Peak experiences, creativity and
the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon.
Abraxis 1998 Volume 14, 10-19
Bruce G Charlton

A dream

Some months ago I had a bizarre dream in which I was vouchsafed a secret which would ensure my wealth and success. I will share the secret. It was the title for a comic novel - a title so loaded with humorous potential, so funny even in its own right, that it would (I was assured) guarantee classic status for any book to which it was attached. The title was Oh Colonel Flastratus! The important factors about this title were twofold. Firstly that the word 'Colonel' should be spelled conventionally but pronounced in three syllables - Col-oh-nell. Somehow this had to be communicated to the potential audience through advertising. And secondly the exclamation mark at the end was vital in order to demonstrate the correct tone of exasperation.

The distinctive feature about my dream was not its silliness but that for several minutes, at least, the event possessed a quality of profound significance. On awakening I wrote down the title and puzzled over its meaning and consequences. Quite abruptly it dawned on me that, whatever its numinous quality, the objective content of my experience was nil. The only 'funny' thing about Oh Colonel Flastratus! was the surrealist absurdity of my having attached significance to it.

But if it hadn't been for this absurdity, my dream had all the subjective hallmarks of a transcendental or mystical episode. Perhaps if the title had possessed more conventionally spiritual connotations, or if my own sense of the ridiculous had been less acute, or if I had lived in a different society - I would indeed have placed a religious interpretation on the dream: the experience might have seemed like a message from the gods, or enlightenment. If it caught on, we might have had a Oh Colonel Flastratus cult on our hands. This strange experience led me to collect my thoughts on creativity as a phenomenon, and its relationship to the intense subjective experience characteristic of the arts on the one hand, and the public, objectively validated knowledge typical of the sciences on the other.

Peak experiences

Such experiences are not uncommon - the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively on the subject in the middle of this century (Maslow, 1983). He labeled the phenomena 'peak experiences' (PEs). I first came across reference to PEs in the works of Colin Wilson some twenty years ago, and recognized them immediately (Wilson, 1972). Peak experiences are those moments, lasting from seconds to minutes, during which we feel the highest levels of happiness, harmony and possibility. They range in degree from intensifications of everyday pleasure, to apparently 'supernatural' episodes of enhanced consciousness which feel qualitatively distinct from, and superior to, normal experience.

Colin Wilson's interest in PEs is related to the quest for 'higher states of consciousness'. He attaches great importance to PEs, indeed regards them as pointing the way to what ought to be the norm in a truly healthy, ideal human life. By this account, normal consciousness is a diseased state during which we function at a lower level - firing on three cylinders, as it were. Everyday life is little better than being half-asleep - only during a PE are we awake, alert, fully conscious, fully alive, says Wilson (1972). The consequence is that PEs are to be valued as providing a privileged insight into reality. Because they represent a higher state of consciousness, knowledge obtained in this state has greater validity than the insights of the normal, sub-optimal level of consciousness associated with mundane life.

I do not go along with the idea that peak experiences are a window onto a transcendental reality (because I do not believe there is such a thing), neither do I consider them to constitute a pathway to a higher 'evolutionary' state (because I do not recognize any other evolutionary process than the very slow workings of natural selection). Nevertheless there seems to be something worth pursuing in the idea that PEs are of special significance. Certainly, PEs do not strike at random, they are associated with particular circumstances. Furthermore, their occurrence may be associated with a transformation in personal behaviour or goals. PEs make a difference. My self-observations on this matter are backed-up by the stories of friends and acquaintances, and numerous published autobiographical accounts - it is clear that intense PEs are frequently pivotal moments in a person's life. Their potentially profound subjective significance in these instances is not, therefore, open to serious doubt.

Peak experiences in science

If the potential subjective significance of PEs is relatively uncontroversial, their objective significance is much less obvious. Are PEs no more than the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon writ large? The best test of this proposition is found in a consideration of PEs as they occur in science.

A recent memorable example of a peak experience was reported on BBC televisions Horizon program - where Andrew Wiles described the moment when he solved 'Fermat's Last Theorem'- a problem that has exercised the minds of the greatest mathematicians for three centuries. After working for seven years he announced success, only to find a flaw in the reasoning. Another years work ensued, then: 'Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation… It was so indescribably beautiful; it was so simple an so elegant. I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes' (Horizon, 1996).

This was only a recent instance of overpowering subjective sensations accompanying creative insight. Wiles is a mathematician, but PEs are equally characteristic of scientific creation. Leo Szilard wrote: 'I remember that I stopped for a red light… As the light changed to green it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element… which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron [this] could sustain a nuclear chain reaction'. Thus was discovered the concept which led directly to the atom bomb (Szilard, 1978).

From the original 'eureka' moment of Archimedes in the bath, right through to the other intellectual giant's of the twentieth century, the phenomena of scientific creativity display striking similarities. And peak experiences occur at all levels of achievement, not only the most elevated. There is a special quality attached to the best scientific insights - a sense of crystallization. To quote from my own experience: typically I will have been wrestling with a problem for some time - it could be weeks, months or years - during which the ingredients of an answer have been assembled in my mind, but have failed to gel. Then - often when I am walking to or from work across Newcastle Town Moor, perhaps muttering quietly and debating with myself - all at once a wave of understanding will sweep across me as I 'see' how things fit together and what they mean. I 'know' I have got the answer, and will hasten to tell someone, write it down, and explore the implications.

Having attained the insight, and fixed it in the mind, only afterwards comes an attempt to assemble a rational pathway by which it can be justified. I did not reach the idea by this pathway, or by any known pathway (at least not consciously); but in order for the idea potentially to become a part of the body of science - 'reliable' knowledge to be placed before the peer group for debate and critique - it must be expressed in a form that will be widely understandable and useable (Ziman, 1978). This may not be an easy task. It can take months or even years to get the idea across to the scientific peer group, constructing a pathway of reasoning which is convincing, an enlightening example, a memorable name and an appealing analogy (Hull, 1988).

My own experience of a swift 'peak' insight followed by laborious rational reconstruction seem to tally with those of the great scientists. Darwin spent twenty years musing and gathering evidence of evolution by natural selection before he was stampeded into publication by Alfred Wallace independently having the same idea (he was also worried about the controversy which he accurately guessed would follow publication) (Wright, 1996). Einstein had key insights into relativity as a very young man (e.g. when he imagined what it would be like to ride a beam of light) but several years of work were necessary to turn that insight into published science (White and Gribbin, 1993). And Richard Feynman was using his diagrams to solve problems of quantum electrodynamic theory for a long time without being able to explain what he was doing or why it worked. It required an intervention from his friend Freeman Dyson to indicate to the broader community of physicists just what Feynman was up to (Gleik, 1992).

This is the nature of scientific theory. It is not self-validating - even when the insights are of matchless brilliance their implications must be spelled out and checked. For instance, there was the moment when Francis Crick and his co-workers realized that they had been thinking along the wrong lines about how genes were made into proteins. On the one hand there was 'the sudden flash of inspiration.. that cleared away so many of our difficulties… When I went to bed… the shining answers stood clearly before us.' On the other hand: 'It would take months and years of work to establish these new ideas'. However, 'We were no longer lost in the jungle. We could survey the open plain and clearly see the mountains in the distance' (Crick, 1990).

The nature of the scientific peak experience

The typical insight associated with a PE is integrative in nature, with the sense of meaningfulness that comes from assembling the right things in the right order to make some kind of sense from them. Jacob Bronowski emphasized that creation exists in finding unity - the likeness and pattern that underlies variety; and that this applies equally to the sciences and the arts: he quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge: beauty is unity in variety. The moment during which different aspects crystallize is the peak experience in which I am interested - it is the 'moment of creation' (Bronowski, 1977).

The crystallization metaphor is, in some respects, misleading. A theory is much more than a summary of the facts; a theory postulates that which lies behind the facts and generates them: it selects from the facts and points beyond them. A scientific theory is structured knowledge. The peak experience of scientific creativity does not merely constitute a simple elegant and compelling arrangement of data that is already in the mind; the PE involves an insight into which of these facts are the important ones, and how they are related to one another by causal processes. A scientific theory involves carving nature into new shapes, and saying it is this that matters rather than that; and these processes rather than those.

For example, since Crick and Watson described the structure of DNA we have come to see the essence of 'life' as primarily a matter of replicating information, whereas in the past, life used to be considered as primarily a matter of metabolic processes (Freeland Judson, 1995). The whole debate on 'the nature of life' has shifted, and we are no longer tormented by the fruitless search for some 'vital spark' which is meant to distinguish animate from inanimate matter.

So as well as integration of previous knowledge, the PE is typified by a sense of possibility. The PE can be conceptualized as a nodal point - a point of stillness, where an understanding of the past and the potential of the future intersect. So that the PE is a reaching of conclusions which have implications. The PE is therefore a kind of symbolic narrative - a story with roots and branches. It is not simply a pleasant event in a life; it is an experience with the potential to lead onto other things. And in this inheres its subjective significance to a life.

Of course, peak experiences are also associated with artistic creativity, with falling in love, with landscape and with many other events. These may be overpowering, intense, life-changing, and may also be associated with made objects that somehow embody or express the subjective insights. The form appears identical to PEs in science. But the fascinating and distinguishing aspect of scientific creativity is the further constraint that the content of scientific PEs should be 'objectively' valid and accepted by the community of co-scientists. Scientific knowledge must not merely be compelling to the scientist who thought of it, but should also fit with the best of current information and have the potential for future testability, peer group consensus and reliability in practice (Ziman, 1978; Hull, 1988).

It is perhaps tempting to assume that the PE is some kind of guarantee of the truth of a scientific insight. But this cannot be the case; science is not underwritten by a subjective sense of conviction, it should be useable by anyone competent. Delusions are all too common, and people can believe almost anything with absolute, unshakable confidence. Furthermore, almost all scientific insights - however valuable in the short term - will turn out to be mistaken or only approximate in the longer term. Yet the PE is not wholly irrelevant to the concept of truth at the individual level.

Peak experiences may be associated with insights that are wrong but for the right reasons. In other words, the scientist has done the best possible job of making sense of things at that particular stage in history - but later developments will overthrow their insight. Indeed, this is the usual fate of scientific knowledge. Equally, PEs may also be associated with insights that are right, but for the wrong reasons: the scientist happens to have hit upon the right answer, but using a non-valid method of getting there. Some of the early astronomers were number mystics, leading to them seeking an extra planet to reach the magical figure (Bronowski, 1975). They found the planet they sought, but were wrong about why it was there - as became apparent when further planets turned up to spoil the mystic symmetry.

On the other hand, there are scientific PEs where - despite a strong and subjectively profound sense of personal conviction - the scientist is wrong and for the wrong reasons. Mathematicians, in particular, are prone to assume that their insights, which may be valid in the axiomatic world of mathematics, will inevitably be reflected in the real world. This kind of thinking is currently widespread in the speculations of 'chaos' and 'complexity' theorists in theoretical biology; as well as in the field of consciousness studies (Crick, 1990 & 1994). You can't get peanuts out of oranges, as my old chemistry teacher used to say - likewise you cannot get biology out of mathematics: the relevant knowledge of causes and entities must be present before crystallization can occur.

'Pseudo'-peak experiences

If peak experiences are not a guarantee of objective truth; what do they signify? My hunch is that a scientific PE is some kind of personal guarantee of the subjective truth of an insight. In other words, scientific PEs are a marker which the mind attaches to those of its insights the mind considers most profound - albeit having made that decision largely as a result of subconscious, inaccessible processing. The PE is therefore a signal that states: 'This is good stuff, by your standards - maybe the best you are capable of, under current circumstances. Don't ignore it, don't forget it, and try to understand it'.

The PE seems to function as a means of focusing attention - the characteristic emotion asserts that the marked insight is something we should dwell upon, puzzle over, sort out - do something about. It seems to me that a vital component of the PE is exactly this sense of a call to action in the sense of making a decision, changing our lives. The PE is not - or should not be - simply a passive feeling of happiness and insight. Indeed, episodes of quiescent bliss and idiosyncratically personal insight are easily confused with PEs.

However, I would argue that such contemplative experiences must be distinguished from the creative insights of a true PE. The contemplative PE should be regarded as merely a partial or pseudo-peak experience ('pseudo' because so often confused with the real thing). The pseudo-PE has, on closer examination, a distinct phenomenology, different causation and lesser significance - both personal and objective - than a real PE.

The question of discriminating between 'full' and 'partial' PEs bears close resemblance to the problem which William James confronts in The Varieties of Religious Experience when discussing mysticism (1990). James tries to discriminate between truly mystical revelations and pathological events (psychotic or delirious); and he does so largely on the basis of their outcomes in everyday life: by their fruits shall we know them. This may be the best that can be managed in relation to mystical religion which involves a (to me) futile attempt to evaluate the validity of supernatural knowledge.

But with regard to PEs there is a phenomenological distinction between the full and partial PE which relates to brain function. Cerebral pathology, intoxication with pharmaceutical agents, the clouding of consciousness on the borders of sleep, or the reduced consciousness of sleep itself are all associated with the production of pseudo-peak experiences. A pseudo-PE might therefore be defined as having the sense of happiness, integration and possibility typical of a PE, but occurring in a context of clouded consciousness.

Clouding may induce strange outcomes. William James described the effects of alcohol in promoting the 'mystical' faculty, and documented the 'transcendental' experiences of people under the influence of anesthetic agents such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and chloroform. Astonishingly, the reliability with which such agents were able to elicit the sense of direct access to God led to an (embryonic) anaesthetic-based 'psychedelic' religion during the nineteenth century. More recently, during the nineteen sixties, there were similar claims made for special insights to be obtained as a result of using 'mind expanding' hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline or peyote. Modern would-be pharmacological mystics advocate the drug 'Ecstasy' combined with prolonged dancing to pulsating electronic music and flashing lights.

These apparently inducible PEs may be sought simply because they are pleasurable - a psychological orgasm. But claims for their further significance are based upon the rationale that peak experiences are 'higher' state of consciousness', and that an induced PE can therefore be the cause of valid insights, not just a consequence (in contrast to a scientific PE which is the outcome of an insight, not its initiator). Some religions, both traditional and New Age, induce PEs for this reason.

Another argument heard in favour of the benefits of inducing PEs is that intoxication removes sensory barriers and experiential filters - presumably put in place by a repressive social system - to enable a greater immediacy of perception. On this view, knowledge is 'out there' ready formed and awaiting the apprehending mind. Drugs, presumably, are believed to render the mind permeable so as to 'blot-up' the truth.

These are is a somewhat Rousseau-esque notions, which assumes that people are naturally and spontaneously 'creative', but have creativity crushed-out of them by societal controls, maladaptive learning, capitalism etc. This kind of analysis leads to advocating the use of drugs (or any other convenient consciousness-altering strategies) as a self-educational tool, a technique to open the 'doors of perception' and un-bottle spontaneous genius (Huxley, 1959). Intoxication is assumed to remove sensory barriers and experiential filters to break up rigid patterns of unnatural thinking and allow the melted mind to recrystallize in conformity with underlying truth. Creativity is seen as something to be liberated. For such reasons it is sometimes claimed that by rendering apparently peak experiences more common and controllable, drugs may allow the attainment of a 'higher' form of human evolution.

Aldous Huxley expressed this view in perhaps its most extreme form (1959) when he suggested that the human mind knew everything in the universe, but had evolved a filtering mechanism (a 'valve') in order that we are not overwhelmed with stimuli. The peak experience (induced in his case by mescaline) had the effect of releasing this perceptual valve and allowing more of reality to get through to awareness; giving access to otherwise arcane knowledge concerning events and entities in the universe of which we have no direct experience.

Evolutionary theory takes exactly the opposite view to Huxley - instead of humans 'naturally' knowing everything and evolving the ability to experience less; biology sees the starting point in insentient, inert matter and regards the capacity to perceive anything at all as having evolved gradually over many millions of years. Knowledge is not out there waiting to burst in on our minds as soon as intoxication lets it through. Rather, the capacity to attain knowledge, to perceive, and to be aware of our perceptions, are all adaptations that have been painstakingly constructed over an evolutionary timescale. Neither is scientific creativity spontaneous, natural or pre-formed; it is attained by constructive human striving - something made, not a spontaneous fact of nature.

No scientific breakthroughs have come from ignorant and uneducated prodigies who happened to be intoxicated. Neither does creativity in science emerge like a beautiful butterfly breaking from a chrysalis of social convention, rather it is something constructed by efforts and gifts (and luck) - including the efforts and gifts of colleagues. Science requires knowledge and skill as well as the right state of mind.

Dreams and symbolic knowledge

It seems reasonable to regard drug-induced PEs as merely a type of pseudo-PE, without much relevance to the scientific business of gaining access to valid, public, useful information. Pseudo-PEs are not so much a short-cut to enlightenment as a cerebral short-circuit, leading to the affective (emotional) component of the PE but without the cognitive (thinking) component. Both the capacity for cognitive performance and the capacity to store memories are reduced by the deliberate impairment of consciousness. Any significant subjective insights associated with the experience are liable to be distorted, forgotten or misinterpreted.

However, there are reports of contributions that dreams, or dream-like trances, can make to solving scientific problems. Typically the dream follows a period of brooding reflection (as for the full PE) but the dreamed answer is provided in a symbolic form which requires decoding, rather than arriving all of a piece in a moment of clarity and crystallization. The chemist Kekule is said to have dreamed the ring structure of the important compound benzene in the form of snakes biting their own tails. The mathematician William Rowan Hamilton is said to have discovered quarternions in a dreamy state while crossing Phoenix Park in Dublin. More recently, it was following a dream that the evolutionary theorist Margie Profet developed her (at present unconfirmed) hypothesis that regular menstruation occurs in order to prevent infection.

The story goes that she was awakened by her cat meowing at 3.00 am. 'I had a vision of a cartoon from grade school. The film's little images showed ovaries, the uterus. But there were all these tiny black triangles with pointy tips embedded in the uterus and they were coming out with the flow'. Profet interpreted the triangles as being germs; then went back to sleep. On reawakening she reflected further on how the germs had gotten there and guessed that maybe they had 'hitch-hiked' on the sperm. A search through the relevant scientific literature confirmed that this seemed to be compatible with existing evidence; and an influential theoretical paper was the result.

Such reports of creative dreams only serve to emphasize how difficult it can be to understand the coded and symbolic messages which arise from the clouded or partially conscious mind, as contrasted with the crystalline clarity and immediate apprehension typical of a peak experience as it occurs in clear consciousness and an alert mind. If she hadn't been woken by the cat, Profet's dream would probably not have been remembered until daybreak. And not all dreams are codes. The Colonel Flastratus dream was impossible to understand because there was nothing to understand. It was a pseudo-answer to which there was no question.

The peak experience as a story

Human consciousness is mostly a storytelling device. Psychological processing selects certain kinds of events from the sea of sense impressions, brings them to awareness, and links them to make a thread of narrative. Meaningfulness is imposed on sense data (Charlton, 1995). Consciousness seems always to ascribe causality - it is not content with recording detached sequences, but works by synthesizing events into a linear flow which is then projected into the future as a predictive model to guide behaviour. Indeed, consciousness is so compulsive a storyteller as to be a master confabulator - consciousness will always invent a story in terms of cause and effect relations, even when it has no idea what is going on, and available data are inadequate or contradictory (Gazzaniga, 1992; Crick, 1994; Clark, 1995).

Theoretical science works largely by analogy. Few of us can reason in utter abstraction. Instead we build simplified working models of reality, and map these models onto reality to make predictions - seeking a one to one correspondence between the model and the world (Cairns Smith, 1996). Some models are mathematical - where real world entities are mapped onto mathematical symbols and real world causes are summarized in mathematical operations. We see what mathematics predicts in its ideal realm, then perform observations to see whether there is a correspondence - if the model holds up to testing it is accepted as a sufficient representation. Other models are much simpler - the ball-and-spring models to show chemical bonds and valencies, the larger scale molecular shape models used by Crick and Watson, and a host of idiosyncratic mental models which are used to make breakthroughs and then discarded, unacknowledged - like Clark Maxwell's extraordinarily 'childish' notebook musings about how electro-magnetism works; musings that nonetheless led this first-rate genius to the insights that enabled several major breakthroughs in theoretical physics (Cairns Smith, 1996).

Stories are perhaps the commonest mode of analogical thought. The link between story-telling and scientific theorizing is instructive. A scientific hypothesis is like a story: entities and causal processes are analogous to characters and motivations. I would guess that - at a deep level - the science and the storytelling processes of the conscious mind are identical; what differs are the ingredients. By this account, learning to do science involves learning how to tell a particular kind of story; who are the important characters and what are their typical causal motivations. Each scientific discipline has a distinctive set of personalities and behaviours - in physics there might be fundamental particles acted on by gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces; in biology there might be cells and organisms acted on by macromolecules such as DNA and proteins under the influence of natural selection. I suspect that humans can only be creative in a quasi-narrative fashion, and scientific creativity involves storytelling of a highly specialized kind where the range of possible stories is strictly constrained by previous relevant science.

The role of narrative is both to generate theories and to make them useable - because science is a human product it needs to be shaped to the human mind. Conscious life is rich in meaning even when the world is chaotic: we see pictures in flames, faces in random dots, monsters in the shadows. We confabulate causes, based on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, to explain our emotions and behaviours. Inanimate objects - such as stones, rivers and trees - are imbued with personality and powers of malevolence or benignity. For humans, the world is full of relevance and purpose. Reality comes to us already imprinted with labels of preference.

And it is a fusion of constrained reality, trained aesthetic appreciation and emotional preference that makes possible the scientific peak experience. The peak experience is that moment when analogy strikes us - we see underlying unity, similarity in difference, meaning emerging from chaos - a bunch of disconnected facts coalescing into a story.

Creative thought and validation

We are now in a position to bring together the preceding information into a model of creativity and intense subjective experience which distinguishes the arts and the sciences. In the arts (and also in religious experience) the validation of a creative experience is subjective - what matters is how the experience impacts upon one's own life.

If we take the well-documented example of the writer, Robert Graves, we can see that his prose writings - essays, lectures, and histories such as The White Goddess - share many attributes of science: they make implicit or explicit assertions about the real world. His historical novels, such as I Claudius and Claudius the God, often achieve an astonishing verisimilitude - their characters are alive, and their situations vivid, almost as if Graves had been there himself. How was this attained, given the partial nature of available historical evidence? Of course Graves was immensely learned on a wide range of historical and literary topics, and there was surely a strong element of 'crystallization' of this previously existing knowledge involved in the writing. A well-stocked mind was necessary in order that the general structure of (largely) accurate, validated detail was available. Yet Graves claimed more: he suggested that the process of writing history required both extrapolation and interpolation beyond and between the available evidence; a process which - at best - involved the same kind of creative thinking he used in writing poetry. In describing this, Graves distinguished two distinctive modes of creative thinking - proleptic and analeptic (Graves, 1961).

Proleptic thought is, he says, characteristic of the greatest mathematicians and scientists. It involves a mental leap into the future whereby the right answer was obtained, although the result needed to be justified by 'pedestrian calculation'. Graves viewed this as the consequence of a suspension of time; presumably giving anticipatory access to that which has not yet happened. In other words, scientific intuition is a memory of the future. Analeptic thought was what Graves used in reconstructing his 'historical grammar of poetic myth' The White Goddess. This also involves a suspension of time - but one in which the historian reaches back to recover lost events. Starting with some fragments of poetry, and a huge miscellaneous rag-bag of myth and legend, Graves shaped and filled-out an elaborate - but unsubstantiated - history of poetry and society going back to Neolithic times. The White Goddess is a remarkable and inspiring creative achievement - but is it science, art, history or what?

The point is that Graves claimed that the insights of proleptic and analeptic thought were factually true. In other words that they were subjectively self-validating: the contribution of others was a matter of confirmation rather than test. This distinguishes what Graves was doing, from what scientists - or historians - are doing. Science is, at bottom, indifferent to the source of its hypotheses, and does not inquire as to whether they were achieved as the consequence of a peak experience, or by more mundane methods. Scientists love stories of peak experiences, profound insight and foresight - but these stories do not mean that the ideas that flow from them are given any extra credence. Despite the way in which the practice science may form the focus of a life, and scientific peak experiences may be the most significant events in that life, science is essentially public knowledge (Ziman, 1968), and works by a natural selection-like competitive testing of hypotheses (Hull, 1978). No intrinsic merit is awarded for self-validation - the conjectures of inspiration and intuition are treated with the same skepticism as conjectures emanating from any other source. Only when hypotheses have passed through the sieve of social practice, and have been used by other workers, does conjecture count as science.


The significance of a peak experience is essentially subjective. The self-validating emotion of deep and profound significance which sweeps like a wave across clear consciousness is probably a label devised by natural selection in order to inform us that we have performed cognitions of special importance and significance, and to reward us with ecstatic feelings for having done so. It is analogous to the satisfaction of a good story, well-told - a story with the ring of truth to it.

The subjective importance of the PE is considerable: it functions both as a reward for difficult but desirable behaviour in the immediate past, and an indicator of fruitful lines of behaviour for the longer term future. But the objective importance - the validity of the content of the insight - is different for the arts and sciences. For Robert Graves - and other artists, poets and religious visionaries - the peak experience, and what flows from it, is self-validating. Their creative life is essentially a matter of peak experiences. What the public thinks about these experiences is essentially a secondary matter (although it may be financially important). And insofar as the public have a view on the artistic peak experience, it is not attained by regarding it as an hypothesis, the consequences of which should be validated by testing. Rather the validation is in terms of aesthetic criteria - the hypothesis is seen as a thing in itself, to be used in living, for the satisfactions it yields.

But the validity of the scientific peak experience is determined by its public dimension - whether it stands up to testing by peers. The predictive value to be placed upon an hypothesis attained during a peak experience is not wholly arbitrary, however; it is a product of the quality of the scientist. In the first place a scientist must be competent to assert the hypothesis, he should be in a position to make the assertion, he should have a mind that is informed - and preferably alert and unclouded. The probable objective validity of a scientific peak experience is therefore a product of the quality of the scientist's thinking and preparation, and how well he has internalized the processes and constraints of his discipline.

The peak experience typically strikes as an overwhelmingly self-validating experience, but insights have the potential to mislead as well as enlighten. The easy induction of contemplative pseudo-PEs by intoxicants serves as a warning of the potential pitfalls. A PE occurring in clear consciousness and alertness is probably telling us something of importance when its insights are underwritten by the appropriate skill and knowledge base; and because such a PE is a product of the mind at its zenith this knowledge may be of objective, 'real world' significance to the extent that our own potential abilities are adequate to the task.

But during REM sleep when consciousness is performing the strange tricks of dreaming, or when the mind is deranged by drugs, delirium or drowsiness, then this typical PE emotion may short-circuit and 'spontaneously discharge' to become attached to almost any event - such as an idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word 'Colonel Flastratus' or the importance of an exclamation mark. Then an arbitrary object or stimulus becomes labeled with an obscure sense of delight and personal relevance. When the brain is impaired, the specific object to which the sense of significance attaches itself may be a matter of chance, and the insights may be nonsensical - a process we might call the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon - portentous meaning projected onto an irrelevant stimulus. By making the peak experience easier, and by severing affect from cognition, intoxication also diminishes its meaningfulness.

Peak experiences are the result of a 'significance alarm' going off in the brain. When things are working properly, this alarm will only be triggered when something 'important' has happened, that is worthy of sustained attention. So we are often right to take peak experiences seriously - yet their interpretation is beset with pitfalls. The nature of 'significance' is seldom transparent, and we cannot take the insights of peak experiences at face value. Perhaps the best approach is to regard them as a fascinating enigma, a code which may contain a message of profound import. On the other hand, after laboriously cracking the cipher, we may not find the secret of life - merely a pointless pun.


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Bruce G Charlton MD
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne



also by Bruce Charlton
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Psychopharmacology and The Human Condition
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology