelings, conflicting and juxtaposing emotions from the different colors and shapes.  It is telling a complex story with many parts and details.

This painting was a challenge for me– in part because it is so complex, busy and non-representational.  However, when I looked at his other paintings, I did get different reactions and feelings from them, and saw how colors and shapes evoke aesthetic feelings and aesthetic responses.  And Composition VI is supposed to be complex.  It is is supposed to take thought and examination.  Kandinsky even said the painting had three centers.  He also said the meaning and feelings one gets from it change as you look at the different parts and move closer to the painting.  This is comparable to Boccioni’s sculpture where its form changed as you walk around it.  

One way the work is harder to understand than Boccioni’s is there is no clearly recognizable representational anchor.  It is, after all, non representational.   Boccioni’s sculpture was complex and abstract, but it clearly was a running figure. Your reading and interpretations started from this anchor and easy to understand theme. Though once I read about Composition Vi being about the apocalypse, flood and rebirth, that was something from which I could start.  And in fact, once this theme is known, many visitors to a museum may enjoy discussing how it shows this and if it shows it well.  Boccioni is also better understood and appreciated when you know his philosophy and what he was trying to thematically express in his art

The painting certainly perplexed me at first.  But looking at his other paintings and watching a youtube video where his paintings were shown with Schoenberg music gave me a better handle.  I like some abstract art, especially music.  This includes Schoenberg, Gyorgi Ligeti and noise music (try listening to the drone metal band Sunn 0))).  It can greatly resonate with me.  The Kandinsky didn’t, but that’s all subjective and I do understand and appreciate what he was trying to do.  I also have bad color vision, which won’t help.

The painting is valued as an artwork and a new artistic movement.  Further Kandinsky studied and showed how we communicate and perceive things, including emotionally and aesthetically,  through basic qualities.  This helps teach us how all art works, including centuries old representational works.  Even representational works use qualities of color, angle, shape to express ideas and emotions.  And art involves reactions that are beyond the literal and conscious.  Kandinsky’s works and theories help us look at past art, but also how we look at the world and how artist can do things in their own works even when representational.

Though I didn’t entirely get into Kandinsky, some of his works remind me much of Hieronymous Bosch’s works, which I do like a lot.  Bosch’s great paintings on similar religious themes used identifiable if fantastical creatures, but were complex and busy stories like Composition VI and produce visceral, sublime reactions from the audience.  Bosch speaks to the subconscious. He had a way with composition and details that to me is Kandinsky-esque.  And, as mentioned, really all art communicates to us using these devices.  All art connects to the subconscious and communicates feelings and ideas that are beyond the conscious.  That is what is the art.

Umberto Boccioni’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’

.  boccioni_unique_forms_of_continuity_in_space_1913

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a famous large bronze sculpture by Italian futurist artist Umberto Boccioni.  Boccioni made the plaster sculpture in 1913, with the bronze examples seen in museums being cast from the plaster sculpture or from other bronze castings.  

The work is a part of the short lived but influential futurist movement. Originating in early twentieth century Italy, futurism was an artistic, philosophical and social movement that emphasised modernity, constant change and movement into the future, technology and inventions, speed, youth and violence.  It said it wished to destroy Italy’s old artistic and social past (Though I would contend it merly built on it).  It lauded such modern technology as cars, airplanes and the industrial city.  One futurist said the car was more beautiful than an ancient Greek statue.  The futurists glorified war and welcomed World War I as a way to cleanse society of its old ways.  It was nationalistic, aspiring to make Italy modern and victorious, bring it to a glorious future. It is telling that Boccioni and the movement died with World War I.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Along with issuing numerous manifestos, including by Boccioni, futurism wished to express its ideas in new, original artistic ways.  It encourage originality, rebellion against traditional styles and even good taste, and dismissed traditional art criticism.  It used many mediums, including painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, film and fashion. This not only showed that they wanted to dominate all aspects of society and life, but that their ideas couldn’t be captured by just one medium.  Boccioni’s works were in painting, literature (futurism manifestos) and sculpture, and he was the first to freely use different materials in his sculptures.

In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Boccioni wanted to express this philosophy, including of constant change, movement, speed and moving in the future.  

To the casual viewer, there may be mystery to and head-scratching about the abstract parts of the sculpture, as there is to much abstract art, but the theme of movement and speed are clear. The body and legs positions and the flames, wind or wing symbols on the back of the legs visually and symbolically represent speed and movement.  As a test, I showed the picture of the sculpture to my 81 year old dad with dementia and he said it looked like a running figure. Color and texture express ideas and evoke aesthetic responses, and the shiny bronze evokes to the average person modernity, invention and futuristic technology.   Some call it a superman.

This shows that Boccioni was not completely breaking from the past and past art as he supposedly aspired to, but was building on it.  He incorporated traditional representational forms, recognizable symbols and medium (bronze).   I would call his sculpture a response, or furthering, of traditional art, rather than a break.  Art, even rebellious art, requires shared language the audience can understand.  The sculpture bends and expands the language, but does not get rid of it.


Rodin’s The Walking Man

It has been said that the sculpture alludes to Rodin’s The Walking Man, which shows a more recognizable and traditional depiction of a man walking, though without head and arms.  Rodin focused on part of the person, breaking away from the academic tradition of showing a full figure.  He also produced an unidentified person, where traditional sculptures usually depicted specific and famous people.  Boccioni can be seen as an extension of Rodin’s work.  Michelangelo’s sculptures showed stationary known people in perfect detail, Rodin showed a walking anonymous and more impressionistic man and Boccioni showed a running, even more abstract figure.  The progression is clear.

Boccioni was familiar with and influenced by the impressionists.  His early paintings have an impressionistic look and even his later abstract paintings use bright impressionism colors.  The wings on the legs and the ‘blurry’ abstraction on Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a very impressionistic way to depict movement and change.  Interestingly, he dismissed impressionism, saying: “While the impressionists paint a picture to give one particular moment and subordinate the life of the picture to its resemblance to this moment, we synthesize every moment (time, place, form, color-tone) and thus paint the picture.”  I bet the impressionists would say they were evoking movement and thus time.  No doubt Boccioni’s rhetorical rejection of impressionism was in part because of their quaint, quiet, mundane life topics– something he definitely was rebelling against.

culpture is often a reaction to or commentary on previous works, so to understand a work you must know the history of sculpture.  So comparing Boccioni’s works to previous works, including impressionistic paintings, is important to understanding them.  Understanding the futurism philosophy is also essential.  Even a reaction or rebellion can only be understood by known what it was reacting to and rebellion against.  And rebellions often retain many of the qualities and methods of what they are rebelling against.  As I mentioned, Boccioni was both rebelling against impressionism and using impressionistic visual techniques.  

Beyond depicting movement, the sculpture intended to express other less tangible and more theoretical  futurism ideas, including the futurism idea of ‘’universal dynamism.’  Universal dynamism says that objects are not separate from each other and that an object is not separate from its surroundings.  A futurism manifesto said “The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places … The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.”   Boccioni wrote about his art “Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it.”  This explains much of the abstraction of the sculpture.  It is not about a constant, single figure, but a changing figure and it’s surroundings, all in one and one in all.  If the traditional viewer wants a single, unchanged, easily identifiable image, they miss the entire point and are exactly what the futurists were rebelling against.  It is not supposed to be one figure, have one identity. After all, it is titled ‘Forms’ not ‘Form.’  

People have commented that the sculpture changes significantly as you walk around it.  This represents the theme of constant change, in particular in relationship to movement and time.  As the viewer moves, both physically and in time, the work changes.


Boccioni and the futurists adopted techniques of the cubists, and Boccioni’s later paintings are clearly influenced by cubism. Cubism expressed things in new, radical ways.  It addressed the age old problem of depicting three dimensions in two dimensional space by showing objects from multiple angles at once.  It also used abstract techniques to show such things as movement and the passage of time.  For example, to depict movement and the passage of time a cubist painting might show a series of still images of a figure in different places.  Boccioni’s paintings and sculpture are similarly abstract and ‘different’ to casual eyes because they tried to show many things all at once.  It attempts to show different perspectives, including from physical and time changes, in one solid piece.

There are many different ways of depicting things such as movement and time in a still work of art, usually using symbols and mimicking natural cues recognized by the audience.  Literature describes it in letter symbols, demonstrating how humans use symbols to perceive things in their minds.  A human can ‘see’ a sunrise and ‘hear’ sounds in black letters on a white sheet of paper.  The Bayeux tapestry showed a series of figures and events along a long time line, which is similar to how cubists sometimes expressed movement and time.  A still painting or photo expresses movement by body and object position, cropping and effects such as blurriness and color changes.  Cartoons often use lines to express movement.  None of these show actual movement, but evoke it in the viewers’ minds.  Art perception is about imagination, and, in part, the audience looking at painting, sketch or snapshot just assume it is a snapshot in time.  There are countless other ways to depict and express movement, including by incorporating real movement: a mobile, play, the changing series of still images of motion picture film.


Wikipedia articles on Boccioni, futurism, the sculpture

Khan academy website

Tate museum website article on futurism


Swarm Intelligence

13512094_10206571386658943_4948230813354131650_nSwarm intelligence is where large groups of animals exhibit a group intelligence and capability much larger than any of the individual animals exhibit or are even aware of. Examples include small fish and birds that unconsciously and instinctually form large groups that protect themselves from predators (essentially forming one large animal), ant groups that gather food in long lines and termites that build giant, intricate homes. Each of the animals does a very simpleminded task in its own immediate surroundings (a fish in a school will swim a certain distance from surrounding fish) and is unaware of the groups’ overall structure and capability.

Humans exhibit swarm intelligence, such as in economics and mobs. Computer scientist study swarm intelligence to make crowded areas, such as airport terminals and commercial transportation routes, function more efficiently.

The topic of swarm intelligence begs the question of if there are swarm intelligences and group functions the human species are doing that they are not unaware of.

It also begs the question of if individual consciousness, or consciousness itself, is as important as humans say it is. We could be, in fact are, doing things higher and more intelligent than we, both as individuals and groups, are conscious of. Consciousness and awareness are things humans traditional aspire to, greatly value, but perhaps human consciousness of things is nothing more than a quaint and relatively minor quality in the big picture of group intelligence, group function, group minds and beyond.

The Unique Subjective Experience

(Excerpted from the book Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology)

Subjectivity is a constant and integral part of the human experience. Love, lust, like, dislike, taste, smell, views about beauty and ugliness and art. How you view this paragraph and this book involves subjectivity— your taste about the writing style, word choice, chapter subjects and length, book cover.

By definition, a subjective experience is a product of the individual’s mind. While real and often profound, the subjective experience cannot be objectively measured by others. When someone is listening to music, the music’s note, pitch, speed, volume and the listener’s ear vibration and heartbeat can be measured by scientific instruments, but the listener’s aesthetic experience cannot. This experience is experienced by the listener alone. Even if asked to, the listener could not fully translate the experience to others, in part because it is beyond words.

It’s doubtful that two people have the same subjective perceptions. People may have similar, but not identical perceptions. People regularly like the same song but perceive it differently. It’s common for best friends to like a movie, but one likes it more than the other or for different reasons.

* * * *

A large range of things determines a person’s subjective perception and experience. This includes genes, education, culture, where and when born, personal experiences, upbringing, travel, family make up and personalities, friends, acquaintances, natural temperament, mental abilities, physiological abilities (quality of eyesight, hearing, smell), talents, language, mood, health, hobbies and work.

Little things influence, such as what toy one had as a six year old and what tea grandmother drank. While walking in a foreign land, the scent of jasmine tea can bring back a rush of memories. The appearance of the toy in a movie will alter one’s emotional reaction and interpretation of the move. It may have been chance that the movie viewer’s parents bought that toy, making his movie interpretation a result of chance. It’s not just the tea and a toy, but millions of little things that influence, including from forgotten events.

If a bird watcher and a rock collector go for a walk together in the park they may have equally grand times, one due to the birds in the trees and the other due to the rocks on the ground. Though they were side by side, they will give decidedly different descriptions of the walk.

Do you dislike a name simply because it was the name of someone you couldn’t stand?

* * * *

Even when they experience similar feelings people will usually have these feelings under different circumstances, if only slightly different. People will be artistically excited, but for different works of art or when interpreting differently the same work of art. People have similar feelings of romantic love, but for distinctly different people— different looks, personality, culture, interests, sex, race. The emotional states may be alike, but the objects of desire are not.

* * * *

You cannot separate your biases from your perception, because it is those biases that help create the perception. Without those biases, you would have a different perception. Even that childhood toy affected the movie goer’s perception thirty years later.

* * * *

Humans believe they receive important objective insights, including cosmic truths, through strong subjective experiences— such as through the sublime experience of art, epiphany of music, nature, love, lust, religious experience. The psychological power of these experiences is considered verification of the ‘truths.’

A question is whether these experiences involve genuine insight into external reality or are merely strong biological reactions. Love and lust themselves, after all, are standard genetic, hormonal reactions. Psychological reactions to certain sounds, such as in powerful music, involve genetics.

The reactions to high delicate notes (such as from song birds or a pop song) and low booming notes (distant thunder, the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) have been shared by humans for thousands and thousands of years. You and your ancient ancestor have remarkably similar psychological reactions to the sound of a songbird and the sudden deep roar of a bear. It’s no coincidence that church music uses delicate high notes to invoke heaven in the audience, and the loud, deep bass of the organ to invoke power and awe.

It’s not coincidence that horror movies use discordant notes. The director knows audiences find the sounds scary and creepy.

In the famous 1960 Psycho shower scene, the sharp, grating, discordant musical notes invoke violence, evil, something gone horribly wrong. They sound similar to someone scratching a chalkboard, one of the most despised sounds to humans.

It can never be known to the experiencer that an epiphany made through a strong psychological experience is anything more than a genetic reaction. If there is insight into the external, the insight is shaped by the experiencer’s subjectivity, and what parts of the insight are objective and what parts subjective is unknowable.

Even if important insights into the universe are gained they still are in subjective format. For example, if your epiphany comes through your experience of art, your experience of art is personal and different than that of others. Not only is your ‘insight’ intrinsically tied to your subjective views, you likely would not have had the insight at that same time, place or format, or at all, if you had different aesthetic views.

* * * *

Humans use aesthetic rules for defining truths, including what is good and evil, what is moral and immoral. Common rules include conditions of beauty, symmetry, color, tone (light versus dark), fashion and order.

Even if the rules were valid, it would mean truth is subjective. If truth is beautiful, your definition of what is beautiful differs from others’ definitions. Further, an individual’s perception of beauty changes with time and experience. A culture’s perception of beauty changes with time. Compare the depictions of the desirable feminine body from 1450, 1850, 1950 and this year.

Cultural definitions of ‘objective truth’ are formed by cultural sensibilities, including fashion, politics, gender, race, beauty, geography, self interest, desire for social order, etc. There is no indication these are identifiers of objective truth, or are even related, but they are still used as criterion.

* * * *


To humans, simplicity is that which is simple to them. Simple matches one’s sensibilities, knowledge, intuition and expectations. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be simple. What may be simple to one human may not be to another. What may be simple to humans may be simple only to humans.

Simplicity has long been used by humans to define supposedly absolute things such as cosmic truth, goodness, beauty, logic and purity. There are a number of problems with this. One is there is no proof that cosmic truths, for example, are simple. Another problem is simplicity, and thus what is defined as cosmic truth, is in the eye of the beholder.

Normal, even nonconscious thinking involves simplification, translating complex information into something understandable. Conceits are simplifications.

Your visual perception involves simplification– interpreting a complex scene, grouping and labeling the objects according to your experience, focusing on what you seem to recognize and ignoring what you don’t. Visual illusions and mirages shown throughout this book involve simplification. The scene or graphic is translated by the viewer into something understandable, an understandable translation that happens to be wrong. This alone proves that simplicity is not proof of truth, and that truth isn’t always simple. Lies are often simpler than truths.

Simplicity, of course, has many practical uses. Scientists strive for simplicity in theories and testing. A scientific theory that is needlessly complicated will needlessly confuse students and seasoned scientists alike. Needlessly muddled theories are harder to test, study, correct and understand. In our daily life, good verbal communication requires simplicity, including using words, phrases and language the listener understands. If a traveler speaks only English, it does them no good for you to give road directions in Spanish. Road directions in Spanish may be simple to a Spanish speaker, but it’s complicated to someone who doesn’t know the language.





Numeration Systems and Psychology

Looking at different historical numeration systems demonstrates how language and grouping systems profoundly effect human thinking, perception and function, and how the the system you ‘naturally’ use to perceive the universe isn’t the only way.

* * * *

In some Western Hemisphere high rise buildings there are no thirteenth floors. Well, there are thirteenth floors, but the floors are labeled 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 to give the superficial appearance of having no thirteenth floors. The building owners know many have a superstition against the numeral thirteen and it’s easier to rent an apartment or office if it’s called ‘fourteen.’

In Korea and Japan where four is considered unlucky as it’s the sign of death, some buildings ‘omit’ the fourth floor.

* * * *

Our base-10 numeral system

The common modern human counting system— the one you and I use– is based on ten, and is referred to as base-10. It uses 10 different numeral symbols (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) to represent all numbers, and many popular groupings are divisible by ten: 10, 20, 100, 300, 10,000, century, decade, top 10 lists, golden anniversary, etc.

Our base-10 system is based on the number of digits on a human’s hands: eight fingers and two thumbs. As with today, many ancient humans found fingers and thumbs convenient for counting and it seemed only natural to base a counting system on the 10 digits.

While the base-10 is a good system and has served us well, ten as the base was a somewhat arbitrary choice. Our numeral system could have been based on 3, 8, 9, 11, 12, 20 or other number. Instead of basing it on the total digits on a pair of hands, it could have been based on the points of an oak leaf (9), the sides of a box (6), the fingers on a pair of hands (8). These different base systems would work. Some might work as well or better than our base-10 system. Nuclear physicists and tax accountants could make their calculations using a 9 or 11-base system. Once you got used to the new system, you could count toothpicks and apples just as accurately as you do now.

Quick comparison: counting with base-10 versus base-8

The above pictures compare counting with a base-10 system based on the ten digits of the hands (fingers + thumbs), and with a base-8 system based on just the eight fingers (thumbs not used). Notice that the base-8 system, not using the thumbs, is missing two numeral symbols: 8 and 9.


This comparison picture shows how assorted designs (top row) are counted with the base-10 and with the base-8 systems. As base-8 omits the two symbols 8 and 9, ‘10’ comes sooner when counting in base-8. In one numeration system, the cat is ‘9’ and in the other is ’11.’ As you can see, the real value of 10, amongst other numeral symbols, is not an absolute. It depends on what base is being used.

* * * *

Another example of counting with different bases

 base-5  base-8  base-9  base-10  symbols
 0  0  0  0  $
 1  1  1  1  #
 2  2  2  2 @
 3  3  3  3  !
 4  4  4  4  %
 10  5  5  5  ^
 11  6  6  6  &
 12  7  7  7  *
 13  10  8  8  )
 14  11  10  9  _
 20  12  11  10  +
 21  13  12  11  =
 22  14  13  12  –
 23  15  14  13  <
 24  16  15  14  >
 30  17  16  15  ?
 31  20  17  16  “
 32  21  18  17  ;
 33  22  20  18  ‘

The following table illustrates how you can count symbols (far right column) using the base-10, base-9, base-8 and base-5 systems. If you wish, the symbols can represent physical objects like fruit or cars or plants. In this table the symbols are constant, while the numeral systems create different numeral labels for the symbols (or fruit or cars or plants). For those who consider ‘13’ unlucky, notice that each counting system labels a different symbol as being 13.

* * * *

This counting stuff is not idle abstraction. Civilizations have used and use different numeral systems.

The Yuki Indians of California used a base-8 numeral system. Instead of basing their system on the digits on their hands, they based it on the spaces between the digits.

The Ancient Mayans used a base-20 system, as they counted with the digits on their hands and feet. They lived in a hot climate where people didn’t wear closed toe shoes.

Today’s computer scientists use 2, 8 and 16-base systems. For some mathematical work base-12 is more convenient than base-10. For this base-12 system they usually use the normal 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 numerals and add the letters a and b to make twelve (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,a,b). It goes without saying that these mathematicians, often university professors and researchers, are using this system to perform higher levels of calculations than you or I perform in our daily lives. They aren’t counting change at the grocery store.

Our normal lives show the vestiges of ancient numeral systems. We sometimes count with Ancient Roman numerals (Super Bowl XXIV, King Richard III), letters (chapter 4a, chapter 4b, chapter 4c… Notice how this combines two different systems, standard numerals with letters) and tally marks. We group loaves of bread, inches and ounces by the dozen, and mark time in groups of sixty (60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour). Counting inches and ounces by twelve comes from the Ancient Romans. Our organization of time in groups of 60 comes from the Sumerians, an ancient civilization that used a base- 60 system.

The traditional counting of bread into groups of twelve has practical convenience. At the market, a dozen loaves can be divided into whole loaves by two, three or four. Ten loaves can only be divided by two into whole loaves. Sellers and customers prefer the grouping that gives more whole loaf options, not wanting a loaf to be torn apart. This should give you an idea why feet and yards are divisible by twelve, and there were twelve pence in a shilling— you get more ‘whole’ fractions out of twelve than you do ten.

These have been just some examples of other numeral systems, as there have been a wide and varied number over history. This not only includes systems with different bases, but with different kinds and numbers of numeral symbols. In Ancient Eastern countries, physical rods were used to represent numbers. The number, position, direction and color of the rod represented a number. In Ancient Egypt, pictures, known as hieroglyphics, were used to represent numbers. One thousand was written as a lily, and 10,000 as a tadpole. The Ancient Hebrews had a similar system to ours, except they used 27 different symbols to our ten. For the Hebrews, numbers 20, 30, 40, etc each got its own unique symbol.

Ancient Egyptian numerals for 1,000 (lily flower) and one million (man with raised arms)


Tallying is an ancient basic counting system many of us use. The practical problem with this system is that numbers like 500 and 10,000 require a whole lotta tally marks. 500 requires 500 tally marks. Over history, numeral systems have changed and evolved to correct inconveniences like this. Notice we use the tally system only for simple tasks, like keeping score in a ping pong game and marking days.

* * * *

A kid’s counting system: Eeny meeny miny moe

Kids have long used counting rhymes to decide who is it. The below common rhyme does the equivalent of counting to twenty, with the last word being the twentieth word.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe / Catch a tiger by the toe If he hollers let him go / Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

There are a few interesting things about this eeny meeny counting system. First, it is quasi base-20, not our normal base-10. Second, words are used as numerals, or as the practical equivalent of numerals. Kids could count to 20 for the same practical result, but they chose to use words. Third, while lucky 7, 10 and unlucky 13 have popular importance compared to other numerals in our base-10 system, the seventh, tenth and thirteenth words in the rhyme do not.

This is an example where a different counting system changes what numbers are perceived as important. Most kids who count with this rhyme aren’t even aware which are the seventh, tenth and thirteenth words.

Humans often say they can’t conceptualize numbers in anything but the normal base-10, but here is a base-20 words counting system that we have all used. Granted this counting system is simplistic in the extreme, used for one and only one purpose— to count to twenty (moe). You wouldn’t want to try and use it to calculate your taxes.

* * * *

Numerals and human psychology

Humans form psychological attachments and biases for the numeration systems they use. Having grown up using a particular system, and seeing all those around them using the same, many people assume their numeration is absolute and eternal. Before reading this chapter, you may not have known or thought about the existence of other systems. Your base-10 system was all you knew, the prism which you saw the universe. 10, 100 and 1000— popular products of your base-10 system— are numbers you are attracted to. Thinking in base-8 or base-7 is foreign.

It’s telling to look at how humans change their perception from system to system, and how a change of numeration system changes peoples’ perceptions of things. The perception is not just about the numeration system itself, but the things the numeration system is used to count— objects, time, ideas.

* * * *

As the earlier tables showed, a different base numeral system doesn’t change the accuracy of our calculations or the physical objects we calculate. However, if we retroactively changed our base-10 system to a non base-10 system (like say the Yuki’s base-8 system) we would change how humans perceive and react to objects and concepts.

As with the high rise buildings and the superstitious renters, the historical changes would be caused in large part by human perceptions of the numerals themselves rather the things the numerals represent. No matter what the Mexico City building owner calls the thirteenth floor, it is the same floor. If he changes the label on the elevator directory from ‘13’ to ‘9988’ or to ‘789’ or to ‘Q,’ it is the same floor with the same walls, ceiling and windows and distance above the sidewalk. The numerologist apartment seekers aren’t reacting to the floor but to the symbol ’13.’ It should not surprise that a change to the symbols, such as caused by the changing to a new counting system, will change their reaction to the floors, along with many other things.

With a large lot of stones lined up on a table, changing the numeral system has no direct effect on the amount or physical nature of the stones. With a new counting system, the stones would be the same stones, but many to most would be assigned different numeral names. While the stones are the same stones no matter what we call them, human perceptions of the stones change as the stones’ numeral names change. Under our popular base-10 system, humans consider certain numerals to be special, including 10, 100, 1000 and 13, and react accordingly to objects labeled with these names. With the new numeral representations, humans’ perception and treatment of the stones will change. If before a person avoided a stone because it was unlucky 13, in the new system a different stone would be called 13. If in the old system the stone labeled ‘100’ was singled out as special, in the new system ‘100’ would represent a different stone.

If a human is asked to count and group the stones, the grouping will change with the different counting system. In the base-10 system, it’s likely the person would make piles of 10 or 25 stones or similar standard. In an 8 or 9 base system, the number and size of the piles would be different. To someone standing across the room, the rock design would be different. Her aesthetic reaction to the formation would be different.

This shows that your numeration system isn’t just an objective observation system, but helps form how you perceive objects. Under a different system, you would perceive things differently.

* * * *

Changing numeral systems, changing history

As a numeration system changes how we perceive, organize and react to things, a retroactive change to the numeral systems would change human history. The amount and type of change can be debated, but today’s history books would read different. With a change to the standard numeration system, time would remain the same but human marking of time would change. The decade, century and millennium equivalents would be celebrated at different times. No Y2K excitement at the same time as we had. Special milestones, like current marriage 10th or 25th anniversaries, would be at different times. People who now receive 30 years of service awards might receive equivalent awards but after a different duration.

Think of all those sports championships decided in the last moments, including the improbable upsets and bloop endings. If the events took place at different times and under different numeral influenced conditions some of the outcomes would be different. If an Olympic sprint is decided by a fraction of a second, it’s unlikely the first to last place order would be identical if it took place the day before with the runners in switched lanes and running a different length race. The changes to marking of time and distance would likely result in different gold, silver and bronze medal winners over the years. If a horse race was a tie, it is unlikely the same horses would tie if the race had been run earlier or later in the day or on a different day over a different length race. Realize that the change to the numeration system would likely change the standard race distances, even if the changes were just slight.

Think of all the razor close political elections. If the elections took place at a different time, even if just a day earlier or later, it’s possible some would have different outcomes. A few of the outcomes could have been for President, Prime Minister, judge or other socially influencing position. Think of all those close historic battles that may or may not have had a different outcome if started at different times, using different size platoons and regiments and Generals who made decisions using different number biases. Napoleon Bonaparte was superstitious of 13 and made his government, social and military plans accordingly. Think of the influential or not yet influential people who died at relatively young ages in accidents, from Albert Camus to General Patton to Buddy Holly. James Dean died in a sports car crash at age 25. Would he have crashed if he started his drive at an earlier or later time? Popular perception of the actor no doubt would be quite different if we watched him grow old and bald.

The powerful nineteenth century Irish Leader Charles Stewart Parnell would not sign a legislative bill that had thirteen clauses. A clause had to be added or subtracted before it could become law. Irish law would have been different under a different numeral system.

* * * *

United States consumer prices would likely be affected by a different numeral system, if just marginally. Again, this would be due to human psychological perceptions of numerals.

Even though most current US sellers and buyers think nothing of one penny, often tossing it in the garbage or on the sidewalk, sellers regularly price things at $9.99 instead of $10, and $19.99 instead of $20. Check the newspaper ads. This pricing is purely aesthetic, intending to play on consumers biases towards numerals.

The shallowness of this 1 cent game is illustrated when it is used by stores that have a ‘give a penny, take a penny’ tray, and that it is used in many states with different sales tax rates. Most people psychologically affected by $9.99 pricing at home are also affected by $9.99 pricing when traveling by car across the country. That the daily change in sale tax charge dwarfs the one cent between $9.99 and $10, illustrates the traveler’s irrationalness.

Under a base-9 numeral system that omits the numeral ‘9,’ $9.99 and $19.99 would no longer exist, and the visually appealing “one cent below big number” pricing would land elsewhere. In a 9 digit system, it’s likely that there would be many $8.88 and $18.88 pricings in newspaper ads, and the same types of travelers would be attracted to $8.88 and $18.88 prices as they go state to state even though the taxes change state to state.

* * * *

There are a variety of intertwined reasons behind irrational biases towards numerals and numeral systems.

One reason is people form psychological attachments towards a system, its symbols and the standard groupings of objects made from the system. A three digit numeral price ($9.99) looks distinctly different than a four digit numeral price ($10.00), literally being shorter. One hundred stones grouped into 10 groups of 10 each will look different than 11 groups of 9 stones each with one left over. It’s the same amount of stones, but their physical designs look different. There’s an aesthetic aspect to how humans view symbols and groupings.

Closely related reasons are tradition and habit. If you have used our base-10 system all your life, it’s as natural to you as your native spoken language. In fact words such as nine, ten and decade are part of your daily vocabulary. If everyone you know uses this numeral system, the idea of using a different system may not have even crossed your mind before now. The idea of calculating using a base-8 or base- 11 system seems strange and even unnatural to most people because they were raised on base-10.

Another reason behind irrational biases towards numerals is the seeming, if nonexistent, absoluteness of the familiar numerals. While the true nature of time, supernatural, war, love and the cosmos are shrouded in mystery, the numerals traditionally used in representing these things seem tangible, concrete. Unlike philosophical abstractions, numerals can be written down and typed into the calculator. Even little kids can count numerals on their fingers. That folks like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein used these same numerals seem to numerologists to indicate the numerals’ potency. Though, if asked, both scientists would agree they could have used other numeral systems to do their work, and there was nothing uniquely special about the system they adopted.

Numerals are used only as convenient notations, proverbial post-its to label objects. They have no absolute, inborn connection to the things they represent. Whether you call the animal cat or gato it’s the same animal, and whether you call a number 5, five or V, it’s the same number. Whether you count a grove of trees with a base-10 or a base- 8 system, they are the same trees. If you count and label the trees a,b,c,d,e,f,g, they are still the same trees. Numerologists incorrectly assign an absolute meaning and identity to the numerals that doesn’t exist.

Even in academia, mathematicians considered to be too enamored with the beauty of numbers at the expense of practical use are sometimes derogatorily called numerologists by applied scientists like engineers. Mathematicians are as influenced by aesthetics as the rest of us.

* * * *

Sounds Good

Many Chinese judge numbers as good or bad by what words they sound closest to. As their pronunciation of 3 sounds closest to their word for ‘live,’ 3 is considered good. Their pronunciation of 4 sounds close to their word for ‘not,’ so is often considered negative.

China is a huge country with many dialects. As numbers and words are pronounced differently in different areas, a number’s perceived goodness and badness depends on where you are. For example, 6 is considered good in some places and bad in others.





Cognitive Dissonance


The theory developed by famous American psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who has conflicts or contradictions between ideas, values, behavior and/or information at the same time. An example of this dissonance is if after deciding to go on a diet you eat a fried chicken and ice cream– there’s a contradiction between your idea and behavior that will be obvious to you. Another is if you have a blind loyalty to a public figure and news comes out that he did something bad and against his professed views.

This conflict between expectations and reality is unconformable and the person has a strong ingrained drive to try to reduce the dissonance. Humans psychologically want constancy between their expectations and reality.

There are countless ways to try to reduce dissonance– healthy and unhealthy, rational and irrational, adaptive and maladaptive, honest and dishonest. Some will deal reasonably with the conflict– such as accepting that it was a mistake to eat that bad food and vowing to get back on the straight an narrow, or making one’s views about a public figure more realistic. Others will act poorly such as trying to delude themselves that fried chicken and ice cream for breakfast really is good for you, deny or dubiously justify the facts about the public figure or, as is often the case, ‘shoot the messenger.’ Denying facts, lying to oneself and dubious justifications are common maladaptive ways to try to regain cognitive consistency.

How we deal with dissonance says a lot about us and our maturity and is a major part of our personality. We admire people who admit to their mistakes, handle well unexpected setbacks and can change their viewpoints when given new information, and we express frustration with people who stubbornly cling to false notions and who react angrily to anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance explains why we all often automatically deny facts or theories that go against our ideas or beliefs, even when we later accept them.

Mirages: Not Incorrect Views of Reality, Just Different


Commonly associated with nature, mirages are visual illusions where what we see is correct, but abnormal. Mirages in nature are most commonly caused by unusual bending of light under unusual air conditions. The view can be so abnormal that the viewer ‘can’t believe his eyes.’

The most famous mirage is when it erroneously appears as if a pool of water is in the desert. More than a few thirsty wanderers have found nothing but disappointment ahead. The above pictured water in the road is the same type of mirage. Another related mirage is when sailors see an upside down ship in the sky. Enough to convince a pirate to swear off the hooch

These three particular mirages happen when there are abnormal layers of hot versus cold air that cause the light to refract, or bend, from its usual course. This bending causes an object to appear in an unexpected place. In the desert and highway a piece of the blue sky appears below the horizon, and is wrongly interpreted to be water. At sea a ship is bent upwards so it appears to be in the sky air.

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A mirage is called a superior mirage where the object appears above where it normally appears (boat in sky). An inferior mirage is when the object appears below the where it normally appears (sky in desert).

The inferior mirage happens when there is hot air near the ground. It shouldn’t surprise that inferior images commonly happen when the ground surface is hot (desert, summer highway).

A superior mirage happens when there is cold air near the surface. They commonly appear in the arctic and over frozen water.

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Sunrise mirage. One of the most striking superior mirages is a sunrise mirage. These are seen over frigid areas, such as frozen lakes and seas. The light of the sun is bent upwards along the earth’s curved surface making the sunrise appear earlier than normal. The sun is also distorted. Sometimes two suns are seen at once, one superimposed over the other.

sunrise mirage over a frozen Minnesota lake

sunrise mirage over a frozen Minnesota lake

This mirage was noticed centuries ago by Western explorers stranded in the arctic over the winter. That far north there is no sun 24 hours a day for much of the winter. The explorers were surprised when the first sunrise of the season appeared days before it was supposed to. It wasn’t until centuries later that experts realized the explorers had witnessed this mirage.

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Water can bend light just as air can, the light bending from air to water or water to air (or air to water to air, etc). A hardboiled egg distorts from normal appearance in a glass of water. The experienced spear fisher knows to spear to the side of the image of the fish or he will miss. Stones appear to ripple and wave in a crystal clear brook. One can study and demonstrate how mirages work with a drinking glass.


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The mirages aren’t wrong views of an object, just different. Our normal vision involves distortions, including to color, details and angles, so one can hardly claim our normal vision is perfect and anything different imperfect. When they wish a better look, people with 20/20 vision intentionally distort their vision with magnifying glasses, binoculars, periscopes, video cameras and sunglasses.

Sailor looking through a submarine periscope

Sailor looking through a submarine periscope

When you view a bird through binoculars the lens distorts the light to make the bird appear larger and more detailed. You don’t consider the binocular view of the bird wrong. You consider it to be more reliable than your naked eye view (“I thought it was a hawk, but it’s just a crow.”) A submarine’s periscope bends light via mirrors so a sailor can see above water. The sailor doesn’t consider the view make believe. He considers it a view of reality.

Humans classify views as mirages when they are abnormal and mysterious (at least to the viewer). There are many brilliant atmospheric effects that aren’t considered mirages, as they are well understood. Little is more magnificent than a rainbow, but they are frequent and people know there is a scientific explanation. Fog, snow, sunsets and seeing our reflection in puddles would be considered astounding if they weren’t common events.

That thousands of pounds of bright white snow changed into grass in one (hot) weekend doesn’t cause you to write to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. You are well aware heat melts snow and underneath the snow is grass. You mowed that grass a few months ago. Ripley himself likely had this occur on his lawn numerous times. The changing of the season is impressive, but only a mirage to folks who have no memory of it.

After waking up in the morning and seeing the season’s first blanket of snow, my very young sister turned to my dad and said, “Daddy, how’d you do that?”

When people move to new geographies they often experience new weather phenomena. When I moved to Seattle, I experienced unusual (to me) night lighting effects caused by Puget Sound and clouds. One night I thought there was a large fire on the other side of the sound. I later found out it was the lights of a distant hill-hidden town reflecting off of low clouds. This created a low, fiery glow. I see this lighting and it no longer fazes me. The first time I saw it, it was a mirage. Now it’s town light reflecting off of low clouds.

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You can’t trust water. Even a straight stick turns crooked in it.” — W.C. Fields