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Philip K. Dick

American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick fell victim to a mental cascading system failure and mistook it for an epiphany. (Photo: Wikipedia)

American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (whose work inspired “Blade Runner”) got a bit crazy as he aged. He often believed that some small incident or accidentally seen image had radically altered his mind. While Dick may have been on his way to mental instability, there is nothing wrong with the concept of a seemingly insignificant “something” causing massive changes in the mind. The unconscious mind definitely works on associative principles, which means a small change in input can bring about a huge change in outcome, just the situation Dick foresaw and both feared and felt in awe of. In Dick’s case, the fear fed a growing sense of paranoia and spawned conspiracy theories featuring him as the target. The numinous awe convinced him he was getting messages from God.

This idea of a small input radically altering the mind is akin to “cascading system failure.” We are talking about how some things ramify on a large scale. You may remember Data’s use of the term in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, the one where he builds an experimental android “daughter” who subsequently becomes too emotional and “dies.” In the case of a system failure, we are describing a negative outcome from the extensive ramification. We could say that Philip K. Dick’s bizarre “2-3-74″ (February-March-1974) visions provoked a mental cascading system failure. After the collapse of his sanity, he turned out a one-million word, 8000-page journal called his “Exegesis.” It took this immense quantity of text to “explain” what had happened in just a few incidents.

If the ramification is positive, then we have an epiphany, a moment of sudden understanding or great revelation where abruptly we see how all the bits fit together. In these cases, what started the ramification process has turned out to be a key piece of information needed to link together a large set of previously acquired ideas. Christians, who used the word to indicate a sudden conversion to the faith, first described the epiphany experience. The connection between mainstream religion and epiphany sometimes deludes people such as Dick into believing their mind-altering experiences are positive and life enhancing when in fact they are negative and life degrading.

A cascade system failure is the opposite of an epiphany. It is a sort of negative epiphany. A negative epiphany is psychological trauma. For example, a life setback that prompts the sudden realization that you are not the splendid false persona you thought yourself to be can start a devastating ramification process that ends in a serious nervous breakdown.

It is important to observe that the authentic self, the unique set of emotionally important ideas that define who we are, and which is the origin of our genuine will, can survive a cascading system failure or an epiphany. Lunatics sometimes do regain their sanity, sufferers of nervous breakdowns can pull themselves together, and the religious will often see the real light and escape from the benighted clutches of their abrupt conversions. All of these recoveries are the result of the (often-troubled) emergence into conscious awareness of the constant authentic healing self.

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