Friday, 8 May 2009

Can you build a castle in the clouds?

2004: It was the final year of my Economics degree at Cambridge, and, like many of my colleagues, I was pondering my next move.

If you know me personally, you will also know that at any one time I will have my fingers in several mental experiments. At this particular point in time, it was a study of the connection between a mentally "visualised" (for want of a better word - you'll see why it wasn't the traditional visualisation in a moment) object and the probability of it being converted to reality.

And, as luck would have it, my whimsy at this time was to experience living in a castle. Not to own one, mind, but to live in one. That may rather have been inspired by an episode of Keeping Up Appearances, one suspects. So, gathering what I knew then of meditational techniques, I got on with it.

It was pointed out that "visualisation" is a very inadequate description of what I did - that would be because there was no visual at all - at least at the beginning. I simply injected the idea of living in a castle at deep brainwave levels whilst creating a sympathetic reaction with the preconscious processor. Then I left it to incubate.

After doing this for a couple of nights, ideas began to come in.

On another whimsical note, I labelled the mental association "Blandings Castle". Those who know PG Wodehouse will know that this is a fictional building in a work of fiction by the august writer. Here is another twist: At the time, I had only read Jeeves and Wooster, and not the series where this particular castle featured. In fact, I had only PhotoRead (flipped the pages of the book in front of my eyes for a grand total of maybe 2 minutes at the most) the Blandings Castle book (I forget which one it was) in the bookstore. And no, for the sceptics, there was no illustration of the castle, not even on the cover.

So, the image started to arise in my mind of a castle, over a few days. Instead of fashioning the image, I allowed it to take shape. Dimensions and outlines to the castle began to appear. I added a "porch" over the front door for cars to stop by, and most importantly a place to sit on the first floor above this porch, the better to sip lemonade from. I also went with the river behind the castle, the gym, the inside layout.

Then, I googled Blandings Castle. It seems that the chap Wodehouse has such a large following people have actually attempted to find the inspiration for Blandings. One would be Apley Hall, the building in the picture. Note the porch. Up till that point, I had never even seen a building with that design, not in Cambridge. In my self-serving arrogance, I had thought it was completely original! And I was proven seriously wrong.

About this time, fliers started appearing in my pigeonhole (that's Cambridge-speak for mailbox). One in particular was for a position as a Research Fellow at the Levy Institute of Economics. THAT flier went straight into the bin. About four times. But versions of it kept popping up at me. Finally I took a hint from the mind and went on to the meeting. It seems that I was uniquely qualified for the position due to the unusual dissertation I had produced that year. To cut a long story short, I found myself at the Institute in New York before the year was out.

Here's the Levy Institute:

Look familiar, anybody? If it doesn't, scroll up. The gym was located on the land exactly where I had imagined it to be. I always thought that it was odd it wasn't part of the building itself, but it was a College set-up, so naturally they didn't put a gym in that building. Oh, and the river would be the Hudson River, running right behind the college. The inside layout of the building checked out very nicely, too.

This was a very critical experience in the history of my development, and influenced my research for a long time to come. I think I can say that that experiment was the starting point of a completely new level of exploration of mind. Sometimes, you can build castles on clouds.

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