Jeff Thomas
Jeff Thomas

He studied music with Pablo Casals, discovered the universal brainwave patterns of human emotions, and coined the term cyborg: a profile of Dr. Manfred Clynes

INTO THE DOCTOR’S study as into the Sibyl’s cave I go spelunking. I tiptoe between piles of dog-eared manuscripts, musical scores, software manuals, newspapers, learned journals. Occasionally a leaf flutters and falls aslant a neighboring pile. I edge around high-tech gizmos extruding wires, coils, cables, CDs, DVDs, LCDs, RSVPs from VIPs. Everything is everywhere. I sidle past telephones, desktops, laptops, stalagmites of speakers with prodigious woofers and sharp-beaked tweeters, finally arriving at the center of the high-ceilinged chamber where, crouching between two grand pianos, Dr. Manfred Clynes sorts through recordings of his latest composition while working out the program for an upcoming concert performance in Vienna (on the bill so far are Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica), piggybacked on a biocybernetics conference.

Meeting Dr. Clynes as I did last year counts as one of the most remarkable coincidences of my life. I had been tormenting my junior college theater students with my annual spiel on the unity of all the arts: how visual, aural, literary, and dramatic composition all emerge from the same deep inner principles. That semester, for reasons unknown, I recollected a PBS NOVA episode I had seen a couple of decades ago in which an experimental subject, to express a suggested emotion, pressed his thumb against a sensor, producing a characteristic line pattern on a computer screen—a simple transformation converted that into a sound-shape*. Then the sound-shape was played for diverse and distant people (including undergrads at UC Berkeley, medical students in New South Wales, and Australian aboriginals) who unfailingly identified the original, generative emotions. Feeling to visual shape to sound-shape and back to feeling again! “Find that old NOVA episode,” says the note still pinned to my door frame. (My house is a Sibyl’s cave as well.) “Is a video available from PBS?”

In an Irish pub in Sonoma, California, an old street performer pal, Ron Singer, a Floating Lotus Magic Opera vet, onetime familiar of Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy, and other flora of the ’60s spiritual renaissance, introduced me to an old fellow he had recently befriended. A merry Greis he was—to employ the expression famously used of Goethe—a merry old venerable. The Greis lent a sympathetic and intelligent ear to my beer-fed self-inflated natterings on the aforementioned topic. At last, he cocked his head with a bemused and penetrating look: “But that was me.


“My experiment. With the sentograph. It was finger pressure, however. Not thumb.”

As it would many times in the months to come, my jaw hit the table. Dr. Clynes is a continual surprise. In his eighties now, with trapezoidal chin whiskers (“unique,” the New York Times called them), iffy kneecaps, and wild white hair like efflorescences of the man’s far-ranging thoughts, he continues to probe the universe, challenging its hold on its secrets.

One day, as we sat talking, he managed to wedge a notepad on the corner of a cluttered table, drew two x’s, and remarked, “All conscious process depends on time. Look at these two marks: are they the same or different? This is fundamental. But how can you tell? First you look at one, then at the other.” Unlike ourselves, machines—as yet—have no understanding of time. The interval between ticks may as well be the lifespan of a galaxy as a finger snap; therefore, by the doctor’s lights, machines are not —yet—conscious.

On the wall of a dim corridor (replacing actual burnt-out bulbs is a low priority for Clynes) hangs a framed letter from Einstein himself. Next to that hangs one from the great cellist and composer Pablo Casals, under whom he studied. With a succession of savants from Pythagoras to Einstein and beyond, Manfred Clynes shares a polymathic passion for mathematics and for music. Both of the letters are appreciations of Dr. Clynes’s artistry as a pianist (and of what Casals called his “connaissance superieur”). But the Greis has also made key contributions in the field of neurophysiology, and if the screen on your recent echocardiogram had multicolored lines on it, Dr. Clynes is the patent holder. Dr. Clynes gave us the wordcyborg, though popular culture has morphed it into bizarreries he never intended. What he had been thinking of was, rather, the actual synergies of humans and machines, something we already witness—in bicyclists and typists, for example—but incompletely understand. “Is there any difference between the darkness seen by a blind man in front of him and that seen by a man who is not blind when he is in a dark room?” This question, with which the Buddha tests Ananda in the Surangama Sutra, is just the sort of question that Dr. Clynes has spent much of his professional life investigating. It is instructive to compare Ananda’s answer to the Buddha’s question to that of Dr. Clynes when I posed it to him:

Ananda: “World-Honored One, there is no difference.”

Clynes: “This is a question of physiology. A sighted man sees black (in darkness). Black is not nothing. Nothing is what you see behind you. The retina has what amounts to black receptors. They are normally inhibited by light. If no light falls on the light receptors, then this lifts the inhibition on the black receptors. Then you see black in front of you (an oval screen). The screen will move with your head but not with your eyes. Also, you can ask: What images does he dream? If you press on his eye, does he see color filaments (phosphenes)? It depends on what the cause of his blindness is.”

In the sutra, the Buddha endorses Ananda’s answer and uses it as a point of departure for an inquiry into the location of consciousness. (There is none!) Fair enough. But who can deny that Dr. Clynes, though not as serviceable in the role of Socratic straight man, actually gives us a response more specific, more thorough, and more provocative than Ananda’s?

Indeed, many of the questions that used to be the domain of philosophy and religion have fallen to modern scientific inquiry. The other day when, over a half-caf latte, a friend asked me, “How long is now?” I actually knew the answer. “Zero point two seconds,” I said, “on average.” More than thirty years ago, Dr. Clynes discovered that two-tenths of a second is the shortest time in which, having decided to execute a simple task (say, to press a button in response to a red light), you can change your course and do otherwise (if the light, in the middle of your finger stroke, turns green). A shorter span of time is, given the limits of the human nervous system, simply unnavigable. Not that I expect that such a response would pass muster in a Zen interview—still, it does startle one and inspires reflection. One is reminded of Wittgenstein, who, in theTractatus Logico-Philosophicus, observed that what makes mystics of us is a sense not of the infinity of our universe but of its perplexing finitude.

Dr. Clynes has also hewn away at a question that occupied much of my time as a graduate student in philosophy: the “problem of other minds,” or as my philosophy professor used to put it, “How do you know that there’s a subjectivity like yours on the other side of the other guy’s eyes?” Dr. Clynes discovered a deep symmetry in the neural processes that generate “sentic forms”—patterns of neural activity that correspond to our feelings—and those that interpret them. To discover such patterns within the flood of cerebral electricity was an impossible project until 1960 when Dr. Clynes invented the Computer of Average Transients, or CAT, a statistically based brain probe that would become the workhorse of brain research labs worldwide for years to come. By averaging the intensity of recurring waveforms, the CAT improved the signal-to-noise ratio, like a winnow catching seed while letting the chaff fly. It was through this tool that Dr. Clynes found that the wave made in us by another’s feelings is the same as the wave of our own. This deep symmetry accounts for the Aboriginals’ ready understanding of sound-shapes in the minds of white urbanite button-pushers in a distant laboratory.

Such a discovery straddles the boundary between metaphysics and physics. Now that electrodes on the scalp have penetrated the inner sanctum of human feelings, one cannot ask who and what we are in quite the same way as before. A key has been turned in the lockbox of human emotions, not by a therapist or a holy man or lover, but by a technological device. Electrical potentials in the brain—are they epiphenomena or the phenomena themselves, the who and the what of us? Could it be that Descartes was not so far wrong to locate consciousness in the pineal gland?

THE GREIS HONORED ME one day by coming to a program I performed with masks and mime for students at a Sonoma high school. In such situations, I like to arouse their inquiring minds by asking lots of questions: How do we, without ever being taught, so expertly read people’s feelings from their posture? How do we so precisely know how to convey our own feelings with a shrug or a tilt of the head? That sort of thing. Afterward, Dr. Clynes told me, “It might be good to give them a few answers among all those questions of yours. Let’s talk – I can tell you a few.” Later, he spoke to me of structures in the brain, patterns of neural activity, cross-cultural studies, and the rest. If I told the children about all that, they would no longer see my masks with new eyes – sometimes a good question is worth more than any answer. But for me, behind those masks, Dr. Clynes’s explanations are illuminating.

Dr. Clynes himself continues to wonder with childlike openness. He is amazed by the color red. Although he long ago delineated, in pioneering work, the precise form of the neural response to redness, he is not satisfied that the analysis of wave lengths of light exhausts the meaning of redness in our experience. When Dr. Clynes asks, “What is red?” the question sounds like the resonant voicing of a koan; down deep, the waters brood and churn.

Dr. Clynes is aware of the preciousness of his remaining years, of the work he has to do and the finite time in which to do it. Age and the nearness of death seem to have brought a renewed sense of urgency and passion to his scientific and musical explorations. In our correspondence, I asked whether the question of darkness versus no-seeing had some implication for the meaning of death. He wrote me: “Concerning death: don’t worry of seeing darkness forever. Should you see darkness, you are not dead. When you have died (‘being dead’ is an oxymoron) you will not see anything like what you see behind you. You won’t even know that you are not seeing anything, in all probability (as most people don’t know that they are not seeing behind them, either, or in many other more metaphoric ways). So see what you can while you can.”

Mind you, the Greis’s curiosity is not confined to the material world alone. He tells stories of walks with Krishnamurti. (“Krishnamurti would always say, ‘Can you be totally aware?’ Not just aware, but totallyaware, you see! It got one’s attention.”) He is an admirer of Sri Ramakrishna. And it is impossible to read the works of Dr. Clynes without encountering ecstasies and exultations behind every page. It is not just his joy in the exercise of intelligence and creativity, the artist’s delight, but a childlike sense of wonder at the exquisite symmetries of nature and spirit. He has coined the word “apreene”—more for what he feels to be its onomatopoeia than for any etymology—to refer to a state of open, creative watchfulness, a receptive quality of mind like that cultivated in meditation. Indeed, he has mapped its physical characteristics, the special angle of the head, the sensation of lightness. . . .

Dr. Manford Clynes, a world-class pianist, studied music with Pablo Casals and has performed on three continents. © Jeff Thomas
Dr. Manford Clynes, a world-class pianist, studied music with Pablo Casals and has performed on three continents. © Jeff Thomas

Dr. Clynes has also mapped the forms of anger, love, reverence, grief, and other states. In those forms, as in Jungian archetypes or Platonic ideas, he has discovered a deep universality. The power of artistic expression, according to his findings, is proportionate to the artwork’s conformity to the precise contours of a universal sentic form. Dr. Clynes’s own form of mindfulness is a technological practice, founded on sentographic transducers and electrodes mounted on the scalp, but his questions, the patience he must exercise in pursuing them, and his joy on discovering, now and then, an answer, are not so different from those spoken of in classical meditation texts. He has developed a system of what one might call emotional calisthenics, a kind of affective yoga that colleagues have dubbed “clyning,” in which subjects move through a cycle of feelings in a way designed to enhance emotional equilibrium.

The study of sentics connects seamlessly with his study of music. In the rising and falling lines of a melody—and the cycles of one’s emotional life—Dr. Clynes has discovered the sentic forms; i.e., there is a symmetry between the patterns of emotionally effective musical phrases and the patterns of neural electricity that evidence emotions. Building on this, he has created a software program called SuperConductor, which interprets musical scores or MIDI files (the common bare-bones Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and renders them into true music with expressive power I find equal to—and sometimes better than—human performances. He played a few pieces for me on his computer—and once more my jaw cratered the table.

The Greis’s chief virtue, however, is his laughter. He seems to be a fellow who has seen the World-Honored One spin the flower of which the old koan speaks. Like Mahakashyapa, the Buddha’s eldest disciple, he catches the drift, and smiles. In fact—and isn’t this pure Clynes?—he has discovered a new way of laughing, based on the discovery that the expression of sentic forms is not confined to any one modality. Starting with a subvocal giggle, abstain from laughing the usual way (using the larynx). Instead, tap your middle finger about five times a second (5.03 is the observed average), allowing your laughter to route itself through that gesture. You may, like Dr. Clynes, find yourself laughing uncontrollably but silently—with your fingers, your hand, your arm. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches people to meditate with a half-smile—like the Buddha’s. Characteristically, our Greis is experimenting with the other half as well.


The Shape of Our Emotions


These figures represent patterns of finger pressure obtained in laboratory sessions from subjects in response to elicitations of eight emotions. The regularity of their occurrence over a great diversity of subjects enabled Dr. Clynes to generalize the shapes of these patterns in mathematical equations that describe the “sentic form” for each emotion, reflecting a specific brain algorithm for that state. Although the forms were expressed as finger pressure in these experiments, the sentic forms can and do emerge in many modalities: gestures, tone of voice, facial expression, a dance step, musical phrase, etc.

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