ZADA: What was the brain’s big bang?
TYRRELL: Our view of it has developed from human givens psychology and all that we have been teaching to mental health and other professionals about effective ways to help those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. One of the things they learn from us is that the brains of mammals, including early humans, had always been accessing what we call an internal reality simulator: the rapid eye movement state, known as REM, in which dreaming takes place. Somehow, by about 40,000 years ago, people had become able to access this reality simulator consciously – outside of the sleep state – and could daydream. In other words, we had evolved the ability to imagine. This was the turning point, the ‘big bang’ that changed everything.
Once you have imagination, you can mentally imagine solutions to problems, become creative, think about people who have died, instead of just those who are in front of you, and start questioning in abstract terms, “What is the meaning of this?” In other words, we could properly think about things in ways that we couldn’t do before, such as wondering what other people might feel if we took a certain course of action. For example, what would the people of another tribe think if we started to hunt in their valley?
GRIFFIN: When you access the REM state, you can envisage a future; you can talk about things that might or might not happen – animals that have not arrived at a watering hole yet, for example. New descriptive words would have been needed for things not immediately in front of people, such as they might need for planning journeys – hunting or foraging trips. So it is because we could envisage a future and also review the past that we developed the language of complexity, the language of tenses, etc. It was imagination that made this possible.
TYRRELL: Whereas animals only have a present tense; their language is all about signalling in the moment – mating calls, warning cries, joyous sounds when food is discovered, etc. All the higher apes communicate like this. But, once we could access the reality simulator consciously and imagine consequences, we needed a more complex language to express our newly developed orientation concerning the past and future. At this point storytelling would have flourished and more complex cultural changes could be passed on through the generations. All this seems to have spread quickly throughout the human race. So the big bang came about because we could access the dreaming brain while we were awake.
ZADA: And, of course, alongside this accessing of the REM state in the waking brain, a reasoning faculty also developed to keep that REM state in check. You describe the explosion of mental potentiality, this parallel track of REM state and reason, as coming with a price for those who were not endowed with the right balance of both. And this leads you into the area of mental health.
TYRRELL: That’s right. All these ideas we have developed came from our thinking about what makes a person healthy. Very obviously, once you have imagination, you can worry because worrying means thinking about what might go wrong in the future. And it is worrying that produces all the consequences of anxiety and depression.
GRIFFIN: It became obvious to us that, once you have conscious access to the REM state, you can overload it. The REM state evolved in mammals to perform the biological function of programming in instinctive behaviours and keeping them in a state of good repair. But, through the conscious use of the REM state, you can overload it, which risks triggering anxiety disorders and depression and, in certain people with latent potential, psychotic experiences. So the price we paid for accessing imagination, creativity and language was mental illness – on a scale not experienced before.
ZADA: Yet you describe, amazingly, that even some of the individuals that had to pay that high price, either through autistic spectrum disorder or psychosis, still benefited in ways that allowed them as individuals to serve civilisation as a whole.
GRIFFIN: Yes. What makes the human race so extraordinarily successful is that, although individually we may all be pretty unbalanced, and have a limited spectrum of abilities, collectively we can combine our abilities so that not all of us are insane at the same time! So there are always some sane-thinking people about and a whole range of abilities that can be drawn upon. That is the genius of the human species. But nonetheless it is true that, in having to develop our left neocortex so as to hold our imaginations and emotions in check, some people reached a point of overdevelopment where they lost touch with their emotions and more subtle instincts. These people would now be described as being on the autistic spectrum. Although that was disadvantageous in many respects, it did have one advantage that we now see clearly: some of those on the high-performing end of the autistic spectrum are able to focus on tasks for long periods of time. They are also inclined to ask questions that others would not bother asking and doing so has led them to make huge contributions to philosophy and science. There are outstanding individuals in the world of information technology, for example, who have made extraordinary contributions to our culture, and they couldn’t have done it if they didn’t have some of the Asperger’s traits that enable them to maintain an intensity of focus for long periods of time, so as to solve difficult problems and bring about innovations.
ZADA: In your previous books, you explain the important part that the REM state plays in brain functions such as dreaming, the programming of innate patterns and instincts, and in trance states. You also explore its use as a psychotherapeutic tool, in the form of guided imagery. But it seems, from reading this new book, that the REM state has an even more central role, not just in terms of how humans access the REM state while awake but also as a gateway through which humans can gain access to another realm, where greater knowledge exists.
TYRRELL: We noticed, as many others have, that when people go into trance states you see rapid eye movements. You see these when people daydream, access emotional memories, hear voices, or willingly enter induced trance states through meditation and dancing. Since, as Michael Jouvet, a pioneering sleep researcher, first noted, our genetic instincts are implanted into us in the REM state before we are born, it seems possible that the REM state is the natural portal for accessing higher knowledge from other realms. Many people can sense that knowledge can somehow come to us through certain types of dream. There are descriptions of this going back 4,500 years to the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh– one of the oldest and most moving stories rooted in the ancient wisdom tradition of humankind.
GRIFFIN: And, if the REM state is indeed the portal through which our genetic inheritance is programmed, it may well be that, as Plato speculated, there is a world of forms – a greater world of patterns and more complete knowledge – which can also be accessed. If such a world were to exist, it would be tenable that the portal to that world could be the REM state. We give lots of examples in the book of people who have received incredible inspirations whilst in REM trance states.
ZADA: So, in a sense, can we say that the brain’s big bang was not a meaningless occurrence but that it arose as a necessary next step towards humans being able to access higher knowledge?
GRIFFIN: Yes! Spiritual traditions maintain this too. Take someone like Rumi, the great 13th century Persian poet who is also recognised as a great exponent of mysticism. He said, many hundreds of years before Darwin, that evolutionary developments take place in response to necessity. Evolution is not just a random process; there has to be a pressure for evolutionary events to take place. So, when imagination was triggered off in human beings, it wasn’t just a random mutation; there was a great pressure upon the very limited imagination people had up to that time – a huge pressure on the genome, so that gradually people started being born with a genetic potential to extend the REM state. We are not saying that Darwin was wrong but that a mutation happens not randomly but in response to a pressure that would facilitate a particular development. Mutations are selected from a field of forms that already potentially exists—
TYRRELL: —a field of higher patterns. These ideas connect back so well to human givens psychology because of its understanding that everything that manifests does so through a pattern-matching process. All good therapists, for example, know that the brain is a pattern-matching organism and that this has great relevance for treating psychological trauma. The universe consists of patterns of possibilities and, when you are in the REM state and achieve certain mental states where you can connect up to these higher patterns, they will flood into you. We give descriptions in the new book of how that happens and give examples. Patterns of knowledge flood into certain individuals, those who have mastered their ego and thereby gained enough spare capacity to receive it.
GRIFFIN: We are not postulating any extra metaphysical elements in this hypothesis. It is a completely naturalistic one. Later in the book we do account for and explain that, within the laws of physics and the parameters of science as currently established, it is possible to create a hypothesis that permits information patterns to exist and potentially to be accessible, without in any way contravening normal scientific laws.
TYRRELL: My first thought about that is that the modern world appears to be going to hell in a handcart. Although humanity has many wonderful achievements to its name, we have also created more chaos: economic madness, huge financial debt mountains and food and water shortages for many millions of people. We’re running out of cheap energy sources and there appears to be massive corruption in all governments and industries. The renewable energy industry, for example, is hugely corrupt – the exploitation of grants for ineffective wind farms could exhaust the money available for the development of sustainable energy resources. We are creating enormous bills for future generations to pay, to say nothing about the rise in mental illness that all these problems exacerbate.
GRIFFIN: That is a great question. Before the transformation of consciousness 40,000 years or so ago, which we have been talking about, there were probably isolated individuals who had already achieved that transformation of consciousness – accessing their imagination – thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years prior to that. But the genetic selection hadn’t become strong enough for it to become a widespread mutation. Nonetheless, because of selection pressures as discussed earlier, it eventually became the gift of the human race as a whole. So, if that is the pattern of it, it is highly likely that for perhaps some thousands of years since, there have been individuals who already have the mutation required for a higher form of consciousness that gives them the kind of sanity and wisdom that will be required in the future. And, just as happened at the time of the brain’s first big bang, such individuals may become less isolated and more common if the species responds appropriately to this challenge. We would expect to see more and more people achieving this mutation in consciousness so that, over time, it actually becomes the possession of a significant proportion of the human race.
TYRRELL: You don’t need the whole human race to transmute. It doesn’t work like that anyway because all the time there are people trying to prevent progress and stop it happening. There is a kind of balancing act between the arc of ascent and the arc of descent.
TYRRELL: There is material widely available that contains the nutriment necessary to develop the type of minds that are needed for the world to move on. It is through immersion in it that the mechanism by which change comes about becomes apparent. A parallel would be with how the knowledge that hygiene was important spread because eventually people could see the advantage of it: people lived longer. But it takes time for more subtle ideas than hand washing to spread. However, with this evolutionary pressure for change mounting, we know we need to start directing our own conscious evolution. And, if we don’t – well, nothing is certain – the human race could devolve and we could become extinct, as many species before us have done.
ZADA: Would you agree that the communications revolution is a positive thing that is bringing about change by spreading knowledge faster?
GRIFFIN: It undoubtedly has that potential, but everything has a downside. At the same time as making real and genuine knowledge available, it is also in many cases degrading real knowledge because people confuse knowledge with information.
TYRRELL: And when you have a mass of information you have to have a means of discriminating what is useful and important and see how it all connects up. If you don’t have organising ideas in your head to help you do that, or someone to help you do it, your brain is just swamped. Information overload is a serious problem for our culture. You only have to spend a little time on Google trying to research something and see how easily you can be overloaded with information. It’s hard for us all to discriminate between what is valuable and what isn’t. We spend most of the time using information to confirm our conditioned prejudices. The development of human consciousness is not going to come from swamping ourselves with information. It will come when enough people develop their powers of discrimination.