From the Archives: Stalking the Wild Mind

As threatened/promised, I’m digging up some of my old written work to share with the world here. First up: the beginnings of what is now my blog.

I had the awesome opportunity to take a course as an undergraduate at Boston University called “Stalking the Wild Mind: The Psychology and Folklore of Extra-Sensory Perception and Psychic Phenomena.” It ranks up there as one of the most influential classes I’ve ever taken.

Here’s the brief reflection I wrote as a final paper for the course:

My Wild Mind Has Been Stalked!
Ponderings of a Twenty Year Old on Life, Love, and Psychic Phenomena

by Archie Cubarrubia

(1). But I’m Shakespearean

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I was in twelfth grade when I first read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was immediately awestruck by its audacity.  The purported themes — murder, revenge, incest — were more adrenaline-rushing than a Jerry Springer special.  I fell in love with old William’s poetic prose, the beautifully rendered pictures he painted with thousands of words.  There was that “To Be or Not to Be” speech; there was Horatio’s lyrical farewell to his best friend.  And then there was that one line that swung wide open the doors of perception.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”

This line struck me with the might of a 10,000-volt lightning.  It prodded me to question a dogma I had not until that point seriously considered.  It was interesting: “…more things in heaven and earth…” Was my view of the world so narrowly defined by what visual stimuli had heretofore excited my optic apparatus?  Did my eyes really pick up an outstanding, real phenomenon, or had my brain simply tricked me into thinking it was a figment of my imagination?  Is anything and everything unexplained — a central theme on my favorite television show, The X-Files — simply a matter of perception?

I could never be branded a skeptic; I believe.  And this line of questioning eventually lent itself to some rather time-consuming introspection (the deep kind).  If every “unexplained” phenomenon I had believed in — and there were gazillions of them — could be explained away with a simple nod to perception, could there be any merit, any truth to ghosts, goblins, and the secret behind John Tesh’s popularity?

It is with this armed expectation that I took a class entitled “Stalking the Wild Mind: The Psychology and Folklore of Extra-Sensory Perception and Psychic Phenomena.”  What was I about to discover?

(2). Rainy Days and Mondays

“According to [Newtonian Physics], we may seem to have a will of our own and the ability to alter the course of events in our own lives, but we do not.  Everything, from the beginning of time, has been predetermined, including our illusion of having a free will.”
Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters

In an episode of The X-Files appropriately entitled “Monday,” FBI agents Mulder and Scully are trapped in a rather exasperating day that keeps on repeating itself.  They have been trapped in this “time-space loop,” unable to move on to Tuesday until both make seemingly unremarkable decisions that return things back to normal.  Prior to the breathtaking conclusion, however, the characters played out several different scenarios that somehow always ended in the same way.  The episode’s premise provoked me to the point of forgetting about a physics exam.  This one-hour drama had just asked me the most taxing question of all: Are our lives determined by fate or free will?

From an online review I wrote about this episode:

“What an astonishing piece of work. This is one of those episodes that makes you sit down and think about your life in the greater scheme of things. If fate has indeed sealed the ultimate end, then we’re left to guess what variables, if any, could change that denouement. It’s frightening to even ponder that somewhere down the road, my decision to walk to class would lead to a different outcome than if I decided to take the shuttle bus.  If fate had determined that I am to be hit by a car at this certain hour and at this certain minute, would I avert this event by choosing not to leave my dorm in the first place?

“The scriptwriters also propose a theory to the whole déjà vu discussion. They claim that the reason we have a deep sense of recurring events is that we have experienced all this stuff before, with little or no variation.  As long as we keep making the wrong decisions (i.e., taking the path that would not lead to the predetermined end), we are doomed to repeat these instances until we do find our way to the right path.”

The discussion of fate versus free will has intrigued me from the beginning, and even more so when I read Zukav’s Newtonian explanation of the debate.  So many apparently unrelated events, some random and some intentional, always seem to converge to form a bigger picture. In retrospect, we realize that these things have occurred — sort of fallen in place — in order to bring us to where we currently are.  And so we are tempted to think that there must be a “Master Plan” somewhere out there for us (an idea often attributed to some deity), and that our day-to-day decisions matter little to whatever end has been determined for us.  But then there are those days when we sit in flabbergasted regret, thinking to ourselves, “If I hadn’t done such and such, then my life would be totally different.”

It’s a weird idea to ponder, one that questions the very meaning of our existence.  I am no closer to coming up with a choice.  But I don’t really see the need to arrive at one.  Could it not be both?  Could our lives be heading in a direction (determined by God, the Fates, Evolution) that our choices somehow affect?  Is the end a specific point or a general area?  If I somehow found out that I was meant to live as a hippie love child out there in San Francisco, then what’s the point of showing up to my physics class?

Too complicated thoughts on a weekend prompted me to go to the local cineplex and enjoy a movie instead.

(3). With Wire Hangers for Friends

“But I still remembered the unreasoning fear of another person’s power, and the terrifying feeling of the unexplored psyche.  Who knows what was in there?  Better not look.  Better not let anyone else look, either.  You could be in for a nasty shock.”
Michael Crichton, Travels

I knew I was going to be stared at.  Maybe even pointed at.  Snickers were going to fill the otherwise quiet background.  I didn’t care, of course.  This was a class assignment.  I had to do this, if anything, to at least prove that class participation wasn’t a dead art.

So I went out to the Warren Alpert Mall — what Boston University students have affectionately named “The Beach” — with modified wire coat hangers in hand.  The air was electric; it was going to rain soon.  I could hear the rustle of the browned leaves.  The smell of the wet atmosphere clung to my skin with each gust of wind.  The sun barely shone, and the clouds tinted my surroundings with a surreal, blue tinge.

I was here not more than a week ago, lost in a sea of other faces: skeptics, believers, and curious folk alike.  We stood there one afternoon, walking like drones, following the lead of the almighty coat hangers.  Cries of amazement would break the silence every once in a while as we discovered whatever psychic powers we harbored.

I basked in anonymity then; this time around, I was alone.  My goal here was not to attract attention to myself; no, that would come almost naturally.  My goal was to attempt to determine the location of the nearest underground stream.

The concept might sound a bit “out there” — fodder for X-Files freaks of which I am perceivably the most devoted.  Despite my interest in the so-called “supernatural” and the methods behind its mysteries (e.g., witchcraft, divination, etc.), I had never considered that I — little ol’ Archie — might possess some sort of psychic power.  Until now.

The process is called “dowsing,” and my tools are called “dowsing rods.”  Using some unseen window of perception, I should theoretically be able to locate objects by simply framing them in my consciousness.  I still do not know exactly how the process works; my professor told me to simply enjoy the phenomenon rather than seek to explain it in any scientific terminology.  Armed with an open mind and with wire hangers for friends, I enjoyed the phenomenon to its fullest extent.

On the northwestern corner of the Beach, right next to the brick walkway, I discovered water.  Of course, digging would be the only practical way of verifying my claim.  But whatever.  When the early awe at this discovery subsided, I excitedly began the process.

I had walked slowly on the grass with my rods resting comfortably in my grip.  Several steps later, the rods opened up like a flower welcoming a pollinating bee.  I had hit paydirt.  This was the place.  I tried dowsing while coming from the other side; I got the same results.  It felt like I had just discovered gold — right in the heart of BU’s campus!  Something was down there, and I didn’t seem to care that it was nothing more than just water.  I had convinced myself earlier that my palm muscles weren’t unconsciously moving the rods.  I was being witness to a phenomenon here, and my body was being used as some kind of “super power” conduit.

Using a technique known as “Bishop’s Rule,” I determined that the underground stream was at least 3 feet wide and 15 feet down from the surface.  Afterwards, walking gingerly across the grass and over the paved road, I followed the lead of my coat hangers.  The water was headed for — surprise, surprise — the Charles River.

A student cannot help but question.  Hundreds of graduation speakers have encouraged us to probe, to ponder, and to consider other explanations.  As such, I entered this exercise with a preconceived theory.  My scientific rigor has provided electric and magnetic fields as sufficient explanations for the phenomenon, using our body — a fleshy bag of electrolytes — as a conductor.

If not that, then, maybe some unexplored region in the brain holds the key.

My discovery had occupied me so much that I had not noticed the girls sitting on the bench across from me.  They were pointing, staring, and whispering.  Oh, they were trying to hide it.  But I know a weird look when I see one.

Regardless, I look forward to my next dowsing experience.  Maybe next time, I’ll find a friend to dowse with me.  Then maybe the pointing, the snickering, and the whispering would be less of a solitary event.  Class participation isn’t a dead art after all.

(4). Now All I Need Is a Cape

A thought came to my head: If in the course of this class, I discover any special powers, maybe I should consider getting my own 1-900 number.

I am still dowsing.  But chances are, if I use this new and improved tool to help me on an Exercise Physiology exam, it would be considerably less conspicuous than if I brought along my coat hangers.  My tool this time is a pendulum.  However, it’s not one of those really expensive kinds you can get at your local New Age store.  I’m a college student and I don’t have that kind of money to blow on such psychic extravagance.  My pendulum is a paper clip attached to a piece of string.  That’s it.  No magic incantations, no oogily-woogily spells.  It’s just a paper clip.

My professor showed the class how to dowse using the pendulum.  I held this paper clip over my right knee, careful not to sway it.  But it did anyway.  I felt a sort of electric charge in my fingertips, like fuzzy blood boiling where the string met my skin.  The pendulum moved back and forth.  I stared at it with great interest; I was quite sure that I wasn’t trying to make it sway.  I wouldn’t fool myself like that.  Or at least, I hope not.

Regardless, I continued to hold the pendulum over my right knee.  It was swinging with a whole lot more force than it did in the beginning.  This was amazing; my (somewhat hated) physics education demanded that a force needed to be exerted on the paper clip. But I could not visibly see any type of force in or around the pendulum.  I marveled at the phenomenon.  Wow, I said to myself.  The pendulum is actually swinging.

But that wasn’t the clincher.  Upon the recommendation of my professor, I held the paper clip over my left knee.  If I had a heart condition, I would no doubt suffer some sort of seizure.  Not only was the pendulum swinging, it was doing so in the opposite direction that it did when I held it over my right knee!  How could this be?  How could the force, the energy, the field — whatever — know that this was a different knee?

(5). Fear

Okay, so I’m sitting in the movie theater, experiencing The Sixth Sense for the third time in two weeks.  This movie, about a kid who sees the tormented dead, has impressed me enough — $24 worth, actually — that I am here once again, getting enjoyably frightened out of my wits.  I jump when a ghost whizzes by the screen.  My arm hairs all stand in attention at the sight of an apparently moving corpse.  My heart skips a beat when I realize that the dark shadow in the corner of the screen is actually harboring an unseemly visitor.  Throughout all this, I’m man enough and hold my screams to myself.  Of course, everyone else doesn’t.

I walk home later that night with my buddies.   The dark shadows seem to be more menacing this time around.  The gentle rustle of the leaves tells my heart to beat faster, to get more blood and oxygen to my extremities just in case the sound is really a decapitated zombie wanting to engorge itself in my innards.  Suddenly I forget about being a man and scream when a door decoration—in the shape of a clown—appears to lunge at me from behind.

Fear is a profitable business.  Movies, TV shows, books, and theme park attractions all promise “thrills and chills,” and “heart-racing action.”  Once again tired of pondering the meaning of life, I began to wonder: What is our fascination with such an uncomfortable yet pleasurable experience?  Is the thrill of feeling adrenaline rush in your bloodstream worth $24?  Or maybe more?  Michael Crichton addresses this in his book Travels in a chapter entitled, “Sharks.”

Sure, we’re afraid of the damage sharks can possibly do to us.  And yes, maybe seeing a ghost, while absolutely hair-raising, can provide a cool story to tell to a bewildered class.  How many times have we seen TV and movie heroes walk into shadows we know they’re not supposed to be walking in?  We curse them, label them as “stupid idiots”… but who wouldn’t do the same thing in a similar situation?

We are curious beings, afraid of the unknown but paradoxically excited by it.  We pay a lot of money to be scared out of our wits, and we are proud of it.  I have yet to fully comprehend the developmental advantages of such an oxymoron.  And I have not even arrived at what can be considered a theory to explain behavior promoting a healthy balance of “fear and fun.”  It’s an interesting subject, nonetheless, a seemingly primal aspect of human behavior that people from Michael Crichton to horror movie directors to my own psyche seem astonishingly interested in exploiting.  Goosebumps, unfortunately, will never go out of style.

(6). My Torrid Love Affair with Physics

Physics and I never really got along.  He often stood there in a corner, whistling a tune in smug, condescending aloofness while I remained in the other corner, struggling in vain to grasp even just an iota of what he was saying.  His teachings were too complicated, too mundane for my freewheeling right brain.  When I tried to determine the magnitude and direction of electromagnetic force, he fiendishly eluded me, leaving me in the dust with thoughts of vectors and coils and particles.  My one-year bout with him left me with a C+ — my first in my twenty years of existence.

And so I understandably cheered and hollered when Gary Zukav, author of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, began his book by blaming Newtonian physics for a rather incomplete view of the world.  Well… Zukav didn’t exactly blame Newton.  He merely stated that the mathematician’s brand of physics did not apply to subatomic particles.  In any case, I felt vindicated.  Influenced by the work of Galileo Galilei and René Descartes, Newton’s bathtub discovery successfully began centuries of mathematical conditioning.  If Sir Newton realized the implications of running around town naked, then maybe he would have put on his robe, sat down, and said to himself, “I pity the student who’s going to take college physics 300 years from now.”

In all seriousness, of course, Newton and his contributions have served to pique our unquenchable curiosity about our world and how it works.  Through his efforts and those whose names would be forever branded in college textbooks everywhere, inquiring minds were enlightened and useful applications of physical phenomena quickly followed.  (Newton’s insistence on empirical evidence for his theories, expressed in his famous “Hypotheses non fingo,” has contributed to the establishment of a more objective Scientific Method.)   As much as I disdain having to calculate the force exerted on a stationary 50-ton truck on a platform with a 15° angle, I am thankful for the fact that I know to move out of the way when I see a 300-lb anvil falling straight at me.

Through Zukav, however, Quantum Mechanics—a branch of physics I had until then never considered to be within my intellectual capacity—became a welcome friend.  This theory questioned established beliefs about how “The Great Machine” ran the world, and I read with interest how it revolutionized 20th century thought.  Here began a revolution that considered suspect the theory that electrons, neutrons, and protons were the be-all and end-all of life.  This branch of physics dared to explore the subatomic.

I do not claim proficiency in either Newtonian Physics or Quantum Mechanics.  We are very much still at odds.  However, I do appreciate the fact that almost a century ago, some brilliant mind decided to question, to ponder, and to refute established thought.  While predicting events at the subatomic level is far more complicated and thus more susceptible to erroneous assumptions, the simple consideration that there might be another way to arrive at an answer apart from Newton’s theories makes all the difference.

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One thought on “From the Archives: Stalking the Wild Mind

  1. oh my gosh! I took that same class and found it to be a source of much mind opening. I still have the dowsing rods I made during that class, and have explored other tools that help access the subconscious. Thanks for the reminder! I like your knee-pendulum experience.

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