Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind
By Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D.
A young friend who's a rock singer drops by my house. She's very comfortable with the idea that life is filled with all kinds of strange things we'll never understand. She finds my determination to come up with ways to understand these things more peculiar than the things themselves. I'm in the middle of sorting piles of notes about the state of mind people associate with extraordinary knowing. I decide to read her a few hits.
She's delighted. She feels her view of the universe is confirmed. "Yes!" she says to me. "Yes! Just try wrapping your mind around all that!"
I reply, half-distracted by organizing my notes into the right folders. "No," I say, "no, it's not about wrapping my mind around it: it's about getting my mind inside it."
She looks at me with surprised interest.
"You just might be starting to get it," she says.
Am I getting it? I'm not sure. Maybe fin closer to grasping the notion of a knowing so imbued with uncertainty that it doesn't feel like knowing at all. Maybe I'm grasping the idea of a knowing more facilitated by the knowers internal state than by our usual capacities to generate knowing on command. Maybe my offhand comment about getting my mind inside this kind of knowing rather than around it reflects something I'm learning. My young friend, who routinely relies on what she calls her "psychic antennae," seems to think so. Maybe I'm learning something about a kind of knowing more rooted in what Martin Buber called knowing, as opposed to knowing about. But I certainly don't know what it's like to know the way professional intuitives like Deb. Ellen, John, or Helen do.
Or do I?
Suddenly, bizarrely, I remember a strange, dissociated moment: a moment when, for the first and only time in my life, I might have experienced exactly what that knowing is like.
My youngest sister was living with my husband and me, finishing her last year of high school. My husband's aunt had given him an extremely showy gold watch, one he'd never wear. In a burst of generosity, he'd given it to my sister.
My sister wore it every day. But she was seventeen and careless. She'd leave it lying around in the kitchen, in the car, in the laundry room. One afternoon I was working in my bedroom when she burst in: "I can't find that watch!'' We retraced where she'd been and when she'd last had it. No luck. My husband was due home in two hours. My sister was panicked: she was sure he'd be quick to notice that she wasn't wearing the watch and ask where it was. We circled back over all the places we'd already looked. We were about to give up.
And at that point something happened that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. I was standing in our upstairs hall, near the door of my husband's study. I walked into his study: deliberately, intentionally, but with no awareness of volition on my part. It was as though I was watching myself in a slow-motion film. I walked straight to a closet in the far corner of the room, a closet I'd entered maybe twice-if that - over the course of our entire marriage. As I walked, I wasn't aware of thinking, of deciding, of choosing to do any of the things I was doing or about to do. I was just doing them. I bent down-again, it felt absolutely deliberate-and reached deep into the closet, behind a row of shoes, then behind some boxes behind the shoes. My hand went directly to a small leather case in the very back corner. I lifted out the case, stood up, and opened it. Inside was the watch.
Weirdly, I felt neither surprise nor excitement; I simply expected it. I walked out of my husband's study, called for my sister, and showed her the watch. "Where was it?" she demanded.
I tried to tell my sister what happened, but it was hard to find the words. She looked disbelieving. I hazarded a guess as to how the watch got into my husband's closet. Perhaps, annoyed at rescuing the watch from my careless sister one too many times, he'd taken it and hidden it away. My sister was skeptical, but couldn't come up with a more compelling suggestion.
I decided I'd save face for everyone. I put the watch back in the closet, and when my husband got home, I told him what a panic my sister had been in and how she'd spent all afternoon looking for it.
My husband was calm and casual in his reply. "I was wondering when she'd miss it," he said. "She left it in the bathroom after you'd gone to work this morning. You weren't here, so I thought I'd try teaching her a lesson. I put it away in my closet."
He went and got it, then handed it over to me. "Tell her to be more careful with it from now on."
In retrospect, two things amazed me. One was the fact that I somehow did what I did to locate that watch. But what struck me as equally peculiar was that I could have forgotten all about the experience for years. It wasn't until months after I'd begun thinking about people like Deb, Ellen, John, and Helen that die memory of finding that watch came back. And I realized what prompted me to remember. What these people had all been talking about-the state of mind characterizing their apparently anomalous knowing-finally woke me up to the fact that I dimly recognized what they were describing. They'd finally given me a context in which to locate and understand my memory.
I phoned Helen Palmer to tell her the story, groping for words. Finally I said, "I didn't decide to walk into my husband's study. Certainly I walked, but it feels more like I was being walked ... walked, somehow, by the experience."
Helen was delighted. "That's impeccable: 'walked by.' Exactly. That's the state of mind that seems ordinary at the time, and you re simply taking actions that anyone would take."
Now that I had a context for the sensations that accompanied finding that watch, I realized that it was an oddly familiar state, one I recognized from peak moments in lessons with my voice coach or in the midst of a performance. Moments when I suddenly sang an aria I'd been working on and it came out absolutely right ... as though it were somehow singing me.
I used to play varsity field hockey. In the last few minutes of one final game, I recalled running through the other team's entire defensive line as if I were slipping through water, evading each player as though I'd had an advance blueprint of exactly how each one would try to block me. Then I 'd shot a goal from a wildly improbable position, promptly regained the ball and shot again-and watched the ball fly through the goal posts a second time, clinching an unbelievable victory ... as though the game were somehow playing me.
I was starting to see, feel, taste the spectrum of extraordinary knowing. It seemed to depend on a state of mind that had a markedly sensory, absorbing, kinesthetic quality, one that linked my experience singing or playing hockey with that utterly weird moment of locating my sister's watch. It was a purely visceral state, one that bypassed conscious thought and paradoxically bound together absolute intention with lack of intention, a simple letting go and giving over.
I found the link immensely reassuring. If there really was a continuum that stretched from something as blessedly ordinary as singing or playing hockey to more extraordinary experiences, maybe I could grope my way from that reassuringly ordinary end to the peculiar state in which I found that watch. Maybe I could even fathom the state in which Harold found the harp, or the state in which people like Deb, Ellen, John, or Helen did their extraordinary work.