A Circle of Monkeys

One of my favourite stories in the history of chemistry is about a man called August Kekulé.

Once upon a time, long ago, Kekulé was trying to determine the chemical structure of the organic molecule known as benzene. It had several strange properties.

One night, Kekulé had a dream which involved a circle of monkeys, each holding onto the next one’s tail.

On waking, he realised his dream explained the structure of benzene: a ring of carbon atoms with alternate single and double bonds.

At the time, Kekulé’s model of benzene was widely accepted as accurate. Skip forward to today and we now have a more accurate and refined model of the nature of the chemical bonds in benzene, but for a long time Kekulé’s model reined supreme.

What can we learn from this?

Inspiration can come from the strangest of places.

– Bollinger, R. 2019

We still don’t have an accurate idea of how the human brain works. As time marches on, our understanding of neuroscience improves, but there’s still huge amounts we don’t have a clue about.

Some of the stuff the human brain is capable of might seem strange or spooky. But just because we don’t understand it, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

Is it possible to extract any useful meaning from our dreams? The legendary psychologist Freud and his successor Jung certainly thought so. And I’ve demonstrated above that Kekulé was able to advance the science of chemistry thanks to a dream.

So if dreams can sometimes be useful, what about mental illness? You’ve probably heard some people say that creative geniuses often have a touch of madness about them.

What about drug-induced psychosis? Should we automatically dismiss the ideas and supposed insights of someone who has psychosis?

What does psychosis even mean? Well, all it really means is that the person experiencing psychosis has altered perceptions of reality, compared to most other people.

Altered. Not wrong. Certainly not useless.

Sure, some of the ravings of a madman might be useless nonsense. But some of it might just be genius.

Why would we arrogantly throw the baby away with the bath water? And yet this is a common mistake which even the cleverest of us are inclined to make.

Surely it makes more sense to take each idea on its own merit. If it’s patently absurd, and doesn’t withstand scientific scrutiny, then reject it. But if it looks like it might have a kernel of truth to it, why not examine it a bit more closely?

Perhaps the person with psychosis hasn’t expressed themselves using terms which make much sense to others. But if we attempted to interpret what they’re saying in the same way we might attempt to extract meaning from a dream, what might we learn?

Human brains seem to have an ability to think in pictures. And that ability seems to have been enhanced for me recently. It feels like I found a way to tap into my unconscious mind more deeply. I think of it as a little like dreaming while awake.

It’s now over a month since I last consumed any drugs. I feel back to my usual self (more or less). And I am utterly convinced that 95%+ of the insights I’ve documented in this blog are valid and useful.

Perhaps my work needs a little refining. Maybe some rewording would help scientific-leaning minds to find my ideas more palatable.

But my ideas and insights are certainly not useless. Only those with huge egos and blind arrogance would think so.