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The Celumbra Project

When I started my company many years ago, I was making a film on the eukaryotic cell, a project driven by the mission of making complex ideas easier to teach and understand. I couldn’t help notice the rhythmic timbres within the phrase eukaryotic cell, which tinkled in the back of my mind, calling forth other exotic words like umbra, the darkest area of a shadow, as in the umbra of the moon. Umbra insists on lingering, unhurried as it moves from deep in the throat out through the lips, allowing its full musical nuances to come alive without force. With the orchidaceous eukaryotic cell and umbra sliding together in my mind, I liked the musical phrase that emerged in celumbra. In addition to its mellifluousness, its overtones hint at bringing light to the umbra of complex ideas—a meaningful backdrop for my new company’s work—so I chose Celumbra for its name.


Over the years at Celumbra, I’ve come to love the hidden recesses of ideas that have great power to transform, and the effort to shine a bright light on all their dimensions. There is something beautiful in the economy of a pristine idea, where its dissemination liberates the human environment receiving it. I love this economy when expressed in any field, whether in business, or art, or science. For instance, I am haunted by the image of Beethoven rewriting a theme to a symphony hundreds of times. Working through his musical ideas, he wasn’t nudging a note here and there just because he fancied one over the other: He was extrapolating through the remaining 600 measures—the complete idea—making sure he could create a cohesive work, one that would light up his audience members as it penetrated their nervous systems.


And how did he know to nudge a note this way or that and end up with pristine ideas that would have long-lasting value? And what do those aural patterns say about his audience’s nervous systems? When asking similar questions about any enduring work, we begin the hunt for universal patterns in our perception. What might our nervous system find in common between the Parthenon and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, between Homer’s Odyssey and Monet’s Water Lilies, between Michelangelo’s David and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity?


Answers to such questions certainly lie in the umbra of the mind, but they are powerful. In business, we can use them to form the basis of a communications platform, where companies traditionally hire ad agencies to come up with “creative” ideas. Though difficult to apply, they can guide the creative process onto the rails of perception, resulting in expressions more likely to light up the minds of audiences and create enduring value.


In founding Celumbra, I decided to put these ideas to work. I noticed remarkable predictive value when a creator nudges his works onto the rails of perception, much like Beethoven, a process I describe as tailoring messages for the nervous system. For instance, I saw such nudging in the film industry by Chrisopher Nolan when he directed the last two sequels in the Batman franchise, producing astounding results, especially remarkable because four prior films had “established the market.” (See The Business Case for Zeriosantalios.)


As a guest lecturer at a university, I once taught The Day Writing Began. I handed out pictures of the first cave drawings and asked the students to imagine a time before such drawings and, one day, while the cave dwellers were perhaps running out to hunt, one member shouts “Wait!” They all stop and watch him draw the outlines of bison running in herds. What would have possessed him to do such a thing? What if we witnessed this event today, say, with a pack of dogs?



In exploring the answers, we outlined the exchange into three areas on the chalkboard: the artist on the left, the drawing in the middle, and the viewers on the right. The artist had a vision, formed within his nervous system, that became the drawing, an expression independent of the artist. The drawing then stimulated the viewers’ nervous systems. In this sense, the artist externalized events within his nervous system when he drew the bison, and the viewers internalized events in their nervous systems when seeing the bison—a nervous system-to-nervous system communication. In this magical moment, the artist transformed the world.


We humans extrapolated from these beginnings, moving from drawings to hieroglyphics to alphabets for writing, but richly expanding the external expressions for other endeavors. We became virtuosos on this process, learning to share the inner workings of one person’s nervous system to another along many facets, ultimately expanding the nervous system’s capacity to process distinctions, leading to such elaborate expressions as physics, math, science, art, even to such compositions as IBM’s Big Blue Mainframe and NASA’s Voyager II spaceship.


Bringing the students to the issue of excellence in writing, we first turned to the artist, the initiator. His milieu is his interior collection of distinctions, so as a writer, he should be concerned with what he thinks, feels, envisions, understands, and so on—and the richer the inner experience, the better. We want his lit up nervous system, as it will potentially light up our own.


We then turned to the external message and pointed out that he could draw the bison in any number of ways—we can imagine Picasso’s bison differing from Rembrandt’s bison, yet still find bison. But if the artist drew a circle on the cave wall, the receivers would not likely see “bison.” So, while there is no correct way to draw a bison (or to write), the communicator must place cues in his message that trigger the viewers’ nervous systems along some trajectory.


Beethoven nudged his notes along such cues. Nolan directed The Dark Knight along such cues. In all excellent transfers from one nervous system to another, the external message in-between creator and receiver must contain cues to stimulate the receiver’s nervous system. What are those cues? Against the backdrop of modern neuroscience, the answers are not at all obvious. Among the labyrinth of ideas, I wondered whether universal cues existed—cues we are naturally predisposed to notice. We might find helper cues, like a frame for a painting that brings the colors within to life; or deeper cues, like those Joseph Campbell identified in the archetypal story; or abstract cues we might find in epistemology, or among the mazes in logic. Whatever they might be, how would we identify them and put them to work?


Over the last thirty-five years, I’ve pondered this question. In tracing the pathways from creator to message to receiver, I’ve been particularly helped by research from neuroscience. I was concerned with the internal process in the creator, the cues in the message, and the receptors in the receivers, especially when the process results in beauty, grace, and meaning—experiences that stimulate enduring value within viewers. To describe excellence in this process, I coined the term zeriosantalios.


For simple pleasure in coining the term, I wanted to use repetition with variation and elaboration, one of the powerful cues we often find in messages that light up the mind. I drew from the Greek word telios, which has a lovely rhythm and which means the ultimate aim or end result, as in the ultimate aim of a philosophical inquiry. I varied telios into talios, repeating the rhythm, then varied and elaborated those rhythms with zerios—zerios – talios. Then I inserted san, suggesting saintly or unusual holiness or virtue, transforming the word into the musical zeriosantalios, as if to say, through repetition and variation with elaboration on matters of virtuous concern, we reach our ultimate aims.


In putting zeriosantalios to work, I created The Celumbra Project, a global communications platform. In the project’s big picture, we create wide-ranging and diverse messages that are tailored for the nervous system, promising that those messages will ride the rails of perception and light up the minds of the audience. To give an idea of such messages, I’ve included brief essays on The Towers of the Mind and Techno-Mind Dance.