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Anti-Sense & The Hidden World- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Anti-Sense & The Hidden World- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


The hearing and seeing of things that aren’t.

Given this title, you might think this is about hallucinations: Auditory, visual, gustatory, tactile, or olfactory.

But it’s subtler than that.

Like Proust’s madeleine making him think of the nature of time and memory, my musings on the topic of the not-seen and the not-heard having a powerful effect on life “above the surface” came from a small trigger.


Madeleine pastries



Nancy loathes flies. Must be something about being a doctor.

In the warm luminous days of summer when I like to have as many doors and windows open as possible to feel the luxuriant zephyrs of salt-scented California coastal air freighted with floral fecundity, she’ll say with a scowl, There’s a fly in here, with the emotional effect akin to the blare of a bugle in a lullaby.

Even the sea lions’ barking and owls’ hooting sound mournful after that. Bzzzzzzz.



Common housefly on leaf



Flies carry disease, opines Nancy, medically.

Life is a long accumulating chronic disease, flies or no, replies Bruce, unhelpfully.

But I digress.

So I have to hunt down the fly to the ends of the Earth, or at least the bounds of the house, flailing like a madman with rolled-up wet dishtowels. Whap.

In the wintertime, it doesn’t get particularly cold here, but it gets cold enough to kill off flies.

On a number of frosty mornings, rooftops gleam sharp and white in the muted light, a noncommittal version of Winter without the snowplows and school closings.


The Lack Of Sound


A couple of days ago, I was quietly sitting and reading.

As suddenly as a thunderclap, I felt the *lack* of a sound, namely the insistent complaining buzzing of a fly. It had been months.

But I felt a non-happening as strongly and immediately as one normally feels something happening.

Being a compulsive scientist, I can’t resist a bit of curious and unexplained data.

I start tugging on the end of it to see what it is connected to. Sometimes it brings me to a big ball of yarn. Sometimes it just breaks off in my hand.


The Power Of Anti


I begin to uncover other examples of being aware of things not happening. I don’t hear traffic in the middle of the day, even though there’s plenty and at other times of day it seems like living under a freeway overpass. Why?

One moment I realize I haven’t seen a butterfly in a long time. Why that day? What triggered that sentiment?

Some of the explanations are simple, like the fact that butterflies migrate and sensible ones are down in Mexico for the winter, sipping margaritas on the beach or the butterfly equivalent.



Butterfly and flower



Others are in-between, namely the sound of traffic.

In the night and early morning hours, the wind usually dies and the air starts to stratify, creating layers of different density like a baklava pastry. The layers act as “waveguides,” keeping sound within them to a large degree.

Traffic sounds travel along the ground and carry further that way because they have less volume to disperse into.


Physics Is Everywhere


It’s physics! Physics is everywhere, I think smugly.

These things that don’t happen but are nonetheless in one’s consciousness because of their absence are like the “dark matter” of psychology.

Just like astrophysicists believe that dark matter may be the dominant material in the Universe, psychologists believe that the unconscious may be the dominant component of being.

Anti-events are messages from the subconscious, reminding us of an entire subterranean world. It’s all psychology! declares Nancy.

Nancy and I believe that physics and psychology are the central sciences, but of course we’re biased.

In the past we have spoken of “spaces between the notes” or what is not said in literature.

This is related to anti-sense, though unlike the examples above, it is often intentional on the part of the artist or performer.

T.S. Eliot weights in on the unperceived:


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets



The central aspect of the poem is that which is not looked for and hence not known. Perhaps those things that are not looked for still give clues to their existence via anti-sense.


Plato’s Cave


The famous parable of Plato’s Cave is based on the precept that our senses mislead us because of their fallibility and subjectivity.

Our reality, mired in a miasma of misinformation, is a shadow-play on the walls of a cave, and the way to true knowing is abstract thought, not sensation. 

But anti-sense is more abstract than sense. Some complex combination of internal thought processes caused me to suddenly miss the sound of a fly. 


A Detective & Sherlock Holmes


A conversation in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze between a detective and Sherlock Holmes:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”  



Sherlock Holmes silhouette



In that case, the anti-sense was vital, but **not by itself.**

It needed to be combined with abstract thought to synthesize a profound insight. Combined, not discarded.

Perhaps this is an asterisk next to the idea of Plato’s Cave.


Pay attention to those strange non-happenings. They are messengers from a different and richer world, and they inform the creative process.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. NOW is the perfect time to create.

This is the existential moment- this is the time where we see what our life is about. We notice what is meaningful and alive for us.

You might be thinking…I’m just too blocked, too down, too scared or frozen….or even just shy….

You may be feeling that you can’t create now….

But I say to you that you’re a creator…you’re an artist and artists create.

And there are many ways to create and be creative….

Pair your explorations in your art studio with our Art of the Possible Book Series!


QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series

QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series






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