As mentioned in a previous post, highly sensitive or gifted children were studied in the 1960s and 1970s by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist, who dubbed their personality traits as amounting to “superstimulatability” or “overexcitability.” The five traits he identified were: an abundance of physical energy; sensory hyper-reactivity; vivid imagination; intellectual curiosity and drive; and a deep capacity to care.
The resulting drive has been remarked upon by virtually everyone who has ever studied these types of kids. (Feldman, 1986) In a similar way, savants – whether congenital or acquired – are impelled to do what they do, whether it’s painting, sculpting, playing or composing music, or memorizing zip codes, historical dates or entire phone books. And children with apparent past life memories likewise seem transfixed by the recollections that, for a time anyway, dominate their existence.
I’ve noted the highly intuitive and empathetic – even empathic – nature of many of these kids. Not only are they attuned to the feelings (indeed, sufferings) of other people and animals, they grasp the fundamental interconnectedness of life on this planet. Some of them deliver spontaneous soliloquies on the nature of truth and reality. And some of them know other things they couldn’t possibly know. Ryan Hammons (introduced in my last post), was aware that his grandmother had lost a premature baby shortly after giving birth – a matter never discussed with him.
Little Augie Taylor remembered 'himself' as his grandfather Gus (who had died before he was born), astounding his parents with the statement “I had a sister but she died. She turned into a fish…some bad guys.” In fact, his grandfather’s sister was murdered years before and her body dumped into the San Francisco Bay. It was a matter never mentioned to him (understandably so); it was barely discussed in his own father’s immediate family. In an altogether different way, Matthew Manning didn’t know Greek, Chinese or Arabic, but nonetheless expressed them in his automatic writing.
It seems likely that the special people we have been considering in this series retain some access to information independent of personhood, locale, culture, or time period. The traits that Dabrowski identified, either singly or in combination, serve as markers for those who remain ‘tapped into’ this reservoir in some way. An accident or act of God (e.g., car crash, stroke, lightning strike, etc.) that occurs to a normal adult can also rewire the brain so that a similar effect is achieved. All this suggests that our typical waking consciousness is highly circumscribed. Perhaps William Blake was right when he stated “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite.” (Blake, 1790)
Gestation does not mean just the development of an embryo between conception and birth. It is also defined as the development of an idea or plan in the mind. (Morris, 1981) Suppose this idea or plan comes to fruition in the form of individual human beings and is ‘seeded’ by a greater mind, or via the mystery and majesty of life itself? The Greeks called this seed your daimon; the Romans termed it your genius; the late Jungian psychologist James Hillman refreshed the concept as the “acorn.” (Hillman, 1996) Through whatever forces of nature, nurture, epigenetics and soulfulness it springs, it is invariably you – your form, your pattern, your blueprint. Neurons and glial cells, nerves and organs, muscles and bones, head and heart, psyche and soma – these will coalesce around the unique design. The daimon, furthermore (according to classical sources), will have its way. It will impel the person toward her or his destiny.
That there is a seed, and through it a connection with the source of life itself, is evident in the types of people we have been surveying. Often their gestation has been affected by some quirk: an illness, an accident, a deprivation, a trauma visited upon the pregnant mother. In these circumstances, it is as if the curtain is peeled back to reveal the blueprint forming. The process, having been short-circuited in some way, produces a child who is more closely connected with the universe, with the web of sensation and emotion, than he or she would otherwise be. (This is even true in the apparent abyss of severe autism. Just because such people live behind what’s been called an opaque “glass wall” doesn’t mean they aren’t highly attuned. See Buten, 2004.)
Most of us – the common folk – believe our consensus reality is the sole and absolute reality. But I suspect we are (in the words of Yale University medical researcher David Katz) merely “sequestered within the limited terrain of a reality that is itself lost in a far greater reality beyond our perception.”
As for myself, I harbor some sensitivity, such as a habitual startle at loud noises and a preoccupation with whether I have unintentionally made others feel bad. Growing up, I recall crying as I read a copy of a newspaper from 1945, realizing how stunned and grief-stricken people were at the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, their leader through the Great Depression and World War II. Likewise, I became immensely sad one evening as I perused a promotion from Time-Life Books detailing (in evocative pictures and prose) how the Civil War cost tens of thousands of young men their lives in fierce fighting that either side hardly ever won.
But perhaps the oddest thing that I remember happening – even into adulthood – is the sense that would dawn on me every now and again that I was part of a great immensity. Not an immensity reflective of the world we know but one that seemed to reveal itself around and beyond this one. When this sense enveloped me, it was both surprising and strangely reassuring. I would also get the feeling, once in awhile, that there was something that had preceded my everyday world – that a curtain obscuring a vast but perceptible ‘then’-ness had been parted slightly. The sensation was akin to déjà vu, but not quite. (Interestingly, the last time it happened I had just finished watching a movie about a man who regained his full memory after ‘scraping by’ on bits and pieces. The effect was extraordinary.)
Perhaps I was flashing back, as it were, to a long-lost reverie of the womb. But who’s to say I did not somehow manage a glimpse into the ‘seed ground’ of where we all come from? If so, it was a unique privilege that may not come to me again. But other people – synesthetes, savants, those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the highly sensitive, the gifted, the prodigious, the psychic – do have a degree of access, I believe. So we should pay proper attention to what they have to tell us. What we stand to learn could go well beyond the biological and the neurological, into the metaphysical and meaningful.
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1790.
Buten, Howard. Through the Glass Wall. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
Feldman, David Henry. Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential. New York: Basic Books, 1986, 169.
Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code. New York: Random House, 1996, 8-11.
Morris, William, ed. (1981.) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 554.