Night’s reign is timeless and spaceless.
Novalis, Hyms to Night.
For the last five years or so I have been a Visiting Research Fellow with the Adelaide University School of Medicine researching ancient human fossil anatomy and brain evolution - which sounds all very impressive. When I joined the faculty, however, I had rarely felt myself to be such an interloper, like I didn’t belong and was kind of, well let’s be honest, a bit of a fraud. I felt I was there under false pretences. With no background in the sciences, much of the high level stats others juggled with such consummate ease seemed way beyond me. Those clever and adept scientists I shared office space with seemed to be operating in a completely different conceptual universe than I was used to, employing some kind of obscure and intimidating dark art that I only slowly – very slowly – began to decipher.
My doctoral research was in the humanities, so such feelings were understandable. More specifically it was in English Literature, looking at the influence of ecological thought and anthropology on Australian poets such as Judith Wright, Roland Robinson, John Kinsella and Les Murray. Yet I always had an interest in science, some of which, as a kind restless and intellectually omnivorous dilettante, I incorporated into the thesis. Lacking sufficient concentration to focus on academic miniature for sustained periods, my mind naturally wandered across disciplines, instinctively averting the ghettoization of knowledge into discrete areas of specialisation that afflicts much of contemporary intellectual life. Then as now I wanted to understand poetry from a scientific point of view – yet I also yearned for a science that was sensitive to the poetic dimensions of life. In some sense moving into the sciences was a way of coming to terms with, and potentially reconciling, these two seemingly incompatible domains of knowledge – both within myself and our broader culture. So after finishing the thesis, and spending a few years of fruitful uncertainty moping around in an intellectual no man’s land, I decided I would write a book that would hopefully achieve such a synthesis – which thankfully is nearing completion.
One of the things that inspired me to move into the sciences with any kind of seriousness, was reading Steven Jay Gould’s 2002 masterpiece The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. What fascinated me about Gould’s book was his discussion of Goethe’s writing on anatomy and botany. I had long had a special relationship with Goethe’s Faust – this was one of those special works of literature that open up previously unknown depths of aesthetic experience of the kind that can change and transform lives. When we realise somewhat surprised and with increased and deepened awareness – this is what poetry is about. But Goethe was not only a masterful explorer of the hidden depths of the human soul. He also made significant contributions to science that have only recently been confirmed, after over two centuries of neglect, by evolutionary developmental biologists – what has become known as Evo-Devo, a burgeoning field that integrates developmental and molecular genetics with evolutionary theory.
In Gould’s work I found a mind as at ease with Shakespeare and Goethe as with complex mathematical models of biological form. But it was his writing on Goethe that really invigorated my interest in science. The revelation that in Goethe, reverence for the aesthetic dimensions of human life was harmoniously combined with an empirically based scientific analysis plant growth and animal anatomy was extremely important in my resolution to study human evolution. Goethe saw affinities between the blossoming of flowers, the unfolding of the vertebrate skeleton and the deepening of the aesthetic sensibility throughout life – all of which he saw as expressions of the morphogenesis of different forms of organic life. Given such a unified sensibility in which art and science were not opposed to one another, I felt that maybe in Goethe we had an example of an alternative way of approaching empirical investigation of the world that did not obviate or deny the human aesthetic impulse – a sensibility that potentially models how we may, at the broader cultural level, unify the humanities and the sciences.
One of the most incisive analyses of the polarity between the humanities and the sciences we have is probably C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, first published in 1959. Snow argued poets and writers operated in a completely different intellectual world than that of scientists and that any kind of convergence, while a laudable ideal to aspire to, may be hard to achieve in reality. Given the past and present intractability of this duality the question arises as to how it is to be overcome – if that is at all possible. What sustained me in my search for a unifying thread that would resolve Snow’s dilemma was the example of Goethe.
But why did Goethe’s project not take hold? Part of the reason may have to do with the limitations of science in his own time – and throughout most of the twentieth century. Science, until recently, has not been able to investigate the brain sufficiently to understand what it is about art that is so important to human life. What makes the implementation of Goethe’s project more feasible today is that science has, with increasing precision, been able to unravel the complexities and riches of human aesthetic experience.
If we are to develop a genuine unification of our scientific and literary traditions we first have to respect that these two approaches to human knowledge have fundamentally different starting points. They do represent different modes of knowing. They could best be summed up as subjective and objective approaches to human experience. Poetry, for example, begins with the subject – the articulation of the complexities, subtleties and riches of inner experience. Science on the other hand approaches human beings as objects of study, objects whose idiosyncrasies can be quantified empirically. So what I am advocating is not some forced sense of conviviality between the sciences and the humanities. That would only be a false reconciliation that would soon burst asunder.
What leads me to conclude that such unification is possible is that science has increasingly refined its ability to study empirically the nature of human subjective experience. For example, neuroscientists are increasingly studying music, dream-life, and the altered states of consciousness produced by psychedelic compounds, meditation and ritual practices. In such studies scientists are converging upon insights similar to those that have been embodied in our cultural, artistic and religious traditions for millennia. But where the real advance lies is that they are able to explain, at the level of detailed brain function, how the brain produces the aesthetic response, and more importantly when and how such capacities may have evolved in ancient humans.
For example, at Johns Hopkins University in America and at The Imperial College of London, scientists such as Roland Griffiths and Robin Carhart-Harris have begun studying the ability of psychedelics to enhance and enrich people’s spiritual and creative sensitivities. Psychedelic plants have been used for millennia in ceremonial contexts by Indigenous peoples. With the accompaniment of song and dance, such plants can induce states of religious euphoria and transcendence. There is a long tradition of studying these plants, with the positive potential of psychedelics having been long recognised by scientists and writers such as Adolf Hoffman, Stanislav Groff and Aldous Huxley – a tradition that Griffiths and Carhart-Harris are building on and extending.
In the 1950s, based on his experiences with mescalin - the chemical compound found in peyote - Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception. Huxley’s mediation on the affinities between the psychedelic experience and the spiritual transcendence embodied in the poetry of Blake achieved much more than merely providing Jim Morrison with a name for his band – it also helped catalyse the spiritual revolution that was the 1960s. The ability of psychedelics to unlock latent creative and spiritual potential was central to the Beat movement and the music and art of the 60s counterculture. For example, Ginsberg composed Howl while on peyote, and in collaboration with Burroughs wrote about the traditional use of scared plants in the The Yage Letters. And it wasn’t long before Hendrix was kissing the sky.
While LSD could be dangerous if used irresponsibly, its ability to deepen and enrich human consciousness was widely recognised by the scientific and psychiatric communities, being the object of major studies during the 1950s and 60s. Under the Nixon administration, however, research into psychedelics was made illegal. Only now, after forty years of prohibition, are scientists undertaking serious longitudinal studies on the therapeutic and consciousness expanding potential of psychedelics.
Some of the unexpected results of this research have helped us to understand the evolution of the deeper and more archaic regions of the human brain that have been the font of human creativity for millennia. In this sense modern science is converging upon the same knowledge that has been embodied in traditional shamanic and religious cultures that have been using psychedelics in healing and religious ceremonies for millennia. In this sense we are seeing the emergence of a fusion between the hypermodern and deeply archaic.
In his book The Dream Drugstore: Chemically Altered States of Consciousness, Alan Hobson, one of the pioneers in our understanding of the neurobiology of dreaming, claims that psychosis, psychedelic states and dreaming all represent an alternative mode of thinking to the waking, linear and rational mode of consciousness prevalent in the secular West. This kind of work provides the basis for an enriched neurologically based understanding of the importance of dream life in human culture and creativity.
Aboriginal people have long sensed the importance of this facet of human experience, with their recognition of dream life being the fount of music, dance and social sentiment, all of which are anchored in the eternal present of The Dreaming. From the ancient Greeks, to Goethe and Novalis, through to the English Romantics, Freud and the Surrealists, dreams have for millennia been considered the portal into our deeper and more creative selves. For Hobson, our current understanding of brain function shows these cultural traditions embody something very profound and important about how the deeper and more ancient layers of the human brain contribute to both creativity and psychological health. As he writes in his earlier book, The Dreaming Brain:
Thus the brain of one and all is fundamentally artistic. We know this when we see the drawings of our children, but tend to discount it in our adult lives. So highly socialised are we to accept our given wake-state role that we fail to recognise the clear cut evidence of our dreams that each of us possesses creative ability. Each of us is a surrealist at night during his or her dreams: each is a Picasso, a Dali, a Fellini – the delightful and the macabre mixed in full measure.[i]
The uncertainty and sense of trepidation I experienced in crossing the frontier from literature to science some five years ago has now abated. Those pages dotted with intimidating stats today seem less daunting. And the work of researchers like Hobson, Griffiths and Carhart-Harris, have convinced me that the walls of disciplinary ghettoization will soon come tumbling down. And it is up to us to see the enriched view that awaits us when the rubble begins to settle. I suspect it will be a greatly expanded view unlike anything our current culture has to offer us - a view that I am sure would have enthralled Goethe, who in this as in so many other ways, was way ahead of his own time. And of ours.
[i] Allan Hobson. 1989. The Dreaming Brain. New York: Basic Books, p. 297.
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
Subscribe to my blog to receive email updates of my latest posts.