- Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor - Retrieving Realism
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty - Phenomenology of Perception
- Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman - How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation
- Elaine Scarry - On Beauty and Being Just
- Higher states of consciousness guide life changing transformations and are often preceded by Disruptive Strategies.
- “What’s happening in a higher state of consciousness is that people are flowing in their capacity to cognitively, perceptually, and even with the very machinery of their self get an optimal grip on both The World and The Self.”
- To grow and mature, we need to become aware of systematic errors in our thinking and see through illusions. “As the adult is to the child the sage is to the adult.”
Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. Last time we were discussing the Axial age within ancient India. We were focusing in on a pivotal figure of Siddhārtha Gautama; The Buddha. And we had been talking about his particular story. We talked about the two modes of being that were being represented in his story of leaving the palace. The having mode and the Being mode. And we talked about modal confusion and about overcoming it. We followed him to where he’s sitting under the Bodie tree and he achieves a deep kind of realization, a deep state of enlightenment. Along the way we had discussed what mindfulness is, how mindfulness operates through attentional scaling and how it can increase your cognitive flexibility, your capacity for insight. And then we were trying to draw this all together with some cognitive science – a discussion of “what is it to experience enlightenment?” Now I’m not offering, right now, a complete account or anything like a comprehensive theory of enlightenment. We’re gonna be slowly working towards that as we move through this lecture series. But I do want to get into and continue the discussion of these higher states of consciousness.
So if you remember, they are very problematic but they’re at the core of many of the Axial Age world religions and foundational philosophies. This is the idea that people have an alternative state of consciousness that they regard as somehow more real than their everyday state of consciousness. And that’s problematic precisely because we tend to judge realness by how well we get an overall coherence in our intelligibility, how we’re making sense of things. But in these altered states that are very different from our everyday consciousness and therefore do not cohere with it, people do the alternative. Instead of rejecting it the way we reject dreaming, for example, because it doesn’t cohere with our everyday experience, people reject the everyday experience as illusory and they say that this state of consciousness somehow gives them an improved access to reality.
And as you remember, as we’ve been going through the Axial Age Revolution and the sense of wisdom and meaning that is attended upon it, this ability to transcend through illusion and get connected to what is more real is central to what wisdom means. And having some deep sense of connectedness to reality is also central to what it is to regard one’s life as authentically meaningful in some fashion.
So that was the problem we had set up: the problem of higher states of consciousness. Now I want to start by talking about what it’s like to give a theory that – we talked about this also last time – we want a theory that’s both descriptively adequate and prescriptivly adequate. A descriptive theory should tell me… give me a good explanation for why these higher states of consciousness have the experiential feel that they have and why they’re able to produce these deep kinds of transformations because if you remember, what typically happens is, because people have sensed this deep connectedness to reality, and because being connected to reality is one of the fundamental ways in which we makes our lives meaningful, people will radically transform their whole lives, their sense of self, their interpersonal relationship in order to maintain and enhance that connectedness to this deepened reality.
So we need to explain… give a descriptively adequate explanation and this has to work at multiple levels and this is where cognitive science is so important because of the way it tries to bridge between these various levels and disciplines. We need to give an account of the psychological processes, of the information processes, and ultimately the brain processes that are at work. Then we need a prescriptivly adequate theory of higher states of consciousness. We need an account that explains why it might be considered rationally justifiable that these states authorize and legitimate such transformations. Can we see why these states should be listened to when they claim to give us access to a deeper reality?
Now, in order to carry out the first one, seeing what Siddhārtha was going through when he’s achieving this higher state of consciousness, this awakened state. And if you remember last time we talked about how comprehensively extended this is, not only qualitatively through the world religions, but just quantitatively through the population. A 30 to 40 percent of people report these awakening experiences and the resulting deep transformation. So in order to get to that let’s talk about “what does it feel like to be in such a state?”. And because we have these surveys and we have the work of Newberg and Taylor and we have lots of first person accounts, we can draw some general pictures of what’s going on.
So there’s three components we want to look at. We want to look at “how is the world being experienced?”, “How is the self being experienced?” and “how is the relationship between the world and the self being experienced?”. So let’s start on the World side. So people report the following things: they report a tremendous sense of clarity. And this is both perceptual and cognitive. So the world seems extremely clear to them and makes sense to them in a way that it hasn’t before. The perceptual part of that clarity is often experienced as bright. Things are shining. And that’s the original meaning of glory for example. To go back to the Bible for example the term that is most often used to describe God is Glory which is not a moral term. It’s a term about how ‘shining’ God is, how bright it is. Now you remember that’s a feature that people also reliably report in the flow experience – that everything seems very vivid and bright and intense.
Now what’s interesting is that while people describe this clarity – and notice how this is gonna pick up on what we talked about when we talked about mindfulness – they talk about both an expansion of vision (so it’s very comprehensive. They get almost like they’re somehow aware of the whole of the world), but they also are aware of finite details. So this is captured for example in Blake’s famous poem “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. To Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and to spend eternity in an hour”. So you get this deep inter-penetration of sort of everything and the finite details. So you can see that, so, what you’re getting is this massive expansion of that attentional scaling that we talked about, mindfulness enhancing, and thereby enhancing our capacity to break frame and make frame and get fundamental insight – and pay attention to the word insight – seeing into reality. So, overall there’s an increased sense of making sense of things. Making sense of things. So the world is both intricate and interesting in this extended and enhanced and shining way.
So almost universally people describe this experience as “the world is beautiful”. It’s deeply beautiful to them and we’ll come back at some point to talk about the connections between beauty and truth, particularly the work of Scarry about this. The world is very alive. It seems very alive during these experience because it’s so pregnant with energy and significance. And all of “this”, all of this comprehensiveness, we’ve got intricate detail, the shining, the beauty, the making sense all of this comes together in the notion of oneness. There is somehow an underlying oneness to everything. There’s deep and profound integration which of course makes sense given that very often when we are explaining something we are finding what unifies and integrates them together.
What’s happening on the side of the self? What’s happening on the side of the self is people report a profound sense of peace, and this is not peace in an empty, just lack of conflict. It’s very similar to what we talked about in Plato and you’re probably seeing Plato’s ideas about anagoge resonating with this. I hope you’re seeing that. But remember in Plato that inter state of peace is one of inner harmony when all of the various components of your personality and your cognition are mutually, optimally, working together in concert. And this is the kind/ what people report. They often report that this is the greatest sense of peace they’ve ever experienced in their life. And if you remember in Plato this sense of peace is connected to and resonates with this enhanced sense of connectedness to reality. And interestingly enough that’s what we’re seeing in these descriptions.
People also describe experiencing profound joy. Now of course we’ve lost the sense of what this word means. And we’ve lost it precisely in words like “enjoyment” where enjoyment means having fun or pleasure. But Joy is not the experience of fun or pleasure, joy is the positive emotion you have when you experience a deep connection to what is good. So Joy is the experience you have of this is really really good. Interestingly people often report a fundamental change in their sense of self and we’re going to come back to this. They report two things: they’ll often report that their normal sense of self has disappeared. They’re egocentric, autobiographical sense of self has disappeared. And if you remember that’s continuous with what we saw when people are in the flow state: they report that self-consciousness, that autobiographical narrative self is disappearing.
They often also report remembering, in the sense we talked about when we talked about Sati and remembering the being mode. They remember they say “I remember my true self; I remember who I really am!”. So there is a profound connection inward to the core machinery of the self that is at one with a profound sense of connecting to the underlying pattern that governs, and makes intelligible, reality. People report that in this state they have a tremendous sense of energy and vitality. Again analogous to the flow state. And finally they report that they are going through – they often use this term – there is a tremendous sense of insight and understanding. Again, continuous with the flow state.
Now what about the relation (World <-> Self)? So this is deep connection. Profound connectedness. Deep at-onement. Again like the flow state, but even more. People feel so at-one that they start to feel that they are participating in the reality that they’re connected to. They start to feel like they’re sharing identity to it. And this way of thinking about this is when we talked about Aristotle’s notion of the conformity theory of knowing. They feel so deeply conformed to this underlying reality, from the very core of their being, that they are experiencing an identification with it. But, this participatory knowing is so superlative and it’s so profound and so transformative that, inevitably, people just say that the experience, that this connection, is ineffable. And we noted this well last time we were talking about [it]. How is it that these experiences that have no articulable, declarative content – because they’re ineffable! You can’t put them into words, you can’t put them into propositional thought – nevertheless are considered so loaded with, so capable of bearing this signature of ultimate reality or realness for people?
So we need a descriptive theory that can account for all of these features. The features of how the world is experienced, how the self is experienced and the relation. Now what I’ve been showing you already of course is deep continuity with the flow experience. I’m not claiming it’s a flow experience – it’s more than that – but I’m showing you that there’s continuity. Just like I showed you that there’s continuity between the flow experience and the insight experience and that’s why when people are having these higher states of consciousness they are also proposing a very profound insight. And notice how often when you have an insight it’s also ineffable to you. You don’t know how the insight arose or how it came to be, you just like aaah! I just see it.
Now, some other important things we should know about these states: These states are often preceded by “Disruptive Strategies”. Disruptive strategies. These are strategies that are designed to disrupt your normal cognitive functioning and to alter your state of consciousness. So they can range from very long term strategies to very short term strategies. Long term strategies can be the ones we’ve already described, like Siddhārtha. Siddhārtha was engaged for six years [in] these practices, these mindfulness practices of meditation and contemplation and they bring about a very long term, incremental, but nevertheless also profound disruption in your normal state of consciousness and cognition. People also can pursue very short term disruptive strategies. These include things like fasting, sexual and sleep deprivation. If you remember we talked about how shamans will make use of these strategies in order to induce the shamanic state. They will expose themselves to drumming, chanting… All of these things disrupt your normal level of cognition and, of course, when we talked about this as well, people will make use of psychedelics precisely because of the way they are so deeply disruptive of your normal cognition and your normal state of consciousness.
(So what we know is that combinations. Wow. Sorry that’s a little too strong… What we have, good… ) Some initial good evidence is that combinations of these strategies can be very good. There was a recent experiment coming out of the Griffiths lab in 2018 in which people who were practicing mindfulness and then took psychedelics tended to have a more enhanced experience than people who were just taking the psychedelics, for example. So you can combine the strategies together; they can be mutually supportive. Now what’s important for this, as we’ll come back and take a look at more carefully in a few minutes, is disruptive strategies are also central to setting up insight. And that should make sense to you given what we’ve talked about. You have to do a lot of breaking a frame, before you can open up the possibility of making an entirely new frame.
There was a recent experiment run by Yeayden et al 2017. They had 701 participants. 69% of them reported this, what I called “Ontonormativity”; this sense of the enhanced realness of their higher states of consciousness. And this was actually predictive of significant improvement across many dimensions of their life. There was significant improvement in family life, health, sense of purpose, spirituality and a release from the anxiety and fear of death. So the claim that these states do guide transformation has received empirical backing. Now Yeayden also brings out something important in that study that you don’t see very well articulated in Newberg and in Taylor, and this is one of the disruptive strategies that people are often using and it bleeds into the phenomenology. By that I mean the experiential feel and structure of these experience. And this is the notion of De-centering.
So when people describe these experiences they shift from a very sort of first-person orientation and egocentric, to an allocentric. So they are not so egocentric. This is why this is called de-centering; they’re speaking more from a third person perspective and allo-centric. So let me just give you a quick understanding of the difference between these terms. I can describe my motion egocentrically. Things that are in front of me, behind me, to the right of me, to the left of me. And that of course varies by how I am oriented because it is relative to me. But I can also describe my position allocentrically; I can say where I am relative to the North Pole for example right. So the first is a first-person, egocentric way of moving through the world. The second is an allocentric third person. Now extend that out. People are much less egocentrically oriented when they’re describing the experience of this state than they are normally. They’re much more allocentrically oriented and that makes sense given how intensified the experience of reality is to them. It’s like the salience of reality is finally capable of a eclipsing the narcissistic glow of our own ego. And for a moment, at least, or for several moments, we get release! And this is an important idea: Nirvana means to blow out, to extinguish or the Vedanta term Moksha is release. We get a release from the imprisonment, the self idealization by the super salience and therefore the bullshitting of our own egocentric perspective. I mean do you not sometimes wish to be free from the prison cell of the super-salience of your own ego?
So, as I’ve been suggesting to you, these higher states of consciousness have a lot of features of insight. We’ve already talked about the insight. Remember we did the 9 Dot problem for example. Those “aha” moments because you get, in that moment of insight, you get a flash of insight. You get sort of super-salience; things are making sense to you; you get insight; it’s almost visual, into an underlying pattern; a unity a oneness that wasn’t there before; your sense of what’s relevant and important has been altered. And this ability to radically make sense, to find coherence, an underlying, intelligible integrative pattern… This, we now know from current work, is directly predictive of the experience of meaning in life. So Samantha Heintzelman, whose work I recommend to you. I also got to meet Samantha in person and got to talk to her about this. But what she has is good experimental evidence of the following: If you give people a bunch of scenes that make sense to them, that they can sort of determine an underlying pattern to, and then ask them how meaningful their lives are, they will rate their lives as more meaningful. The act – do you understand? – the act of making sense, of finding coherence, actually makes people experience their lives as more meaningful.
They’re not being shown profound pictures or deeply dramatic or narrative scenes or emotionally… They’re just showing some very basic pictures. But the act of making sense, of finding coherence, elevates the sense of how meaningful their lives are. So, lets start to put this together: if you were to have an insight, that would give you an even more sudden increase in your sense of meaning in life, and what if it’s in flow? Well that’s going to be even more enhanced sense of meaning in life. And we already know that. The more often you have flow experiences, the more meaningful you find your life. And now what if it’s beyond that? What if it’s a higher state of consciousness that brings you this radical sense of deep intelligibility, not only of the world but of yourself in both directions at the same time? Well that is going to give you a profound sense of increased meaning in life.
Now if you get – try to put this together – if you get enhanced meaning in life coupled to an enhanced sense of understanding and that actually does guide you in improving your life, that is going to build a tremendous amount of confidence in you, that you’ve found a path towards self-transcendence and wisdom. We can start to understand some of the Buddha’s confidence. Now what do we know about these flashes of insight?
Well Toplinski, in 2010 (This is a different Reber; not the implicit learning Reber.) talk about how insight is a “Fluency” Spike. Although it’s related to flow it’s not the same thing. Fluency is a general property of all of your cognitive processing. So how can we understand it? Well initially people thought that fluency was a sense of how easy it was to process things. So the basic idea is if I make it easier for you to process information, you will rate that information as better, more trustworthy, more believable, regardless of the actual semantic content.
So for example, compare this (black word ‘fluency’) to this (orange word ‘fluency’) – the contrast isn’t as great and if I were to get you to read some text in black and the exact same text in the orange you will rate what you read in the black as better, you’ll have more confidence in it, more likely to be true. The semantic content is exactly equal. It’s because it’s easier for you to process the black and white contrast than the orange on white contrast. Now it turns out it’s not quite ease of processing just because simply repeating a stimulus doesn’t trigger this sense of fluency. It’s more like how accessible the information is; how applicable it is. I would argue that it’s how well your system is zeroing in on the relevant information. How much has the information been formatted for you so that you can zero in on relevant information. A way of thinking about this, to help make sense of it, is our discussion of psycho-technologies: alphabetic literacy made your cognitive processing more fluent and that improved your ability, your cognitive power, and by improving your cognitive power that gives you an enhanced sense of how real and important the information you’re processing is.
So the idea here is, when you are fluent you are processing information very efficiently. When you have, according to Tobilinski and Reber, when you have an insight experience, what you’re getting is a sudden spike in fluency. You’re getting a significant increase in how fluently you’re processing and therefore you start to judge the information that you’re processing there in as likely being more real. Now, is this an absolute perfect rule? No! But the fact that it’s domain general. The fact that it seems to be part of our evolutionary heritage. And there’s also some independent logical argumentation indicating that this fluency heuristic that your brain uses, is actually a very good strategy. It’s very generally the case – not perfectly, not certainty – but very generally the case that in real world situations, if you are processing them very fluently, you are picking up on the real patterns. So insight is “zeroing” in.
And then we talked about flow as an insight cascade which is even more zeroing in, and it’s coupled to implicit learning in which you’re picking – remember ? – you’re picking up on bigger patterns that you’re not consciously aware of. You can’t put them into declarative utterances. Do you see what’s happening here? So in the higher states… As you start to move towards the higher state of consciousness like flow, you’re getting this enhanced fluency so your brain is working very optimally and the implicit learning is picking up on very complex patterns and you’re tending to zero in on the causal ones rather than the correlational ones. I’m using all of this machinery we’ve already discussed because as I mentioned in the flow state you’re starting to get a lot of the features of the mystical experiences and ultimately those mystical experiences that can be transformative, thereby enhancing meaning in life and your sense of connectedness to realness.
You get the “at-onement” in the flow state, the radical loss of self-consciousness, you’re not egocentric. Although you know there’s tremendous energy it feels effortless to you. It’s graceful, there’s a super-salience. It’s intrinsically rewarding. It’s evolutionarily marked in. Its domain general and universal… All this stuff we’ve talked about. This is all being triggered in the higher states of consciousness.
So this leads to a hypothesis I want to present to you. This hypothesis is a “Continuity” hypothesis. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this? We are doing this because we want a scientifically legitimate, scientifically plausible explanation of what’s going on when somebody claims enlightenment. Like Siddhartha Gautama. When somebody claims radical self transcendence like Plato because we want something that gives a good explanation for what’s actually happening and a good justification for why somebody should follow and be guided by these transformative experiences.
OK. So what’s the continuity hypothesis? The continuity hypothesis is the idea… – so this is a hypothesis I’m giving you, although as I was doing research on this Newberg, independently from me – we haven’t spoken – has also come up with a version of the continuity hypothesis. It’s not as developed as the one I’m going to give you but it’s completely consonant with it. So the idea is Fluency gets enhanced in Insight; Insight gets enhanced in flow. So you’ve seen all those arguments already and then the idea is, as I’m trying to show you, Flow experiences can be enhanced into mystical experiences. And then there are mystical experiences that can bring about a transformative experience. These are the higher states of consciousness in which people are willing to transform. We’ll come back to the problem of transformative experience.
So the continuity hypothesis is basically the same machinery is being used but it is being exaptated – remember exaptation? It is being progressively exapted into more and more powerful processing that can afford, what I’m going, to argue a rationally justifiable guidance into the kinds of transformation that we are seeking when we are seeking to cultivate wisdom and enhance meaning in life. When we are seeking to awaken from the meaning crisis we are trying to invoke one of these awakening experiences. And remember that’s what Buddha means the awakened one.
So, Newberg argues that if you have a lot of these kinds of experiences, what he calls little enlightenment experiences, or regular insights, that this will eventually produce these kinds of experiences (Mystical Experiences). So this is not only a continuity hypothesis, this is a priming hypothesis. And I support that as well. The more you are practicing mindfulness, which we know is predictive of insight and flow (we know that mindfulness practices are predictive of mystical experiences. We know that they are connected to transformative experiences), the more you can prime this pump, the more you will be able to bring about this enhanced connectedness. This enhanced anagoge. So, this (I think) idea of the continuity hypothesis will help us to begin to explain what’s going on in the higher states of consciousness and eventually use the very same machinery that we talk about in explaining it to justify it, to give a rational justification for it.
We know for example that in flow there has to be a relevant expertise. Remember we’ve talked about this. The flow state is when your skills – your expertise – can meet the demands of the situation. If you don’t have the relevant skills you can’t get into the flow state. So I can get into the flow state as a martial artist because I have cultivated the expertise. I can get in to a flow state while lecturing because I’ve been doing it for twenty four years. I have the relevant expertise. So what we might ask, and what you should ask me right now is “Well John, like what’s flowing in these higher states of consciousness? What expertise are you using?”. Well what I want to argue to you is it’s a fundamental kind of expertise one that’s central to your everyday experience of making sense of the world on a day to day basis.
So this ultimately goes back to work by Merleau Ponty especially in the book “The Phenomenology of Perception”. But the people who I’m going to most often refer to the work of Hurbert Dreyfus. Dreyfus is famous within cognitive science for bringing the work of Merleau Ponty and others into cognitive science and also the work of Dreyfus and Taylor. This is the Charles Taylor that we’ve already talked about with connection to the Axial Revolution in a book called Retrieving Realism.
So what process is being optimized here? Dreyfus and others talk about what they call “Optimal Grip”. That’s soooo… I mean, they meet it metaphorically because we’re talking about cognition, but that is such a wonderfully felicitous term because again it harkens back to the Conformity Theory of cognition, a Contact Epistemology, that of course Charles Taylor introduced us to. What did they mean by that? So part of this is the idea that when we’re – let’s talk about it first perceptually – when I’m trying to perceive an object, especially if I don’t know what the object is initially, I don’t remain static. I’m going to move around the object (cup again) until I get to a place that gets into a trade off relationship. Remember we’ve talked about these trade off relationships before. What trade off relationship [do] I want? Okay I want to get to a place where I can see as many details of the cop as possible, so that’s sort of zooming in right? “Oh wow!!” But if I zoom in too much I lose on the other end. I don’t get a sense of the Gestalt. Remember that? I don’t get a sense of the overall thing.
So what I do is I move the cop around so that I get a place where I get the best optimization – for my needs! Because it’s always relative to what I’m doing – I get a best optimization between the overall grasp of the cup, it’s Gestalt, and a grasp of its details. So I’m trying to get a dynamic balance between them. That’s why when you draw faces you draw them from the perspective of the optimal grip you have on them. You represent a face in such a way, you draw a face in such a way that you try to get as much of the whole, and as much as the detail together. You don’t draw a face by drawing someone’s eyes really in detail, and you don’t draw a face by zooming out too far! You try and get exactly that right balance.
So, a lot of perception, and you’re unaware of this because you learned how to do this when you were a young child, but think about for example, again, if you’re learning a martial art. Just as an [example]… So when you’re re-learning how to perceive your opponent, part of what you’re trying to do is try to get an optimal grip on your opponent. So in Taichi for example we talk about Tiger Eyes. You don’t want a hard focus on the person’s face. One of the mistakes that many people make going into a confrontation is they hard focus on face or they hard focus on a weapon. We know this from psychological research by the way. You get people who have been held up… You know what they can give you an accurate description of? The gun!! Not the person who was holding them up because they hard focused. They lose that soft vigilance.
So what you want to do is you want to get at the right – and it takes practice, right? – you want to flow over the person. You don’t want to be sort of flowing in a blurry fashion. You want to get this sense where you’ve got a sense of their whole body right. But you can zero in on details and then you also are trying to get an optimal grip on your own body. So for example you’re going to take a stance, and the point about the stance is to try and give you an optimal sense… Give you an overall sense of… So now I’m aware of my whole body, but I’m also aware of it in connection to the details of where my fingers are, where my wrists are, what my joints are doing, and I’m taking a stance that I can easeily – that’s multi-apt – I can easily transform it into what I need to do. I get an optimal grip. You do this cognitively. Eleanor Rosch pointed this out in terms of the categories you use.
So you will describe things as a cat or a dog. That’s how you’ll usually talk about it. You usually won’t go a level up and say “oh that’s a mammal”. So this creature’s walking by on the road and somebody says “hey look at the mammal!” That would be weird, right? Now they might go down to another level like “there’s the cocker spaniel!”, but generally they are doing that because they have some intimate familiarity. Most of us would say “hey look at the dog.!” Rosch calls this the “Basic level”. Why do we default to the basic level in the way we talk about? Why is this a table? Why is this a marker? Why do we default to the basic level? Because it’s how we get our cognitively optimal grip.
You see there’s two things I want to trade off in, when I’m categorizing things. Here’s my category (draws on the board). I want as much similarity within the category as I can get. But I want as much difference between two categories, and those aren’t a tradeoff because as I go higher up I get much more abstract and I lose the specific differences. When I go down here, I’m getting too specific. I’m losing the broad generality. We’ve talked about this before. You’re always trying to balance between getting – remember? The higher the higher states of consciousness – as comprehensive and as detailed as you can. And those are always in a trade off relationship. So you talk about dogs and cats because that’s your way of getting an optimal cognitive grip on the world. D you remember we did this? “THE CAT” (with the funny, identical H and A)? Remember we talked about how you’re simultaneously going up to the Gestalt and down to the detail. You’re optimally gripping between the Gestalt of the word and the features of the letter. And you’re doing it right now. You’ve got a way of paying attention that allows you to read and you had to practice that optimal gripping.
You’re going into a first date – what do you do? Well you’re trying to get a sense of the person. Now here’s where the term optimal grip is a little in-felicitous but… So don’t don’t read anything… misread any sexual misconduct in my use of the term. I’m using it in the technical sense. But you’re trying to get an optimal grip on the other person and it’s very difficult. Notice how you’re toggling your attention and your interaction and you know this because of the kinds of advice your friends give you. They’ll say things, right… I happen to be straight so they will say to me, for example, you know: “Look into her eyes. But not too much!” “Smile. But not too much!” “Laugh. Not too often!” “Ask questions. But not too many!” “And mix it up between these strategies. But not chaotically!” …and you’re like sort of Uuuuuugh!!! And yet here’s the thing: you do it. It works at least sometimes! You figure out, you find that sweet spot where you’re getting the sense of the person, both as a whole. And in detail.
So I’m giving you multiple examples. You’re always engaged because you’re always trading between these tradeoffs. You’re always optimally gripping. So you have to do this “domain General”! You have to do it in every domain: when you’re swimming, going on a date, reading, looking at an object… you’re trying to get an optimal grip. And you have practiced this skill so that you’re extremely proficient. You do it without realizing it! Herbert Dreyfus’, one of his favorite examples [is], “You know how close to stand to somebody!”. How close should you stand to somebody? In order to get an optimal grip on the interaction? There is no algorithm!! It’s like “always stand for inches!!” …that’s ridiculous! “Always stand one foot…”. It depends on the context, it depends on the person. But you have that skill. Most of you are not socially awkward.
So, here’s what I’m proposing to you: What if you didn’t… What if you got into a flow state that wasn’t… It isn’t the flow state of doing a martial art; isn’t the flow state of playing music, like a jazz or something. What if what you were getting into a flow state about was: Your ability to optimally grip the world. What if I made it really challenging by altering your state of consciousness, disrupting your normal framing and then opening up… Because, now remember what’s happening in this higher state – you’re both opening up your attention and zeroing in… “To see the world in a grain of sand.” What if you had this optimal grip, but it wouldn’t be on just one object. It would be a dynamical, flowing, optimal grip on the world and yourself. The most comprehensive attempt to make sense. Not intellectually [or] theoretically, but optimally gripping reality. This deep conformity.
So what I’m proposing to you is that what’s happening in a higher state of consciousness is that people are flowing in their capacity to cognitively, perceptually, and even with the very machinery of their self get an optimal grip on both The World and The Self (top of the board). And that’s why this relation (The Relationship) is experienced as so in tensely powerful and so intensely revealing.
Now, this would help to make sense of things because, again, if there is a deep continuity between the higher states of consciousness and things like flow and insight that would help to explain why the disruptive strategies are so important for getting into the higher states of consciousness. Because disruptive strategies are central, as I mentioned, to insight. You have to break up the bad framing. Now you can do that by using mindfulness and breaking frame. You also are naturally disposed to do this. Your mind wanders. Your mind distracts you from your task! And many of us find this annoying! It’s like “Uuugh, why can’t I keep my mind on something!?” But why is mind wandering so hard wired into us? And one of my former students and now colleague and good friend Zach Irving is becoming one of the world experts on mind wandering. I would point you to his work if you want to go into it in depth. What I would want to say for here, and I think Zach would agree with me on this, is that one of the things that mind wandering does is it enhances your capacity for insight because, by distracting you from how you framed a situation, it can help you return and break up that fixated frame. And there’s work by Siegel and others showing that moderate amounts of distraction actually enhance your cognitive flexibility.
The reason why we mind wander – amongst other reasons! I’m not saying it’s the sole reason – but one of the things it does is it helps disrupt our framing so that we can break frame and make a new frame. That’s often why, and this is why people have built a whole mythology around “incubation” (“Go and sleep on it” or “go for a walk” or “take a shower”), basically what you’re doing is a disruptive strategy of distraction. As I mentioned you can more deliberately engage in a disruptive strategy through mindfulness practices. We know experimentally, that if you give a person problem and you introduce entropy, noise into the problem, a moderate amount, that can help them have an insight.
And we know for example that when your brain is engaging in insight there is good reason to believe as I’ve mentioned that there’s a significant shift – we talked about this – between the left and the right hemisphere. That’s an internal disruptive strategy. So your brain has all these strategies and you can learn some psycho-technologies that enhance all this powerful disruption. So, the disruptive machinery that’s integral to insight can be exapted and enhanced to bring about a higher state of consciousness.
So, what all of these disruptive strategies do with insight is what’s called Deautomatization. So you remember with the nine dot problem you automatically – and remember this because we’re going to need this when we talk about other things like stoicism – you automatically, unconsciously saw it as a square. You framed it in terms of the square. You automatically, unconsciously formulated it as a connect the problem and then that automatic framing blocks you from solving it. And in order to get out of that, you get have to deautomatize your cognition.
Now we talked about this when we talked about attentional scaling and mindfulness. I’m just reminding you that that’s happening in these disruptive strategies is very significant deautomatization. Something else is going on with these disruptive strategies. What these disruptive strategies do is they increase the variation in your processing, often by introducing a lot of noise, a lot of entropy into your processing. You’re increasing the variation in what you’re paying attention to. What processes you’re activating in your brain. You’re just increasing the variation. Now why is increasing variation good? Increasing variation is good because when I increase the variation, what I can do is get more awareness of what’s invariant.
The more I vary what I’m doing, the more I become aware of what’s not changing. So as I move around this object, lots of stuff is varying but its shape is remaining constant to me throughout the variation and that’s why I think of the shape as more real – because it’s “invariant” through all this variation. So when I increase the variance, I’m more able to pick up on what’s invariant. The thing we need to know is that there are two kinds of invarience. Two kinds of things that are not changing in your attempts to get a grip on the world. There is good Invariants and bad Invariants (draws this on the board).
What’s good Invariants? By opening up the variation I pick up on bigger patterns that aren’t changing that are real patterns in the world. This is what goes on in deep learning networks. You pick up on much more complex patterns of Invariants. You get more in contact with what’s really going on. Again, think about what you do when you want to make sure what something is! You increase the variation – not only am I looking at it, I’m looking at it diff[erently], I’m touching it… I increase the variation to find out what’s invariant because if I have increased variation and I find out what’s invariant in it, that often tells me what’s more real. That’s good. Right? So, that can get me real patterns. But there’s also about Invariants. Bad Invariants is like what’s happening in when you’re trying to solve the nine dot problem. You keep trying to solve it and you keep failing to solve it because there’s something you need to change that you’re not changing. Bad Invariantss are ways in which you’re formulating your problems, framing your experience, that’s actually blocking you from solving your problem.
So, Kaplan and Simon in 1990 talked about a heuristic, a strategy we use called the “Notice Invariants Heuristic”. This is the idea: across all of your different problem formulations that are failing; “You keep doing ‘this’ and you keep doing… And I can’t get it, I can’t get it, I can’t get it…” When you increase the variation you can then apply the Notice Invariance Heuristic: “What am I not changing in all of these failures? What am I not changing in all of my failed framings? Because very often what you’re not changing is precisely what you need to change. And so the Notice Invariance Heuristic can help you break bad framing that has been causing your failure. Now this of course requires humility on your part [and] is why there’s a deep connection between wisdom and humility, I would suggest. Paying attention, remembering your failures, such that you can apply this would be very helpful!
Now, let’s talk about… this (bad invariants side) is one problem they were talking about – Kaplan and Simon. But what if I don’t just have one error, here, but I have a whole system of errors? So very often, when you look at cognitive development, you take the 2 year old… sorry, 4 year old because they can count and you count out the five candies. They can count. They know that there are five here and there are five here. But they will reliably choose that row – five candies. Why? Because the amount of space taken up is super-salient to them, we’ve talked about this before, it misleads them. But they don’t just make this error with candies they make this error systematically. They make this error all over the place in many different domains. It is a systematic error. So I can reliably predict that the four year old will not only be making this error, they’ll be making errors about seriation; about trying to line objects up in terms of increasing height They’ll have difficulties etc..
So it’s not just one error. It’s an entire system of errors. And the way you go through a developmental change – what kids do – is that they find a systematic pattern of errors and they find an insight that’s not just about one problem but an insight that will apply systematically to all of those interconnected, interrelated errors. And when they have that systematically penetrative insight; when they’ve found that nexus of errors so they can massively intervene on themselves, then they go through a developmental change and they grow up, cognitively. They mature! And that is what can be going on in the Enlightenment experience. By opening up the variation massively, you can not only connect to what’s more real and feel more connected to The World – remember The World? – you can get below the ways in which you are being held back in your own development. You can zero in on the systematic errors and afford a radical developmental change: as the adult is to the child the sage is to the adult. You can go through, you can get one of the hallmarks of wisdom. What Maggie and Barbara called “Seeing through Illusion into what is real”.
OK so we’re still not done [with] this discussion because this is pivotal! Trying to understand these higher states of consciousness. It’s pivotal to understanding the power, the legacy of the Axial Revolution and therefore what we need to salvage from it… We do not believe in its two world mythology, but we can not afford to abandon all of this powerful psycho-technology of intervention. Of self transformation of self transcendence of the cultivation of wisdom and ultimately the deep enhancement of meaning in life by bringing about a developmental harmony within and a powerful conformity and connectedness to the world without.
So next time I want to continue and complete the discussion about the higher state of consciousness. Thank you very much for your time.