The Brain, Confabulation and Subtle Information
The moment I see a patient standing in the doorway I can intuit their syndrome.
Thus spoke my father, Philip, a Harley Street psychiatrist who specialised in psychosexual problems. (He had originally trained as a gynaecologist and the family joke was that he had worked his way up.)
But what was he talking about? Intellectually I wanted to challenge him.
You are just showing off. It makes no sense. Where’s the logic?
But I was also comfortable with what he said because it matched my own experience. From very early years I experienced a direct knowing about people – their emotional and mental state, sometimes their story – without actually knowing anything about them. That is the heart of intuition, isn’t it, that we know stuff when there is no actual information.
But how do we know? This is a particularly crucial issue for holistic practitioners because many sessions include moments when practitioners pause and allow their next action to be guided by intuition. Experienced practitioners trust the subtle inner knowing, the quiet feeling that guides where they go next: the appropriate question, the appropriate touch, the sense of which remedy is most suitable.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali these hints and impressions, this subtle information, comes to us from the ‘raincloud of knowable things.’ This is a beautiful metaphor but hardly scientific. It is similar to the assertive response I once heard when someone was being challenged because of his sense of nature spirits: ‘Don’t be so armoured,’ he responded to the sceptic, ‘where is your poetic imagination?’
When I asked my father the source of his intuition, he responded that it came from experience. But that made no sense to me. How could body language and facial expression inform him of a patient’s syndrome? Were blind people excluded from this intuitive faculty because they could not see?
When I pushed further with my enquiry he became defensive and evaded the issue. He thought of himself as a hard-core humanist and he knew that there was no scientifically acceptable explanation. He liked being intuitive, but he did not like thinking about it.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I am happily living with my partner, Sabrina Dearborn, who is one of Europe’s most reliable and intelligent psychics. Now here we have someone who is a quantum leap away from the psychiatrist’s intuition. Sitting quietly with clients, she enables a healing atmosphere and comes into rapport with them. Her intuitive sense then distils into something more solid and formed, and she can ‘see’, intuit or directly know the client’s psychological and spiritual state, their history and their potential. She then shares with her clients what she sees in a narrative that lasts between one and two hours.
Over and over again clients are moved by the accuracy and insights of her readings. (I was deeply distrustful of psychics until I experienced her work.) One academic scoffer, an engineering professor, listened to a reading Sabrina did for his wife and was strangely impressed. ‘I do not believe in any of this psychic stuff,’ he said, ‘but nevertheless the narrative she tells is completely coherent and engaging.’ And it is here in this idea of narrative that we can find, I suggest, a clue as to what is happening in intuition. Through exploring the function of narrative we may begin to explain some aspects of intuition.
Human beings love narratives, love stories. We also like filling in gaps in stories. We can listen to plays on the radio and our mind-brains complement the audio with visual representations. When we are shown an ambivalent image, like the famous Rubin vase, our mind-brains can complete the narrative in two ways. Is it a vase or is it two faces facing each other? Similarly with the Kanisza triangle, our mind completes the picture.
The most important thing to notice is the way our mind-brains automatically work to fill in gaps and make a coherent picture out of incomplete information. We are hard-wired to do this. It is a core feature of homo sapiens. From one perspective it is only an evolutionary step forward from a predator who smells moisture in the air and surmises that water will be available in a certain place, which will attract other animals who will make for an enjoyable meal. From the simple sense of moisture the animal constructs an instinctive narrative that will deliver supper.
This narrative-making is partly an evolutionary survival mechanism; for humans must be able to complete incomplete stories. How else can we handle the complexity of multiple relationships with multiple possible actions and outcomes? We are wired to fill in spaces with probabilities that make sense of a situation.
This filling-in-the-gaps function is driven and compulsive. When someone says they will phone us, but does not phone us, our minds speed off creating stories of why they did not phone. This creation of a story to make sense of an incomplete perception is called confabulation. We do it all the time. At its worst it leads people, when asked directions to a place for which they do not know the route, nevertheless to tell us how to get there. It leads to white lies when for example, having forgotten to answer an email, we meet the person who complains that we have not replied and without thinking we respond that â€˜the email must have got lost.â€™ The lie is out of our mouths before any conscious thought. It is fuelled by a compulsion to complete the story satisfactorily, to survive.
We can experience this primal arousal if we are watching, for example, a film or a tennis match, and someone switches channels fifteen minutes before the film’s or the match’s conclusion. The angry arousal can be fierce in response to not seeing what happens in the end. We do not like not knowing how a story ends. It triggers us into survival-threat mode.
In psychoanalytic theory confabulation is called rationalisation; when we make up psychologically self-protective stories that deny and cover up the truth of what is actually going on. So for instance children may idealise parents who abuse them. The mind-brain creates a narrative for survival.
This confabulatory dynamic also has its benevolent side. We see a friend whose body language is miserable and we make up a narrative of what might have happened. This is also an aspect of empathy. We cannot help but do it.
As a species we compulsively and unavoidably fill in gaps and create stories. It is at the heart of being human. From primal myth to Tolstoy and Shakespeare through to Hollywood movies we are a species of coherent narrative makers because unknowing is uncomfortable.
To bring this all back to intuition and holistic practitioners, to psychiatrists and psychics, we can see now how our mind-brains are wired to create a coherent story out of minimal amounts of information. The Harley Street psychiatrist looks at the patient in the doorway and from all the subtle signals of body language surmises the possibilities. Based on experience, the psychiatrist confabulates the story. Body-workers feel the tension in their clients’ tissue and know where to go next because they have a natural ability to fill in the gaps and complete the story. The instinct to complete the narrative guides their touch.
But what about the blind counsellor or the psychic? What are the signals that trigger their confabulations? Whence are the blind counsellor and the psychic deriving their information? How can Sabrina be so insightful and accurate with no hard information at all?
This is a challenging enquiry and it takes us to the heart of a contemporary paradigm war. Readers of this journal will be only too aware of this conflict for it is often extremely nasty, and for those of us working in the public sector it can have severe ramifications in terms of funding and partnerships. We are discussing here whether there is such a thing as subtle energy that contains information.
At the present time there are no scientific instruments or rigorous methodologies for measuring and explicating the theory that information is held in subtle magnetic fields. There is no established and persuasive body of peer-reviewed scholarship that presents a substantial argument for subtle information.
There may on the other hand be a tsunami of anecdotal evidence based in experience. There may also be a substantial body of multi-cultural custom, practice and literature. But there is no methodologically rigorous theory or evidence to satisfy contemporary scientific enquiry. (The reader can find the best overviews of the current state of play in this research here in the November 2015 Global Advances in Health and Medicine Special edition ‘Biofield Science and Healing: Toward a Transdisciplinary Approach’ and the Institute of Noetic Sciences project Mapping the Field of Subtle Energy Fields
This dearth of scientific evidence is a tough truth for those people who are naturally aware of subtle information. It is also tough for those holistic practitioners who enjoyed the glory days of the seventies and eighties when it looked as though the paradigm war was going the holistic way and practitioners could freely use terms like qi, prana and energy.
We can perhaps skirt around this conflict of worldviews by referring to classical mainstream western philosophers who addressed the awkward issue of intuition. Plato described intuition as a pre-existing knowledge residing in the soul of eternity. Kant explained it as a form of transcendent mathematics. Descartes described it as access to pre-existing knowledge. Well! If modern scientists think that holistic practitioners can be flaky because of their inclination to work with subtle information, then what do they make of these classical philosophers? The soul of eternity indeed!
So let us be clear. Within the western scientific paradigm which currently holds the leading position, intuition has no place except as a neural networking event that confabulates on the basis of prior experience and of actual information that can be evidenced. Intuitive psychiatrists do not want to be compared to psychics.
On the other side is a wealth of personal experience and traditional practice that claims there is a realm of subtle information, held in an ocean of consciousness or magnetic field that is not fully understood. And, that it is in this subtle field that we can find the information that triggers intuitive knowing.
Increasingly in recent years I have been reframing this uncomfortable paradigm war – especially uncomfortable for those in the middle – as a difference of worldviews based in people’s individual experience. It seems clear to me that underlying the debate is something as straightforward as this: differences in physiology lead to differences in sensitivity, empathy and intuition. (My viewpoint comes from anecdotal evidence supplied by hundreds of learners in my classes over the last decade, when I have asked them to self-audit their levels of sensitivity.)
People are different: different characters, temperaments, weights, heights, inclinations, abilities; different vulnerabilities and susceptibilities. Some people have better hearing and vision than others. In this natural kaleidoscope some people are more highly-strung and sensitive than others. They can ‘feel’ more easily what is going on around them. I do not see this as any different from the fact that birds that migrate long distances may be more sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field than birds who live in just one location. Swallows have a different physiology from ostriches.
It is common sense to surmise that many people are born with a certain physiology, often inherited, which renders them sensitive to atmospheres and magnetic fields. Other people are born without such a pronounced tendency. (Did you for example ever move to a new home because you were influenced by the place’s atmosphere?) Therefore could the paradigm war be interpreted not as one founded in a clash of theories, an argument between science and metaphysics, but rather as deriving from different types of personal experience?
Those who are born with nervous systems that render them less sensitive simply do not experience subtle information. As they do not experience it, they reject the idea of it. And then there are those who do experience subtle information, but because of their science based enculturation, are intellectually incapable of recognising it. These folk however are comfortable with the notion of intuition. It is a useful, seemingly safe, word that explains a neural mechanism that is not yet fully mapped.
For holistic practitioners however, who recognise that they are swallows rather than ostriches, intuition can be a core tool that improves with experience. It is the arena where neural processing and confabulation meet subtle information.