Realizing Human Potential


What untapped gifts lie dormant within us? Aldous Huxley digs for hidden treasure in the human psyche. He proposes mining the world’s traditions to unearth practical techniques for actualizing our latent potential. From revamping education for enhanced perception and creativity, to fostering awareness and kindness, Huxley lays out a thought-provoking vision for human flourishing.


Let us begin by asking a question. What would have happened to a child of a 170 IQ born into a Paleolithic family at the time, say, the cave paintings of Lascaux? Well, quite obviously—I mean, even if he was as intelligent as Professor Wiener—he could have hardly developed cybernetics at that period. He could have been nothing except a hunter and a food gatherer. There was no other opportunity for him to be anything else. And now the interesting fact is, of course, that the biologists assure us that physiologically and anatomically we are very much the same as we were 20,000 years ago, and we are using fundamentally the same equipment as the Orignacean man to produce incredibly different results; that we have, in the course of these 20,000 years, actualized an immense number of things, which at that time, and for many, many centuries thereafter, were wholly potential and latent in man. And this, I think, gives us reason for tempered optimism in regard to the future. I think there are still a great many potentialities of a desirable kind, of course, also of an undesirable kind. But I think there are still great potentialities for rationality, for affection and kindness, for creativity, are still lying latent in man. And it may be, since everything has speeded up so enormously in recent years, it may be that we shall find methods for going almost as far beyond the point where we have reached now.

We may find methods for going beyond it within a few hundred years to go beyond it as far as we have succeeded in going beyond our Orignacean ancestors in 20,000 years. I think this is not an entirely fantastic belief that the neurologists assure us that nobody, no human being has ever made use of more than perhaps as much as 10% of all the neurons in his brain. And perhaps if we set about it in the right way, we may be able to produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is. Well, there are, of course, geneticists who talk about the possibilities of eugenics, and it’s quite clearly it would be possible to breed a more efficient type of man.

But I think this is so far out of any question of practical politics at the moment that it’s not worth discussing. And also, at present, we really don’t know what to breed for. The most that we can say is that there are certain undesirable things which we would like to breed against.

But when it comes to the positive side, we don’t, I think, know enough to be practical geneticists yet. So I won’t talk about that at all, but consider what can be done with the kind of human beings that we are at present. Now, I would think that one of the most important things we have to think about in relation to human beings and to the possibility of actualizing more of our desirable potentialities, one of the important points which we should stress, I feel, more than we do now is the fact of human differences. Now, human differences are in their way just as important as human similarities. Human beings are unique.

The species is more variable than any other species. And every type of human being, every individual who can be categorized as a continuous, you know, system of continuous variables within a three-pole system, every individual has a right to his own place in the system and a right to develop according to his own constitution and temperament.

And I think that this we shall find increasingly is a matter of very great importance in getting the best out of human beings. That is to say recognizing the fact of their intrinsic difference and trying in each case to work out means by which they can, every individual can be helped

to actualize his potentialities in his particular place in the general scheme of human beings. Now, of course, this fact has been recognized from time immemorial that no single one ideal is suitable for all human beings. After within the Christian tradition, we have the two ideals of the way of Martha and the way of Mary, the way of action and the way of contemplation. And within the Oriental framework, we have, I think, a rather more realistic division of human beings, where there are three main ideals. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that there are three ways of coming to enlightenment, salvation.

There is the way of bhakti, the way of devotion, there’s the way of karma yoga, the way of selfless action, and there is the way of jnana yoga, the way of contemplation. And these three polar extremes correspond very closely, which was popular in the earlier half of the 19th century, the three types, what is called the digestive type, the muscular type, the cerebral type, and correspond closely to the idea of the three poles of possible viable human variability which Sheldon has outlined, the endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. And I think we shall find that probably in due course, it will be found valuable to develop types of differential education for children, certainly for those at the extreme limits of these polar distinctions. We, after all, now have seen the value of differential education in regard to the, both to the intellectually highly gifted and to the intellectually under gifted. But I think we shall find it valuable to have differential education, not merely, so to say, on the vertical level, but also on the horizontal level. It will be useful to take children according to their nature of their temperament and give them slightly different kinds of training.

One of the valuable things, I think, will be to, so to say, temper the wind to the shorn lamb above all to not to plunge the extreme linear, thin, sensitive, introverted child into the midst of husky, extroverted mesomorphs, which causes a great deal of suffering on the part of the child. And there are, of course, I mean, we live in a world where people like Freud have said that extroversion is the way of health for everybody. Well, this is obviously simply not true, that it happened to be true for Freud, who was an extremely driving kind of extrovert.

But it is not true for very many people. And in fact, we see throughout civilization, various histories of civilization, that extremely ingenious devices have been made, A, for protecting the introvert from his two violent fellows, and also for finding means for providing safety valves and outlets for the violent people, aggressive people, without they’re doing too much harm to other people. After all, the whole monastic system was, in a sense, a device for saving the valuable introverted people from too much contact with the funeral classes. And devices like the Teutonic Knights and the Templars were methods for canalizing these tremendous aggressive energies of these types of people into ways which though they might be harmful for infidels, were not harmful for their own societies.

And these were very ingenious devices, which I think we can certainly profitably imitate in our own way.

Now, before I go on to the problems of education, I would like to talk about some ways of developing, of actualizing desirable potentialities, which may have nothing to do with education at all. These are the ways which are essentially chemical and pharmacological. Two or three years ago, it was announced that the Russian Academy of Sciences was engaged on a five-year plan to try to improve intellectual efficiency by pharmacological means. Now, this sounds a little fantastic, but I have talked to pharmacologists about this matter, and a number of them say that it’s probably quite possible that it may be possible to, by pharmacological means, which will do no harm to the organism as a whole, to increase the span of attention, to increase the powers of concentration, perhaps to cut down on the necessity for sleep, and the various other things which may lead to a very considerable increase in general mental efficiency. Seeing the extraordinary rate at which pharmacology is advancing at the present time, I would not be at all surprised if within the next 10 or 20 years something of this kind did become possible, and that it may be conceivable that people will be made mentally more efficient by pharmacological means. But then there’s another possibility, which is this, that somebody may discover a really good euphoric, something which will make people feel happy without damaging their physical organism. Really, psychologically we know what the two best conditions for effective accomplishment are. Favorable condition is crisis.

People in crisis will do the most extraordinary things, but you can’t keep up crisis. It lasts for a very short time. If it lasts for too long, then it becomes excessive strain and people break down under it. But the other condition under which people function at a very high level in general is a condition of happiness. People who are contented and happy, I think that very frequently happens, I think, that this mood of happiness, so to say, lowers the barrier between the conscious and the pre-conscious self, between the ego and the creative powers, and permits the person to do more and better than he would have if he had not been happy.

And also, there are other points here. I mean, I think that we may find that if we have a good and completely harmless euphoric, that actually people may be more moral. Bertrand Russell has pointed out frequently that contented and happy people are generally much more virtuous and kindly than unhappy people.

And here again, we may see in an indirect way the pharmacological advances contributing to the realization, the actualization of desirable potentialities. Well, now let’s come to the problem of education. Here, of course, I mean the thing which, of course, is a burning question here at MIT and, of course, many other places of higher learning is the problem of scientific specialization and what is to be done about it. But we cannot quite obviously, we cannot escape specialization. And the problem is how is it to be offset and mitigated? How are the undesirable effects of extreme specialization to be avoided? Well, the answer up to the present, of course, has been that it should be that the scientific specialization should be mitigated by courses in the humanities.

And this is very good. It is excellent that there should be courses in the humanities. But when we examine the matter a little more closely, we find that after all courses in the humanities are courses in the world of symbols of language that, so that to a man, as I’ve kept on repeating in these lectures, is an amphibious creature and among the worlds in which he lives, the disparate world which he inhabits, are the worlds of immediate experience, more or less immediate, and the worlds of symbols and language. Now, both these worlds, the scientific world and the world of the humanities, are both worlds of symbols and language. So that a specialization in one type of symbols is being offset by specialization in another type of symbols. So that I think we find here that this is finally not very satisfactory, that what we need perhaps is some kind of mitigation of all this symbolic specialization in symbolic subject matter by some kind of direct training of the mind body which has to use the symbols and do the living and form concepts and thoughts.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the major problems which confronts us. How are we to find a method of teaching people, so to say, the non-verbal humanities in some way to counteract the excessive specialization on the level of symbols, both in science and in the conventional liberal arts courses. And incidentally, it’s interesting to reflect that the liberal arts of the medieval curriculum were all, with the exception of astronomy and music, were all verbal arts.

They were all concerned with words. And even music was treated as a science rather than as a pleasure and an emotional appreciation. And of course astronomy was also highly abstract and moralistic. So almost the entire curriculum in medieval times was fully devoted to verbal training on the level of symbols. And we still inherit this. I mean we are, I think, good or better than the medieval people were in regard to training outside the world of symbols.

But we haven’t, it seems to me, yet gone far enough in this direction. And here I would like to quote again something which I quoted before. This is a remarkable phrase of Pinoza’s where he says, teach the body to become capable of many things.

In this way you will perfect the mind and permit it to come to the intellectual love of God. But this is, the more one reflects on this phrase, the more remarkable it is. And this, I would say, would be the kind of slogans, I would say, the kind of first axiomatic statement of what this type of nonverbal education should be. Well now let’s consider the ways in which we could apply this kind of nonverbal humanistic education to human beings. First of all, we would start, I suppose, with perception, which is completely basic to all intellectual life. I mean, I think all good thinking, good feeling, good willing are finally dependent on good perception. And we do remarkably little, I think, in the way of training the perception.

We do something in the realm of music, do quite a lot in the realm of music. We don’t do very much in regard to the other special senses. We don’t do very much, I think, in the realm of seeing, which is probably, is the most important area of perception, the one which we make use of the most. And there is plenty of work which has been done, which indicates that a proper training in the perceptions, the training above all in seeing, can be of great value to people. So, it can be used to help the human being in all kinds of ways to make the body more capable of many things.

And let me, I would like to make a short digression, as I’ve forgotten the point here, which I this type of special training of the non-verbal humanities, the training of the mind-body, is probably particularly important at this time when advancing technology has made a great many of the skillful uses of correlated hand, mind and eye unnecessary. If you look at the, what we used to be called master works, which were the works master pieces, a masterpiece was a piece of work done by an apprentice to prove that he had learned everything that was to be known about his trade and was fit to become himself a master. Well, the interesting thing about all these special skills was that extremely primitive and simple tools were used with immensely skillful hands and eyes and minds to produce very complicated results. Today, we have excessively complicated tools which can produce even more extraordinary results, but with a minimum of hand, eye, mind correlation and often with no hand, mind and eye at all, it’s the machine is completely automatic and foolproof. And this word foolproof is very important because a foolproof machine or a foolproof organization, it is not only foolproof, it is also spontaneity proof. It is also inspiration proof.

It is also virtuoso proof. So that I, this means, I think that we are now more than ever in need of this special kind of training the body to have these nonverbal skills because there are so many areas of our life where this is not imposed upon us by the structure of our society and the nature of our technology that we must do consciously what was done to a very large extent unconsciously in the past. But now to get back to this question of training the perception. Now quite a lot of work, as I say, has been done in this field. I know only a little of it, but I’ve been very struck, for example, by the work which was done at the University of Ohio by Professor Samuel Renshaw in the training of all the special senses above all of vision and by another man at the University of Ohio, Professor Hoyt Sherman, who employed Renshaw’s methods in relation to the teaching of art with the very greatest success. And here are two extremely valuable techniques.

I can’t go into the details of them now, but they have been fully developed. And one of the interesting things seems to be the when these techniques were applied to elementary schools, it was found that the children who underwent this kind of training of the visual sense were developed more rapidly. They seem to be more intelligent. Their scholastic performance was better. They were more interested in what they were doing. They and therefore they behaved better. So that there was a great advantage on every level seemed to accrue from this type of training. And as I say, there’s a lot of work in these fields has been done.

And I think there’s a very good case for looking into this and seeing what more can be done. Now, of course, the training of the perceptions is only a special aspect of the general training in awareness. And now I would regard awareness as one of the So to say the absolute values of human life, I think it is an absolute good to increase awareness.

This is an act of faith, but I think that awareness ranks with kindness and intelligence as one of the basic goods which we should try to realize. And of course from time immemorial philosophers have been saying, no thyself, no scefe, so. But it is of course very characteristic of our strange civilization that philosophic and moral precepts are given like no thyself and the ideal of self-knowledge. But no means whereby this ideal can be implemented or the precepts obeyed.

No means are offered. And it is for this reason of extreme importance that we examine the means. I mean we are full of high ideals and full of noble precepts, but we are extremely short of methods whereby we can fulfill these ideals and obey the precepts. And this is why recent advances in this field seem to me to be particularly welcome. Now I have been greatly impressed recently by a book which was published nearly ten years ago by Pearls, Heffelin and Goodman called Gestalt Therapy, which is among other things a huge compendium of means by which awareness can be heightened and extended in every direction. The therapeutic value of this is quite clear what is the attempt is being made not to dredge up materials out of the past, but to get people to live in the present.

Neurosis, after all, in one of its aspects can really be defined as a person reacting to present challenges in terms of reactions which were appropriate at some time in the past when he had some traumatic or other experience, but which are wholly inappropriate now. And the standard therapeutic method of course is to dig up these events out of the past and try to abreact them and get the person to understand them. But an equally good and probably rather better method is to get people here and now to live in the present. And this is precisely what the Gestalt therapists are trying to do. They propose any number of very interesting exercises for increasing the people’s awareness of the here and now, of events outside themselves, events going on within their bodies, the nature of their fantasies, their wills and so on.

Now this of course is by no means an entirely new discovery. It’s interesting to note that it’s one of the most successful therapists, a man with a European reputation while he was working. He died in 1925 was the Swiss psychotherapist Dr. Vito’s, whose methods were essentially the same as those of the Gestalt therapists. He treated neuroses and he treated them by all accounts even more successfully than the majority of his fellows using these other dredging in the past methods, simply by getting people to be aware of what was going on outside and what was going on within themselves. Being aware of such simple acts as raising the hand, for example, being aware of external things in a completely receptive way with the minimum of imposition of ideas upon, but what he encouraged above all in the matter of perception was this matter of pure receptivity. And he did this not merely as a therapeutic method, but he did it also as a way for increasing the enjoyment of life, for teaching people to live better and more satisfactorily. And he summed up his philosophy in these words, when you have learned to become more receptive, you will have a greater enjoyment of life and everything will interest you more. Now here, let me repeat this thing which I’ve mentioned before about happiness.

I would say that enjoyment is a categorical imperative in this sense that if we can be interested in things and enjoy them, we shall be free from many of the temptations of delinquency. Here again, Russell has underlined the fact that this chronic boredom in which so many people live certainly encourages to small-scale delinquency and probably also even encourages the fact that people still tolerate the idea of war because war is so exciting that it’s an immense relief from the boredom of ordinary life. Of course, it is an extraordinary and I think a very appalling fact that the suicide rate regularly falls in wartime. It takes a war to make life sufficiently interesting for people not to kill themselves. And this happens even in neutral countries which are not at war. I mean people are so interested to see what tomorrow’s paper will contain that they delay or put off completely their ideas of suicide. And it’s a terrible thing that it requires a war to make life seem worthwhile and meaningful. To immense numbers of people for whom the ordinary ham-drum life of peace seems inexorably boring and who therefore requires some kind of delinquency to liven things up. And I think Vitoz is probably right that if one has been trained to become intensely aware receptively of the world and of what is going on life becomes extremely interesting and that many things which seem very dull seem to be exciting and beautiful. And this I do think is a very important point. Well, there are other areas in which awareness can be trained. I mean I think the whole area of imagination is one which we do very little to train now and it is an area of immense importance. Very valuable work has been done in this field by Herbert Reed in his Education Throughout. This is a very remarkable book which shows how the faculties of imagination can be trained in such a way as to foster the creativity of the person who trains them. And in Gestalt Therapy we find many recipes for the training of the imagination. And there are a number of other books that I happen to have read.

I’m sure there are many more that I haven’t read. I know an excellent little book for example for the training of the imagination of children. It’s called Imagination Games by a man called DeMille which is extremely useful as showing first of all how to get children to use their imagination to get more fun out of life. But also what is very, very valuable is to show them how to use their imagination in a preventive and therapeutic way so that they can get out of all kinds of obsessive and painful situations. I mean for example a simple device would be in relation to some grown up of whom they are frightened where they can use their imagination in such a way that they can make this grown up in their fancy, perform ridiculous acts, climb on trees like monkeys. They can multiply them, have plenty of them, dancing a jig. They can finally throw them into the sea in their imagination. And this is a very valuable procedure which will certainly help a great many children to get out of many of their fears. And in the same way in Gestalt Therapy there are many exercises of the imagination designed precisely to decondition oneself, to get out of the obsessive ruts which we tend to have been pushed into by our education. This is an immensely powerful instrument which can be used to help us in innumerable ways. But then let me very briefly touch on another exercise, another technique of awareness which is a technique which John Dewey greatly recommended.

It is a technique devised by the late F.A. and Alexander which is a technique of being aware of what Alexander called the use of the self, of being aware of the wrong use of the self and of taking lessons in the right use which gains too complicated to describe at length. But Dewey was so convinced of its enormous value that in one of the prefaces that he wrote to Alexander’s books he says that Alexander’s technique is to education, what education is to life in general.

It proposes an ideal and provides means whereby that ideal can be realized. This is obviously extremely high praise and yet the extraordinary fact is that although Dewey has had an immense influence on education and the minds of educators in general, nobody has paid the slightest attention to this. And that Alexander remains almost unknown. I’m glad to say that he’s in this area of tiny oasis of Alexanderism at Tufts University where some quite interesting research, very interesting research is going on in relation to his work. But it seems very strange that a method so highly recommended by this man who after all produced a revolution in education drawn Dewey should have been so totally neglected. Now finally before I leave this subject let me say that I’ve mentioned the Gestalt therapy and the work of Vito in our century. But actually of course these kind of techniques go back to an enormous distance into the past above all in the Oriental literature.

One can find for example there’s an extraordinary Tentric text which I suppose goes back I don’t know probably to the beginning of our era where the text is introduced by a kind of interview between Shiva and his Divine Consul Parvati the goddess. And the goddess asks him what is the secret of your kind of enlightened consciousness. And he answers by giving her a list of 118 exercises in consciousness, which will help to go forward into this ultimate transforming consciousness. They are exercises in psychology for the purpose of developing the end products of what Kumar Aswami called, Altology, the science of the Self with the large S, the science of the pure ego, the science of the Atman. And in these exercises, which outline methods of becoming conscious of every type of human activity, even down to sneezing and eating and going to sleep, he suggests that he anticipates almost everything that Vito and the Gestalt therapists have done.

And it provides a sort of complete curriculum, actually, of what can be done in this field for developing the mind body, for teaching the body or, of course, better state the mind body to become capable of many things as Pinovato does it. Well, now we have to go on to a very important point, which is the problem of actualizing benevolence, actualizing love and kindness, and if possible, preventing the opposites from being actualized. This, of course, is one of the major problems, which is always confronted every society. How do we encourage love and benevolence?

And how do we prevent these impulses to violence and brutality from breaking out and doing their appalling harm? Well, here again, it’s interesting to find that whereas all the great world religions have inculcated love and kindness and benevolence, virtually none have provided means where by these qualities can be actualized, can be built into the trial. And it’s a very curious fact that it has remained for an extremely obscure, very savage tribe in New Guinea, a tribe described by Margaret Mead, to develop an extremely effective method for building an attitude of love into the trial during infancy.

Margaret Mead describes these methods in the Arapesh. The Arapesh, unfortunately, on this side, they were entirely admirable, but they were a bit sloppy otherwise. They seemed to lack the ability to do things very well, but I don’t think there’s any incompatibility between love and efficiency.

I think that by no means passed the wish of man to combine the two. But the methods which she describes are extremely interesting. The infant is hailed by its mother while it is being nursed. She talks to it, plays with it, caresses it, and periodically brings the child into physical contact with, sometimes with other members of the family, other members of the tribe, sometimes with the domestic animals, and always murmuring as she does, so the word good, good. The child doesn’t understand it yet, but of course the tone means something, and when the child learns to speak, the significance of the word good will enter its mind, and a real conditioned reflex of an extraordinarily valuable nature will have been built up, and Margaret Mead records how extraordinary it was to discover these children, these Arapesh children, would naturally be alarmed when she came into the hut.

I mean, she was of different colors, she was dressed in a wholly different way. She came from somewhere right outside the tribe, and for a moment the child would be very frightened, but then the mother would just say good, good, and the child would immediately run to Margaret Mead and let itself be picked up, and the general attitude towards the other human beings and towards animals was one of trustful affection and liking and benevolence, and their whole pattern of life of the Arapesh was deeply influenced by this early training. Well, we should certainly not be too proud to learn from people however primitive they may seem, because this seems to be an extraordinarily brilliant invention, and the heaven knows we have need enough of love in this extremely loveless world which we live in. Now, the converse of course is the problem of how do we deal with the aggressive elements in man, the tendencies towards violence and brutality, which are apt to be very strong, and this is something which has certainly preoccupied people from time immemorial, which is of course quite useless to make exhortations and say be good and so on, and this one offers some means whereby these tendencies can somehow be worked off in a harmless way.

Well, here again we can probably learn quite a lot from earlier civilizations, the violent dancing of the Greeks, the Dionysiac Orges, undoubtedly all these things helped greatly to get rid of a great deal of aggressive tendencies in man.

And the problem of course is a very grave one. Professor Gordon Allport has been very, very proud of this. has talked about the extreme difficulties of getting rid of prejudice. I mean, he’s written a great length on this subject, and he’s reviewed the various things which have been done, for example, to diminish ethnic prejudice, prejudice against racial groups. And he does come to a rather pessimistic conclusion that very few of these methods are really effective. Probably the only really effective one is some kind of individual therapy. Well, obviously, you can’t individually therapy as millions of people. And we obviously must find some way in which these kind of violence drives, which evidently give a profound psychological pleasure to people.

I mean, these kind of violences pay, so to say, a high psychological dividend. As Blake said years ago, damn braces bless relaxes. And people like being braced rather than relaxed.

And there is a real satisfaction to be got out of this, which we understand now quite well what the physiological basis of this is, that there’s a release of the adrenaline, which many people find very satisfactory in fairly small quantities. I mean, I think there are many people who are genuine adrenaline addicts. They fly into a rage and do very violent things, because they get a real kick out of it.

And we have to discover ways by which this kind of desire for having lots of adrenaline can be got rid of in the past, after all, which is all very simple, because we lived in an extremely dangerous world, running away from animals, running away from other savage men.

And we got rid of our adrenaline in that way. But in a world where everybody is virtually sedentary, people are sitting in cars on foam rubber, this presents a very, very serious problem. And we quite clearly have to discover ways by which this kind of physiological product of violence, which is also a cause of all kinds of evil tendencies, can be worked off.

Now, years ago, William James wrote an essay, which is still very interesting, called The Moral Equivalence of War, where he laid out some ideas for finding some kind of equivalence, which would satisfy people instead of war. But his suggestions, I don’t think, go nearly far enough. And I think I’m questionably, we have to work out a great many new devices for getting rid of these dangerous and disturbing factors in man. As I say, I think there are plenty of precedents in earlier civilizations, some among primitive people, some among quite highly civilized people, which we could probably examine and reinterpret in the light of what we now know about the hormones and other physiological aspects of the body. And I think it is perfectly possible that we could develop the means, whereby a lot of what seems to be now quite normal drives towards violence and cruelty could be got rid of without doing much harm to other people.

Well, I think I’ve said enough to show that there is a great deal to be done that I have naturally been able to touch only on a few aspects of this enormous subject. But I think I’ve said enough to show that there would be a very good case for a systematic examination of these various fields I’ve touched upon, and no doubt of other fields too, to see where we could find material which would be of value to us in this task of realizing desirable potentialities. I could envisage one of the big foundations, for example, setting up a research project (I don’t think it would be necessarily very expensive) simply for examining what has been found empirically to work in these various fields. They would have to be prepared to look into material which wasn’t exclusively scientific. Some of it would seem rather queer and phony and primitive. But, after all, truth lives at the bottom of a well, and the well is very often muddy. And we mustn’t be put off by the mud because the truth may be sitting there. And my own feeling is that if this were looked into, if all the empirical findings were found, if the general principles underlying the findings were determined, because undoubtedly there are general principles underlying these different methods of helping people to realize their potentialities. And then if systems could be worked out experimentally, whereby these findings could be applied on every level of education from the kindergarten upwards to the grave.

Thank you.

Aldous Huxley

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