The Psychology of the Extraordinary

by Brett Steenbarger

In the early 1900s, the physicist and philosopher of science N. R. Campbell suggested that analogies play a central role in the explanatory function of scientific theories. This theme was picked up by philosophers of science in the late 1960s and after, including Mary Hesse and Rom Harre, and has formed the backbone of constructivist accounts of scientific progress. The idea is rather simple: we explain the unknown in terms of what is known. If the action of gas molecules is unfamiliar to us, we draw, say, an analogy to billiard balls, which in turn assists us in framing testable hypotheses.

A great deal of the difficulty faced by the science of psychology is the absence of credible analogies. The behaviorist who creates a model of human action based upon an analogy with animal learning; the cognitive theorist who develops a computer model of the brain; and the psychoanalyst equating the human mind with a closed energy system all face the same dilemma. How do you explain that which is distinctively human — self-initiated action, the capacity for greatness, rationality — in terms of the non-human?

This dilemma has led phenomenological psychologists away from positivistic attempts to generate lawful regularities based upon the causal relations of the social psychological laboratory. Instead, phenomenology studies consciousness directly and nonreductionistically. The phenomenologist is concerned with mapping and understanding human experience using methods that are qualitative, rather than quantitative. Such efforts allow us to build explanatory models that do not differ in genus and species from that which we are trying to understand. For instance (following one set of studies some years ago) models of human experience from self-report data generated during firewalking (walking on hot coals) may be helpful in explaining shifts in states of consciousness that occur during episodes of psychological trauma.

It is one of the crucial shortcomings of contemporary psychology that the study of consciousness has been tagged with the label "subjective" and hence viewed as beyond the purview of science. A regrettable consequence has been that the study of consciousness has been relegated to esoterica and mysticism, outside the academic and clinical mainstream. The average person, of course, is vitally interested in matters of consciousness. He or she very much wants to feel better, experience life to the fullest, and encounter life with a sense of wonder. Traditional psychology offers relatively little to this average person. It contents itself with solving problems, unlearning and learning behaviors, remediating childhood conflicts, and ameliorating disorders. It has little to say regarding the development of supernormal states of consciousness, creativity, and greatness.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with developing insight into one's past, getting in touch with disowned experience, or learning coping skills. These can be quite valuable and enriching. But the remediation of a deficit will never produce the achievement of an asset. Reducing unhappiness will not achieve happiness, challenging negative self talk will never generate greatness, and all the coping skills in the world will not yield the sustained focus, drive, and passion that seems to be the hallmark of greatness across all domains of achievement.

A "therapy for the mentally well" begins with the realization, articulated by writers as diverse as G. I. Gurdjieff, Colin Wilson, William James, and Carlos Casteneda, that change is impossible while we remain in our habitual states of consciousness. Talking about "issues" or working on changing behavior while remaining in our characteristic states is like trying to improve the reception on a TV by switching channels. "What can one do in sleep?", Ouspensky asks his students. "One can only have different dreams — bad dreams, good dreams, but in the same bed. The dreams may be different, but the bed is the same".

Such is the state of most psychotherapy. It addresses the content of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, but does not touch our basic mode of encountering the world. A true therapy would be one that wakens us, takes us from our bed, because when we can access different states of consciousness, we become able to process self-relevant information in qualitatively different, creative, and constructive ways.

Several days ago I found myself running late for a morning meeting. In a frenzy, I attempted to beat the clock by quickly getting myself dressed, checking on the overnight trading in the financial markets, and waking my children for school. As I was ready to leave the house, I went to the closet to get my jacket, but it was nowhere to be found. Twice I scanned the rack and could not find the jacket. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking and I was growing frustrated with my mounting lateness. The frenzy was growing...Suddenly, without premeditation, I closed my eyes and evoked a piece of music that I have come to equate with a clear, focused state of mind. I calmly walked back to the closet and began looking for the jacket between the hanging garments. Sure enough, it had fallen off its hanger and was caught between the other articles of clothing.

What is important in all this is that, in my ordinary state of consciousness, I was incapable of seeing between the garments. The jacket was lost as long as I remained in my normal mode of apprehension. Only once I had shifted to another state was I able to see. How much else lies "between the garments", unseen, while we fuss and fume through the racks of life?

A few psychologists have taken it upon themselves to study exemplary human beings: Abraham Maslow, Dean Keith Simonton, Howard Gardner, and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi come immediately to mind. What they have found is quite important: great individuals are not distinguished by an absence of conflicts or negative emotions. Rather, they are distinguished by their capacity for sustained productive effort and their ability to access extraordinary frames of mind. Maslow called these "peak experiences"; Csikszentmihalyi refers to them as experiences of "flow". The idea, however, is the same: highly creative individuals have, to a greater degree than most of us, mastered the ability to access conscious states that allow for a novel processing of information about the world. They see the world differently, just as I was able, for a time, to see my clothes closet in a new light.

How does one expand the repertoire of consciousness? As Wilson, James, and Gurdjieff recognized, effort is one of the most effective portals available to the individual. To a point, adding effort to a task makes that task more tiring and tiresome. It is precisely for that reason that we place so much emphasis upon ease-of-use, shortcuts, and other labor saving tricks in our daily lives. Beyond a threshold point, however, sustaining a significant level of effort breaks one through to a new state of mind. Instead of feeling fatigued, there is a feeling of wellbeing. Interestingly, there is also a new clarity to the thought process and (not infrequently) an onrush of new, creative ideas. Runners know exactly what this "second wind" is all about, as do basketball players that enter a "zone" and writers that are touched by the "Muse". It is as if the mind's gas tank, having hit empty, suddenly shifts to a new, deeper reserve tank loaded with octane. Meanwhile, we ironically avoid effort by routinely filling our tank, never touching our reserves, our lack of sustained effort and our comfortable lives preventing us from seeing what is in front of us.

As a therapist, I've found that signficant emotional efforts, as well as sustained physical and cognitive ones, are sufficient to shift one's state of consciousness. Moreover, once one has found his or her portal of entry, this can become such a well-worn path that the state of "flow" becomes highly accessible (much as what happened when I shifted to another state to find my jacket). It is at the point that individuals routinely enter new portals that these can crystallize into what Branden and others have called "subpersonalities". Quite literally, a new self becomes organized around the altered state. (This also occurs during psychological trauma, with far more negative consequences).

One last personal anecdote makes the point. I was running last summer and fading fast, my breathing becoming labored and my pulse rate quickening outside my aerobic zone. My natural inclination was to slow down, walk some paces, and catch my breath. Instead, however, I turned it up a notch. After a few agonizing moments, I felt my second wind coming as I ran down the road, a factory to my right and a cemetery to my left. As my gaze fell upon the cemetery, a phrase popped into my head with crystal clarity: "Arbeit Macht Frei". These, of course, were the grisly words hanging from the concentration camp signs in the second World War: "The work shall make you free". At that moment, however, I realized that I had discovered a far truer meaning of that phrase. My intentionality — the capacity for sustained, intensive effort — had freed me from the chains of fatigue and limitation. That instant, feeling connected to the victims and survivors of a Holocaust in a completely novel context, became a defining moment in my personal and professional development.