Scientific discovery, peak experiences and the Col-oh-nell Flastratus! phenomenon
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2007; 69: 475-477
Once I had a bizarre dream in which I was vouchsafed a secret which would ensure my wealth and success. It was the title for a comic novel; one supposedly so funny that it would guarantee classic status for any book: Oh Colonel Flastratus! The distinctive feature about my dream was its quality of profound significance, which felt akin to the Eureka moment of a scientific discovery. This led me to question whether the ‘peak experience’ (PE) of scientific discovery might be as delusional as my dream. On the one hand, euphoric elation attached to a discovery does not guarantee that insights objective truth – implications must be spelled-out and checked. The easy induction of pseudo-profound insights by intoxicants serves as a warning of the potential pitfalls. An arbitrary object becomes labeled with an obscure sense of delight and personal relevance in a process that could be termed the Colonel Flastratus! phenomenon. But neither are peak experiences irrelevant. A scientific PE is some kind of personal guarantee of the subjective truth of an insight – a signal that states: ‘This is high quality stuff, by your standards. Do not ignore it, do not forget it, try to understand it’. Peak experiences in science could therefore be considered the result of a ‘significance alarm’ going off in the brain and their objective value depends on the specialized cognitive quality of that specific brain. So scientists may be correct to take peak experiences seriously. Perhaps the best approach is to regard the scientific PE as a signal from the self to the self, a subjectively evaluated and auto-administered emotional reward for good thinking.
Once I had a bizarre dream in which I was vouchsafed a secret which would ensure my wealth and success .
I will share the secret. It was the title for a comic novel – a title so loaded with humorous potential, so funny even in its own right, that it would (I was assured) guarantee classic status for any book to which it was attached. The title was Oh Colonel Flastratus!
The important factors about this title were twofold. Firstly that the word ‘Colonel’ should be spelled conventionally but pronounced in three syllables – Col-oh-nell. Somehow this had to be communicated to the potential audience through advertising. And secondly the exclamation mark at the end was vital in order to demonstrate the correct tone of exasperation.
The distinctive feature about my dream was not its silliness but that for several minutes, at least, the event possessed a quality of profound significance. On awakening I wrote down the title and puzzled over its meaning and consequences. Quite abruptly it dawned on me that, whatever its numinous quality, the objective validity of my experience was nil. The only ‘funny’ thing about Oh Colonel Flastratus! was the surrealist absurdity of my having attached significance to it.
Scientific discovery and the peak experience
But if it had not been for this absurdity, my dream had a weird similarity to the psychological experience of making a scientific discovery – a Eureka moment. Yet the information was nonsense. This led me to question whether the ‘peak experience’ (PE;  and ) of a scientific discovery and overwhelming conviction of being right, might be as delusional as my dream.
There are psychological similarities between many scientific discoveries. A memorable example was that of the mathematician Andrew Wiles when he finally solved ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ after working on the problem for seven years in solitude and secrecy, announcing success, finding a flaw in the reasoning, then… ‘Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation… It was so indescribably beautiful; it was so simple and so elegant. I just stared in disbelief .
Leo Szilard, discoverer of the principle of nuclear fission, wrote: ‘I remember that I stopped for a red light… As the light changed to green it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element… which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron [this] could sustain a nuclear chain reaction’ . Thus was discovered the concept which led directly to the atom bomb.
I have also experienced these moments. For example, one evening I had stayed behind to examine some new microscope slides of the human adrenal gland which had been stained to show both the cholinergic and adrenergic nerves. The cholinergic nerves were dark brown, while the adrenergic nerves glowed green under a fluorescent lamp. When I flipped the microscope back and forth between natural light and fluorescent light I suddenly realized that the slender, knobbly green nerves were winding over and around the thick trunks of brown nerves. The two systems were entwined, but the cholinergic nerves were passing through the gland while the adrenergic nerves were releasing their noradrenaline into the substance of the cortex. It suddenly dawned that nobody had ever seen this before.
I felt that I was the first person in human history to know this new thing about the natural world – or at least the world of human adrenals.
Scientific significance of the peak experience
So far as I know, my anatomical insight  is still regarded as correct. But if I am candid, I have also had peak experiences from making a discovery  which I later regarded as mistaken  or about which  I changed my mind  soon afterwards. Clearly, a peak experience related to making a discovery does not validate that study: a profound sense of insight does not guarantee that insights objective truth – the implications must be spelled-out and checked.
But neither are peak experiences irrelevant. My hunch is that a scientific PE is some kind of personal guarantee of the subjective truth of an insight. In other words, scientific PEs are a marker which the mind attaches to those of its insights the mind considers most profound – a signal that states: ‘This is good stuff, by your standards. Do not ignore it, do not forget it, try to understand it’.
The PE seems to function as a means of focusing attention – the characteristic emotion asserts that the marked insight is something we should dwell upon, puzzle over, sort out – do something about. It seems to me that a vital component of the PE is exactly this sense of a call to action. The PE is not – or should not be – simply a passive feeling of euphoric fulfillment.
Whatever the role of inspiration, scientific breakthroughs do not come from those who are ignorant and uneducated concerning the matter in hand. Science requires knowledge and skill as well as the right state of mind. The probable objective validity of a scientific peak experience is affected by the quality of the scientist’s thinking and preparation, and how well he has internalized the processes and constraints of his discipline.
The objective validity of the scientific peak experience is eventually determined, if at all, not by a psychological imprimatur, but by its public dimension – whether it stands up in peer usage  and .
Therefore, peak experience insights have the potential to mislead as well as enlighten. The easy induction of pseudo-profound insights by intoxicants serves as a warning of the potential pitfalls. When the mind is deranged by drugs, delirium or drowsiness, then this emotion may short-circuit and ‘spontaneously discharge’ to become attached to almost any event – such as an idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word ‘Coll-oh-nell’ or the importance of an exclamation mark.
Then an arbitrary – even nonsensical – information item becomes labeled with an obscure sense of delight and personal relevance. The process could termed the Colonel Flastratus! phenomenon  – portentous meaning projected onto an irrelevant stimulus.
Peak experiences in science could be considered the result of a ‘significance alarm’ going off in the brain. When the brain is working properly, this alarm will only be triggered when something potentially ‘important’ has happened, something worthy of sustained attention. The potential validity of the insight depends on the inner world of personal scientific understanding matching-up sufficiently with the outer world of science as it emerges over time from the interaction of many scientific communications.
So scientists may be acting correctly when they take peak experiences seriously, especially if they are expert in the field in which their apparently-significant discovery has occurred. But the content of peak experiences should not be taken at face value, because of the Col-oh-nell Flastratus! phenomenon.
Perhaps the best approach is to regard the scientific PE as a signal from the self to the self: a subjectively-evaluated and auto-administered emotional reward for good thinking.
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