Tin Horns, Flies & . . . Tadpoles
[Daemonic Dispatches] • “The notion of things dropping in upon this earth, from externality, is as unsettling and as unwelcome to Science as -- tin horns blowing in upon a musician's relatively symmetric composition -- flies alighting upon a painter's attempted harmony, and tracking colors one into another -- suffragist getting up and making a political speech at a prayer meeting.”
Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned
Ahh, it has been a fine Fortean week since the debut of Reality Sandwich! A massive fireball in Spain; the identification by the American Museum of Natural History of the “meteorite” that came through the roof of a New Jersey home as being -- well, not a meteorite!; and the announcement by astronomers that for the past eight months, they have been watching the explosion of a massive star, some 150 times the size of our sun. They have declared it to be the largest stellar explosion ever witnessed.
All of this happened last week, while I was out in Santa Barbara, California, to speak at a conference entitled “Synaesthesia in the Arts, Religion, and Cognitive Science,” sponsored by the Religious Studies Program and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The supernova at that conference was Professor V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego. Dr. Ramachandran is one of the most visible neuroscientists proclaiming and popularizing the notion that there is an imminent revolution in the understanding of the human brain. His own recent work has focused on such mysterious neurological anomalies as phantom limbs, synaesthesia, and Capgras delusion, a condition in which family and friends are experienced as strangers. Dr. Ramachandran believes that such anomalous conditions can reveal the nature of the brain. Attention to anomalies is at the heart of the Fortean endeavor, and yet there is much in Dr. Ramachandran’s science that obscures rather than illuminates.
In the middle of his lecture on synaesthesia, Dr. Ramachandran interjected the subject of phantom limbs -- the sensation by amputees that their missing limb is still there, even to the point of feeling very vivid sensations of pain or pleasure. In his book, Phantoms in the Brain, Ramachandran hypothesizes that these sensations are caused by new connections -- “wiring” -- being formed within the brain.
Given the tragic increase in amputations due to injuries caused by the Iraq War, the issue of phantom pain has taken on a new immediacy, even leading to Pentagon fantasies of limb regeneration. Ramachandran and other contemporary researchers seem to have completely forgotten the work of Yale University neuroanatomist Harold Saxton Burr, which demonstrated conclusively in the 1930s that all living things are surrounded by weak electromagnetic fields that direct and organize tissue growth. “Fields of Life” (or “L-fields”), Burr called these. In amphibians the field fosters and guides both the growth and development of the larval animal, and limb regeneration after adulthood; in humans, the field manifests not as physical regeneration, but as the persistence of the feeling dimension of the absent physical organ.
I've got a jar full of tadpoles -- scooped out of the little vernal pool near my house -- sitting here as I write this. Though it is a delight to watch them now, it was even more remarkable to watch them before their birth, as each day the little black dots embedded in the mass of frog jelly miraculously metamorphosed into these wiggling, wriggling, jiggling little creatures lusting for LIFE. Harold Burr scooped up eggs and tadpoles just like these from a vernal pool in New Haven back in the 30s, and hatched from them a remarkably sound "electro-dynamic theory of life." How is it that in less than a century science could have forgotten his work?
Science is forever forgetting history. Dr. Ramachandran, for example, claims Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton as the pioneer student of synaesthesia, but Galton’s studies (on number-form) came almost 70 years after the first self-report of synaesthesia by German medical student (and albino!) G.T.L. Sachs. Charles Fort’s writings showed the way that science forgot -- or invented-- history to suit its own ideological purposes. The ideology of contemporary cognitive science, wed happily to models of the brain as a vast biocomputer, cannot abide Burr’s “fields of life” because they destabilize the reductionist focus on physical regions of the brain, and the supposed functional interaction between these regions. “Fields of Life” -- known to students of occultism as the etheric body, or to Eastern thought as chi-- are to Dr. Ramachandran and his peers tin horns, flies, pesky suffragists muddling their tidy maps of the human consciousness. They are themselves a sort of phantom to modern science, one needing to be recognized and studied, for the etheric is indeed the 'field of life,' not just the source for biological vitality, but the realm in which a whole host of daimonic phenomena manifest.